You’ve heard it a million times: Your character needs a goal. Something to want. Something to strive for. Something they can’t have until the end of the story, if at all. Something readers can relate to or get invested in. But here’s the thing: There are two types of goals that drive a character forward, and one type is far more compelling than the other.
Reactive Goals vs. Proactive Goals
A character with a reactive goal is reacting to forces outside her control, while a character with a proactive goal makes a plan and carries it out. Reactive goals are flight, while proactive goals are fight. Characters with only reactive goals are more passive; their stories happen to them. But characters with proactive goals happen to their stories.
Here’s an example. On one hand, we could tell a story in which the protagonist’s goal is “to hide from my stalker.” That’s a reactive goal because the character acts only once acted upon. On the other hand, we could tell a story in which the protagonist’s goal is “to learn hand-to-hand combat and, if necessary, fight my stalker to the death.” That’s a proactive goal.
Proactive goals are more compelling than reactive goals; however, reactive goals still have their place in fiction—typically somewhere in the first half of the manuscript. Keeping with our example, in the movie ENOUGH (based on the novel BLACK AND BLUE by Anna Quindlen), Jennifer Lopez’s character, Slim, must survive her obsessive, murderous ex-husband. She spends the first half of the story in reactive, survival mode and the second half in proactive, fight-back mode. What causes the switch? Somewhere around the story’s midpoint, Slim realizes no one on the right side of the law will help her. She’s on her own, and sooner or later it’s going to come down to her and her ex, and only one will survive. She decides it’s going to be her.
The Midpoint Reversal
The term “midpoint reversal” refers to an event that occurs around the 50% mark that sends the story off in an unexpected direction. It’s a twist. A surprise. An earth-shaking revelation. The gain or loss of knowledge, skills, or resources.
James Scott Bell, in Write Your Novel From the Middle, calls the midpoint a “mirror moment”—the moment the protagonist is forced to take a long, hard look at herself and realize she must change or die. (“Change” can be a change of plan, heart, attitude, effort, or direction, and “die” can be a literal, physical death or a figurative death—often a spiritual, emotional, or situational fate worse than death.)
Larry Brooks, in Story Engineering, explores the four-act structure. At the midpoint, between quadrants two and three, the hero shifts from “wanderer” to “warrior.” They are no longer drifting, confused, trying to figure out what’s going on and who’s on their side. At the halfway mark, they are ready to go on the offensive. The endgame/motivation might stay the same (in our example, to survive), but the goal changes from “run away and hide” to “train for the inevitable confrontation.”
Whatever event happens at the midpoint of your story, it’s a great place (though not the only place) to have something happen that forces your character to switch from a reactive goal to a proactive one.
Where To Establish the Proactive Goal
Despite a relatively limited number of narrative structures the human brain recognizes as “story” (see Lisa Cron’s Wired for Story for more info on story and brain science), every story itself is unique and requires its own telling. So you’ve got options.
- On page one. Lots of stories establish the main character’s proactive goal right away. Think of stories about endeavor: athletes who want to win the race, dancers who want to make the company, musicians who want to get the solo, academics who want to earn the scholarship. The audience knows right away what the goal is, and the protagonist is driven to achieve that goal from the get-go. Often the thing that drives these stories is the conflict that keeps getting piled on. Therefore, the question becomes, “How much more proactive can these characters remain in the face of such obstacles?” The athlete is injured. The dancer can’t master that one skill. The musician can’t afford the necessary lessons. The academic is up against twenty others for only one scholarship. They try and they try and they try, until they hit the dark night of the soul, the all-is-lost moment. Which they then overcome, digging deep one last time to win the day.
- At the inciting incident. A good inciting incident is a lightning-bolt moment. A big “things will never be the same” moment. In typical structures, this usually happens no later than 10% of the way into the story, though tons of agents and editors will tell you 10% is too late—the earlier the better. Generally, the protagonist is given some time after the inciting incident to fall back, think, assess, analyze. In three-act terms, this is known as the debate. That fall-back-and-think moment is as good a time as any for your protagonist to get clear about what they want and to resolve that nothing will stand in their way.
- At Plot Point I. After the setup (or ordinary world), the inciting incident, and the resulting debate, the protagonist decides how to proceed (internal)…and then they proceed (external). This first active step into the unknown is usually Plot Point I, or the transition from Act I to Act II, and it’s a great place to give us an active moment that reveals the hero’s agenda and shows us what sort of gumption they’re working with. If yours is a story in which your hero must work up to their gumption, then the midpoint (see above) might be where your character first establishes a proactive goal.
A Caution About Reactive Goals
I wouldn’t recommend that you delay establishing your hero’s proactive goal much beyond the midpoint. The problem we see in the slush pile isn’t that characters have reactive goals. It’s that they have reactive goals for too long.
In many cases, this is an issue of too much setup—too many opening chapters with too much backstory and ordinary-world exposition. Look at that first 10-25% of your total page count and be ruthless in trimming and tightening.
A character who wanders too far into a manuscript before taking the story’s reins waits too long to command readers’ attention and investment. If you wait until the third act to give us a character who proactively enacts her agenda, you risk reader attrition. Remember that this is your hero’s story. As such, don’t let too much of the story happen to your hero—give us a hero who happens to his story. He is the prime mover, and watching him take matters into his own hands is exactly the sort of thing readers sign up to experience.