Sunday, January 18, 2015

Character Development: Actors VS Reactors

“Your plot should not happen to your characters. Your characters should happen to your plot.”

Let that idea sink in for a minute. It may sound like an unfamiliar way to approach fictional character development, but it’s important that your main characters (actor-types) follow this approach. Reactor-types have an important part to play as well, but sometimes make poor central characters.

Let’s talk a little about the importance of plot-driving main characters (actors) and plot-supporting side characters (reactors).

Reactors: Plot-Supporting Characters
A reactor is a character who allows the plot to “happen to them.” If the plot demands that said character jumps, said character asks, “How high?” Essentially, a reactor type is OK with allowing the plot and world-rules to drift them along. They go with the flow of whatever is happening and react accordingly, usually without any desire to significantly change the unfolding of events. The patterns of the status quo is where this character type is most comfortable.

Reactors make ideal side and backdrop characters. Most every minor character fits this role, as do a lot of supporting and secondary characters. They help stabilize and set the tone of your story’s world. Reactors have no overwhelming desire to change the world around them or be nonconforming to the established rules or whims of the plot. In fiction, they are almost always paired with an actor-type.

As plot elements, reactors are invaluable. Without them, a story has no “norm” or basic tool for accomplishing its needs. Reactors may be background characters like villagers, soldiers, or students; or they may be more important and play a secondary or supporting role in the story.

Some examples of reactor-types in popular media:
  • Gobber in How to Train Your Dragon
  • Legolas, Gimli, and Sam in The Lord of the Rings
  • Suki in Avatar: the Last Airbender
  • Mikasa Ackerman in Attack on Titan
  • Pepper Potts in Iron Man
  • Mr. Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Soichiro Yagami in Death Note
  • Reno in Final Fantasy
  • Kristoff in Frozen
  • Cogsworth from Beauty and the Beast
The key to knowing whether your character is an actor or a reactor is to look at how they respond to the plot. If the character does two or more of the following then they are probably a reactor-type:
  • Does not usually act out or pursue ideals and actions outside the norm
  • Is content with the status quo of the story (or whatever pattern of behavior they currently live)
  • Does whatever they are told without question or a strong feeling of divergence
  • Responds to events that the plot unfolds, as opposed to acting out in advance to change the status quo
In other words, if the plot “pushes your character around” then they are most likely a reactor. This does not mean that they will never take any initiative whatsoever during the course of the story. In fact, almost all reactor-types will take initiative at least once in the story, but usually only when their morals or something they hold inherently dear is immediately threatened (Mr. Tumnus goes against the Witch by not turning in Lucy, Sam sneaks into Mordor to rescue Frodo, and Mikasa chases down a female titan to save Eren, for example). Ultimately, reactor-types are more likely to “let the plot happen” and respond to it only as the situation demands. They are content with the status quo until the status quo acts in a way that is dangerous or otherwise unpleasant to them.

In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Legolas and Gimli are both reactors. Yes, they want to save Middle Earth and destroy the Ring, but they are also content to respond to the plot as it happens. Unlike Frodo, who dares to take the ring to Mordor, or Aragorn who sets out to reclaim his throne, Legolas and Gimli are simply there to act as supports to these greater goals. Yes, they do respond to situations, but they only respond to them. Neither of these characters has an enormous, over-arching initiative to change the status quo in their own personal way. This doesn’t diminish the character development or importance of these characters, but neither of them would probably fair too well in the spotlight because of their personal lack of individual drive.

Those who have read the appendices of The Return of the King know that Legolas and Gimli go on adventures together after the war is over, become close friends, and even travel to the Grey Haven. In this sense, they are now playing actor-type roles because they are going against the norm (elf and dwarf friendships are frowned upon, and no dwarf has ever been permitted entry to the Grey Haven). However, for the purposes of The Lord of the Rings trilogy alone, these two are reactors for the duration of the story.

Actors: Plot-Driving Characters
Actors are characters who “happen to your plot.” In fact, you might say your plot “didn’t see them coming.” When they arrive in your story’s world, things change simply because these characters actively seek to change them.

Actors have a goal, but more than that, they are the “captains of their own destiny” within the story world. Though they may rely on others, on powers, on God, or on another support system, actor-types rarely do as the plot or world system dictates. They are the characters who are most likely to challenge conformity, a belief, or a situation. In simple terms: They set out to change something about the status quo that they dislike. When the plot throws a curve-ball at them, they don’t conform to it, but rather use the curve to gain a new angle.

Most every protagonist in fiction is an actor-type, largely because they possess the drive to create an engaging story. This, of course, can differ depending on the genre, but more often than not, actor-types serve as more compelling and exciting protagonists than reactor-types. Nearly all villains are actor-types, and many supporting characters share this type as well.

Some examples of actor types in popular media:
  • Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon
  • Frodo in The Lord of the Rings
  • Zuko in Avatar: the Last Airbender
  • Eren Yeager in Attack on Titan
  • Tony Stark in Ironman
  • Lucy Pevensie in The Chronicles of Narnia
  • Light Yagami in Death Note
  • Sephiroth in Final Fantasy
  • Anna in Frozen
  • Belle in Beauty and the Beast
Again, you can determine if your character is an actor by studying their relationship with the plot. If your character does two or more of the following, then they are probably an actor-type:
  • Challenges the “normal” way of thinking, acting, or believing
  • Seeks to change something significant about the status quo through proactive attempts
  • Questions what they are told; does not usually act just because a person or ideal wants them to
  • Acts in advance to change the status quo, as opposed to merely reacting to the plot as events unfold
If the mere existence of your character drastically changes the face of your story because said character advocates those changes directly, then you’re dealing with an actor-type. Frodo showcases one of his greatest “acting” moments when he volunteers to take the Ring to Mordor. What classifies this bold move as actor-type is that Frodo speaks up of his own accord and personally decides to change the status quo by making a difference. If another character (like Gandalf) had recommended Frodo for the job, and Frodo had merely accepted as a result, then Frodo would have been acting like a reactor instead (responding to a situation that the plot threw at him).

All actor-types will change the face of your story. Eren Yeager speaks out against humanity’s confinement within the walls and seeks to join the dangerous Survey Corps in order to reclaim mankind’s birthright. By contrast, Mikasa (a reactor-type) doesn’t want Eren to join the Corps, going so far as to warn his mother about Eren’s plans, and sticks to Eren like a loyal shadow thereafter, supporting his ideals but not acting outside of them otherwise.

It’s important to realize that actor-types will not go against every-and-all conformity. A character who rebels against every standard and norm quickly becomes psychotic, obnoxious, or highly predictable (sometimes all three) to your reader. Rather, actor-types will refuse to conform to at least one significant aspect of your story's status quo. For example, Light Yagami takes the law into his own hands when he obtains a notebook that allows him to kill criminals simply by writing their names. The status quo of the law is the one specific thing that he does not conform to and that he proactively sets out to change by his own means.

A Final Note about Actors and Reactors
It’s important to remember that, like good and evil, actors and reactors are almost never clear-cut black-and-white. Actors will sometimes respond like reactors, and reactors will occasionally become actors. That being said, reactors typically transition only when something they hold invaluable is immediately threatened, forcing them to become proactive (sometimes this is just an elaborate reaction disguised as pro-action, however).

At the beginning of this article, I said that reactor types do not usually make strong central characters. While their being content with the “norm” and unwilling to make drastic changes does indeed make them poor pro-activists, reactors can also make emotionally-investing main characters if their reactor-type tendencies are paramount to their growth throughout the story. 

Take Marlin from Finding Nemo for example. Marlin hates change. He doesn’t want Nemo to go to school, doesn’t want to do anything remotely dangerous or unstable, and seeks to maintain as much stability as possible. When Nemo is kidnapped, Marlin is forced to go after him, but his fixation on maintaining the status quo gives him a lot of problems. Rather than trust a friend to go through a seemingly deadly cavern, for example, he swims above it, nearly getting both himself and said friend killed by jellyfish. Marlin’s gradual transition from a reactor to an actor is pivotal to his growth throughout the story. Thus, Marlin works tremendously well as a reactor-type protagonist turned actor-type protagonist.

There are exceptions to every rule. Consider these mere guidelines that you can use as a sounding board for measuring whether your characters—protagonist, antagonist, secondary, background, and otherwise—are compelling enough to engage your reader and keep your story moving forward.

First Impressions, Right Impressions: 5 Tips for Introducing a New Character
The Psychology of Writing: Character Development and Anger


  1. I read a book with a reactive MC and her boyfriend did almost all the acting. It was very boring.
    In my story, my character is active, but she wants to maintain the status quo, which is broken. (It's a bit like Zuko's arc.)

    1. I see that problem a lot in fiction. Just because the main character is specified as the "main character" doesn't mean that they drive the story or that the story is really "about them" upon closer inspection.

      So long as your main character has a goal in mind, I think you'll be fine. Just remember that your main character should be the one to personally make big or intimidating decisions that determine the course of the story. What makes Katniss a powerful heroine right off the cuff is that she *chooses* to go to the Hunger Games in order to save her sister. If she had just been chosen for the games, she would not be nearly as interesting, and we as the reader would not be so invested in what she was doing.

  2. Really good post. ^ ^ Very helpful. I had to switch protagonists recently to an actor, because my original was a reactor, and I realized the actor was pushing to be the protagonist all along. XD

    Stori Tori's Blog

    1. It's funny how that happens. You start writing a story with one character designated as the "main character" when the story is really "about" a completely different character! It can be tough to transition at first, but once you do decide to switch protagonists the story flows much better. I think you made the right decision.

      Thank you for reading and commenting :) I always find feedback very helpful and encouraging. I wish you the best with your writing.

    2. Exactly! He's been clamoring for it and I'm just giving it and I like it much better. It's like it was meant to be.

      No problem. I want to encourage and support. ^ ^ Happy writing and may the muse be ever in your favor.

    3. Oh! And I nominated you for a blog award. ^ ^