Ideally, your novel should be led by your character.
The plot should be pushed forward by their choices, their mistakes, their desires, their fears.
So, have do you know that you’ve done this well?
If you’re a plotter:
Look at your outline, synopsis, or chapter summaries. Look at the events that happen in the story. How many events happen to your character rather than being caused by your character?
Of course, you’re allowed to have moments where something happens completely outside of your character’s control. Dorothy didn’t cause the tornado that picks up her house in The Wizard of Oz. But that event does have consequences for her and her story. That tornado brings her to a new land with new rules that she has to navigate.
One of Pixar’s rules of storytelling goes a little something like this: Coincidences that get your character out of trouble are cheating. Coincidences that get your character into trouble are great.
Hopefully, the beats of your story should be like dominoes falling. Your character causes something or reacts to something happening to them – the choice they then make will affect ABC, which causes a disaster with XYZ, and so on and so on.
A good way to see if your character is being too passive is to check your synopsis for passive voice. Compare: Catherine is visited by a monster at her house vs. Catherine ventures into the monster’s lair.
If a monster came to my house, it would be a great opportunity to see how I would react as a character. BUT it would say a LOT more about me as a character if I was the one seeking out the monster, taking the first steps, moving the story forward.
Problem: Looking at your outline, it’s clear to you now that your main character is too passive.
Solution: Starting from the beginning of your outline, from the first instances of passive voice, try making the sentence active. Maybe in a separate document, plot out what consequences may occur when your character drives the story forward themselves. You may have a whole new outline on your hands! But it’ll be more character-driven.
If you’re a pantser (like me):
Write your whole first draft. Just let it happen. Accept that it’s not perfect yet and that it’s just a foundation for the beautiful house you’re going to build someday. Also accept that you’re probably going to have to tear up your foundation significantly. Rewriting is part of writing.
After taking a break and being proud of yourself and your story, you can now proceed!
Having written your first draft, you should have an idea about who your main character is. You’ve been inside their head for a while now, you know how they respond to the events of your story, or even how they’d respond if they were dropped into a modern-day road-trip or a Harry Potter fanfic. You and your main characters are BFFs. (Side note: when I am first developing a character, I often draw them. Their personality will jump onto the page and that’s how I get to know them!)
You know what kind of people they are—now here is how you can figure out if there’s a stronger way to write their emotional journey.
Who is your character at the start of their journey? What do they want? What do they need? What do they fear?
What is some personal roadblock your character needs to overcome? What is in the way of their happiness?
What event could happen/does happen that makes your character have to overcome this roadblock?
What does it look like when your character finally decides to overcome their obstacle?
What does the process towards overcoming the obstacle look like?
What does hopelessness look like for your character?
Is there a moment where your character turns back to their old ways, chooses an easy way out, or disappoints someone—or themselves?
What happens that urges your character to re-commit to their struggle to achieve their dream?
Does your character get what they fought for? Is it what they’d hope it’d be? Is it good that they got what they wanted?
Who is your character at the end of the story? How have they changed since their journey first started?
Why does “the camera” of the narrative follow this particular character? Why was this their story?
Once you’ve answered these questions, you should have some ideas about the strongest ways to demonstrate your character’s growth.
As an example:
In Beauty and the Beast, the Prince needs to change his heart in order to lift his curse. His starting point: selfish, vain, uncaring. His ending point: Selfless, free, loving. What are some ways to get him from point A to point B?
Well, he needs a moment where he realizes he needs to change his ways. Having a curse with a ticking clock forcing him to change is a great start!
Then, we need to see some sort of proof that he is changing. A sort of middle-ground between old selfless Prince and new, loving prince. He gives Belle a library. He saves her life in the woods.
And then, boom, his big character moment: Even though he could keep Belle at the castle and lift his curse, he decides to let her return to her father. This action is a clear demonstration of his selfless love. It’s proof that he’s changed as a character, and it has real consequences for him – because of his choice, he’ll be stuck as a beast forever.
So, to recap:
Problem: You wrote a book but aren’t sure if your characters are active enough.
Solution: Get to know your characters, answer questions like those above to figure out the vague shape of the journey they go on, and then consider the best ways to bring out your character’s development.
After you’ve done this, it also may be helpful for you to plan out (gasp) the synopsis/outline/chapter summaries of your new draft. Follow the steps I suggested above for plotters—make sure you’re using active, character-first language to make certain that your characters are the ones pushing the story forward.
Good luck with your revisions! You got this. Let your characters take you on a ride. And have fun!!