After the First Chapter: Active Characters

As promised, here is the second part of my blog series about what I’m seeing in the manuscripts we requested. You can find part one here.

In my last post, I talked about making the plot move forward and build to something. Giving it direction. A big way to do this is to make your character active instead of passive. Let’s talk about the difference.

And active character works to control their storyline. They affect the trajectory of the plot. They make choices.

A passive character simply has things happen to them and reacts, reacts, reacts, but doesn’t actively affect change in their surroundings.

It can be very easy to have a passive character in both adventure books and quiet stories. In an adventure book, your character may just be consistently reacting to one monster showing up after another, without ever working toward a goal. In a quiet book, the same thing can happen but without monsters. Here’s an example.

I wrote a verse novel about a girl who finds out she might have the same cancer gene as her father. He has cancer in the book. And had to do several rounds of revision with my agent because, in her words, Cancer felt more like the main character than the main character did. Because Cancer was controlling the story. Which, in real life, cancer does control the story. But I had to find ways for my MC to exert control in a situation where she had so little control. So how do we do this?

1. Reaction You’re going to need to go back to that scene map you made for my last post (you did that right? That’s totally homework.) See, there’s one more thing every scene needs that I didn’t talk about. IN ever scene your MC needs a goal and an obstacle, but after that obstacle? They need a reaction. They need to actively try to overcome that obstacle.

Think of Harry trying to read those letters. Uncle Vernon keeps stopping him by sleeping by the mail slot, then nailing up the mail slot, then taking them to that tiny island. But except for that trip to the island when Harry couldn’t do much but sit back (which was okay because the sheer ridiculousness and tension of that moment was enough to keep the story moving) Harry kept trying to find ways around Uncle Vernon. That’s what your MC needs to do. They can’t give up on their goal until they either achieve it, or get a new goal because of new information.

2. It’s not just your MC who needs a goal. Of course, reacting to an obstacle only makes your MC active if they have a goal. They need a goal! Every scene! Go back to my last post and review story goals and scene goals. You need both to make your character active. Percy Jackson fights a lot of monsters. But he’s fighting them on a quest to do something important and often these monsters hold some information or item he needs or are gatekeepers of some kind and he has to get past them. Basically, your MC needs to have a goal, but if your obstacles are monsters or some kind of antagonist, they need a goal, too! The best kind of conflict is when your MC has a goal and your antagonist has a goal and that goal is an obstacle to your MC’s goal. That way, it’s not just your MC fighting one monster after another because he’s just stumbling onto them. They are attacking because he is moving towards his goal. He is being active and they are reacting to him. Not just the other way around. Does this make sense?

3. Have your MC set their own goals. Not the parents or teachers. It’s very easy in MG to have adults control the story. Find ways around that. Yes, a teach may give the assignment that your story is centered around, but how does your MC exert control over that storyline? Do they decide to make the most epic project ever? Do they decide to put it off until the last minute? Do they think they’ll do one thing and then decide to change it? Perhaps a parent sets a goal for your MC. That can work, but you have to find ways for the MC to do it on their own terms. Maybe they will try to do it as terrible as possible as a form of rebellion. Maybe they will decide to be as good as possible because they are trying really hard to make things as easy for their parent as possible. Whatever it is, you can’t just have the goal or assignment from an adult be the only goal. Have your MC set their own goal within that goal. Have your MC make the plan of how it will be accomplished. Put them squarely in charge.

4. In situations where your MC has little control, have them find ways to exert control over SOMETHING. Often in quiet MG stories, the MC doesn’t have much control over the situation. A parent has died, or is sick, or they’ve moved, etc. You don’t want that big thing to control the story (like Cancer did in mine) so you have to go back to the idea of goals and have your MC set seemingly small and quiet goals where they can exert control. Perhaps they exert control by maintaining some ritual or by trying to dull the pain through actively distracting themselves. Perhaps, you¬† just need to show them doing and pursuing something outside of that big situation they have no control over. This is what I had to do in my verse novel. I had to show my MC actively trying to enjoy her life and do things that had absolutely nothing to do with Cancer and weren’t about her thinking about Cancer. They were about her just trying to be a kid and have fun. It’s a small, quiet goal. But it did the trick. So, if this is something you are struggling with, try to give your MC something totally outside of that big hard thing and really shine the light on that. This sort of feels like babbling, so I’ll stop now.

Basically, making your character active comes down to giving them goals and things they can control.


After the First Chapter: Direction

As I’ve been reading partials this week, I’ve noticed some common missteps that I’d like to talk about. If you are one of those people who has a good request rate from agents that keep turning into rejections, then follow my blog as I do this series about things you can do to make your manuscript awesome (even without a Pitch Wars mentor.)

One thing I’ve noticed is that you people really know how to write great first chapters and you’re getting to your inciting incident right on time. That’s awesome! But what comes between the inciting incident and your first turning point (somewhere around the 25% mark) is hugely important and can be very hard to get right.

What I see happening a lot is the main character just sort of wandering, rather aimlessly through the book. They’re actions are all reactions. Often, we spend the first 50 pages simply reeling from the inciting incident. You can do this for a few pages, but when it goes on too long, your reader feels restless and starts thinking, “Okay, where is this going? When is something going to happen?

You want the first quarter of your book to feel like it has direction. It needs to moving towards something. I want to feel as I’m reading, like we’re building and building and building to that first turning point.

So how do you do that AND introduce all your characters AND lay down all your foreshadowing details AND set up your subplots. There’s so much you have to do in those first pages!

The reason your book might feel directionless in the first quarter might stem from a few different things. So I’m going to talk about possible reasons and some strategies to diagnose and fix.

  1. Your character must always want something. Unfulfilled desire is what creates tension. Tension keeps readers reading. Your book, of course, has one big unfulfilled desire that the entire story is about. (Harry wants to defeat Voldemort. Katniss wants to survive the Hunger Games. Hamilton wants to create a legacy. Despereaux wants to be brave and noble like the knights in fairy tales.) But your character must also have smaller, micro-desires for every scene and every chapter. (Harry wants to read that mysterious letter. Katniss wants to take her mind off the games by going hunting. Hamilton wants to move up the ranks in the military. Despereaux just wants to be curious and read the fairytale book.) If your MC has goal or desire in a certain scene, then it will feel directionless. It will lag. People will get bored.

So how do you fix this? Maybe try out a scene map. It sounds intimidating but it doesn’t have to. Write down, in order each scene in your book and then identify what your character WANTS in that scene. Don’t know? Time to revise. Then, after you identify your character’s desire, make sure they are pursuing it in that scene. The goal can simply be not letting other people know how sad they are. Or not thinking about something painful. Or getting the person they’re talking to to admit something. It doesn’t have to be huge or action packed and it doesn’t even have to be what the entire scene’s action is about. Something else may be going on entirely. But your MC’s desire must thread through in internalization, in reaction, in all of it.

2. Things are coming too easy for your MC.

Okay, so you’ve made sure your character has a goal/desire in each scene but people are telling you the pacing isn’t right. It might be because your character is achieving their scene goal way too easily. There should be an obstacle to every scene goal. Don’t let your character off the hook! So go back to that scene map. Can you name what the obstacle is for every scene? (Uncle Vernon won’t let Harry read the letters. Hunting is forbidden and they could get caught. War is dangerous and Hamilton keeps getting passed over for promotions. Curiosity is frowned upon by mice and Despereaux’s sister doesn’t approve.) Remember, your character should always have a goal. So, once they accomplish the goal set for that scene, they either need a new goal or the scene needs to end pretty quickly.


3. A lot of threads but no binding.

This is so easy to do in the first quarter of the book and I have issues with it, too. You are trying to set up your subplots. That’s important. The thing is, each time you bring in a new thread to the story, I need to feel like it fits in and not like the story is going in a bunch of different directions. I need to still have a feel for the long term direction of the story. As your book continues, you will braid these story threads closer and closer together until by the end they are like a tight rope. All supporting and relying on one another for the resolution of your story. In the beginning, I just need to have a small idea that the subplots are connected. I don’t have great process advice for this, just try and think, “How does the main plot LEAD me into this subplot. Does the MC’s unfulfilled desire lead them to need to talk to someone and that someone is involved in something? Do they need help from another character and that character will only help if the main character does something for them? Could the subplot be a result of certain rules or expectations at home or work that get in the way of the story goal. Whatever it is, just make sure the reader sees up front the relationship of the story goal to the subplot. whether it’s that the subplot is a reaction to the goal, an obstacle to the goal, or helps with the goal.


If you have all these things in place, then the first quarter of your book is going to move along at a really nice clip. Yay!