Reactivity in Writing
Is your story world reactive? How about your characters? In fiction, reader engagement depends heavily on the interplay between motive and world.
June 22, 2022 · 6 Min Read
Change should color the outcome of a work of fiction. If the protagonist and world aren’t transformed, then the story is effectively meaningless. But what separates rote action from satisfying change?
In reactive stories, plot events ripple outward to affect the decisions, convictions, and actions of characters. In turn, their response impacts the world around them. Characters react to events with definable action. These actions cause conflict, which destabilizes the story world’s status quo. Intriguing action also contains an element of surprise. Nothing happens in a vacuum in good stories—everything has a consequence.
Static stories consist of events that happen in isolation. Emotional turmoil does not move a character to act—or, conversely, character actions have no impact on other characters, or the systems or hierarchies of the world. Needless to say, the writer should actively avoid static characters and situations.
But what are some of the defining characteristics of reactive and static stories? Let’s find out.
Static characters are emotionally disconnected from events taking place in the story world. A knight setting out on a quest to defeat an evil king, or a heroine fleeing her home, must have motive to do so. Importantly, the motive must arise as a reaction to a prior event. Something must have happened—something significant enough for the knight or the heroine to have shed indifference. If there is no emotional connection between protagonist and goal, then the motive won’t be convincing. Let’s look at a few examples of static and reactive characters.
Character example #1
An accountant at a large firm decides to quit his job and trek across the Chilean wilds. He doesn’t really have a reason to do so, he’s just fed up with his job and yearns for a new challenge.
Having heard a rumor of buried gold, an accountant quits his job and treks into the Chilean wilds. Finding the treasure is important to him because his deceased father spent twenty years trying to find it.
In the first example, there’s both action and motive. The accountant quits his job (action), and wants a new challenge (motive), but there isn’t any emotional connection to what he is doing. In the second example, the accountant’s quest is catalyzed by strong emotion. His story isn’t really about the gold—it’s about identity, or loss, or the search for the meaning of life. Whatever the case, the story is given greater weight by its reactivity. The accountant must fill the void left by the passing of his father. Let’s have a look at another example:
Character example #2
A recent college graduate opens her own business. She works hard because she wants to be successful.
A recent college graduate opens her own business. She works hard because her mother is terminally ill and none of her brothers are willing to foot the bill.
Again, the first example contains both action and motive. The graduate opens her own business (action) because she wants to be successful (motive). Sure, her story is relatable (who doesn’t want to be successful?), but its lack of a real emotional anchor makes the premise fall flat. In the second example, the woman’s sense of familial duty gives the story forward momentum. Her brothers are too selfish to help, and if her business fails, then her mother will lose access to life-saving medicine. The stakes are therefore much higher, which makes for a much better read.
Stories may have a good premise and a logical reason for a character to set out on a quest or take action, but without a properly conveyed emotional connection, the stakes will be underwhelming. As the word implies, reactive characters react. There is clear internalization (not necessarily introspection), and clear action.
A novel’s world is static when its environments aren’t impacted by character action. Events take place in a vacuum, and no matter how great a triumph, support characters and hierarchies remain mostly the same. A world is real only if it reacts to the actions of characters. Of course, change in the story world doesn’t have to be sweeping or impact all of society. But the environments a character interacts with should see fundamental change. Let’s have a look at a few examples.
World example #1
A boy from a village finds a magical staff in a nearby forest. Magic is forbidden in his kingdom, so he decides to bewitch only one individual, another boy who bullies him. He gets his revenge on his rival and, luckily, no one realizes that he used magic to do so.
A boy from a village finds a magical staff in a nearby forest. Magic is forbidden in his kingdom, so he decides to bewitch only one individual, another boy who bullies him. His attempt at magic goes disastrously wrong and he accidentally burns down half the village. Outed as a wizard, his family ostracize him. The villagers lock him up and notify the local sheriff. For his crimes, the boy is carted off to the dungeons of a nearby castle.
In the first example, the writer introduces a catalyst for great change (the boy finding the staff), but then fails to fully capitalize on it. Instead of the staff being used as an inciting incident—an event that upends the status quo—the world is left unchanged. The staff’s discovery might as well have been omitted from the story. In the second example, the boy’s action leads to great change in his surroundings. Half the village is destroyed, he loses the trust of his family, and he is hauled away in chains. The boy’s surroundings and relationships have clearly changed because of his actions. Let’s analyze another example.
World example #2
A socially awkward college freshman struggles to get a girlfriend. He’s mostly ignored on campus, and nothing changes when he becomes the star of the football team.
A socially awkward college freshman struggles to get a girlfriend. However, his fortunes change overnight when he becomes the star of the football team. Immediately, he garners the adulation of the entire college.
In the first example, the change experienced by the freshman is not reflected in the story world. His triumph feels empty. In the second example, the character’s world (the college) reacts positively to his newfound fame. There is a clear connection between the change he experiences and the world. But what if surroundings are even more localized? Let’s take a look.
World example #3
A man loves a woman, but she is about to get married to his best friend. One day, he finally musters enough courage to tell her how he feels. She brushes his confession off and carries on with the wedding. Having lost out on her, the man shelves the idea. There are plenty of fish in the sea, anyway.
A man loves a woman, but she is about to get married to his best friend. One day, he finally musters enough courage to tell her how he feels. To his surprise, she breaks down in tears. It turns out that she, too, has harbored secret feelings for him. She makes the difficult decision to break off her engagement to his best friend, but the action has dire consequences. The best friend comes to hate the man—so much so that he makes it his sole purpose to get him fired from his job. Both the man and the woman lose their circle of friends. The woman gets an unflattering reputation, and her mother cuts off all ties with her.
In the first example, the world is largely unchanged. Yes, the man’s confession of love fleshes him out as a character, but it does little to disrupt the status quo. In the second example, his confession has changed the world around him. Remember, a character’s world is his surroundings and interactions—it doesn’t necessarily need to be sweeping in scale.
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