The Protagonist.  The Hero or heroine.  The main character.  Whatever you wish to call them, they are the driving force in any story.  Their choices and decisions regarding what’s happening in the narrative determine the story’s direction. 

While there are some exceptions, the majority of Protagonists are Active, Reactive, and Proactive throughout the story.  For this post, I’ll be using a film familiar to most people (Home Alone) and discussing how its protagonist (Kevin McCallister) embodies each of these qualities.

Let’s get started!

The Protagonist is ACTIVE

Active: engaged in action; characterized by energetic work, participation, etc.

Your main character should engage with the story and help move things forward.  Events, incidents, and major story points revolve around them, so they must be actively in pursuit of a goal for them to be an active participant.  As an audience, we should connect with the protagonist either sympathetically or empathetically.  Their actions keep us engaged and curious about what they will do next.

In Home Alone, Kevin believes that his “wish” for his family to disappear came true, so he actively celebrates his newfound freedom.  Kevin does things he couldn’t normally do around the house (i.e., jump on the bed, eat junk food, watch violent movies, etc.).  Once the high of being alone wears off, he then actively proceeds to do laundry, go shopping, and do other adult tasks.

Kevin doesn’t just realize he’s alone, crawl in a corner and cry until his family returns. 

Kevin is active throughout the film, and his actions help him discover what Harry and Marv are planning so he can prepare for their attempt to rob his house.  His actions also feed into his character arc, from being glad his family is gone to missing them and wanting them back.

The Protagonist is REACTIVE

Reactive: to respond to a stimulus in a particular manner.

Things happen in your story to your main character and those around them.  A compelling protagonist reacts and responds to new situations and works to resolve them or avoid them.  Your protagonist’s goal is to regain a sense of normalcy, no matter what it takes.  If they have to go through a series of obstacles and difficult situations to get there, then that’s what they must do.  Even if they do things reluctantly, they still have a goal to achieve and an endgame.

So, when new information or new situations arise, your main character should react.  Their response and actions will help move the story forward and keep the action moving.

In Home Alone, Kevin reacts to myriad events that he finds himself in the middle of.  From coming face-to-face with Old Man Marley to being accused of shoplifting to realizing that he’s seen Harry before (when he was at his home disguised as a cop), his reactions to these events help move the story forward and drive Kevin’s actions.

His initial reaction to Marley is driven by his older brother Buzz’s urban legend about him, but Kevin soon finds out that Marley is not who Buzz said he was.  Again, Kevin’s reaction to Marley in his second encounter at the church helps set up events in the film’s climax.

When Kevin is accused of shoplifting a toothbrush, he panics and runs.  Again, the protagonist reacts to an event, and his actions lead to a chase through an ice-skating rink where he can evade capture.

And the main reaction that drives the primary conflict in the film is when Kevin recognizes Harry in the van after Kevin’s almost run over.  It’s at this moment that Kevin’s reactions – and his actions – change toward protecting himself and his home from the potential threat of Harry and Marv.

If Kevin doesn’t have the encounter with the Wet Bandits, then the trap-laden house doesn’t happen, and we have a very different third act in the film.  But since Kevin interacts with them, reacts to them, and then acts once he overhears their break-in plan, he can prepare for what’s to come.

The Protagonist is PROACTIVE

Proactive: serving to prepare for, intervene in, or control an expected occurrence or situation, especially a negative or challenging one.

While your protagonist never knows what’s coming next, once they are aware that something may happen, they can proactively be ready for any possible event that’s coming next.

Similar to Kevin in Home Alone, Robert McCall (Denzel Washington) in The Equalizer is very proactive when it comes to being ready for what may come next.  This is evident in the meticulous way he plans and times out his violent encounters and also his prep for the finale at the hardware store.

In Home Alone, once Kevin knows Harry and Marv are coming back to the house at nine that night, he proactively prepares for their invasion of the McCallister house.  He plans ahead, ensuring all entry points are covered by traps and hazards, knowing where to go to call for help and what the endgame is.  

Now, Kevin’s proactive planning helps him actively defend his home and react to changes in the plan as they occur.  

Final Thoughts

Readers and viewers want to be taken on a journey.  By having an active, reactive, and proactive protagonist, you give yourself – as the writer – and the audience someone to root for and identify with.  

Think about your favorite protagonist.  What did they do that was active, reactive, and proactive that helped drive the story and their personal arc forward?  How can you apply this information to your main character and their story?

Happy Writing, and I’ll see you next time!

Definition Sources:

Active – https://www.dictionary.com/browse/active

Reactive – https://www.dictionary.com/browse/react

Proactive – https://www.dictionary.com/browse/proactive

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