Growing up a nature child, the phrase ‘go with the flow’ never made much sense. I mean, even if you’ve only spent five minutes watching a Wild America segment you’d see that fish and other water dwelling creatures go against the current all the time. In fact, for some, doing so is an act of preserving their species, if not for their individual survival.
Because only dead things go with the flow.
Your characters, even if they happen to be dead, should not be dead fish pushed along by the story. Flow-following characters are not compelling, nor are they interesting, and should be rewritten with extreme prejudice.
Characters should cause plot. Not the other way around.
Does that mean you can’t “plot a novel”? Of course not, but it should shift how you go about it, and it should leave your plan open for changes while writing the draft. You don’t want to hang on to pure plot at the expense of your characters. Some things seem cool or logical when you’re in the planning stages, but don’t always make sense when you get to them in the draft. And that’s okay. Your overall plot is, to quote Captain Barbossa, more of a guideline than actual rule.
Let me demonstrate what I’m talking about real quick. Let’s say you want to write an adventure novel and have explosions, chase scenes, a long journey, and good, old fashioned swashbucklery centered around a character of humble beginnings who becomes famous by the end. Y’know, you’re standard fantasy trope.
We’ll need a character, we’ll call her Fig. Fig’s greatest dream is to be the summer solstice queen for her town’s festival, because she’s just turned eighteen and being queen means recognition, respect, and a chance to enter a prestigious academy for priestess training. Already her desires match the story’s vague conclusion, so you have a solid connection to link beginning and end. If Fig becomes queen she’ll be able to leave her backwater town and travel. As priestess she’ll have even more respect and recognition, with fame of some degree following, in theory.
So Fig works hard, she gives it her all. Fig is chosen. She is about to step into her moment of glory. Then she gets the news: her best friend is missing and was last seen by the forest, where nomads often lurk to snatch up people.
Fig now has a choice: go on to the academy and follow her dream, or leave it all behind and go after her friend.
This choice right here is Fig’s first defining moment. She will have many along her journey, but this is the first, and thus will influence her inner character and shape future choices. Does friendship win out? Or ambition? She has to act on one of them and can’t do both. Once she chooses, she then has to follow through, which will lead to another choice, and another, and another. Strung together, these will make your plot, and Fig will continue to be an active participant in her story instead of allowing outside events to push and pull her around.
Every choice she makes must have a consequence of some kind. Big or small, good, bad, or ugly, to keep things interesting and to present Fig with situations she must do something about. We will say that Fig does earn fame by the end. Whatever she does, those choices determine what kind of ending she gets. Maybe the fame is the notorious kind because she fell on the wrong side of the law, intentionally or not. Maybe it’s more of an embarrassment, or a danger to her wellbeing because she crossed someone. Maybe word of her deeds has spread so far and wide that she’s become some sort of mythic legend, a hero or a bogeyman, and no one believes she’s real. Whatever the ending, it’s tone and consequence are decided by Fig between Chapter One and The End.
That is how you write an active character.
Inactive characters, on the other hand, have things decided for them. By fate. By parents. By the author, who is usually holding onto the plot too tightly and won’t allow a character’s growth to affect things. A character who reacts to events instead of causing them is a dead fish. If Fig merely worries and wrings her hands while wondering what to do when her friend goes missing, she’s being reactive. If she is pulled along to the academy and drifts, getting swept up in events without causing or escalating them on purpose, without making any changes or decisions for herself, she is a dead fish.
If you’re not sure if you have a dead fish on your hands, ask yourself this: is your character doing something or going somewhere because the plot needs them to, or because they decide to?
Active characters are like the salmon that swim upstream every year to get to their mating grounds. They go against the flow and leap up waterfalls. Sometimes they make it. Sometimes a bear eats them. But dead fish drift away and end up as river silt. They may travel farther that way, but the river does all the work for a limp sack of bones that does nothing, changes nothing, and leaves no impression behind.
So go against the flow. Let your character make decisions and have agency. Even if they get eaten by a bear it still makes a damn good story.
Write The Ending First