Many stories put their main characters through an uncomfortable period of disempowerment so the audience can watch them overcome it. But when creating these sequences, storytellers can struggle with character agency. After all, if the character is making choices that affect the plot, doesn’t that mean they’re empowered? Actually no, it doesn’t have to. The tool that storytellers use to create empowerment and disempowerment is proactivity. While a proactive character probably has more agency, a reactive character can still have it. Let’s compare two stories to examine how they use proactivity to set the tone while preserving character agency.
When the movie opens, Neo is a very reactive character. This is designed to strengthen the movie’s theme: Neo is Alice from Alice in Wonderland, tumbling down the rabbit hole toward a new world. Accordingly, Neo has no idea what’s happening and little control over it. Other people are the big actors, and he’s caught between them.
However, the Wachowski sisters didn’t just leave Neo to be strung along or captured without his input. They gave him agency by inserting key decision points that alter the plot. Let’s look at how they did that.
In the first scene with Neo, he wakes up to see some mysterious writing appear on his computer. It tells him to follow the white rabbit. He’s not sure if he dreamed it, but right after, a group stops by and invites him to a club. One of the women has a white rabbit tattoo, so Neo agrees to go with them.
Previously, I said that if a character does what they are told, they have no agency. However, this is an exception, because following these directions is the farthest thing from a no-brainer. It’s not a knowledgeable mentor telling Neo what to do; it’s a mysterious presence that may not be real, let alone trustworthy. Plus, Neo says no to the invitation at first, then changes his mind after seeing the tattoo. This emphasizes that he doesn’t have to follow the directions; it’s his personal decision.
Later, Neo has his first brush with agents. Again, a mysterious entity (Morpheus) contacts him and tells him what to do to escape. But this time, Neo’s not happy with the directions – they’re too dangerous. So Morpheus simply tells Neo that he has a choice: risk climbing to a scaffold on the exterior of his office building or get caught by the agents. Neo’s options are limited, but he still has them. This is much like the famous scene where Morpheus offers Neo a choice between a red pill or a blue one. Neo can take the red pill to continue his wild journey or the blue pill to cut it short.
It’s also worth noting how important these decisions are for characterization. Neo doesn’t say a lot, so without these choices, we wouldn’t know much about him. His decision to follow the white rabbit and take the red pill tells us that he’s desperate for a change in his life. However, because he chooses to be captured by the agents, we also know he isn’t so desperate that he’s suicidal. This cautious decision also creates a great contrast with the actions he takes later.
After taking the red pill, Neo goes through a series of training sequences that educate both him and viewers about the world and prepare him for heroism. These are slower scenes with low stakes, but their entertainment value is boosted by the novelty of encountering the new world for the first time.
Then the plot ramps back up again. Team Good goes into the Matrix to bring Neo to see the Oracle, but during the trip, Morpheus is captured. Since it’s only a matter of time before the agents extract vital security information from Morpheus, Team Good feels their only option is to kill Morpheus first.
At this point, Neo makes a sudden change from reactive to proactive. He tells his crewmates to leave Morpheus alive, because Neo is certain that he can save him. No one asks Neo to make a choice here; if he simply does nothing, Morpheus will die. Neo’s decision to head back into the Matrix is his own idea, of his own volition. After that, he continues his proactive streak by planning the rescue mission, asking to be equipped with lots of guns.
The sudden switch from reacting to proactively planning makes these scenes feel really empowering. Neo is finally at home in wonderland, and his confident mannerisms and badass fight sequences emphasize how far he’s come from the man who wouldn’t risk reaching a scaffold. The Matrix is now a more typical action movie with an action hero.
This movie is a light romp, and accordingly, it has a protagonist who is proactive from almost the beginning. There’s just one reactive scene in the opening where Tristan, the main character, is made to choose between behaving professionally at work and pleasing his crush. He chooses his crush and is fired for it.
After a pep talk from his father, Tristan’s ready to make proactive plans. His crush isn’t impressed by him, so he sets up a romantic evening picnic and asks her to join him. When she tells him she’s planning on accepting the proposal of another suitor, Tristan tells her that he’ll fetch her a fallen star if she’ll marry him. She agrees, and he sets off into the fairy realm to get the star. So unlike Neo, who is approached by a mysterious presence and asked if he wants to cross into a new world, Tristan proactively crosses to achieve his goals.
Tristan finds the star, who is also a woman named Yvaine, and kidnaps her – because it’s not a heterosexual romance if he doesn’t steal her agency, amiright? Then they try to make their way back to Tristan’s village. The only time his quest doesn’t drive the story is when the villains put Yvaine in danger, and Tristan rushes to rescue her. These are reactive sequences with much higher tension.
Let’s have a look at the first rescue. Yvaine has escaped from Tristan on a unicorn, but she and the unicorn have fallen into a trap. Tristan has no idea what’s happening, so the stars in the sky tell him not only that Yvaine is in danger, but also that he must get on a moving carriage nearby to reach her in time. Since he’s following the directions of what’s supposed to be a trustworthy guide, Tristan doesn’t have agency in these actions. However, he has to convince the carriage driver to let him on, and that does give him agency.
After Tristan reaches Yvaine, they escape the villain by using a magic candle. Even though they have to think of a destination together to escape with the candle, he has agency and she doesn’t. That’s because using the candle is his idea. This is important to keep in mind whenever protagonists need to solve problems together. The character who comes up with the ideas and plans has the most agency for that child arc.
The rescue sequences in Stardust provide an interesting contrast with The Matrix. In Stardust, they are reactive sequences that raise tension. In the Matrix, they are proactive and empowering. But in The Matrix, a rescue mission is dismissed by Team Good as impossible, so Neo’s plan feels like a dramatic intervention in the course of events. In Stardust, rescuing Yvaine feels like the natural response to Tristan’s MacGuffin/love interest being captured, and Tristan is simply told to do it the first time. Of course, they also feel different because viewers will compare them with the movie up until that point, and these movies have very different levels of proactivity.
As you might have noticed, reactive sequences are generally better for darker and tenser stories. Accordingly, horror stories are most likely to rely on reactive sequences. But even horror stories are known for making their heroine more proactive before the climax. I think that’s because the longer the main character is reactive, the more satisfying it feels when that changes. Few storytellers want to give up that opportunity.
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