Your story revolves around your protagonist. No one else matters as much as he/she does. In plot-driven stories, the protagonist’s actions/decisions regarding external conflict moves the story forward. In character-driven stories, the protagonists’ actions/decisions regarding internal conflict moves the story forward. The common thread, here, is that the protagonist acts. And, of course, the story flows onward.
Sometimes writers find themselves stuck with a protagonist who refuses to take initiative, or to do anything at all. Said character is unresponsive to all of the writer’s poking and prodding, and continually shoots down scenarios the writer sets up precisely to get things moving again. Oftentimes, the root of the problem is that these characters have no idea what they want or need. And neither does the writer.
A passive protagonist is a dead protagonist in a dead story. Such a character can, in fact, leave readers downright angry. A recent example of a story’s crash and burn comes from my recent viewing of an anime called White Album. In this story, the protagonist is a college-aged man who is half-heartedly dating a rising star. His girlfriend’s intense career as a singer in a highly competitive industry is pushing them apart, but the protagonist makes absolutely no effort to reestablish their connection. Instead, completely clueless and uncaring, he ends up sleeping with a number of other women in the industry, none of whom he’s in love with. His real “girlfriend” never finds out about his infidelity from him–she learns of it on her own, and even worse, she does nothing about it. He has no idea what he wants or needs, and he suffers through his indecision for the entire series. By the end, he still has not made any serious attempt at a relationship and has not made any sort of decision. We are left believing he will continue to drift through life.
Needless to say, the story went nowhere and ended up a complete waste of time. The protagonist’s refusal to figure out what he wanted and to pursue what he wanted left the story to struggle and eventually die.
Character wants and needs are excellent sources of conflict. A character who wants to survive does everything in his power to ensure his survival, and might even have to decide between saving his own life, or saving the life of a loved one by story’s end. His will to survive has brought him to the end of the story, but his need has developed into the story’s ultimate conflict and resolution. He must make a decision between his needs and his wants. Decisions pull a story out of stagnation.
If you have an unresponsive protagonist, you first need to step back and delve into the protagonist’s psyche. You need to find out what he wants or needs more than anything else in the universe. If you don’t immediately see something, fabricate a need or want for him. What do you want or need more than anything? That’s an excellent place to start, since the passion is already there.
What if you don’t even know what you want or need? Well, perhaps it’s time for a little soul-searching of your own.
When all else fails, pick something out of a hat. So long as it gets your story moving, you can work with it. And who knows: if the story ends up not going in the direction you wanted, you can always try again. Who knows–perhaps the need/want you chose really becomes the heart of your story.