It seems to have become some kind of common wisdom that great villains are often much cooler and more interesting than the heroes of their stories because they have actual goals and plans, and working towards accomplishing something. In contrast, the heroes tend to simply try to prevent that plan from succeeding. This is true both in fiction and in roleplaying games, where people seem to frequently have trouble with coming up with adventures and campaigns in which the players can be more proactive.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot these days, and I think it’s essentially correct, but also missing some quite important things. The appearance that villains act while heroes react is to a great deal caused by an overuse of the Heroes Journey and typical action movie plots, where the action hero is called in to deal with a criminal in 120 minutes or less.
But I think if a story spends some time on characterizing the villain and giving him motives, he actually is also simply reacting and not actually that proactive at all. My claim here is, that all characters ary trying to “reastablish the status quo” or “return things to normal”. For heroes this seems obvious and easy to see: Something went really bad and the hero now has to fix it so everything can go back to the way it should be. A villain who has a motive other than some quick money usually seems to believe that he has been wronged in some way and that his actions only serve to give him what he believes to be deserving all along. To the villain, the current state of things seems unfair and he is denied something that should be rightfully his. There are countless great villains who believe that they have been robbed of their legacy if they come from a rich and powerful background; or that society has denied them their share of a good life if they come from poverty. Very rarely do you see villains who want to rule the world or the kingdom simply because they think that would be pretty sweet. Instead they feel that they have to. And heroes motivations are usually very similar. A hero isn’t normally looking for trouble, but ends up in a situation where he’s the only one who can do something, whether he likes it or not.
At the most basic level, every story begins with an inciting incident, which forces the protagonist to get involved with the story and take action. Usualy it’s the antagonist having made his first move that directly affects the protagonist. The same is true with the villain, who at some point decided that something needed to be done and start working on a plan to do it. The difference seems to be that a hero is working short term, while a villain is thinking long term. The heroes plan usually comes down to “Find the villain and neutralize him”. The plan of a great villian tends to be a lot longer, complex, and involving multiple sub-goals that need to be completed to create the conditions neccessary to for the completion of the main plan.
And I think when we’re talking about “making the protagonist more proactive”, we should be really thinking about making his plan more complex and more long term. In a movie there are good reasons to condense the whole story into three or four days from inciting incident to resolution, but in a novel there isn’t really need to do that. Again, the Heroes Journey seems to be part of the problem here: The Journey usually takes the form of “go to A, then B, then C, and finally fight the villain at D”. It’s a simple linear plot.
A notable flip of that would be Star Wars, in which the roles are reversed. The Rebells have been hiding for 20 years, quitely building a network of dissidents and stockpiling weapons to overthrow the ruling Empire and return the Galaxy to the way it used to be decades ago. At the same time, it’s the Empire that is having an immediate crisis of a group of Rebells taking up arms and starting to cause trouble, and it falls to Vader to prevent their plan from succeeding. Now the character of Luke really only gets involved once the action starts for the big confrontation, but the Rebells as a whole have been a very proactive player in this scenario.
To make a protagonist proactive, I think it’s a good start to give him a goal and a plan that is more long-term and involves dealing with more than just one thing at once. He should not just be thinking about how to get past that door or that monster and then see what gets in his way next, but also do things in place A, that will serve as preparation for a situation that he knows will come up later at place B. “I love it when a plan comes together.” So does any audience. Have the hero do some multi-stage planing and not just deal with problems just as they appear. (Though I have to say, Indiana Jones is still amazingly entertaining when he does that. But that’s fast paced action where things are happening within seconds, not a long-term narrative.)