Creative writing tutors often emphasise how the central character in a novel must make critical choices and take decisive actions. This, of course, is excellent advice. No one wants to read about a passive character.
However, psychological drama allows for an alternative where the character doesn’t actively set out on a quest but at the same time doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming passive – drama that explores the character’s emotional journey, particularly their descent into chaos and despair.
I’m writing a psychological thriller based on a past crime. Generally, the central character in a crime/thriller novel needs to take steps to solve the crisis in question. Obstacles will rear up along the way, preventing the character from achieving whatever they’ve set out to achieve, but the character should stay active. The descent option mentioned in the second paragraph sometimes works in psychological thrillers, but is particularly difficult to pull off effectively.
I think the key lies in the character’s decisions, and not things happening to them. A case of poor decisions coming back to haunt the character, leaving them with few options, each of those options evading the character so that the character becomes almost powerless (though not passive).
With the mechanics of the plot firmly established in the story, the writer can then go on to explore the central character’s psychology (conflicts, secrets, desires, fears), increasing the pressure on the character until something major happens.