Dear Jerusha: I had a one-to-one with an agent who said she felt my main character was rather dull and not pro-active enough. She was afraid that, not being like the usual feisty heroines who buck the system, my MC might fail to grab the reader's attention, and my writing friends have said similar things. I fully appreciate what they mean but I have struggled to correct the problem. The thing is, she is meant to be a bit 'wet' for want of a better word, or at least she is to begin with. She has to overcome this and break away from her "niceness" and stand up for what she wants, and that is her journey. (She ends up refusing to marry the man she loves because she wants to do other things first.) However, the novel is set in a world where an ordinary young girl brought up by a domineering mother can't be too "feisty" to begin, without it being anachronistic. At the start she is (outwardly) passive and more fearful than her peers. And she does make decisions and do things later on although her actions put her in a worse position than before. ("Out of the frying pan into the fire" kind of thing.) How can I make a good, quiet and put-upon character more interesting to readers, especially at the beginning of the novel, before her transforming journey gets going?
If your project in writing the novel is to chart the journey of a put-upon, un-self-determining character towards action, self-determination and self-knowledge, then you've got a classic premise. At the Guildford Book Festival I found myself describing Hallie Rubenhold's novel Mistress of My Fate to her as the story of how Fanny Price becomes Fanny Hill. But you've also got a built-in problem with this project: to make us like her and want to stick with her at the beginning, while she's still un-proactive, lacking in self-knowledge, and stuck in the situation (mental or practical or both) which she's going to have to learn to get herself out of.
I think the key to making any character engaging - any book engaging, come to that - is energy, and yes, it's always tricky if your novel is set in a time or place where women aren't supposed to be energetic and self-determining (although there's never been a time in history when women didn't actually run businesses, get rid of husbands and do their best to determine their own lives). That's easiest to write if you make your MC "feisty" (code for "energetic but of course not in a worryingly unfeminine way, oh dear me no!"). But I do think that's not the only kind of character who can have enough energy to carry a book for a modern reader. You need to think of other ways to build energy into her as a character-in-action. What could she be like, which would make her be energetic about something? What's available within the bounds of what's socially sanctioned for a girl in her world? Real goodness can be immensely energetic, for example, about the things which matter - until their ghastly mother says "but you've got to be back to give me my dinner".
First, although of course you want to be careful not to make things too anachronistic, I do think it can help if you deepen your sense of period, because there's nowt so queer as folk, and there are so many real stories which are odder and more surprising than you'd think. They buck the general outline that the historians give us, but are wholly authentic. You're also working with what your readers will regard as authentic, so you may need to work harder to make a surprising story convincing, than one which fits your readers' pre-conceptions of the period. But if you succeed, their experience of the book will be the richer for having had their pre-conceptions refigured.
Second, I'd suggest working hard to make her internally energetic, even though that energy's outlets are thwarted. It's slightly tricky not to end up with someone who does loads of internal, furious whingeing, which like any introspection quickly gets tedious for the reader, unless you're exceptionally good at providing narrative drive inside a bout of thinking. But her internal energy will help the narrative drive, because we'll be waiting for that thwarted energy to break out. It's a kind of instability, in that we know that the situation Can't Go On Like This forever. Concentrate on character-in-action, not character-in-inaction: what she does which expresses that thwarted energy. And if that sets off a piece of plot, so much the better. She can't murder her mother or even shout at her because Mother might have a heart attack, so she storms off up to the moors, crying with rage, where she falls and breaks her ankle and is picked up by Our Hero...
Another way to help is to make sure you're very clear, and forceful, about what thwarts the energy. Of course they can be external obstacles - not being allowed to go to university, lack of money - or internal obstacles - an emotional inability to tell her horrible mother where to put her Bengers Patent Invalid Food. And preferably both, if we're to believe her stasis at the beginning. But if you put good, solid obstacles in her way (perhaps with backstory - the memory of the first heart-attack) or practicality - (the encouraging mistress at school left, she's told that if she complains about being paid less than the bloke at the next workbench, she'll be sacked), then you'll be able to build up her energy quite a bit, and still have her unable to do anything.
You could try giving her a rich imaginative world: what does she dream about? What - at least in her wildest dreams - does she want? Every musical has its I Want song at the beginning ("All I Want Is A Room Somewhere!" "I Want To Be Where The People Are") just as it has its Conditional Love Song ("I'll Know When My Love Comes Along" "If I Loved You"), and it's always worth looking at how musicals are built, because they need a very strong, very clear structure, and the songs will always express the high points of that structure. And even though your plot may not be powered by her trying to get something that she wants (or dreams of) at the beginning, unfulfilled but strong desires can be another source of internal energy.
It could help to make her physically energetic or active in some other way: if she can't beat her horrible mother up, or walk out of her dreary job, then make her take her energy out in some other direction. Does she pinch and scrape - collecting bottles for the deposits, persuading her mother to give her the tram fare to Church, then actually walking - so she can afford to go to the cinema every week (feeding that imaginative world)? Does she let herself be talked into helping at Sunday School, and find herself wanting to get the children outside and acting out Bible scenes, not sitting and colouring in pictures? What does she do about that? Again, these could become big plot points, or they could just mean we pick up on the latent energy that will soon be powering things, and wait for it to be directed at the mother or the job. Then, when she starts being pro-active, the reader feels great satisfaction: it's the difference between scratching a line in the sand for a trickle of water to go down, and opening a sluice-gate.
One more thought: what's at stake for your character? One reason that readers may not have a sense of energy driving the novel is that the disaster which is waiting for your MC, if she doesn't start trying to be an act-or in her own life, just isn't very terrible. One built-in problem of the MC-stuck-at-the-beginning-of-the-novel project is that it would be perfectly possible for things to go on like that forever and (as I discussed in my post on the waking-up opening) that isn't an unstable situation. The manipulative, will-live-forever mother, for example, or the dead-end job, is the opposite of the body on page one: everything about them is conducive to nothing changing. I've just put a novel under the bed, although it only had one thing wrong with it: the pit yawning at the feet of one of my two MCs wasn't deep or scary enough. If it All Went Wrong, then... her hitherto loving marriage would become rather unsatisfactory. It just wasn't enough to keep the reader turning the pages, and for reasons I won't bore you with, changing that would have meant writing a different novel. Whereas Fanny Price may not be our paradigm of feistiness (and she's certainly Austen's least popular heroine) but her fate, if she loses her place at Mansfield Park and has to go back to Portsmouth, would be very grim indeed.