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The Perils of a Passive Protagonist

passive protagonistThe pitfall of a passive protagonist is easier to fall into than writers might sometimes think.

Whether your book is a high-speed espionage thriller or a cozy romance, the fuel that makes it run is action. Something is happening to your protagonist—presumably the something of his life (because if not, why tell this story?). And yet authors sometimes create characters to whom things happen, without also creating elements that allow the characters to act back in forceful and decisive ways.

For example, in a science fiction novel I read recently, the protagonist (the only human among powerful aliens) is forced into a reactive role from the beginning of the book right up until the very end. He stands in the center of the plot’s swirl of exciting activities (which include assassination attempts, political intrigue, and strange intruders), but he doesn’t actually do anything. He stands helplessly aside while more capable characters take care of business off-screen.

The result, not surprisingly, is a dull and frustrating read.

If you find your main character spending more time reacting than acting, if he stands on the sidelines while others chew into the meat of the action, you may want to seriously reconsider the choices you’ve made about both your plot and your character.

Because readers want to be right in the thick of the action, authors need to choose characters who can take them there. Try rewriting your passive character to allow him to take a more active role. Or if that’s simply not an option, consider adding a few more POVs to include the action from the perspective of characters who are involved in it. Not only will your book take on more heft and significance, it will also be that much more likely to hold your readers’ attention throughout.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Does your story feature a passive protagonist, or does your protagonist take your readers into the thick of the action? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. One of my POV charries has asthma and anemia, so I included another pov charrie, who is also the antagonist, to provide contrast

  2. Giving characters weaknesses – even incapacitating ones – doesn’t automatically make them passive. In fact, the very fact that they have weaknesses to overcome (whether physically or mentally) makes them that much more interesting. However, offering contrast via a character who can take a more physically active role is almost always a good choice. From what I’ve seen of your story, you’ve done a fabulous job with this aspect.

  3. This is the danger of the “cameraman” type of main character–one the author posts in a place where they can see and record all the important events happening around them, but who can’t seem to turn the camera around to look at themselves. I’ve read books like this. I’ve WRITTEN books like this, too, which is why this is always an important reminder.

    Ah, but the best thing about your video this week? You’ve got the Timothy Zahn Star Wars trilogy prominently displayed behind you! I read those again last year for the first time in ages. I’ve always thought they were brilliant extensions of the original trilogy of films. Good stuff. . . !

  4. Hey, good eye! Yeah, Timothy Zahn began my love of sci-fi books. One of my very earliest (if slightly general) writing goals was to “write as well as Timothy Zahn.”

  5. Great points! I had to spiffy up this very point in my own novel, where the MC was reacting throughout most of the story. I had to add a couple of hard choices and let her take the fall/consequences. ;o) It jived better with her character, too, which is more strong-willed.

    And Ooo! I love Timothy Zahn!! Got sucked in by the Star Wars trilogy, and then read THE GREEN AND THE GRAY. Good stuff. 🙂

  6. When a character acts out in a forceful way and then has to take the consequences, the result is often a powerful and fascinating story. Fun to write too!

    I’d forgotten about The Green and The Gray. Someone recommended it to me several years ago, but I never got around to finding a copy. I’ll have to re-add it to my TBR list.

  7. Very good points. Somehow I envisioned seeing the battle of Endor from an Ewok perspective when you talked about that Scifi story. Don’t ask me why. There were a couple of recent Urban Fantasy novels that I read that were very much that way. I really wanted to like the story, I knew the author, liked the premise but just got caught in the doldrums. Everything happened around them but they really weren’t involved in the main plot, more like they just kept happening upon events of it. It’s completely paramount that the plot follows the characters that are directly involved in the plot not the sideline characters that happen upon it.

  8. This is where that perfect balance between character and plot comes into play. Too much emphasis on plot, and the reader won’t care about what happens, no matter how exciting it is. Too much emphasis on character, and the reader will grow frustrated with all the non-events.

  9. Passive protags drive me nuts. You want to stand behind them and push them into the action.

  10. There’s a time and a place for every type of character – just as there’s a time and a place for every type of person – but authors are almost always better off with a character who is willing to get his hands dirty. Readers love characters who are willing to *do* something, to prove themselves through their actions, and to carry the readers right into the heart of the adventure.

  11. This is a great post, I used to struggle with this a lot when I started writing. My Buddhist tendencies had me writing more passive characters, but that really doesn’t work very well 🙂

  12. I think quite a few authors want to write “perfect” characters – people who are smart, beautiful, kind, and just generally have it all together (probably because we’re trying to live vicariously through them!). But in fiction, perfection just isn’t interesting. If the character doesn’t have flaws to overcome and challenges through which to grow, we have no story to tell.

  13. Great post and comments. I’m working through these issues right now in the first draft of a rather comic historical novel. My protagonist has a weak constitution, and he expects to die any day, so he tends to do whatever anyone asks of him. This, of course, gets him in trouble. But it’s a passive way of engaging with the world. So I’m trying to flesh out other parts of his character and show him being assertive and active within those roles he’s accepted too easily–and then he’ll change and grow and learn how to take control of his life. I just don’t want to lose readers before he gets to that point.

  14. Even just this brief description sounds like it offers all kinds of comedic opportunities. Sounds like a fun story! You seem to be working your way around the passivity pitfalls very well.

  15. I have often wondered about the worth of passive protagonists. Maybe I got the definition wrong, but aren’t Nick Carraway(The Great Gastby) and Nelly (Wuthering Heights) passive protagonists?
    They never engage in the real action and only act as a medium for the readers to visualise the action through. They only narrate and yet an active protagonist would not suit these stories better. Of course, in most cases action makes for a more enjoyable read.
    P.S.I may be wrong in my idea of what constitutes a passive protagonist so feel free to correct me.

  16. Passive is the last word you’d use to describe mine. RftS begins with Jane taking a creative interpretation of the rules to get into the action, then having to open fire to get out alive. Star Knight with Regina ramming a very expensive space liner wit a shuttle to get on board, (they had to take her on board when they rescued her from the wreck), Imperatrix Galactiga with Cinnamon planning to destroy the slave trader who bought the coffees. In Thirteenth Commandment a drug dealer tries to rape Jojo at knifepoint in chapter 1. He got out a knife in the same room as Jojo? Technically that’s suicide.

    Dangerous? Yes. Assertive? Definitely. Frightening? You said it.

    But never passive.

  17. My protagonist has to be passive, he’s basically along for the ride with someone that doesn’t take suggestions very well, and the alternative is to go home. It’s building to a show down though.

  18. My protagonist takes action to achieve her goals but sometimes she is naive and lets others take advantage of her good nature. I hope she doesn’t come across as too much of a mug, although, in the final chapters, she is forced to face the truth.

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