Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Protagonist, Asleep

One common problem among writers of all styles and genres is a protagonist who is passive rather than active. Things happen to this character, and they react to their environment and generally get pushed around by life. Or things happen to other characters in the novel and the protagonist comments and witnesses but isn't necessarily involved. I have seen a lot of unpublished (and a few published) novels where the supporting characters are more interesting, rounded and alive than the character who the book is supposed to be about.

I think that one possible reason we might write protagonists like this is because, as writers, we've become used to taking the role of observer of human behavior. We watch what happens and think about the lives of people and then when we pick up our pen/tablet/notebook/keyboard/whatever and write, we place ourselves within our protagonist and then make him more-or-less into us, an observer. This is perfectly natural, because in a large way it's what readers do when they pick up a book. To read a novel is in many ways to pretend that we are the characters in the book. It's one of the things that gives fiction its enduring power: the opportunity to safely sympathize or empathize with someone unlike us, in a dramatic situation.

But we have to remember that our role as a writer is not the same as our role as a reader. We don't get the luxury of sitting back and seeing what will happen, and neither therefore does our protagonist. We have to drive a wedge between our perception of the story and our protagonist's perception of the story, build a wall, and get some critical distance from her.

I think that another reason we sometimes write passive, observer or (worse yet) victim protagonists to whom things happen but who doesn't make things happen, is because we think that the best protagonists are characters with whom we can readily identify. So we try to write heroes who are essentially us, or people just like us. This is a mistake, because you and I, to a large extent, do not lead dramatic lives that lend themselves readily to interesting narratives. No, we don't. I don't, anyway, at least not anymore and thank all the gods in all the heavens for that. But I digress, as usual. To make up a protagonist who is just like you is a tactical error (though I'm sure you are a perfectly lovely person and we should have lunch sometime, soon). As I said above, the enduring value of fiction comes from the reader's opportunity to live vicariously through and safely sympathize with someone who isn't like them. Readers come to your work seeking to engage with it, seeking commonality with your characters even if they don't know that's what they're doing. So unless you really are an action hero, don't make your hero someone just like you.

How do you know if you have a passive protagonist? I suggest the following exercise. Read the first 50 or so pages of your manuscript. Make a list of every time something happens to your protagonist (each time they are a victim of an event), and make another list of every time your protagonist acts to change something. If there are more "victim" events than "act to change" events, you've got trouble. You can also just sit down and look at each scene and see if it's a scene about your protagonist trying to change things. Stories are about change. Stories are narratives that explain how a new status quo was developed by an individual, and why that change was necessary. That's a story. (It is true that some stories are about how an individual failed to make necessary changes in the status quo, but those stories are still about action.) Either way, the protagonist acts. The protagonist acts in every scene. If your protagonist is asleep, your reader will be.

So the point here, or one of the points, is that you as a writer have a role that is vastly different from the role of a reader. You do not sit and see what happens next. You MAKE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT OCCUR. And so does your protagonist. Because nobody else is going to do it.


  1. Scott, Great post. The protagonist of Rooster was much more passive in my earlier drafts than he is now. And, I still wouldn't call him an action hero, even in the latest draft. I think this was in part because it was based on a man who was fairly passive, and so my job was to construct the active part of his life.

    I've also always had another hypothesis for why protagonists can sometimes seem passive. Like you say, I think we often base our protagonists on ourselves, and aside from simply not living adventurous lives (have I mentioned that I'm a research scientist with ninja training?) I think we also reference other people relative to ourselves. So, if we someone as short, we see them as shorter than ourselves. If someone is louder, we see them as louder than ourselves. As a result, side characters in stories are more lively because they are set up in contrast to the protag, and because the protag is sort of the "default" reference point, he or she doesn't seem to have as many interesting characteristics.

  2. Davin: I think you bring up a really important point about how the protagonist can act as a sort of reference point, a default setting for character. Even in "Cocke & Bull", which I'm framing as a violent and bloody adventure story, the reader knows more about the support characters than about the protagonist, because he's sort of the fixed point. I realized a few weeks ago that he's the only person whose backstory is never given. I'm aware of this, at least.

    I also think that writers of literary fiction like you and me might shy away too much from the idea of "action" because we're not writing "action stories" per se, and we want to examine the interior lives of people, which we might think means writing quiet or even immobile stories. It's sort of very MFA writing. We might be forgetting that, to a reader, character choice is the same as character action and we can have a story made up of character choices that's just as dynamic as a story made up of chase/fight scenes. But we end up with a bunch of "this is how life turned this person into what he is" stories that aren't so interesting if we don't show the character's choices the resulted in him being that way and instead show him as clay being molded by his environment. To which, like, yawn.

  3. I also think there's a tendency (at least, I have one) to think, "Yeah, sure, my protagonist is going to make this fateful choice or take this definitive action in the climax of the story," and think that's enough. So you end up with a character who's just buffeted by other forces/characters for the first two-thirds of the story. Which, of course, is a good recipe for making sure no reader ever gets to the climax.

  4. Jabez: Not only is that a recipe for a dull first two acts, it also tends to make the hero's definitive action/choice completely unbelievable when it finally happens, because the hero has so far done nothing definitive in the story.

  5. A thought-provoking post, Scott. I agree, and yet I disagree. Yes, we want protags that are interesting to read about. That's why we don't write stories about someone going to the store and back. But I don't necessarily see anything wrong with the "everyday man" who is thrust into a situation based upon external events rather than something he is or something he has done. The interesting part of the story is how that person reacts to the situation (at least in my mind).

    Now, once this situation comes to be, the protag probably should become more active than passive. But that may not happen immediately, since our own natures are often the hardest to change.

    The writing still has to be good, or nobody is going to want to read it. But I do believe there is a place for gradual change of a mostly passive person into an active one. When the person changes, we get to root for them as they seek to overcome whatever the circumstances are.

  6. "I do believe there is a place for gradual change of a mostly passive person into an active one." I am going to bet that for most publishers, that place is the bottom of the slush pile. Can you give me an example of such a book?

  7. I'm going to start this comment with a comment from a good friend of mine about a blog post I did yesterday . . .

    "I get the feeling that the best writers allow the characters to live and breathe instead of being restrained to fit a plotline. Often, the characters actually end up doing something unexpected--yet believable--because they've been allowed to develop instead of the writer just laying all the personality traits in a sentence at the beginning of the story."

    I think something similar occurs when the protagonist is more a 'victim', i.e., an observer. The writer, rather than letting the character do something unexpected, is letting the character observe and comment. The character is just there.

    Where is the change/evolution of the character when this happens? Does simply observing events alow for the big climax? Or, must the character act/react in order for there to be some sort of payoff for both the character and reader?

    Great post and definite food for thought.


  8. I also think that you can have a character choose to do nothing, and that's still an active character, because they are making a choice not to deal with things, and there will be repercussions in the story. As long as there is cause and effect where the protagonist is the cause, you have an awake hero. Samson's eyes were put out and his hair cut off but he was active, not a victim. He lived life; he didn't let life live him.

    I think that a lot of people (me included, at one point) have a desire to write stories where the main character sort of wanders through the spiritual wilderness aimlessly for a while before they find themselves or find their thing. But to channel my agent for a moment: "I understand that you were drifting for a long time before you did anything real. But all of that drifting? It's boring. Cut it."

  9. Oh sure, Scott. Hang me over the fire immediately. :)

    I will have to think about a concrete-enough example (published work) to give you, but I still stand by my previous comments. The thing that makes this kind of idea realistic (and therefore something the reader can identify with) is that it happens all the time. An fictional example:

    1. Person X finds themselves in trouble, such as being laid off a job or losing their house.
    2. Fear, laziness, alcoholism (pick your attribute) keeps them from actively making any changes.
    3. Some "last straw" falls on their back that forces them to begin changing (slow or fast)

    People will (and do) put up with alot of bad things before they decide to take action and fix their own lives. Too much of this of course, just comes out as a whiner and nobody wants to read about that. But with the right attributes, you have the downtrodden would-be hero who just needs one more push to catapult them into action.

  10. I try to keep the protag acting, but sometimes there are things that act against her. In the end I think they balance out. I'm hoping that the change in the MC is noticeable enough. It's subtle, but I may have to make it more obvious.

  11. Another important point that I believe deserves a look at is a rather simple distinction. Is the front running character in your story the protagonist or the narrator?

    If the answer is the narrator than sitting back and watching what happened is going to be all he does while Holmes solves the case.

  12. Ryan: That's an important distinction. But if the stories went like this:

    Watson: Say, Holmes. What do you want to do?
    Holmes: I don't know. What do you want to do?

    Then nobody would have read them.

    Eric: I think that perhaps there's a story in the last part, of the last straw and the change. But the first part is not the story. Just as my going to bed last night, sleeping and then waking up this morning are not part of the story of my work day. Just because something happens all the time in real life, it doesn't mean it's good reading. Unless it's an essay.

    A lot of Henry James' stories look, on the surface, like character studies and nothing more, but there is a constant tension because there is something wrong and the character is trying to fix that wrongness, even if in only small ways, even if in the entirely wrong ways, even if they don't know they're doing it. There are forces in opposition in drama, and if the protagonist isn't opposing anything at all, he's no protagonist. A swordfight is probably a story. A discussion of fencing lessons probably isn't.

  13. Excellent point about how writers tend to be observers and also tend to mold the protag, whether consciously or not, on their own tendencies.

    (Davin: you too? Are you going to the Ninja level III camp this summer?)

  14. Maybe a way to create tension in the character-is-passive-until-last-straw-forces-change story, while still showing the inert behavior pattern, would be to have the character repeatedly resist opportunities to change and suffer because of it, building up to the aforementioned straw that will finally start the growth process. Sorry for the convoluted sentence.

  15. KG: I think that if a character sees an opportunity and decides to let it pass by, that's conflict, tension and even action of a sort. Even if (as in a lot of 19th-century stories) the protagonist is never "redeemed" at the end. There's also the sort of moralistic story where a protagonist continues to ignore good advice or is blind/indifferent to opportunity, but this is only interesting to read if the ignorance/indifference causes changes in the character's life. A lot of the great Russian authors pretty much ignored plot entirely, but there was a ton going on with character and conflict/tension was always there. Gogol's short stories are a good textbook for writing non-action tales that are filled with character action.

  16. So even if life is pushing your protagonist around and he is failing and his state gets nothing but worse, you have to make that protagonist push back, even if it's no more than by shaking a fist. We're storytellers, not reporters. Mirroring real life is not the job at hand; illuminating it is.

  17. While I think this is a good rule of thumb not to make your MC passive, it can also be a tool for writers.

    Lets say you have a character who actively makes one decision (big or small)which causes lots of things to happen to them. Depending on the story and the time line, the character may or may not have time to try to change what is happening, they can only react.

    I'd also argue that have a character attempt to change things depends entirely on the book. Sometimes characters face situations they cannot change or escape, and thus must come up with a third option. Johnathan Stroud is very good at this.

    I would say that the protagonist doesn't have to elicit change and that change is not always necessary. All characters need to react, but it's not a simple equation of action= reaction, either. You could have 3 actions= 1 reaction. Or could have 1 action =10 reactions. Nor do these things have to be spread neatly between the protagonist and the antagonist. Third parties acting and unaware of the implications of their actions can add an interesting element (which can be used to make the readers more knowledgeable than the characters. ) Obviously the neither the protagonist or antagonist can act upon knowledge they don't have, making them both quite passive. But since the reader knows more than the characters this can be used to build suspense. Passive characters aren't always boring.

    But readers tend not to notice that characters are passive unless they're bored.

    In summation, I think passivity is another tool available to writers.

  18. "readers tend not to notice that characters are passive unless they're bored"

    I'm going to just say that I think the corollary to that is obvious. No, I'll say more. I think that change is not the only measure of activity in a character. I think that characters, real and imagined, do resist pressures put upon them. A character who fails to resist is passive. I don't know Jonathan Stroud. Does he have really passive characters?

  19. You guys are full of insights and great advice. I feel like I'm auditing a grad course whenever I visit here. :) The posts are thoughtful, and then the discussions in the comments take it further.

    The passive protagonist is a mistake I've made before and also a reason I haven't liked to read books about depressed people, like The Bell Jar and Catcher in the Rye. I'm not even going to postulate that those two aren't great books, but the passivity of a protagonist is definitely tricky. At the very least, it must be done well, and for a very good reason.

    This post caught my eye at first because I'm writing a fantasy based on Sleeping Beauty! So... LITERALLY, my protag is asleep during some of the action. But unlike the well-known version of Sleeping Beauty, mine is going to play an active role in casting the spell on herself, and she's going to do some crazy stuff when she wakes up.

    Passive protagonists are a pet peeve of mine, but I think it's possible to use passivity well, just like any writing "don't." Whether I can pull it off is TBD, but I will keep in mind the general rule that passivity = boring so I don't let my characters go flat.

  20. Oh, here's another example: A Gesture Life by Chang-Rae Lee. The protagonist is infuriatingly passive. He witnesses tons of horrors early in life, then he witnesses a woman fall in love with him in later life. In both cases, he just stands around and does nothing and hates himself for it. The only dramatic action he takes is to adopt a child to "atone" for things that happened during war, but then he's such a passive, ineffectual father that she grows up wild and hates him.

    Basically, "self-hatred" is his response to everything.

    The story around the MC is so fascinating and poetic that the book is possible to read. But the MC is detestable. Even Lee, the author, said he was very hard to write, because no one can help despising him.

    So... I guess... a passive, unlikeable MC can be used, but with great caution. It's a dangerous device.

  21. Excellent post, Scott! I read this yesterday but didn't have time comment. In my first novel the whole idea for my main character is that she is passive. It drove a lot of my readers nuts. I'm not sure if it works or not, but the character has to reach a certain point in the plot before she starts acting on anything. But that was the idea. Maybe this is why the book has failed so far, I don't know.

    This has me all worried about Monarch now. I'll look out for it in my edits. :)

    Davin said there's a good discussion here in the comments. I'll have to read it all when I've got another free moment.

  22. "Does he have really passive characters?"

    It depends on how you define passive (obviously) but the

    MC takes the role of observer of human behavior.

    MC is a victim protagonists to whom things happen but who doesn't make things happen (unless forced to)

    He is more often a "victim" of events than "acting to change" events.

    And yet, I wouldn't really call Bartimaeus passive. Ultimately I think it comes down to active writing. When you combine a passive character with a passive voice or a telling narrator, the result isn't going to be pretty.

    For me, the passive character only works with an active narrative. And obviously the passive character should react, though I won't say "must" because this is just a guideline, not a rule.


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