Lecture and Discussion -- Passive Protagonist

Not all protagonists are active heroes. The protagonist could be passive, but only for so long. Eventually he must choose to act. Conflicts are always about choices, and action or non-action comes forth from these choices. "Not doing anything" could be a viable choice. Also, even if the protagonist is reactive to everything that happens to him, he still must have a strong desire and want for something. Without this desire, your protagonist would be dull and weak. But "passive" doesn't necessarily equate "dull or weak."

  • Passive not= dull/weak
  • The lack of strong desire and wants = lack of conflicts = dull/weak
The protagonist must have strong desires or wants, and perhaps struggle with that internal conflict, even if externally he's passive. Let's say, Hamlet. "Not doing anything" is a choice, too. But the reason for "not doing anything" must be a strong one, and Hamlet's full of these strong feelings and desires and wants. That makes him a fascinating character, even if most of the time he chooses not to do anything.

Eventually, the protagonist must choose to act. It's true even in literary fiction where most struggles are internal. Characters are defined not solely by their desires and wants, but also by their actions with regard to these desires and wants. Again, what I'm suggesting here is to make your protagonist's "non-action" a strong, valid choice. It could work in literary fiction, and it could work in genres such as romance, thriller, mystery, etc.

For example:

Pride and Prejudice (literary, romance): Both Elizabeth and Darcy are rather passive in the beginning, both choosing not to act on their attraction to each other, or rather, to act by running away from their feelings. Again, the reasons are very strong. There comes a point in the story they must act to resolve their conflicts.

The Da Vinci Code (techno thriller): Langdon is very passive in the beginning, reacting to almost everything happening to him with confusion and inaptitude. However, there comes a point when he must act to save his own life PLUS satisfy his desire to find the truth.

Misery (horror, thriller): while Sheldon's very passive, he has strong desires, too -- to be rid of Misery....

I think opening a novel when a protagonist must do something is a viable choice, but not always necessary. The idea of hooking the readers in the beginning can be achieved in many ways, most importantly by creating a problem for the protagonist. But IMHO, it's not necessary that the protagonist must take action immediately at the beginning. However, give him a real, strong motivation to act (active) or not act (passive -- maybe based on fear or trying to protect his family or whatever), and your readers will be hooked.

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Len Morse said…
Hi Ray,

I just read your "Passive Protagonist" blog and, as a writer who sometimes struggles to find my characters' motivation, I can appreciate your viewpoint. "Non-action" certainly has the capacity to sway the storyline. If Coalhouse had left well enough alone (in the musical Ragtime), he and Sarah would probably be traveling the states with their son.

I've been expanding my writing interests beyond fiction in recent years, but your blog reminds me how much of a enjoyable challenge it can be to figure out a character's background, needs, desires, and other things that make the character truly unique and hoepfully interesting to the reader(s). I'm looking forward to discovering more of your blogs and insights.

Great site, BTW. Good luck with the book!

Ray Wong said…
Thanks Len! I love fiction writing because of the whole creation process. Non-fiction can be fun, too, but I am all about imagination.

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