The passive protagonist, part II

Yesterday, I went on a rampage about one of the most common of manuscript megaproblems (after show, don’t tell, the top pick on almost any professional reader’s hit parade), the passive protagonist, the main character who is primarily an observer of the plot, rather than an active participant in it. Things happen to the passive protagonist, rather than his internal drives moving the plot along.

The passive protagonist is easily recognizable by the characteristic stripes of the species. He’s a courteous fellow, typically, always eager to step aside and let somebody else take the lead. Almost all of his turmoil is in his head; he tends to be rather polite verbally, reserving his most pointed barbs for internal monologue. Why, his boss/friend/wife/arch enemy can taunt him for half the book before he makes a peep — and then, it’s often indirect: he’ll vent at somebody else.

The passive protagonist is a fellow who has taken to heart Ben Franklin’s much-beloved maxim, “He in quarrels interpose/must often wipe a bloody nose.” He just doesn’t want to get INVOLVED, you know?

Oh, he SAYS he does, and certainly THINKS he does, but deep down, he’s a voyeur. All he really wants is for the bad things happening to him to be happening to somebody else four feet away.

As a result, he watches conflict between other characters without intervening, as if they were on TV. Frequently, he takes his gentlemanly reticence even farther, solving mysteries by showing up, being recognized (often as “that troublemaker,” amusingly enough), and having people he has never met before blurt out their entire life stories, or at any rate the key to the plot.

But that’s not all the passive protagonist doesn’t do — often, he’s a charming, well-rounded lump of inactivity. He sits around and worries about a situation for pages at a time before doing anything about it (if, indeed, he does do anything about it at all). He talks it all over with his best friend for a chapter before taking action (see parenthetical disclaimer at the end of the previous sentence). Even in the wake of discovering ostensibly life-changing (or -threatening) revelations, he takes the time to pay attention to the niceties of life; he is not the type to leave the family dinnertable just because he’s doomed to die in 24 hours.

Romantically, he’s a very slow mover, too; he’s the grown-up version of that boy in your fifth-grade class who had a crush upon you that he had no language to express, so he yanked on your pigtails. (It’s amazing, isn’t it, how many adults never seem to outgrow that phase?) He’s been known to yearn at the love of his life for two-thirds of a book without saying word one to her. Perhaps, his subconscious figures, she will spontaneously decide she likes me with no effort on my part — and astonishingly, half the time, his subconscious ends up being right about this!

Or, even better, perhaps a personal or life-threatening disaster epidemic will sweep through Metropolis, and that woman I am afraid of because

(a) she is smart
(b) she is beautiful
(c) she is rich
(d) she is from the other side of the tracks
(e) she is afflicted with that movie script iciness that always seems to accompany post-graduate degrees on film, and/or
(f) the plot requires it

will suddenly either come to me for help (“Got a match, Mr. Hardboiled Detective?”) or we will have to save the world together. In the midst of conflict that is bigger than the both of us, we will inevitably fall in love — because, really, we won’t have the time to fall in love with anybody else, what with saving the world and all.

You’ve seen that movie a million times, right? So have agents, editors, and contest judges. And they, like most of us, probably have their moments of adolescent yearning when they long to have the entire universe rearrange itself around them, in order to get them what they want.

But the fact is, as appealing as that fantasy is, it is very hard to turn into an exciting plot. So hard, in fact, that it’s not uncommon for agency screeners to be told to use the protagonist’s passivity for more than a page as a reason to reject a submission.

Yes, you read that correctly: more than a PAGE.

Given the dislike the industry exhibits toward this manuscript megaproblem, you’d think agents and editors would tell writers about it more — but once again, this is a phenomenon about which folks in the industry complain early and often, but seldom to writers.

As is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, they DO talk about it at conferences — but usually in terms that you’d have to read 50 manuscripts a week to understand. “I didn’t identify with the character” is a fairly common euphemism for Passive Protagonist Syndrome, as well as, “I didn’t like the main character enough to follow him through an entire book.” That, and, “There isn’t enough conflict here.”

“Wait just a minute!” I hear some of you out there protesting. “There’s an entire universe of reasons that a reader could feel alienated from a protagonist, and most of them have nothing to do with passivity. Why would these phrases necessarily signal that the underlying problem was that the protagonist was not involved enough in the action?”

Good question, imaginary readers, and one with a pretty straightforward answer: you’re right; sometimes these excuses do refer to other problems in a submission. However, since protagonist passivity is SUCH a common manuscript megaproblem, these phrases have come to be identified with it.

Because there are other possibilities, though, it’s a good idea to ask yourself an array of questions about a scene where you suspect your protagonist is not taking an active enough role in, well, his own life. If you can honestly answer yes to all of them, chances are good that you don’t have a passivity problem on your hands.

Fair warning: they’re not the questions most novelists would most like to hear asked of their books, but trust me, it’s better to ask them yourself (or have a reader you trust ask them) than to have an agent, editor, or contest judge snarl them at your submission when you’re not in the room. No, as I can tell you from long experience, they’re the kind of questions good writers get huffy about when a freelance editor or writing group member asks them — and then go home and ponder for a month. I’m just trying to speed up your pondering process.

(1) Is it clear why these events happening to my protagonist, rather than to someone else?  (Hint:  “Because the book’s ABOUT my protagonist!” is not an insufficient answer, professionally speaking.)

(2) Does the scene reveal significant aspects of my protagonist’s character that have not yet been seen in the book? Does it change the protagonist’s situation with respect to the plot? If not, is this scene absolutely necessary?

(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? Is my protagonist causing some of the conflict?

(4) Does the conflict arise organically? In other words, does it seem to be a natural outcropping of a person with my protagonist’s passions, skills, and background walking into this particular situation?

(5) Is my protagonist doing or saying something to try to affect the outcome or change the relationships here?

To put it another way, assuming that either the plot or the interrelationships between the characters is somehow different after the scene than before it (and if it isn’t, you might want to look into tightening up the plot), was the protagonist integrally involved in that change, or merely an observer of it?

(6) If my protagonist is not saying much (or anything), does he care about what’s going on? If he doesn’t feel that the situation warrants intervention yet, are the stakes high enough for the reader to worry about the outcome of this conflict? If not, is this scene necessary to keep?

This last may seem like a harsh assessment, but make no mistake about it, to someone who reads hundreds of submissions, a protagonist who observes conflict, rather than getting actively involved in it, seems as though he doesn’t care very much about what’s going on. Or, to translate this into the language agents and editors use: if the protagonist isn’t passionate about what’s going on here, why should the reader be?

To be fair, this assumption may not have as much to do with your manuscript as with the last fifty manuscripts the screener read, half of which opened with slice-of-life vignettes that demonstrated conclusively that the protagonist was a really nice person who did everything she could to avoid conflict. After a couple of dozen of these, rude and pushy starts to seem rather refreshing.

Agents and editors like to see themselves as people of action, dashing swashbucklers who wade through oceans of the ordinary to snatch up the golden treasure of the next bestseller, preferably mere seconds before the other pirates spot it. Protagonists who go for what they want tend to appeal to them.

More, at any rate, then they seem to appeal to most writers. After many years of reading manuscripts, I have come to suspect that writers identify with passive protagonists much, much more than other people do. There’s good reason for it, of course: we writers spend a lot of time and energy watching the world around us, capturing trenchant observations and seeing relationships in ways nobody ever has before.

So we tend to think of people who do this as likeable. Not, as folks in the industry tend to think of hyper-observational characters, as boring.

And, come on, admit it: one of the great fringe benefits of the craft is the delightful ability to make one’s after-the-fact observations on a situation appear to be the protagonist’s first reactions. That, and recasting people who are mean to us as villains in our books. (Not that any of the people who’ve been threatening my publisher over my memoir are turning up in my next novel or anything.)

And while both are probably pretty healthy responses, emotionally speaking, it’s also the kind of passive-aggressive way of dealing with the world that doesn’t work so well when a protagonist does it. We all tend to have some residual affection for our own foibles, don’t we?

The cumulative effect of writerly affection for characters who are acted upon has been, alas, a veritable ever-flowing Niagra Falls of submissions containing passive protagonists. And that is why, boys and girls, agents, editors, and contest judges have gotten pretty tired of them.

If only they could motivate themselves to DO something about it. Oh, well, if they wait around and resent it for long enough, the phenomenon’s sure to change by itself, right?

Keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “The passive protagonist, part II”

  1. Wow, Anne, beautiful, helpful, and amusing blog! I shall alert my writing friends. Many thanks. I know, I know, passive characters are bad, but talk about action some more please. I just finished Lehane’s The Given Day and towards the end it was just one stabbing-fistfight-kicked out of family-scene too many.

  2. […] to Anne Mini in her blog post, The Passive Protagonist, Part II, ” After many years of reading manuscripts, I have come to suspect that writers identify with […]

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