The plague of passivity

Before I get started on today’s self-editing extravaganza, my friends, let’s all hear it for new reader Kerry, who very generously posted a comment over the weekend about how to deal with that pesky Autoformat feature in Word that insists upon changing all of our standard format-mandated doubled dashes into emdashes, those long, word-to-word lines that we writers know better than to include in our manuscripts. Quoth Kerry:

On the Mac, you go to Tools, then Autocorrect…, then AutoFormat As You Type. You can then uncheck the “Symbol characters…” under “Replace as you type.”

You can do it on the PC, too, but it’s not in exactly the same place. On the PC (I’m using Word 2002), here’s what you do: Go to Tools, AutoCorrect Options…, AutoFormat As You Type, and unclick “Hyphens (–) with dash (emdash).”

Doesn’t the very notion of NOT having to swear under your breath while watching your computer undo your hard work lighten your spirits and make your little toes begin to tap? It certainly does mine. Thanks, Kerry!

After the sentence-level self-editing tips of the last week or so, the kind that had your eyeballs glued to your manuscripts, I thought it might be something of a relief to sit back for some conceptual editing. Today, I want to talk about editing to make your characters more active, both to improve your manuscript’s pacing and to make your protagonist more likeable.

We’ve all read books starring the passive protagonist, right? He’s the main character who is primarily an observer of the plot, rather than an active participant in it. Things happen to the passive protagonist as the plot put-puts along, rather than his internal drives moving the plot along.

Let me share a secret: any screener, agent, editor, editorial assistant, and/or contest judge who has been at it more than a week automatically rolls his/her/its eyes when such a protagonist lumbers his way across the pages of yet another manuscript. Because, you see, a similar malaise plagues the lead in, oh, 85% of the manuscripts they see. At least in a scene or two.

So tell me: how are they usually going to treat to a submission whose first chapter features a passive protagonist? Or whose first five pages does?

Starting to sense an overall pattern here? Folks in the biz see positive oceans of submissions with problems, so the more common a manuscript problem is, the more likely they are to have a knee-jerk response to it.

How knee-jerk, you ask? A very famous agent told me a few years ago that he automatically stops reading a submission the moment the protagonist sits down in a car or begins to drink coffee, tea, or any other non-alcoholic beverage in the company of another character. At that point, he says, the action almost invariably is put on hold.

Translation: a protagonist does not need to be passive for very long to be diagnosed as such. (Or even particularly passive.)

Over and above notoriously low thresholds of agent boredom, this phenomenon presents a genuine obstacle to the creation of a compelling narrative. It’s hard for a reader to sympathize with someone who is purely acted-upon without pushing back, at least in some miniscule way.

It’s no accident that early screenwriter Elinor Glyn advised those who would create screenplays never to allow their heroes to feel sorry for themselves for more than a minute on film.

She meant a literal minute, by the way, not a figurative one, but her advice easily translates into a page for our purposes here. If there’s an ongoing plot problem — and there should be more or less constantly throughout a story, to keep the pacing tight — audience members and readers alike prefer to see the protagonist DOING something about it. Even if that something is completely misguided.

Perhaps ESPECIALLY if it is completely misguided; poor life choices for a character are often great fun for the reader, right? One of the quickest ways to add complexity to a two-dimensional character is to have her act out of character at some point early in the book.

To be fair, the vast majority of protagonists are not uniformly passive (and for good reason: it’s a challenge to construct a storyline around a static character). In most manuscripts, the hero lapses only occasionally into total observation mode.

Unfortunately, they often do so during those interview scenes I was discussing a few weeks back. You know the ones: our guy Jerry is on the trail of a secret that could bring down City Hall while his brother, Arnold, is sitting on death row, accused of a murder he didn’t commit that was — mirabile dictu! — actually committed by someone at the bottom of THAT VERY SECRET. Jerry has been rushing all over town, dodging bullets, in order to seek out answers, yet anytime he bumps into someone who might be able to shed light on the matter, he just sits there while the source spills his proverbial guts.

Even, amazingly, when the source has just spent the last 50 years in excruciating emotional pain, keeping that particular portion of his guts inside. Go figure.

Frequently, Jerry doesn’t even have to ask a single question beyond, “What do you know about it, old timer?” to provoke this innard exposure. (Passive protagonists’ skin apparently secretes some sort of truth serum.)

As I mentioned before, TV and movies have inured most of us to this kind of spontaneous truth-telling; it has seeped into our collective consciousness to the point that it seems almost normal.

Why, just last night, I was tapping away on my computer while my SO Rick was watching the season finale of one of the five million LAW & ORDER franchises. By the time I had finished my post and sat down next to him, there were only ten minutes left. A harried-looking woman was on the witness stand, being grilled about a long-ago rape. Apparently, she’d kept the identity of her rapist a secret for the past 26 years.

I got up to fix myself a sandwich.

“How can you leave at such an exciting point?” Rick asked.

I yawned. “Because she’s about to blurt out that she was raped by her father. Are you hungry?”

THAT’s how common this kind of interview scene has become: the instant we in the audience learn that a character is hoarding a great big secret, we EXPECT the whole truth to pop out of her mouth within minutes.

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. And in the opening scenes of a novel, often even less than that.

You can see your assignment coming, can’t you? Don’t worry; it’s not going to be as bad as you think.

Go through your manuscript, scene by scene. No need to read for specifics; the general sense will do. If your protagonist is not the primary actor in any given scene, mark it, as well as any scene where she is observing action around her rather than participating in it.

Employ different kinds of markers for these two types of scenes; top and bottom folded page corners or Post-It™flags will do. If you really want to be thorough, you can make a list of scenes as you go, marking them accordingly.

After you’ve rated the scenes, go back and revisit those where the protagonist is not the main mover and shaker. Could adding a line or two here or there beef up her presence in the scene? Could she ask some of the questions currently in the mouth of a third party, for instance, or take a more aggressive stand against a villain? Or against her mother?

Could you, in short, inject some conflict into every page of the scene? How about every half-page?

Now turn to the scenes where the protagonist is watching what is going on. This one is going to sting a little: ask yourself honestly, without weighing in the balance how much you like the writing, whether this scene is actually essential to the book. If not, could you cut it?

I know, I know: some of my favorite scenes are quiet, too. But it’s often apparent to an outside observer (like, say, an editor) that a protagonist is merely observing a scene because it’s not central to the plot or to her character’s development. And when a scene adds to neither, it’s a prime candidate for trimming.

Tomorrow, I shall delve into the nitty-gritty of ferreting out protagonist passivity. In the meantime, enjoy shutting off that annoying Autoformat feature, and keep up the good work!

10 Replies to “The plague of passivity”

  1. I just wanted to leave you a message to say how useful I find this blog! I’m looking for a good blog to fill the hole Miss Snark’s retirement has left in my day, and discovered yours. What great information. This is truly useful stuff, and a great thing to read in the morning before I get to work on my novel. Yesterday I was counting my ands. Today, I’ll examine my protagonist. 🙂 Thanks!!!

  2. Anne,
    These are great points. I’ve definitely fallen prey to this sort of passivity in the past, but I don’t think I’m having that issue with my current work.

    Here’s a question for you, though, about a situation that I’m not sure would count as passive. The novel that I’m currently working on has what I would consider multiple protagonists. Not just multiple POV characters, but actually three protagonists who each drive parts of the plot in their own ways. For reasons specific to my plot, all of my protagonists are passive at one time or another, but never whichever protagonist has the POV at the time. Essentially I’m weaving these character’s (already very interrelated) stories together, writing in third limited for whoever I’m following at the moment, and always following whoever is the most interesting and has the most conflict in a given scene.

    Presumably the sort of passivity that you are discussing here is only a problem if the scene occurs on stage, or if the POV is actually following that character at the moment, right? Assuming that whoever the scene is presently following is sufficiently active, does it matter if another of the protagonists is there but entirely passive? I imagine that this is kind of an unusual question; I don’t know that I’ve seen many works do this sort of thing with multiple protagonists who weren’t physically disparate from one another.


    1. Chris, you made absolutely the right choice — and preempted me by a few days. Cerredwyn had asked a very good question a couple of weeks ago about handling multiple protagonists, and for the very reasons you bring up here, I’ve been planning on using the passive protagonist discussion as a segue into it. So it’s good to know that we’re heading in the right direction.

      You have made an excellent choice, placing the perspective with the active character — as long as the reader has an actor to follow, you should be fine. This choice will render both maintaining reader interest and character development far easier. And if will make for some interesting choices at the points in the plot when two or more of your three protagonists are in conflict (as I hope will occur, for drama’s sake).

      Multiple protagonists are fairly common in aspiring writers’ manuscripts — although, because it’s hard to pull off well, they are less common on bookstore shelves. It varies quite a bit by genre, though. Often, especially in women’s or literary fiction, all of the multiple protagonists will be depicted in the first person. (THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is probably the best-known example.) In other genres and in mainstream fiction, tight third person concentrating on the protagonist of the moment pops up more frequently.

    1. Of course it’s fine, Brenda — and yes, the link does work (I checked). I would be happy to see people talking about this issue.

      I read your post there, and I wonder if it would be fruitful for your critique group to help you brainstorm different ways to have a protagonist deal with an unchangeable situation — which, as you point out, is a fairly common situation for a kid that age.

      I bring this up because I’ve read a LOT of books for your intended market. There are plenty of perfectly wonderful protagonists who feel passive in that group, and yet are exciting to follow through their respective books.

      FEEL is the operative word, I think: a protagonist who feels that she cannot change the essential circumstances of her life (a common adolescent feeling, certainly) can struggle against her fate in a multipicity of ways. It’s the fact of struggling that engages the reader, usually, not the protagonist’s ability to confront her problems effectively.

      So rather than worrying about whether to change the protagonist’s situation in toto (which would give any writer angst), just for now, it might be more productive to sit down with your text and asking yourself: how could my protagonist attempt to change her world in some small way on this page?

      It often takes surprisingly few acts of tiny rebellion, even in thought, to convey this impression of vital struggle. Paul Zindel does this beautifully — I’m thinking in particular of the protagonist in MY DARLING, MY HAMBURGER, but there are certainly masses of other examples within your genre.

      After reading your post on the Verla Kay site, though, I found myself wondering if you had had anyone in your target audience read the book — a 15-year-old, after all, would have a rather different view of how a 15-year-old thinks than an adult would. You might want to consider recruiting some age-appropriate readers.

      I hope this helps with your angst!

  3. Anne,
    I’m glad to hear that in concept what I’m doing with multiple protagonists is the right choice (and actually, two of the protagonists are in some level of conflict from chapter 2–when protagonist two is introduced–onwards). However, it’s a little bit disconcerting to hear that multiple protagonists are so common in unpublished manuscripts, yet less common in published books. If a lot of unpublished writers are using this sort of broad structure and doing it poorly, I presume Millicent must be tired of seeing this structure. Or perhaps it isn’t pervasive to that point?

    I actually wrote a really long response about some of my ideas on using multiple protagonists, but then decided that was too long for a comment here and so turned it into a post on my own blog instead.

    One other thing: you mentioned using “tight third person concentrating on the protagonist of the moment.” While normally this certainly seems the best course of action with multiple protagonists, what about ensemble scenes where multiple protagonists are present? I have a lot of those, and mostly keep to tight third person with the active protagonist, but in a few cases — mostly for dramatic effect — I step back to third person semi-omniscient and show what several of the protagonists present are thinking. I don’t do this without care, or particularly often, but I think it helps to make the occasional scene seem grander and more important. Hopefully that’s not a bugbear for Millicent, either.


    1. My Tuesday post (and possibly more) is going to be on multiple protagonists, Chris, so hold on to your socks! (But do pick up PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, if you’ve never read it — Aunt Jane handles the move from tight third person to semi-omniscient narrator extraordinarily well.)

      I don’t think you need to worry about it in your chosen genres, though — the Millicent reading your submission probably will not have seen it much. But even if she has, it’s not so pervasive that she’s likely to say, “Oh, heavens, another complex, interesting multiple-perspective tight third person narrative! When will this torture end?”

      I suspect that there are a couple of reasons this particular voice choice turns up more in submissions than on the shelves. First, voice choices tend to go in waves, responding to the bestseller of the moment. Or, more precisely from Millicent’s point of view, the bestseller of two years ago. So it was predictable, for instance, that after THE POISONWOOD BIBLE hit the big time, screeners would have been seeing a LOT of multiple first-person narratives landing upon their desks.

      The other reason is, I think, that multiple tight third-person voice is hard to do, especially — as you point out — in ensemble scenes. It’s like the Olympics: the gymnast who always executes a perfect standing double backflip is competing against the gymnast who attempts a standing quadruple backflip and lands it a third of the time. When the quadruple flipper nails it, the rewards are high, but the chances of something going wrong are astronomical.

      That’s what I love about writers: so many keep attempting those standing quadruple backflips on paper, bless ‘em.

  4. Hi Anne,

    I recently discovered your blog (like Karen, I’m trying to fill the void left by Miss Snark) and I’ve found it incredibly helpful. Thank you so much!

    I have a question regarding the passive protagonist (though I think it’s probably quite simple — please forgive me, I’m very new to this). You encouraged us to go through our manuscripts and mark places where the protagonist is not the primary actor and where she is merely observing. What about those instances when a character is reacting to an external stimulus? Does that make her the secondary actor rather than the primary actor? Can a protagonist be passive because they are too reactive and not proactive enough?


    1. Glad to have you on board, Ashleigh — and please don’t apologize for bringing up good questions. Or bad ones, for that matter. I like hearing from my readers.

      This happens to be a very good question, and far from simple: whether being acted-upon automatcially renders the protagonist passive. The answer is complex, too: usually, but not always. Really, the answer ies in how the protanonist responds to being acted-upon — and how the narrative focuses upon that response.

      What followed next in my first posted response to these questions were four pages of clarifying examples — see, I wasn’t kidding about its being a great question. As I started on page 5, it occurred to me: I should just make this today’s post.

      So look for the rest of your answer as Monday’s post, Ashleigh, and keep asking the hard questions!

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