The plague of passivity II: thinking…thinking…

Last time, I begin talking about the passive protagonist problem: when the action of a book occurs around the main character, rather than her participating actively in it. As I intimated yesterday, passive protagonists tend to annoy professional readers.

While naturally not every single agent, editor, contest judge, or screener in the biz will instantly stop reading the moment the leading character in a novel stops to contemplate the world around him, there are at any given moment thousands and thousands of submissions sitting on professional readers’ desks that feature protagonists who do just that. Often for pages and chapters at a time.

So perhaps it’s understandable that screeners’ reactions to encountering inert characters tends to be a trifle reflexive. One doesn’t need to pull all that many pans out of hot ovens without using mitts to start snatching one’s hands away from hot surfaces, after all.

“But if the pros dislike character passivity so much,” I hear some of you asking, “why don’t they just tell writers so? How hard would it be to post on their websites or include in their agency guide listings, ‘No passive protagonists, please?”

As is the case with so many basic facts of publishing, they DO talk about it — but usually in terms that you’d have to read 50 manuscripts a week to translate accurately. “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” and “There isn’t enough conflict here.”

That, and the ever-popular, “I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist enough to pick up the book,” of course. However, since this last euphemism has about as many meanings as aloha, it’s often difficult to translate it exactly: I have seen it mean everything from, “The first paragraph bored me” to “I hate books about brunettes.”

You’d be amazed what a broad range of issues folks on the business side of the biz will lump under the general rubric of “writing problem,” too.

I wish they would be direct about their feelings about lackadaisical characters, because frankly, it is not a reaction that every reader would have. In fact, I suspect that writers tend to identify with passive protagonists.

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, charming, interesting people.

The average agent, to put it mildly, does not share this opinion.

From a writer’ point of view, too, 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 — and one of the simplest ways to incorporate our shrewd observations on the human condition seamlessly into a text is to attribute them to a character. In the two of the three most common fictional voices — omniscient narrator, first person, and tight third person, where the reader hears the thoughts of the protagonist — the observing character is generally the protagonist.

And that’s fine, until the protagonist becomes so busy observing — or feeling, or thinking — that it essentially becomes his full-time job in the book.

Do be aware that from a reader’s point of view, a protagonist’s being upset, resentful, or even wrestling within himself trying to figure out the best course of action is NOT automatically dramatic — and even thought about interesting matters does not necessarily make interesting reading. In the throes of eliciting solid human emotion or trenchant insight, writers can often lose sight of these salient facts.

Why aren’t internal dynamics inherently dramatic? Because during it, all of the protagonist’s glorious energy expenditure typically is not changing the world around her one iota.

Here’s how it generally plays out in otherwise solid, well-written manuscripts:

1. The protagonist is confronted with a dilemma, so she worries about for pages at a time before doing anything about it (if, indeed, she does do anything about it at all).

2. If it’s a serious problem, she may mull it over for entire chapters.

3. When the villain is mean to her, instead of speaking up, she will think appropriate responses.

4. At some point, she will probably talk it all over with her best friend(s)/lover(s)/people who can give her information about the situation before selecting a course of action (see parenthetical disclaimer in #1).

5. Even in the wake of discovering ostensibly life-changing (or -threatening) revelations, she takes the time to pay attention to the niceties of life; she is not the type to leave her date in the lurch just because she’s doomed to die in 24 hours.

6. When she has assembled all the facts and/or figured out what she should do (often prompted by an outside event that makes her THINK), she takes action, and the conflict is resolved.

Is it me, or is this progression of events just a tad passive-aggressive? Especially in plotlines that turn on misunderstandings, wouldn’t it make more sense if the protagonist spoke DIRECTLY to the person with whom she’s in conflict at some point?

Often, writers will have their protagonists keep their more trenchant barbs to themselves in order to make them more likable, especially if the protagonist happens to be female. But an inert character who is nice to all and sundry is generally LESS likable from the reader’s point of view than the occasionally viper-tongued character who pushes situations out of the realm of the ordinary and into the conflictual.

Because conflict is entertaining. On the page, if not in real life.

Again, real-life situations do not necessarily translate well to the page. While pitting virtuous and forbearing protagonists against aggressive bad folks (who often bear suspicious resemblances to the writer’s “ex-friends, ex-lovers, and enemies,” as the bard Joe Jackson likes to call them) is probably a pretty healthy real-world response, emotionally speaking, it can be deadly on a page. Sitting around and resenting, no matter how well-justified that resentment may be, is awfully darned hard to convey well in print.

But that doesn’t stop us from trying, does it?

One of our collectively favorite means of showing resentment, angst, or just plain helplessness is to have the protagonist THINK pithy comebacks, uncomfortable reactions, pointed rhetorical questions, and/or outraged cris de coeur against intractable forces. Instead of, say, uttering these sentiments out loud, which might conceivably provoke a confrontation (and thus the conflict so dear to agents’ hearts), or doing something small and indirect to undermine the larger conditions the protagonist is unable to alter.

Yes, people mutter to themselves constantly in real life; few of us actually tell of the boss in the way s/he deserves. However, at the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, just because something actually occurs does not necessarily mean that it will make good fiction.

What does make good fiction is conflict. This is not to say, of course, that every protagonist should be a sword-wielding hero, smiting his enemies right and left — far from it. But even the mousiest character is capable of acting out from time to time.

It’s well worth running through your manuscript, seeking out silent blowings-off of emotional steam. Whenever you find them, check to see if there is conflict on the rest of the page — and if your protagonist is taking part in it actively, or only in thought.

If it’s the latter, go over the moments when she is silently emoting. Is there some small tweak you could give to her response that would make it change the situation at hand?

Also, keep your eye out for situations that might allow your protagonist to take a stand, even on matters not related to the central problems of the piece. Resistance is a form of control, after all, and even the most penned-in person can alter tiny things in her environment.

Why not add conflict over something very small and not related to the bigger causes of resentment, for instance? A roomful of menopausal co-workers responding to their autocratic boss’ systematic harassment by violently quarreling amongst themselves over where the thermostat should be set during their various hot flashes is inherently quite a bit more dramatic than our heroine and her cronies typing away in resentful silence while their boss leers at one of them, isn’t it?

If you find yourself worrying that these textual tweaks may cumulatively transform your protagonist a charming, well-rounded lump of inactivity into a seething mass of interpersonal problem generation, consider this: 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. Please bear in mind that before your work can speak to your target market of readers, it has to please another target market: agents and editors. Even if you have good reason to keep your protagonist from confronting his challenges directly — and you may well have dandy ones; look at Hamlet — he will still have to keep in motion enough to please this necessary first audience.

So while you’re editing, ask yourself: how can I coax my protagonist out of his head, and into his story? How can his actions or words alter this particular moment in the plotline, if only a little?

As individuals, we can’t always more mountains, my friends, but we can usually kick around a few pebbles. Give it some thought, and keep up the good work.

7 Replies to “The plague of passivity II: thinking…thinking…”

  1. Anne,

    You provided us another nice thought provoking column.

    Yes, to quote Michael Shurtleff, “Conflict is drama.”

    There’s another method that he describes in his book “Audition” that you didn’t, and that is the use of alcohol to lessen inhibitions and to allow characters to say those things that otherwise they would be too fearful to say. Of course you might be planning an entire essay on the subject.

    I know that I seek out conflicts for my characters and then work to heighten and exacerbate the potential for arguments, fisticuffs, etc. That is diametrically opposed of my personal life.

    In real life I find it uncomfortable to confront people and try to think of ways to accomplish the task with as little conflict as possible. However, people do not leave their house to watch a play, see a movie in order to see people live ordinary lives. They want to see people put through stresses that are the extraordinary events of a lifetime that don’t happen very often and to see how people react to them.

    People read books for the same reason. Put your protagonist into peril, torture them, drive them into a corner where it seems impossible for them to get out, and then see what happens.

    Thinking about the Injustice and the Unfairness of Life is something people do over coffee, it is not the stuff of drama.

    Cheers, and have a great weekend!


    1. Good points, Linda. I’ll have to remember to add Audition to my next list of good books for writers — I had forgotten about the alcohol insight, but it’s a great tip.

  2. Thanks for this follow-up; it’s even more helpful than the first one. All you’ve said has given me plenty to think about, as my uncompleted first draft has fallen into this trap to an extent. Your guidance, and others’, has helped me look at my work in a new way, and I see opportunities everywhere to sharpen my characterization where I’ve fallen back on passivity, observation, thought. Thank you!

  3. What great advise. I’ve really missed not being able to get on-line for my daily writing fix. I’m off to read the previous posts then hit the manuscripts.


  4. Thanks, Brenda and Janet. I really appreciate the feedback — when I was first thinking about doing this series, many of my editor friends said that they thought it would be too hard to make the points without drowning the reader in examples. I’m glad to know that this is working!

  5. Terrific advice, Anne. The first manuscript I completed — the one that is now propping up my computer monitor — has such a flaw. I didn’t see that as clearly as I do after reading this post. I am learning how to edit, so your blog is extremely helpful. Please don’t let anyone dissuade you from your goal. Many thanks.

    1. Thanks, Colleen! I suspect that there are quite a few manuscripts propping up a number of things that share this problem…

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