The plague of passivity III: oh, what am I to DO?

Toward the end of my last post, I snuck in an aside about how writers often use passivity as a means of increasing their protagonists’ perceived likeability. Likeability tends to be a sore point amongst fiction writers, especially for those of us who write about female protagonists: when we include characters in our work whose political views are a bit challenging, for instance, or have sexual kinks beyond what the mainstream media currently considers normal, or even pursue their goals too straightforwardly, we are often told that our characters are not likeable enough.

Translation: according to New Yorkers, this chick might not play in Peoria.

Frankly, I think the industry tends to underestimate Peorians, but the fact remains, it actually isn’t all that unusual for an agent or editor to ask a writer to tone down a particular character’s quirks. Usually, these requests refer to secondary characters (as in, “Does Tony’s sister really have to be a lesbian?” or “Could the Nazi brother be just a little bit right-wing instead?”) or to specific scenes (“Need she tie Bob down?”).

Occasionally, though, the request is not quite so helpfully phrased: “I didn’t like the protagonist,” an editor will say. “If you fix her, maybe I’ll pick up the book.”

(Did I just hear some jaws hitting the floor? Yes, Virginia, it has become quite common for editors to ask for major revisions PRIOR to making an offer on a novel. Sometimes several rounds of revisions, even, so the writer is essentially performing rewrites on command for free. THAT’s how tight the fiction market is right now; ten years ago, most good agents would have laughed at such a request before a contract was signed.)

Much of the time, the author responds to such requests by making the character MORE passive — a bad move. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s a common writerly mistake to believe that a passive protagonist is automatically a likeable one.

It’s understandable, of course: Passive Paul’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. His dog, maybe, or a passing motorist.

Romantically, Paul’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. 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!

Our Paul most emphatically did not cause the central problems of the plot — far from it. He’s usually the guy who tries to get everyone to calm down. Passive Paul 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.

Yes, plenty of people feel that way in real life, especially Ordinary Joes who are unwittingly drawn into Conspiracies Beyond their Ken. We all have our moments of adolescent yearning when we long to have the entire universe rearrange itself around us, in order to get us what we want.

But as appealing and universal as that fantasy may be, it is very hard to turn into an exciting plot. What tends to end up on the page is a great deal of what we here on the West Coast call processing: lengthy examination of self, loved ones, and/or the situation in order to wring every last drop of psychological import from one’s life.

What does this look like on the page, you ask? Paul encounters a thorny problem. (Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.) So he dons his proverbial thinking cap…

…and two pages later, he’s still running through the possibilities, which are often very interesting. Interesting enough, in fact, that they would have made perfectly dandy scenes, had the author chosen to present them as live-action scenes that actually occurred. Instead, they are summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown.

Did that set off warning bells for anyone but me?

Yes, there are plenty of good books where the protagonists sit around and think about things for chapters at a time. But before you start quoting 19th-century novelists who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this: how many novels of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years? Written by first-time novelists?

Okay, how about ones NOT first published in the British Isles?

Come up with many? If you did, could you pass their agents’ names along to the rest of us with all possible speed?

Because, honestly, in the current very tight fiction market, there aren’t many North American agents who express this preference — and still fewer who act upon it in establishing their client lists. They see beautiful writing about inert characters more than you might think.

(Especially if they represent literary fiction; unfortunately, there seems to be a sizable and actively writing portion of the literary community who proceeds on the assumption that literary fiction SHOULDN’T be about anything in particular. But literary fiction refers to the writing style, not the plotline: Cormac McCarthy’s hyper-literary current hit THE ROAD is a reworking of a premise long familiar to any SF/Fantasy reader, after all.)

Protagonists who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to thought-ridden passivity: life happens to them, and they react to it. Oh, how lucidly they resent the forces that act upon them, while they wait around for those forces to strike back at them again! How redolent of feeling do the juices in which they are stewing become!

This is fine for a scene or two, but remember, professional readers measure their waiting time in lines of text, not pages.

To say that they bore easily is like saying that you might get a touch chilly if you visited the North Pole without a coat: true, yes, but something of an understatement, and one that might get you hurt if you relied upon it too literally.

“But wait!” I hear some of you shouting. “Now I’m so paranoid about Passive Paul and his lethargic brethren and sistern that I’m terrified that my book will be rejected every time my protagonist pauses for breath! I’m no longer sure what’s being nice and what’s being passive!”

Never fear, my friends. When you are in doubt about a scene, ask yourself the following series of questions about it, to reveal whether your protagonist is 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.

(1) Is it clear why these events are happening to my protagonist, rather than to someone else? (Hint: “Because the book’s ABOUT Paul!” 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?

(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? If yes, 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) Does this scene change the protagonist’s situation with respect to the plot? Is either the plot or an important interrelationship between the characters somehow different after the scene than before it? If not, is this scene absolutely necessary?

(6) Is my protagonist doing or saying something to try to affect the outcome or change the relationships here? Is the protagonist integrally involved in that change, or merely an observer of it?

(7) If the scene contains dialogue, is my protagonist an active conversational partner? (Hint: if Paul’s linguistic contributions consist of “What?” “What do you mean?” “How is that possible?” and/or “Really?” you should consider tossing out his lines and writing him some new ones.)

(8) 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?

#8 may seem like a harsh assessment, but make no mistake about it, to the eye of 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 of the industry: 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, a rude and pushy Paul can start to seem rather refreshing.

Yes, these are a lot of questions to ask yourself about every questionable scene in the book — but kindly notice that I have considerately dumped this truckload of queries upon you immediately prior to a long holiday weekend, at least in the U.S. And if you don’t plan to implement them right away, there are always those sleepless summer nights ahead.

It’s a great alternative to counting sheep, after all: Passive Paul would never consider using his pondering time to such useful effect.

Keep up the good work!

3 Replies to “The plague of passivity III: oh, what am I to DO?”

  1. hey! I’ve just figured out what’s wrong with my story!

    thank you muchly, now I’m off to….rewrite 70 pages. oh joyous day.

  2. I am continually amazed at your ability to pinpoint writerly problems so well. In all my years of reading about writing, this blog has really gotten me examining my work at a level that makes me feel highly professional.

    Thank you!

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