The plague of passivity IV: HELP! I’m tied to a train track!

I’ve been thrilled to see the response to this series on protagonist passivity, my friends: even if you are not a habitual reader of comments, you might want to check out the subsequent discussions on the passivity posts; they’ve been very interesting, prompting me to get more and more specific in my advice. For example, charming new reader Ashleigh wrote in over the weekend with some great follow-up questions, ones that really got me thinking. Quoth Ashleigh:

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?

Doesn’t that get right to the core of the matter? Before I realized it, I had written four pages (standard format) in response. Then I thought: hey, shouldn’t I be sharing this with the rest of the class? Shouldn’t I, in fact, extend it into an entire post?

So the topic for today is how active is active enough, when the perspective is focused upon a particular character?

In any story, the protagonist is going to be acted upon by external sources. Certain matters are beyond the control of even the most active protagonist. A tree falling upon her house, for instance, or a boss’ annoying whims. Her boyfriend’s being gay. Civil rioting. Not winning the quilting prize at the county fair. Death. That sort of thing.

In each of these cases, it would be unreasonable to expect the protagonist to be the generator (or generatrix, in this case) of the action of the scene. Gravity made that tree fall, after all, coupled perhaps with a little root rot.

Obviously, the protagonist is going to respond to these external stimuli. A passive protagonist will respond primarily, from the reader’s point of view, with descriptive information about the effects of the catastrophe du jour. (“My God! Why did that tree have to fall on Aunt Eugenia’s tea service!”) Often, this takes the form of self-recrimination (“Why oh why did I not listen to that handsome arborist?”) or resentment against the cause of the problem (“Daddy never got around to retrofitting the house. Mama always told him the roof would cave in someday!”)

As informative and entertaining as such responses frequently are, they don’t actually change the situation at hand, do they? And that should be your rule of thumb when deciding whether a protagonist’s response to external stimulus is too passive: is anything within the situation DIFFERENT as a result of the protagonist’s response?

For instance, if protagonist Angela is living through an earthquake, she is not what is making the ground shake: unless she possesses some godlike powers, she is being acted upon by the ground. But the writer can choose to have her just crouch under a table, riding it out (a good plan in real life) or show her doing something in response (saving a puppy from falling glass, perhaps.)

In neither instance is Angela the cause of the primary event of the scene, but the first case, she is passive; in the second, she is not.

That was an easy instance; it becomes more complicated when other, more action-generating people are involved. This time, let’s have Angela be acted-upon by another human being: she’s waiting in line at the bank when a robber walks in and threatens everybody.

Again, in real life, Angela would probably be best served by being passive — she might well choose to down on the floor as requested, waiting all a-tremble for the robber to get the money and go. On the other hand, she would be most active if she jumped up, wrestled the gunman to the floor, and once again snatched a puppy from the jaws of imminent harm.

But realistically, Angela could still be active in her response, even without heroics. She could, for instance, surreptitiously work her coat over that puppy while she is lying on the floor, ostensibly following the robber’s directions, or whisper encouragement to the hysterical old man lying next to her who might be shot if he keeps whimpering.

In both these cases, although an outside observer might consider Angela passive, the reader knows better: she is struggling against her fate in small, believable manners. And that makes her the primary actor in the scene, if the narrative perspective remains focused upon her.

Which is, I suppose, a long-winded way of saying that Ashleigh’s last question went right to the heart of the matter. The protagonist does not need to cause the action in a given scene to be an actor in it, for our passivity-analysis purposes — she merely has to ACT. Necessarily, she’s not always going to be the primary actor, but she can always do or say something, however tiny, in response to what is going on, to keep herself in the game.

I’m not saying it’s always going to be easy to discover how to demonstrate this on the page, particularly for shy characters. The greater the external stimulus, the more difficult it is to find that spark of autonomy: when people feel helpless, “How can I alter this situation in an indirect manner?” is not usually the first question that leaps to their minds.

But the attempt to change the situation — not necessarily the success of that attempt — honestly does make a great difference from the reader’s perspective. On the page, whether a murder victim scratches her attacker or freezes in fear — both completely understandable reactions, right? — can be the line between an active protagonist and a passive one.

Although I applaud any author brave enough to write from the perspective of someone on the bottom end of that extreme a power differential, victims in fiction are all too commonly, well, victims. Personally, I think it is far sadder when a vibrant, complex individual character’s life is destroyed than a passive one’s; I like to see characters living fully until they go phut.

Even if this means going away somewhere else in thought, because there is no other course of action available. Let’s say that Angela is now tied up on a railroad track, poor girl, à la The Perils of Pauline. Clearly, there’s not a lot of physical action she can take in this instance, or even verbal action: trains make a lot of noise, after all.

So whatever can she do? She could just lie there and scream, waiting for someone to rescue her, of course, while the villain twirls his moustache in glee: passive. Or she could, in the face of imminent death, project herself into a fantasy of ascending the peak of Mt. Everest, seeking cool while the locomotive’s hot breath is bearing down upon her: active.

Tell me, which would you rather read?

When your protagonist is acted-upon, concentrate upon finding that instant of autonomy, rather than trying to force the protagonist to take control of a scene that would realistically be beyond her control. Figure out where a miniscule change is possible, or where an attempt to fight back would be plausible.

Do I hear some snickering out there? “Right,” I hear some of you gigglers say. “Tell me, Anne, how is that protagonist going to find autonomy against the reality of that falling tree?”

A whole bunch of ways, O snickerers. She could get out of its way, for instance, or snatch that ubiquitous puppy away from its far-reaching branches just in the nick of time. She could drag everyone within dragging distance into the wine cellar, anticipating the end of the world. Or she could try to run into the house to save Aunt Eugenia’s tea service — even if she’s stopped by that handsome arborist or a concerned neighbor, her attempt to do SOMETHING to save the situation is going to give her power in the scene.

So there.

If you can find the time, a great exercise for developing a sense of active response is to write a scene where a protagonist is listening to a non-stop talker, a situation where it would require actual rudeness to get in a word edgewise. How can the protagonist control or alter the interaction, if only for a second at a time?

Okay, how can she do it without picturing herself on the peak of Mt. Everest?

There are no easy answers here, my friends, only meaty challenges to your creativity. I know you’re up to it. Keep up the good work!

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