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!

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

  1. Hi. Just got referred to your blog by my CP. Excellent post.

    I’m in the midst of working on a novel where the protag is a passive person in the beginning of the story, but throughout the story, she grows and becomes an active person. You’ve done an excellent job of explaining the whole thing, and it’ll help me focus during this round of edits. Thanks.

    1. Glad to hear it, BE!

      Naturally, I’m now picturing you and md in a writing group, debating how passive is too passive for your respective story arcs…

  2. Anne,
    Just so that I’m sure I understand the underlying reasons why your examples were passive, let me see if I can twist those into active scenes in a couple of subtler ways.

    You mention that having the tree fall on the house, and then the character reacting in dismay but not doing anything about the tree is passive. That makes sense, and I certainly see why that’s passive. But rather than always trying to make the character react in some way to trees that fall on their house, wouldn’t it also be possible to just shift the focus of the scene away from the tree falling on the house?

    In other words, if the tree falling on the house is the central event of a scene and all the character does in that scene is worry about the consequences of this event, then the character is being passive. But what if the tree falls on the house, and the character doesn’t actively react, but they also don’t passively react. In other words, they don’t sit there thinking about all the ramifications and how bad they now have it off, etc. Instead the tree event occurs, the character notes this, and then the scene immediately moves on with whatever happens next.

    As I think about it, this is probably just another way of saying what you were stating already, anyway. The tree falling is irrelevant and should be cut if it doesn’t have any more impact on this (or future) scenes. So presumably events at some point in the story are going to be altered by the falling of this tree, and in those scenes the protagonist needs to actively be doing something.

    Or maybe the protagonist herself never does react to that tree, after all. Maybe the butler is the one who is concerned and trying to do something about it, and the butler’s actions are what causes the protagonist to react and do something–fire the butler? Give him a raise? If the protagonist were actively trying to accomplish something else, then couldn’t this sort of otherwise passive event be used to create conflict? For instance if the protagonist is frantically trying to get a tea party set up, and the butler is more concerned about the tree that is now sticking into the back of the house, this essentially creates a new obstacle for the protagonist with regard to her actual objective–the tea party.

    I also have one question on your other example: with the earthquake, couldn’t the act of hiding under the desk be active depending on how it was written? I mean, unless the character was under the table to begin with, they had to actively jump under the table to save themselves. As long as this isn’t followed by a page of earthquake description while they just sit under the table, wouldn’t that qualify as active? It seems like the scene could be actively written so that they saw and reacted to the start of the earthquake, then jumped under the table, then saw a little more before the earthquake ended. Then they could emerge and do something else, or then the scene could end while they are still trapped down there. They’d have to actually do something in the next scene rather than just think about what just happened or how they are in a terrible pickle being stuck under the table, but that’s really about making the next scene active.

    Does it basically boil down to not letting your character think too much without doing something in the meantime? Rather than extrapolating theories in their head, the character should be testing these theories actively. If the tree falls they should either do something about it or do something else, but they shouldn’t just fret about the tree. With the earthquake they can jump under the table or save the puppy, but either way they can’t just sit there and watch the destruction for paragraphs on end. Is that about right, or am I still missing something? It seems like basically any event or action can be written actively or passively, and it’s mostly a matter of how it’s written.

    Thanks for the great post!

  3. Wow! I am learning so much from all topics on this blog. Thanks so much for your generosity of time and expertise, Anne.

    I know the current series re passivity pertains to fiction, but I wonder if you might offer some observations about memoir. I’ve completed the first draft of my book-length memoir, allowed it to marinate for about 6 weeks, and am getting ready to roll up my sleeves for revision.

    I understand the reflective narrator is an important part of memoir, but I’m worried she may be too prominent in my MS. Any thoughts about how to reign her in? Must every scene be an action scene? Obviously, the reality of what happened shapes what is possible.

    Another memoir question–with apologies for going off-topic: how critical is a well-defined narrative arc? Do all memoirs require this?


    1. Ooh — good questions, Susan; I want to move on to pitching soon, but these points are meaty enough that perhaps I shall tackle them in a post later this week.

      Every memoirist I have ever known, myself included — has wrestled with the problem of how much reflection is too much. The rise of narrative nonfiction has truly changed the action/reflection expectations of the audience — readers, particularly professional ones, have a much shorter attention span for rumination than they did even 20 years ago.

      How to rein in that thought is a tricky question — it depends so much upon the story and the character of the protagonist. My general rule of thumb is to cut first in ruminations that tend to be self-pitying — which again is hard in a memoir, because the first-person perspective is all the reader has.

      Let me think about it for a few days.

      I would be reluctant to try to sell a memoir without a clearly-defined story arc in the current market. From experience, I can tell you that the FIRST question an editor tends to ask immediately after reading a memoir proposal is, “So what is the dramatically-satisfying conclusion of all this?”

      That being said, most of the time, a memoir shows the growth of its protagonist at some level. Events happen, but the growth itself is generally the story arc. So a great editing question to ask yourself is, “Is the protagonist different at the end of this scene than at the beginning? If so, how?”

  4. 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.

    It occurred to me that this advice works even if your character is craven or unlikeable or Lomanesque. In the bank robbery scene for example, her autonomous action doesn’t have to be selfless, it could be selfish: Maybe she encourages the old man to whimper so the robbers pick him to make an example of instead of her. Either way, it’s a conscious choice that tells you something interesting about the character.

    This is super-helpful, as always. Thanks!

  5. Dear Anne,

    Thanks so much for your detailed response! You answered my question and then some.

    Like most great answers, it inspired another question, this one regarding a reactive protagonist and plot: how much external, non-protagonist initiated stimuli is too much for the sake of a plot that is in my understanding supposed to be driven by primary character choices? Let’s say protagonist A is engaged in action 1, with action 1 a primary-actor driven event, and villain B blindsides protagonist A during action 1, thus initiating action 2, which protagonist 1 participates in quite actively. How many times will a reader accept this before s/he starts with the eye rolling? I suppose as readers ourselves, we should be able to tell from our experience but I’ve never thought of it from the technical side before.

    I second Susan’s sentiments about the time and expertise you’re sharing with us here. Thanks again.


    1. Asheigh, your comment about eye-rolling made me laugh!

      The sequence of events you describe sound exciting, but the eye-rolling level really does depend upon the book category. Entire mystery series have been based upon the basic structure you outline here — Perry Mason was constantly pursuing one action, being hit by a new development, then having to move off on another trajectory, right? As long as the new stimulus is interesting, as well as the protagonist’s response to it, the reader doesn’t have much cause to complain.

      Used very overtly, this structure could even be a very effective comic device. In a funny novel, I could easily picture this cycle going on indefinitely, with some of the humor coming from the fact that the reader would figure out fairly quickly that the appearance of B means a twist is about to occur.

      In other types of story, though, you would have to be more careful. In women’s fiction (the biggest fiction market by far), protagonists tend to learn over the course of their stories, so there would be a limit to the number of times blindsiding would be plausible.

      So I guess the answer is that it depends. Eye-rolling thresholds vary by genre. When in doubt, it’s not a bad idea to go to a big bookstore, ask a clerk what the top 5 bestsellers in your chosen field are at the moment, and skim them. If your twist ratio is not markedly higher than those in the chosen books, you probably are not in any danger of generating eye rolls in agents that represent such books.

      1. Hey Anne,

        That’s some very practical advice you offered regarding my question, and I plan to experiment with it as soon as possible! (Which won’t be soon because I am immersed with reading-writing that I get paid for right now and barely have time to brush my teeth — yet somehow I’m reading this blog, hmmm…..) My as yet unpaid-for writing is mixed genre, so there’s a bit of mystery, a bit of fantasy, a bit of thriller, a bit of horror. Luckily, this kind of mixed genre is gaining popularity, so I can pick up books from the top 5 authors in the field and commence with Project-Eye-Roll-Avoidance.

        Thanks for the go-out-and-do-something solution!


  6. Okay, so what if your protagonist starts out with passivity as a central flaw (perhaps with a helping of habitual self-pity on the side), and the arc of the story is his/her journey toward taking charge and becoming fully engaged in his/her own life? It seems to me like this should be workable, in a comic YA novel for example. But I could be wrong. Would Millicent chuck that manuscript before getting to the part where the passivity stops?

    1. md, you’ve hit the marketing problem on the head: this storyline has a LOT of potential, but, as you say, Millicent has an awfully short attention span.

      I tremble to think how Jane Austen’s MANSFIELD PARK would fare in her hands — its protagonist’s primary characteristic is her passivity; she scarcely dares to think resentfully. (Which is why the fairly recent film version seemed off to devotees of the book — there, Fanny was a smouldering ember of unspoken resentment.)

      Could this storyline work in a comic YA novel? I suspect so, but it would depend on the writing — and how funny the opening few pages were. A good belly laugh from Millicent can often buy indulgence for pages more reading.

      I can envision this storyline without the protagonist’s seeming passive to the reader, though, if the story focused upon how s/he STRUGGLES against passivity, rather than upon the passivity itself. Tammy is working up nerve to ask Tad to the Sadie Hawkins dance — and then her energy goes horribly awry, because popular Bonnie walks into the room, prompting Tammy to explain her open mouth by shouting, “Fire!”

      It has definite possibilities!

  7. Chris, you answered your first question yourself so well that I’m not sure that I should add to it! No, but seriously, aren’t you being just a trifle over-literal here? My purpose in giving examples is not to rule out every possibility, but to illustrate my points. Naturally, there are other options — as you yourself show.

    Especially in your first question. Essentially, you are talking about writing a scene about something else, which — as you point out — renders the question of the scene I was discussing moot. (Although I do like firing the waiter as a response to house destruction.) If the scene is about an entirely different matter, then it’s about an entirely different matter, and — as you say — if the house destruction is not important to either the plot of the character, it should go.

    On the earthquake example: you seem counting observing what is going on as the protagonist’s acting. That’s the opposite of what I mean, so I’m glad you brought it up. By definition, pure observers are passive — and if the protagonist sits out the earthquake, just watching it, and then gets out to do something else, the something else is active.

    And the mere fact that a protagonist moves does not necessarily make him active, in the sense we are discussing here, right? Angela is moving after the robber tells everyone in the bank to lie down on the floor, after all — but that doesn’t make the rest of her response active. It’s just a predictable action taken in direct response to an order.

    Which means that it’s NOT just a matter of how the scene is written — and there are passive responses that involve more than thinking, as I demonstrated here. There is plenty of passive speech, for instance (“Oh, really?). The CONTENT of the protagonist’s reaction to an event is what determines whether it is passive or not.

    As I mentioned in either this post or the one before it, he question at core is whether the protagonist is doing something that CHANGES the situation somehow. Thinking doesn’t; passive speech doesn’t, and sitting under a table watching the room shake doesn’t, no matter how it is written.

    I hope that clarifies it a bit.

    1. Anne,
      That does indeed clarify, thanks. I hadn’t quite thought of the earthquake that way; I was more focused on the act of jumping under the table (which arguably does change something), and somehow overlooked that this would have to be followed by passive observation. That makes sense; if you’re busy saving the puppy, the description of the destruction is interspersed in the act of doing that. And I know that doing the expected is the kiss of death for plot, so I see why that would be a problem for Angela in the bank–aside from her just sitting and watching being a problem of passivity.

      What you are saying makes sense, and in fact made sense after your original post, yet somehow I was still thinking about this partly in terms of form versus content. I think I’ve got it now. Thanks!


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