Last time, I began telling you the story of Passive Paul, inert protagonist extraordinaire. Doubtless a charming fellow in real life, Paul is problematic as the center of a book’s interest because his devotion to constant courtesy, never taking even the slightest risk, however trivial, avoiding confrontation of every sort, and extensive internal monologuing render his entrance into virtually any scene of his own book a signal to the reader to start yawning now.
Or, to put it a touch more generously, a reader — particularly a professional one like Millicent the agency screener — might like him to DO a bit more and ponder a bit less.
What tends to end up on the page, in short, is a great deal of what we here on the West Coast call processing: lengthy examination of self, loved ones, and/or a situation in order to wring every last drop of psychological import from Paul’s life.
So I repeat my question from last time: why does Paul deserve to have an entire book devoted to him?
This question is infinitely harder to answer in the case of a passive protagonist than an active one. After all, the Pauls of this world almost never cause the central problems of a 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 (often in pages upon pages of unsaid response to what’s going on around him), but deep down, he’s a voyeur — a very specific kind of voyeur who likes to watch the world through a magnifying glass at a safe distance.
Even when the plot thickens enough to make his life exciting, 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. 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.
But oh, do aspiring writers ever try! Thus the perennial popularity of Ordinary Joes who are unwittingly drawn into Conspiracies Beyond their Ken as protagonists.
Let’s return to our hero, to get some sense of what this tendency might look like on at the plot level.
Paul encounters a thorny problem, one that would require him to
(a) make a decision,
(b) take some action that will disrupt the status quo of his life, and frequently
(c) learn an important lesson about himself/love/commitment/life with a capital L in the process.
So he dons his proverbial thinking cap…
(Insert Muzak or other appropriate hold music here. Writers LOVE working through logical possibilities in their heads, so their protagonists seldom lack for mulling material.)
…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 within the context of the plot. Instead, they tend to be summarized in a few lines, told, rather than shown, but analyzed to the last drop.
Did that set off warning bells for anyone but me? On about 45 levels?
Protagonists who feel sorry for themselves are particularly prone to thought-ridden passivity: life happens to Paul, and he reacts to it.
Oh, how lucidly he resents the forces that act upon him, as he sits around and waits for those forces to strike at him again! How little does the external pressure affect his basic niceness as he mulls over the problems of his life! How redolent of feeling do the juices in which he is 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.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that Paul could not be written about well, or even that a novel or memoir in which he was the protagonist would necessarily be unmarketable, even in the current super-tight, oh-my-God-is-this-a-recession? literary market.
What I AM saying is that Paul’s creator would have to work awfully hard to make his story exciting. A pure observer’s storyline tends to be, among other things, predictable.
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 (or memoirists, for that matter) who habitually had their leads agonize for a hundred pages or so before doing anything whatsoever, ask yourself this: how many books of this ilk can you name that were published within the last five years?
Come up with many? Okay, how many of the ones you have in mind were written by first-time novelists or memoirists?
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? Paul’s creator has a book that might interest ‘em.
You see, 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 or memoir.
Why? Well, unfortunately, there seems to be a sizable and actively writing portion of the writing community that proceeds on the assumption that literary fiction SHOULDN’T be about anything in particular. Or if it is, it should be about the kinds of moments that work so well in short stories: exquisitely rendered instants fraught with significance.
You know, the type of hyper-examined scene that is really, really hard to sustain for longer than 20 pages or so. Partially — and see if this sounds at all familiar — because all of that observation and reaction tends to keep the narrative, if not mostly within the protagonist’s head, then at least within his body, for most of the piece.
Also, literary fiction refers to the writing style, not the plotline: Cormac McCarthy’s hyper-literary recent hit THE ROAD is a reworking of a premise long familiar to any SF/fantasy reader, after all; it’s the writing that makes it literary fiction.
So yes, Virginia, literary fiction CAN have a plot. It can even move the reader through that plot swiftly.
Memoir submissions often suffer from a similar reluctance to step outside the protagonist’s head into a full and complex world. But while literary fiction submissions tend to hold the magnifying glass up to nature (mostly the nature inside the protagonist’s head, admittedly, but still, nature), memoir manuscripts are frequently collections of loosely-drawn anecdotes.
Why is this problematic, you ask? Well, by definition, most anecdotes are told, rather than shown. Many, many memoir submissions rely so heavily upon the anecdotal style (which seems chattier than a more robust narrative) that they don’t include any fully-realized scenes or fleshed-out characters other than the protagonist.
Which can present a considerable storytelling problem.
In fact, the protagonist’s thoughts tend to be so central to the author’s conception of a memoir that memoirists often act rather puzzled when someone asks them the perfectly reasonable question, “So, what’s your book about?”
“It’s about ME,” they’ll say, astonished that anyone would feel the need to verify anything so obvious.
In a way, they’re right, but in another way, they’re wrong: a memoir is ALWAYS about something other than the narrator’s life, at least in part. People don’t grow up in a vacuum, typically, and even anecdotally, most of us will tell the story of our own lives within a context.
Which means, in practice, that the memoir can either present the narrator as a mover and shaker within that context, or as a passive (but likeable!) observer of it. Guess which most memoir submitters pick?
“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. (These questions work equally well, incidentally, whether the manuscript in question is a novel or a memoir. You’re welcome.)
If you can honestly answer yes to all of them, chances are good that you don’t have a passivity problem on your hands. If you find yourself answering no to one or more…well, we’ll talk.
(1) Is it clear why the events being described here 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? If it doesn’t, could it? Would having Paul act a little OUT of character here make the scene more revealing?
(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? If yes, is my protagonist causing some of the conflict? (A golden oldie from previous self-editing question lists, admittedly, but always worth asking.)
(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? (Another oldie but goodie.)
(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 honestly 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 if you don’t plan to implement them right away, there are always those sweltering, 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!