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Writing Tips: What's wrong with a passive protagonist?

After more than ten years of reading manuscripts and writing reports on them, I have noticed that passivity was overwhelmingly the commonest feature of the protagonist.

Often, the protagonist had no goal. But even when they did have a goal, they did nothing to try and get it. When the protagonist is passive, the story must rely on the other characters to bring the action to them.

The antagonist in particular will go out of his or her way to bring the action to the protagonist, even―especially!―when it’s against their own interests to do it. Thus, the protagonist becomes merely reactive. They spend all their time fending off the antagonist without actually doing anything to get what they want.

So, what does a passive protagonist look like? In crime fiction, he or she is the detective who does nothing to look for the killer. They will often have no clues to go on, which is offered as an explanation of why they can’t find the killer.

The killer is then forced to bring the story to the passive detective, by threatening his life, for example, or announcing their presence in some obvious and wholly unbelievable way. It is against the killer’s interests to become known to the detective, or do something that makes it obvious who they are and where to find them.

But when the detective is passive, the writer is forced to make their killer do things that are against their own interests. It's the only way to move the story along. But it is always at the cost of reader involvement and credibility.

In romance, the man will keep coming to the woman and forcing her to interact with him. She isn’t pursuing a goal that clashes with his goal, so their paths can’t cross unless he comes to her with various excuses for doing so.

In the televised version of Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore, I noticed that, while Joe had a clear goal in relation to the murders, and did things to find out who was responsible and why, when it came to the romance between him and Helen, he was utterly passive. She kept coming to him for one reason or the other, to the extent that it became bizarre.

Why didn’t they cross paths because they were working on problems that brought them together again and again? Because Joe was passive. The story made out that he had no self-esteem with women because of his injuries. In which case, that should have been his internal antagonist which he strove to overcome. But he did nothing. He was passive. Which meant Helen had to do all the doing to bring about meetings between them.  

In an action thriller, the villain makes a target of the hero and keeps doing things to try and kill him. The action hero spends all his time fighting off these attacks. But that is all he’s doing. He isn’t pursuing a goal that brings him again and again into contact with the killer. When a protagonist is merely reactive, he is still passive because he is doing nothing to get what he wants. He is merely fending off the antagonist. 

In stories for children and teenagers, the child protagonist will be passive. Adult characters will be brought in again and again to solve problems for the child protagonist, who not only remains passive but isn’t even reactive. 

Passive protagonists are unsympathetic. They may be very nice but the reader can’t feel anything for them, can’t worry for them, can’t fear for them, can’t feel exhilarated or triumphant for them, because the protagonist is doing nothing to pursue their goal, and therefore, risks nothing. Without risk, the story loses the reader, who grows bored and stops reading. 

The active protagonist must take risks to get what they want. This is the way to get the reader interested in them.

 Do you have a writing problem? Send Sydney your question by emailing info@threekookaburras.com

Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. Sydney's next blog comes out on August 1.

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