Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy

From Writer Unboxed:

I feel like I’m committing a grievous writerly sin by even typing these words, but I must speak my truth:

I would like to see more passive protagonists in fiction.

While the title of this post is tongue-in-cheek, I do think that passive protagonists are unfairly maligned in part because of the unspoken association between passivity and femininity. I’ll get into why I think so a little later, but let’s discuss what “passive protagonist” means first.

The importance of intent

Passive protagonists are the antithesis of what we’re told makes a good story. A good story, says common wisdom, is driven by the choices and desires of the main character. Passive protagonists, on the other hand, do not drive the plot through their choices and actions, but rather have the plot inflicted upon them. Without goals and desires, and without challenges to overcome toward those goals and desires, what are the stakes? Where is the tension?

Such a story can absolutely be boring and frustrating to read.

But common wisdom also tells us that the choices made by an active protagonist must build toward a climax. In her craft book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison argues that the traditional path through fiction in the Western world has been the dramatic arc: the wave that rises to a climax, then falls. There are variations on that wave or triangle pattern, of course, but by and large, storytellers are told that things must build and build until they come to a head, then be resolved in a way that denotes to the reader that the story is complete.

As Alison says, “Bit masculo-sexual, no?”

If written compellingly, passive characters have a lot to teach us. That’s easier said than done, of course. Getting a reader to bother caring about someone who doesn’t seem to want anything is difficult, which is why passive characters are hard to write well. It’s much easier to tell a compelling story about a character striving to get what they want. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Active characters make for great stories. I don’t want to knock active characters, or argue that everyone should only write passive ones. This is more of a plea for more diversity—of all kinds—in fiction. Passive protagonists have as much to teach us as active protagonists, and can make for stories that are just as interesting.

The difference between a “good” passive protagonist and a “bad” one boils down to what causes many writing problems: purpose. Not the character’s purpose. I’m talking about whether the author has written a passive protagonist intentionally or not. As Matthew Salesses says in Craft in the Real World, “Everything is a decision.”

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

PG is reminded of his problems with masculine and feminine genders in long-ago language classes during the height of the Roman Empire.

Just as it was difficult for him to recall the masculine/feminine characteristics of different groups of words and he thought they were more than a bit foolish, he doesn’t think that active or passive protagonists have any connection with women and men in real life.

Anyone who thinks that females are in any way inherently passive due to societal pressures or otherwisee hasn’t met PG’s wife, mother or a long list of female friends PG has had in his life.

He is reminded of a group conversation involving females and males of many years ago when one of the females addressed one of the males (not PG) by calling his name, then said most emphatically, “Be a man! Just be a man!”

The recipient of this strongly-worded advice blinked, bucked himself up, and, at least in the short term, acted in a manner more consistent with this strongly-worded advice.

14 thoughts on “Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy”

  1. I’m reminded of a frustrated review of one of the later Final Fantasy Games, which described the ‘so-called’ protaganist as incredibly passive, requiring: friends pushing; a prophecy; destiny; and a really persistent villain to get him to do much of anything. CLosed with WTTE ‘if you don’t care, why should I” Which, of course, is the problem.

    I can think of one well regarded fantasy trilogy whose protaganist starts out passive – all he wants to do, now that he did a deed which came (he discovers in the opening chapter) with marriage to the princess, is go get married. Other people have other ideas for him. But he only spends half a book trying to dodge destiny, then he does realize he has to try to stop reacting and figure things out. Riddle-Master of Hed is the book, and it’s very good, but if he’d spent all three (short) books dodging responsibility/destinay/answers he wouldn’t be nearly as interesting a protaganist. (And book 2 follows the princess, anyway.)

  2. Clickbait title doesn’t help the OP one bit.

    As for the piece itself, active vs passive protagonist is going to be a function of genre.

    Litfic? Sure, go ahead. Most LitFic characters today are passive victims of “the patriarchy”. Go to town.
    SF? Doable but dreary. Something like ON THE BEACH.
    Tough guy action thriller? It would take a coward for a protagonist. Hmm, could be fun, if a one-of; the jokes wears thin fast. The closest I can think of is NORTH BY NORTHWEST. And that’s a stretch.
    Mystery? Even a story about Mycroft Holmes would give him full control of the proceedings. Only tbe real protagonist would be either whoever does the footwork or the villain, neither of whom would be truly passive.
    Suspense? Doable. A shrinking violet type plagued by a stalker. But it would either end up a tragedy or require a Deus Ex savior. Even LIFETIME movie protagonists step up by the end of the story.
    Romance? See above. Creepy at best. 50 SHADES, maybe.
    Western? Yeah, right.

    Pretty much any good story I can think of needs a narrative to flow from instigation to resolution, whether plot- or theme-driven, and even THE COLD EQUATIONS–the whole piece is about the impotence of humans before the laws of nature–features a protagonist who *must* choose. A good story may not revolve around action but it requires agency to work.

    Asking for more passive protagonist stories is essentially pining for stories about victimhood. Which is a growth business in the real world but I have my doubts it would be too successfull in commercial fiction. LitFic generally isn’t.

    Passive protagonist are rare because it is hard to tell a good story about them and even then the market doesn’t respond well to them.

    (My favorite quote of the decade is still: “Hope is sitting around doing nothing, waiting for somebody else to solve the problem.” As in, “don’t worry your pretty little head, just do what yiur betters tell you.” )

  3. I feel like I’m committing a grievous writerly sin by even typing these words, but I must speak my truth:

    How do we know it’s true?

  4. Probably the one genre that is tailor-made for a passive protagonist is Lovecraftian Cosmic horror. The protagonist tends to wander around a lot in those tales with the horror being inflicted upon them until they go insane.

  5. Lots of classical Russian literature have passive protagonists. Those guys and gals don’t do anything but gripe and lament their sorry little lives. Think of Chekhov, for example. I came from Russia. Most books I knew when I went to school and later to university was Russian lit. I always disliked it. I read mostly translations from English and French. When I immigrated to Canada and encountered the plethora of active heroes in the English-language stories, especially genre fiction, I fell in love irrevocably and completely. Give me an active hero any day. But then, it might be just my personal choice.
    BTW: I still dislike Russian literature.

    • In truth there are entire societies where passive compliance is the cultural default. Most, in reality.
      (Not coincidentally, the native publishing world in most of them is LitFic only.)

      The medieval european church owed its power and riches to it: Passively endure the travails of tbe world in the expectation of being rewarded in heaven.
      Islam (which means submission) similarly offers the 22 virgins, etc, leading many to accelerate tbeir exist from tbis world.
      Reincarnation religions likewise.

      And today’s tribal politicans play a shorter term version: comply with what your betters say and you will be rewarded. Real.Soon.Now. (In one case, right away with actual cash.)

      Comply, endure, don’t act.

      In that respect, the OP title is 100% correct: active engagement in one’s fate across society is a relatively modern european invention. And active-protagonist stories serve to reinforce the “perfidious” idea that such behavior is good. 😀

      (Although, yes, its roots go back to abcient Athens and the battle of SALAMIS.)

      • I might sound politically incorrect, but I love your phrase “modern European invention.” I’m all for it. I hate whiners in life and I don’t want to read about them in fiction. As for compliance – I’m sick of it. All my years in the Communist Russia I had to comply, to hide what I think. We were all afraid all the time to speak our minds or do anything against the government policies. Now, after I tasted true Western democracy, I don’t ever want to go back to being afraid and silent and doing nothing but comply. Argh! No passive heroes for me. They are not heroes anyway, although sometimes being passive is the only way to survive. I know; I lived through it.

        • I watched Florida almost beat Alabama Saturday. About 100 thousand people close together with no masks. It wasn’t a Southern thing. Saw the same at the Penn State/Auburn game up north.
          No compliance.

        • I hear you.
          My pet peeve is learned helplessness.
          People failing to take care of themselves expecting government to solve their problems, often things they could deal with if tbey would only get off their…rears.
          They don’t comply out of fear, ignorance, desperation, or lack of options, just out of sheer laziness.

          Often I find myself hoping they get Heinlein’s LUNA CITY treatment for fools. (From THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS).

          • I’m healthy and fit, but have no obligations to anyone. Never have, and never will. But you have an obligation to take care of me because I am not responsible for myself. My pronouns are “Poor” and “Me.”

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