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.