Seeking vs. Suffering: The Secret of Passive Protagonists

From Writer Unboxed:

I’ll admit it. I fell for the title of Kelsey Allagood’s WU post on September 18th: “Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy”. Upon reading the title my blood pressure rose, not because of the heated word “patriarchy” but because of the chilly suggestion that “active” protagonists are inherently bad and therefore “passive” protagonists are fundamentally good, and maybe even a necessary political tool for activist fiction writers.

Of course, Kelsey was being slyly provocative. She did not strictly mean that writers should see passive protagonists as a weapon of change. Hey kids, here’s a great way to tear down patriarchy, misogyny, sexism, agism, homophobia, racism, capitalism, gentrification and more…let’s be more passive! There’s an idea, eh?

No, Kelsey was mostly speaking of “active” and “passive” in the technical sense in which we apply those words to protagonists in discussing fiction craft. The distinction is important and Kelsey’s point was a good one: not all protagonists are, or need to be, “active” in the sense of being imbued with agency and embarking on a planned course of action. Kelsey said, “I say let’s talk those of us who aren’t always in the driver’s seat.” Today I’m taking her up on that.

Not every protagonist is Odysseus. It is entirely possible that a main character can begin a story in a state of suspension. It’s a human condition to be oppressed, wandering, lost, stuck or even imprisoned. People don’t always make things happen; things happen to them. Naturally, there is no story without a response to an adverse situation. But does that mean a fist fight? Must a protagonist formulate a goal, or—ask me—engage in the more useful business of task, plan, scheme or gamble? Isn’t it enough for a main character to observe, experience, chafe, resist? Can’t a protagonist give voice to the powerless? Can’t a character just yearn?

More: Who says that women protagonists must be kick-ass, anyway? Must plot always drive toward something? Is a story climax always needed? (Whoa, so masculo-sexual!) Can’t a story be built of retreat, running, seeking refuge, healing? Is courage necessarily violent? Isn’t it equally dramatic to endure? Where is the line between passive as strong, admirable and uplifting and passive as weak, degrading and pathetic? There is a line. It has nothing to do with a character’s circumstances and everything to do with a character’s spirit.

This is where passive dissociates itself from the common, pejorative, unhelpful associations of the word. For fiction writers, a passive protagonist doesn’t have a commanding position in the story world but does have an inner light that says that this character is alive, aware, unbroken, strong inside and seeing. A passive protagonist might be helpless but is not hopeless. A passive protagonist may not be marching toward battle but nevertheless is on a journey to someplace better.

Link to the rest at Writer Unboxed

3 thoughts on “Seeking vs. Suffering: The Secret of Passive Protagonists”

  1. I’ve got this great story to entertain you with, while the campfire melts our marshmallows for smors….

    It’s all about this girl. She started out like this… and then this happened to her… and then this

    (Small child claps hands: “Oh! it’s a doll story!”)

  2. Chronic illness is one of the challenges that turn a protagonist’s world upside down. What happens to that protagonist when she tries to continue 1) having as much of a life as possible, and 2) being productive to the world – while living in a society that automatically discounts disability as a disaster and blames sick and disabled people for their own woes – is the story I’m writing.

    It is hard to maintain integrity and dignity and productivity and all the warm human emotions when life assaults you, but most people try and achieve a remarkable level of it. Mine is one of those stories.

  3. H.P. Lovecraft’s protagonists were mainly passive. They observed events or reported what others had told them, and mostly slipped into madness by the finale. I don’t think the OP would consider him a model for fighting racism or the patriarchy.

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