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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Plagued by Passive Characters

   
Author Topic: Plagued by Passive Characters
hoptoad
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Sometimes, my MCs are simple observers of events, less likely to be in the thick of it than to stand-by and watch what happens around them. They rarely make things happen, rather, they have things happen to them.

This is very unsatisfying.

Here’s the theory:
As a writer, I am the ‘observer and recorder’ of events that occur in the story. (Yes, I create those events too, but my job is to document the people, places and events.)
Because of this I tend to ‘identify’ most with the quiet, hands-off, introspective, observer types in the story and in so doing choose them, almost by default, as the MC. The active ‘doers’ in the story, with whom I tend not to identify in the same way, are those who propel the story along and would usually be a better choice.

It is very disheartening to get most of the way into a story before realising that you have chosen the wrong MC.

I sense that this may be a common problem. Has anyone here experienced it? If so, how do I deal with this?


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pantros
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I see this a lot.

If the MC isn't making decisions which affect the plot, he's the wrong MC.

Now your PoV character and your MC are not always the same person. But its tricky to do when they are not.

The place to fix this is in the thinking of the story concept.
If you are starting with a plot event as the seed for your story, ask who will most affect the way the event unfolds.
If you are starting with a character and 'seeing' what their story will be, ask yourself what would be difficult for this character to overcome and how would they overcome it.

And always remember that everything happens for a reason in writing. Every pure random event makes the story weaker. No one can get hit by meteor unless someone aimed the meteor.


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Christine
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Honestly, I don't have this problem. I guess the reason is that I entered writing not as a recorder, but as a teller of fanciful stories. As a child, I played make believe and I am always the hero of my own make believe stories.

I don't know what to tell you about how to change this. Maybe you should try a little make believe...don't write, just let your mind wander and put yourself as the star in your own little world.


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Dulci
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I always loved the heroic characters, and tend to identify with the heroic MCs. The tragic-figure is my downfall, though, and I tend to have quiet, collected, emotional MCs.

Here's something I picked up from Stein on Writing: If you have a tendency to have a passive MC, then imagine yourself in an office and someone knocks quietly at the door saying "I need to tell you something." That was your original MC. Now imagine a rude jerk barging past the original, storming into your office, and telling you off in no uncertain terms. Might put a little zest into the characterization!


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franc li
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I did hear an interesting bit about a derivative of Peircean Semiotics as it applies to the constellation of characters in successful stories. As a background Peircean Semiotics is a representation of meaning in three parts: concept, reality, and sign (word). Some guy decided to apply this to... um... literary(?) analysis using shows such as Star Trek. Kirk is the reality oriented character. He does stuff.
Bones is the concept oriented character. He is into humanness or something.
Spock is the sign oriented character. He's abstract.

My source of information on this matter is very into using color and number codes for everything, but if there is something I don't need, it is two additional layers of symbolism in a theory of semiotics, which are arranged arbitrarily. They had 1 = yellow, 2 = red, 3 = blue. Whatever.

So I was asking them to break down Firefly for me, and they said Mal, like most main characters, is between action and concept. Being concept oriented gets him into trouble ("What you plan and what occurs ain't ever actually been similar.") Being action oriented makes it possible for him to get back out of trouble. However, they did grant that Firefly is very difficult to type by this theory, which is probably why it wasn't widely successful.


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ChrisOwens
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Hoptoad,

I can only offer a 'me too', and not advice, for I've suffered from this for quite a while. I am also a quiet and introspective person, never a take charge kind of guy. Sometimes I tended to ask, "What would Chris do?" Wrong question. That led to stories where the character was either being shown around or manipulated. The decisions the character did make were stupid and naive, for they were made just to get him into the situation to be shown around.

I've only been cognizant of that fact in the past year or so. Therefore, I've been striving to break out of that. After all, knowing is the first step. Maybe I should be asking myself, "What wouldn't I do?" and have the character do that.


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RMatthewWare
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Loved the Firefly reference, wish there were more shows like that. Hard to sell, though.

Thinking about your character problem, think about actors. A lot of actors can only do themselves. Every movie you see them in they're basically the same person. They don't change much because they can't (or because they've been typecast and no one will let them change). Others are sometimes called character actors. People like Gary Oldham that you wouldn't recognize from film to film. They know how to be anyone. They sometimes have less success because they don't have George Clooney or Julia Roberts star quality, but they are the better actors.

The same applies to writing. You have to get into the head of other people. If you can only write from your own perspective, then guess what, you're human! But you need to learn how to twist your own beliefs and philosophies to become someone else. For some, it's easy. Sometimes it depends on the character you're trying to create. Sometimes you can't do it because the character isn't right. I wrote a novel where I had a unique character I had a hard time writing. I would ignore this person for chapters at a time and I had to go back and give them lines. I gave the finished copy to a friend and he told me that the character serves no purpose and doesn't need to be there. That character was cut from the next version. There was no purpose served that couldn't be served by an already existing character. That was the reason it was hard to write for him, he didn't matter! Out of this I was able to create a new character later in the story that does matter and plays a different dynamic.

Matt


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djvdakota
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Become your MC. Explore, through a series of role-playing exercises, your MC's personality, motivations, actions, reactions. Step right into his shoes and practice making him/her the kind of character you want him to be. Try to mimic his voice, mannerisms, emotions.

Your family will look at you funny, drivers on the road will stare at you as you drive along the road talking to yourself, but it helps.

I tend to think that a 'reluctant hero' in stories is often so because the writer doesn't know him well enough.

For an even deeper exercise, check out a few short plays at the library and practice 'acting' the part of the play's MC, concentrating on the character and his actions, words, his reactions to the actions and words of the other characters and situations.


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wbriggs
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I relate. Thing is, what interests me in life, I think, is more *seeing* cool things, than *doing* them. Also, I tend to think in terms of everyman characters, so they *see* strange things rather than doing them.

What do you the rest of you do -- force yourself to pick the active character?


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ChrisOwens
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I know WOTF's first reader has stated in no uncertain terms that
a passive character, one that is acted upon but does drive the story, will knock the story out of the running. It could depend on your target market but I suspect this is true for the majority of the editors out there.

The reluctant hero is not passive--they can be quite active in resisting the call to duty. Personally I think the draw is not so simple. Few, outside of pre-5th century Saxons like an overconfident braggart, so reluctance adds to the everyman quality.

That is, IF you want your character to be relatable and likable.
In the Chronicles of Amber, Corwin started out as a contender for the Amber throne, but by the end, when he could have been king, he had changed. He refused it.


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Murphy7
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This does happen, like in Oliver Twist. He is a main character who has multiple things occurring around him, the characters are more detailed and nuanced than his. I think we feel emotion for him because he is meek and passive and we worry about him in the midst of all the chaos and decay. I think it can actually be a very effective way to tell a story. In a way, the reader becomes Oliver, and experiences it all right along with him. Oliver's reactions are really our own.

Maybe?

Kathleen Murphy


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Survivor
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There is no reason that your POV character and your protagonist have to be the same person. If you feel more comfortable narrating the story from the POV of an observer, then do that. Many of the best stories are written that way.
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quantumphotonkid
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Reminds me of Gatsby... I hated that book.

Anyway, a couple of ideas. First, if you really need to write with a passive MC, I'd suggest making it a kid. I mean young kid, not quite preteen. That's the age when (most) people have very little control over their lives and really can't instigate a whole lot. Most good stories will involve events that are beyond their control (like the oliver twist example) and how they deal with those events.

Other idea, have you ever played a role playing game? I mean like Dungeons and Dragons and its variants. I play occasionally, and if you play with the right group you get used to acting like a fictional character instead of yourself. It might help you if you want to try writing a more active character but have trouble figuring out what he/she would do.


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franc li
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I must defend the honor of the Great Gatsby! Of course, I think I only read it because it was skinny enough for me to get through without too much pain.

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dee_boncci
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I recently read The Great Gatsby for the first time and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. It was interesting, but didn't really stand out ot me.

My characters often start out a little passive because, I think like me, they are intially just going along to see what happens. Then I have to revise them to kind of drive the story. Maybe that wouldn't be such a big problem if I worked out the stories in more detail before I wrote them.


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Robert Nowall
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I remember reading "Gatsby," even the circumstances (just before a college class in logic)---but, all these years later, I remember little of the book. Funny. I remember details of its being written by Fitzgerald from A. Scott Berg's biography of Maxwell Perkins (the editor) very well, but not "The Great Gatsby" itself.
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wbriggs
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If anyone's read Lost Boys by OSC... (no significant spoilers)

MC is a man who's just moved to NC with his family. There's a tension the whole time with a fear of a serial killer in the city, but MC isn't dealing with that. He's dealing with his new job, his kids' schooling, weird people at his church. It's a page-turner, but almost none of it relates to the climax directly.

On the main issue, MC is pretty much passive. There's another character that knows more and does more -- so shouldn't it have been that one? MC is active, but it's on plot complications.

I can't see writing it this way. But it obviously worked.


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franc li
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I guess I can understand the irritation with The Great Gatsby from the end of speculative fiction writers who struggle with the glass ceiling of respect from the literary community.
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JasonVaughn
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Although I'm not keen on passive MC's alot of James Herbert's MC's are very passive and his books still sell millions. The Shrine particularly comes to mind. The MC doesn't really do anything but observe events.

This could be because most of his MC's are reporters and therefore just witness and record what is happening. I can't think of any more examples just now but I'm sure there are plenty of (successful) examples out there.

Jason

[This message has been edited by JasonVaughn (edited February 27, 2007).]


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hoptoad
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wbriggs, ditto on Lost Boys

I didn't find the MC a passive though, more distracted.


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