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Author Topic: The passive main character problem
Member # 7811

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I had another Hatracker comment on one of my stories, and he caught on to a recurring problem for me in my young writing career. That being the passive main character who seems to experience the story and relate it to the reader, rather than create and drive the story.

I consistently feel like the story is happening to my main character instead of because of him/her.

Anybody else have this issue? Any ideas why I do this? Any tricks to combat this early in the process?

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Member # 5952

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Two things come to mind. First, maybe you've picked the wrong main character. Think about why you've chosen this character, what he or she brings to the story. Maybe another character would be in a situation to do more. Second, maybe your characters need to be developed more. When something happens, consider what this character would do, and how that might be different than any other person. What about this character's past, present, and perception of future makes this character act in a specific way to drive the story? Usually, he or she will need a strong motive to drive events.
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Member # 1563

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Always focus in on your character's goal. He/She needs a strong goal, one he/she is motivated to achieve. The stronger the motivation, the stronger the goal.

A weak character is simply one with weak, uninteresting goals that the character is not willing to fight and sacrifice for.

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Member # 1955

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Alas, I've the same problem. Many a time my viewpoint character finds themselves manipulated by circumstances and/or the antagonist. With a recent story, I considered telling it from the antagonist's POV.
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A lot of my story ideas seem to create passive characters. For example, I wrote about a guy who awoke a demon in a cave and slowly goes crazy.

I've found it improves my story when I take the situation (guy encounters demon in cave, starts to go crazy) and make the character react to it.

Even better when your character reacts in a way only he can do. In my story, I changed it so that the guy faces the demon head on. And only he can do it, because the demon screws with perception of numbers, and the character is math genius.

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Member # 8019

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I encounter passive main characters mostly in emerging writers early stories, but that begs the question what is a passive main character. In the undesirable cases, a passive main character is one removed from the center and focus of the dramatic action. In several of Friedman's plot types the protagonist acts passively, done to rather than doing, yet central to and in the focus of the dramatic action. A main character doesn't absolutely have to be a story's protagonist any more than either the main character or the protagonist has to be the narrator, Knowing who is who and who is doing to or being done to is important to understanding the dramatic action in writing and reading of a story.

I believe that most emerging writers don't perceive a narrator as a character of a story, especially the third-person, present past voice, limited psychic access focused on the protagonist's perspective--point of view--narrator as a character in a story. The main purpose, as I apply it, of having such a narrator is to pose the narrator as invisible to a story, which diminishes the potential for the narrator to have an attitude toward a story's topic, although it allows for the protagonist's attitude to dominate. In general, I consider the invisible narrator as a simple rhetorical transference of third-person for first-person voice.

By the same token, a first-person narrator is sometimes not posed as central to the action either, neither protagonist or main character, which makes for a complex story to write, and if the challenge is accomplished, makes a story effortless to read.

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Member # 5137

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It was reading the line (loosely paraphrased) in one of the writing books I have handy here that:

The character is defined by the actions she takes, how she repsonds to the situations she finds herself in, how she gets out of them.

That helped me more than anything else. Seeing/hearing/thinking about the fact that the character is defined by the *actions* he/she takes. That's what illustrates character more than anything. When I use that phrase and look at works of fiction that I really really enjoy, I see how that plays out. I see how the works I love have characters who are doing things, not just responding to the evil things that are done to them. When I look at books that I find I had a less-satisfactory experience reading, I realized that a lot of them had much more reactionary MCs. The characters spent most of their time just reacting to the bad stuff that was slung at them. Those books weren't nearly as enjoyable.

Another trick for you to try is to write a story from more than one point of view. Play with some of the other characters, tell the story from inside their heads (you can do this in first person, but most often it's done in third) and see how the story unfolds. You may find that there's an entire character's retelling of the story that could be omitted because they had a backseat role, weren't driving the action.

Good luck. This seems to be a good insight to have reached, even if you're not yet sure how to solve the problem, knowing it exists is a great start!

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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If, as some do, you define the main character as the most active character in the story (the "prime mover"), then a "passive main character" is kind of impossible.

If, on the other hand, you have a passive point of view character, who observes and records the actions of the main character (as Watson did for Sherlock Holmes), that can work just fine.

It is possible to have a protagonist who is neither the point of view character nor the main character when your "prime mover" is the antagonist, and the protagonist has to deal with what the main character/antagonist causes to happen. If you look at Heath Ledger's Joker as the main character (the one, by the above definition who caused things to happen in the story), and Batman as the protagonist, and the audience as the point of view (and a very passive point of view at that), you can still have a story that works.

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Member # 1955

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Heath Ledger's Joker helped me understand my latest antagonist much better--though he ends up being more like Benjamin Linus from Lost.

Edited to add: My latest antagonist, not the Joker...

[This message has been edited by ChrisOwens (edited August 13, 2008).]

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Member # 7664

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I've had the same problem in some of the storied I've tried to write. And I've tried to figure out if I chose the wrong person as the main character.

The question that also comes up is whether I've simply chosen the wrong person as the "narrator" or viewpoint character, and whether that's how most of us define "main character".

The other question is: are we so concerned about this problem merely because it is outside of current literary convention to have a passive main character? Historically speaking, wasn't it more acceptable to have an entire story narrated or seen through the eyes ofsomeone who was in essence a "tag-along" or second fiddle to the lead? Like a chorus in a play. Or Watson to Shirlock Holmes. Or are our stories stronger if we ditch the person through whose eyes we have to access the story and simply do a better job of telling it?

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Member # 5058

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Watson to Shirlock Holmes

This is more acceptable in mysteries where the main character is a genius. If we were in Sherlock's head, we'd know the solution to the mystery long before the end of the story. However, Watson often helped Sherlock trap the bad guy. He was active in the solution to the problem even if he never figured the mystery out himself. So is Watson really a "passive" character?

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Member # 8154

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Ya know I was just having this same conversation with my husband today.

Did I pick the right main character? Should I have one of the characters narrate the story?

I think I like the idea of trying to see the story from other characters perspective.

Thanks for the comments and the question.


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Member # 5638

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It's a problem I had as a new writer, less so now I think.

I believe that as new writers we do it because we tend to write from our own experience and for most of us, life happens to us. We're real-life passive characters in a world of commerce, politics and human relationships that we mostly find hard to influence. The active characters who make things happen in our real lives are our managers, political leaders, often bullies and thugs. We're often passive characters riding a world of surf-waves and storms. Things happen to us--especially the big, life altering events that have dramatic appeal. We get sent to war, or caught in hurricanes; our friends and relatives get sick; we get bullied at work, or laid off--all events controlled by others or by the elements. For many of us, life is a passive ride we can barely control.

Of course that's a very negative slant. Some of us, too, decide what we want and go get--a cool career, nice motorcycle, beautiful partner, time with family, pile of money.

Finding an active character that the reader will feel sympathy for entails imagining what that would be like, perhaps by either tuning into the active side of our own personalities or studying active real people for inspiration.

(Also, this is partly how fiction, especially F&SF, works. We enjoy an active character who gets what she wants as an escape for our humdrum, miserable, passive lives.)


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Member # 8149

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Is there only ONE main character in a book? Are you talking about a book written from one POV or several? Because when the going gets lame for my main character, I tend to switch POVs.

Is there only supposed to be ONE main character? Because I have two MAIN-main characters, and about four more really, really important characters.

In the real world, even the most exciting life-stlyes have to have down times, (otherwise you end up with a shaved head, in rehab, on the Rosie O'Donnel Show and pregnant...again)so I don't see why its a bad thing to have a character who isn't on crack - going every second of the book - but if that is the case, having another significant character to switch over to would be a good thing.

My opinion for you.

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Member # 5638

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Someone said in another thread that switching POV too much can be a bad idea if the reader gets involved with one character. She'll tend to skip-read the stuff written from the POV of other 'main characters' to get back to the engaging one, the one she's developed sympathy with or liking for. I have to say I've noticed myself doing that sometimes when reading a multi-POV novel.


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Brad R Torgersen
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Passive main characters are actually true to life because most of us are, more or less, passively experiencing our own lives. A great deal "happens to us" as opposed to it "happening because of us", and this comes out in the writing.

I think a passive main character can work fine, provided that he or she makes at least one critical, active decision in the course of the story upon which the resolution depends.

Also, if you read the main markets like Asimovs and Analog and TMoF&SF you will see many passive main characters employed by professional writers. Why they can get away with it, and new writers are advised to avoid like the plague, is one of those annoying "unfair" things about the business I guess.

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Someone might have mentioned this before. But I think OSC wrote apretty convince argument for why Darth vader was mor einteresting than Luke Skywalker, it's because it's always more interesting (and easier to like) someone who cna take an active role in shaping the story, than someone who is just stuck in the cart following the roller coaster.
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