As a result of one of my critters commenting that one of my protagonists is too passive, I started to do a little research on passive protagonists, and it seems to me that the majority opinion is that they are bad, bad, bad and a good author never writes one. Only beginner authors do it and it's a huge mistake.
On the other side of it, however, I have seen other writers and readers argue that passive protagonists aren't bad at all. They're just very difficult to pull off. Some have said they even find passive protagonists interesting. In all honesty, I do too, but I seem to be in the minority.* Still others have said that passive protagonists are ok as long as you have multiple protagonists who are all mostly active.
So now I'm curious what you guys think. When (if ever) is it ok to have a passive protagonist?
*See: Henry Townshend from the fourth installment of "Silent Hill". Most people couldn't stand him because he was relatively passive. They thought he was completely uninteresting. I, on the other hand, adored him as a character and found him terribly interesting—much more so than the other "Silent Hill" protagonists. Of course, I was in the minority...
For me it doesn't matter either way too much. It depends on how well they are written. Or written in a way that attracts my attention-- that is not necessarily the same thing as well written.
If I get into a story I probably won't notice or care if I do if She-he-it is active or passive. But I can see how it would be hard to do it right. So do it your way but make sure you write well. Some readers will love it done that way while others won't.
I believe anything can be done, but some things are harder to pull off than others.
I don't know what you mean by passive protagonists. There are a lot of ways a character can be passive. Some I think work; others not so much.
Here are some questions that you might want to consider if someone thinks your characters are passive.
1. Is it clear what the character wants? Unmotivated people seem passive.
I beta read something a while ago, and the character was actively doing things but seemed passive because it wasn't clear what the character wanted. Everyone wants something even if they don't know exactly what they want. I think that needs to come across on the page, so the reader can feel as if MC is actively working towards something even if that changes as the story progresses. Yikes! Did that make sense?
2. Are you sure you chose the right character to tell the story? For the most part, and there are some worthy acceptions, the story should be told from the POV of the person who has the most at stake, the most to lose.
I read a book a while ago where the MC seemed so annoyingly passive, but she wasn't. It wasn't her story; it was her boyfriend's. She spent most of the time on the side lines watching his story unfold, and there is nothing more passive than watching someone else do everything. It didn't work IMO. Make sure you are telling the story from the character who the story is about.
3. Is your character just reacting to things? I think this can work for more plot driven stories, like disaster stories or survival stories. Jurassic Park comes to mind. You have very little choices when you are being chased by a T. Rex. However, if you have a more character driven story where the character has time to think through and fight back, this can be annoying.
4. Does you character have more of a quiet strength? More of a negotiator or peacemaker or more thoughtful and less combative? I don't think these characters are passive, but I think some people do.
I think some readers are so used to reading about the alpha-types that f the character is more beta, they seem passive. Personally, I really liked Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Peeta from the hunger games. They were more followers for the most part, but had a quiet strength to them that was over-shadowed by the more aggressive alpha types, but they weren't passive by any means. But I think some people would think that they were.
That is all I can think of.
My point is that I don't think calling a character passive is enough to diagnose the problem or even determine if there is a problem. So I think when someone says you have a passive character, you need to dig a little deeper and figure out why they felt that way.
Hope this helped.
[This message has been edited by MAP (edited October 16, 2011).]
I know many of the complaints about the last book of the Hunger Games (Catching Fire) revolved around the protagonist being too passive. I suppose I noticed it. I may have wondered at one point if she was going to become a leader instead of a symbol, but I never once disliked her and thought her reactions to things were natural for someone who had been through what she had, and really enjoyed the book.
On the other hand, I hatehatehate whiney, passive, (usually) female protags in YA who sit around and emote uselessly, and then when they finally do decide to do something it's the stupidist idea on the planet so they're now in Mortal Danger and have to get saved by their blindingly handsome not-quite-human male counterpart. That kind of passive doesn't work for me.
[This message has been edited by mythique890 (edited October 16, 2011).]
I never considered Katniss to be a passive character but by the end of the third book I lost the love of this book. Simply too much butchery, not enough reward.
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This is a older series, but I felt the protag in Anne McCaffrey's Acorna was way too passive. I never read more than the first book because this little unicorn girl didn't seem to be doing anything. I thought the story was supposed to be about her, and all the action revolved around the people who associated with her. She didn't do hardly anything the whole book, which gave me no reason to be interested in what happened to her in the books that followed. I wasn't interested in the people she came in contact with or those that care about protecting her. I wanted to be more associated with her, and felt McCaffrey never came through.
Just want to add that Anne McCaffrey is still one of my all time favorite authors. I just loved her Pern novels along with the Doona trilogy. The Petaybee stories weren't bad either, though they were almost too juvenile for my tastes.
To me an active protagonist is one that makes things happen while a passive protagonist is one that has things happen to them. Essentially, a passive protagonist is a victim of their circumstances. In fairy tale terms, it's the difference between The Little Mermaid and Snow White. While in movie terms, it's the difference between John McClane from Die Hard and Ben Braddock from The Graduate (arguably at least up to the Elaine! scene).
I think it's fine to have a passive protagonist so long as that's the point of the piece. Otherwise, you run the risk of having a TSTL protagonist - too stupid to live.
Also, don't confuse a passive protagonist with a reactive protagonist. Jason Bourne from the Bourne series is a prime example of a reactive protagonist who turns active. (I will be referring to the movies since I haven't read the books) In Bourne Identity, Bourne is on the run, and those chasing him are in control. But throughout all this Bourne still has a goal - to remember who he is. In Bourne Supremacy you see him taking the fight to the bad guys becoming a pro-active protagonist.
[This message has been edited by redux (edited October 16, 2011).]
Thanks to MAP's comment, I think I might understand why some of my critters are commenting that one of my protagonists is too passive: He's the strong, quiet type. The peacemaker. The sage. The thinker. There's also that he's thrust very suddenly out of the world he's used to and into a very unfamiliar one where he doesn't have the knowledge or skills to handle it, so he tries to stay out of the action if he can and let those who do know what to do to take care of things (lest he get himself killed).
Interesting point about Katniss. I didn't think of her as passive, but I've only read the first book. Does she come across more passive in the other two?
I've also heard some people complain that Luke Skywalker was a passive protagonist (at least in the first movie) and they cite his staying on the farm with his aunt and uncle instead of leaving like he wanted, his being dragged from place to place by Obi-wan on a mission he isn't really supposed to have a part in, and Han Solo's much more active role. This is also interesting to me because, like Katniss, he didn't strike me as passive (more like a mix), although I can see how he might come off that way to other people. But I don't think passive protagonists are necessarily bad either, except for the type mythique mentioned (yes, those drive me crazy too).
I also think it depends on what's driving the story. If it's more of a world- or theme-driven story than a character-driven one, then I think passive protagonists can work. But if it's a character-driven story, I can definitely see how a passive protagonist might be a bad idea.
Luke Skywalker might appear passive because his character arc follows the "Hero's Journey." He gets "called to adventure" by Obi-Wan but refuses. Only after his aunt and uncle are killed does he irrevocably join the adventure. It is after that point that Luke's character becomes an active participant. If it weren't for him, Leia would still be stuck in Detention block AA-23.
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I thought about listing a book or two with a passive protagonist, I've read but I can't think of any. But then again as I said if I liked the story or the writing was great I may not have noticed if the protagonist was passive, active, reactionary or all three.
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Yeah, unless the protagonist sits around and does absolutely nothing except watch, then I tend not to notice if he or she is passive. I'm exaggerating a little, but you get the point.
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I think the idea of Katniss being passive doesn't come from the fact that she doesn't do anything, because Katniss is a fighter and never stops doing what she does best. I didn't notice any passivity in the second book, but when I think about it, she's rarely the player, often the pawn... even if she's a pawn who sort of plays on her own terms. I don't know if that makes sense at all, but I can't think of how to explain it any better.
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A great example of a passive protagonist that's actually rather surprising is Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings. His entire quest during the books involves various instances of "go here. Okay now go here." There's a lot of action, but most of it revolves around him while he struggles with his burden step by step to the end.
So yes, I think it's possible to have a passive protagonist, assuming the story's done right .
I don't think of Frodo as a passive character just because he's not the one with a sword in his hand. He struggles--that's exactly it. He doesn't take the easy way. He doesn't just go along with the flow, either. At significant points, he's the one who makes the decision--to try to climb Caradhras, to leave the Fellowship behind and go into Mordor alone.
The reason Frodo doesn't kill anyone, even in battle, isn't just because everyone else protects him. It's also because he's the one trying to hold to a higher moral principle.
That's not passive just because much of his struggle is internal.
Passive, to me, is the character who's not striving for anything. And that is boring, usually.
Neil Gaiman's "American Gods" features a protagonist who is passive throughout almost the entire book. It doesn't seem to stop it having been extremely popular.
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Lois McMaster Bujold's MIRROR DANCE is more about Mark than it is about Miles.
Now, Mark is an active protagonist in the first part of the book and at the end, but there's a period in the middle when he has no direction. There are things he wants, but he has no idea how to get them or really any drive to try. He's passive and more or less doing what he's told to do. That part reads slower than the rest for a reason.
For me, passivity comes down to decision making and how the protagonist reacts to pressure (moral, physical, intellectual). If a protagonist is simply observing events and there isn't a more interesting character being observed (i.e. Sherlock Holmes, Gatsby), then I find the story becomes slow.
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I'd wondered if anyone thought of Frodo as passive. I started thinking about it just after I created this topic. He really is just told to go from place to place and makes few decisions. There's also that things just seem to happen around him that he didn't cause or intentionally get himself into (like getting caught by Faramir—wrong place, wrong time, but it's not like he could have known). I guess what makes him not completely passive is that he makes one big and very important decision: to keep going. He could turn back any time and give up, but he doesn't. He continues the quest for rather selfless reasons (I wonder if this might be why some think he's passive?).
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A truly passive protagonist is one that is unmotivated and lacks initiative.
The reason a passive protagonist is considered bad is because in most fiction character helps create conflict and from conflict comes plot. In other words, the protagonist should be involved in creating plot.
Passive protagonists are not interesting or compelling because they are victims of circumstances and fail to struggle with internal or external conflict. In other words, truly passive protagonists make for boring stories.
An active protagonist is not one that necessarily exhibits martial prowess or athletic ability. An active protagonist is one whose motivations, decisions and goals drive the plot. Active protagonists struggle.
Frodo is not a passive protagonist. He continuously struggles, is motivated and shows initiative. He makes decisions that affect the plot. It was Frodo's decision to leave the Shire with the ring. It was Frodo's decision to be the Ring-bearer. When he becomes separated from The Fellowship, Frodo chooses to continue on the quest alone.
Simply because a protagonist gets caught up in events out of their control does not make them passive. It is how they react to those circumstances that either makes them passive or active.
MAP brought up a lot of useful points - those are excellent questions to ask yourself when diagnosing whether a character is passive or active.
Ender Wiggin is a very passive protagonist. In some ways, that passivity--that prison of always being required to react, never being allowed to act--is what that book and character are about. This is so to the extent that Ender's highest of triumph moments are the occasions on which he intentionally refuses to react within the realm of possibility imagined by his handlers.
Like anything else, the passive protagonist can be done. It's just tough to do without driving readers away. Good luck with yours.
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Shendulfea, personally, I would ask your critter to be more clear and specific...to tell you what, exactly it is he/she/it/they have a problem with or find flawed in your character, rather than a rather broad statement like "too passive." How? In what way? And even if so, why does that itself present a problem?
I think that "passive" is a word and idea that, like so many in writing/storytelling, gets bandied about a lot but of which there is really no meaningful accepted definition. If you just take the dictionary-definition of the word, it could be applied to many characters, in many ways (and since the same can be said of the concept of "protagonist" it can get pretty hairy figuring things out.)
I've heard some say a character, especially a protagonist/central character is "passive" if they react rather than acting, if their actions or desires are not what gets the story moving. However by this definition many many protagonists especially in fantasy are "passive"...going all the way back to Bilbo and Frodo, who are both essentially thrown out the door by Gandalf. Likewise, Garion from the Belgariad is literally predestined to his role and dragged into the whole mess by his aunt and grandfather, who do most of the decision making throughout the process.
What constitutes a "passive protagonist" is largely a matter of taste, as is the idea of whether such a character is "good" or "bad" and when receiving such comments in critiques, I usually find myself wanting clarification and specifics.
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Lot of interesting and insightful comments in this thread. I'd like to add my two cents.
First, it often helps me to think of a football team. They will sometimes be playing offense (acting) and sometimes playing defense (reacting). But both are foms of acting. Furthermore, I would think that it would be a boring football game if all my team ever did was play defense or offense. A mix is nice.
Some times it goes back and forth. Sometimes, as with THE HUNGER GAMES, the character starts off mostly reacting, trying just get her head above water with a problem someone else thrusts upon her, and then acts, trying to get the upper hand.
I really think readers want to hope AND fear for the characters. Going on offense and defense is part of what allows us to do that.
But being passive is something different. Being passive is a football team who does nothing. They don't try to pick up the ball. They run no plays. They just stand there. That leads to fans being annoyed then disgusted then feeling that the team deserves what it gets and turning against them. They find someone else to root for.
Readers are fans. And react in the same way. If you have a "main" character who does nothing, it's been my experience, that readers look for someone else to be the character they care about.
Second, a critiqe that a character is passive is somewhat meaningless. It's a prescription without a diagnosis. Both the diagnosis and prescription might be wrong. What I'd want from the reader are the symptoms. Were you bored, frustrated, what? Did you dislike the character? What led you to feel that way?
If the reader isn't finding fault because the story doesn't match some approved list of rules, then you have a valid response. It might be a minority response or one from someone not in the audience. But you can't know that until you understand the symptoms.
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