Let’s Break Stuff: Passive Characters

Hi, Gang, Craig here again. I may make this a sporadic series, and I welcome my Story Empire compatriots to steal it and use it any time they like. We talk about all kinds of things here, always with a positive shiny face on it. That ends today.

Today, we’re going to break things. Honestly, we see all kinds of posts about good things to do, helpful tips, and downright cheerleading. We also need to know what to avoid, and the topic today is passive characters.

Main characters have to drive the story. They have to take actions to solve whatever the main issue is. I’ve mentioned before that I keep living documents with pointers and tips. One I saved years ago is from the Pixar recipe book: Readers will appreciate the character more for trying than succeeding.

That’s a powerful thought. Trying must be pretty important in the scheme of things. Let’s make up some examples,starting with your own personal Game of Thrones.

Your main character is convicted of a crime he did not commit. He’s been sent to the wall in the north to join the Night’s Watch. He’s facing a life of celibacy, servitude, and an important job… watching.

How do you see this playing out? Chapter One, vows and settling in. Chapter Two, touring the wall. Chapter Three watching. 4, watching, 5 more watching… 6 thought I saw something, turned out to be a fox…

Think of the princess, locked in her tower… waiting for someone to rescue her. Dear diary, made friends with mice…

Don’t laugh, I’ve done this. My guy lost two family members, one to a cannibalistic alien. He’s depressed, and his world is spinning out of control. Friends and family make recommendations, so he takes them. He’s not in charge, and he’s not acting to solve the main issue. He ultimately settles up with the killers, but it takes a dozen or more chapters to get there. How many readers stuck it out to get to the place where something happened? Answer: Not many.

Give a thought to these words: hiding, avoiding, guarding, watching, protecting. If this is the main goal of your character, perhaps you should rethink some of your story. We have a comment section to add some other words, or share you own foibles.

Passive characters have a place in stories, but not as main characters. Think about Indiana Jones. There was a secret society that protected the resting place of the Arc of the Covenant. They were interesting, but weren’t the main character. Sir Richard protected the Holy Grail, but nobody is rushing to tell his story.

There is a cure, and it involves a bit of backbone. Change hiding and avoiding to aggression. Maybe build an IED to blow up the aliens. Doesn’t have to work, but your character is trying.

Someone is probably going to weigh in with some good story that contradicts what I’m saying here. I doubt that it does. Think about Misery. The author guy is injured and trapped. He takes to re-writing his novel to distract the crazy lady, hopefully giving him a chance to escape somehow. It isn’t much, but he’s trying. Play off Stockholm Syndrome, but make sure he does something.

How about it, gang? What do you think about passive characters? Are you interested in more posts like this? I love the comments section, so let me hear from you.

78 thoughts on “Let’s Break Stuff: Passive Characters

  1. Pingback: Seven Links 2/16/19 Traci Kenworth – Where Genres Collide

  2. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  3. I’m currently rewriting my second novel because of this. I wrote nearly 70K words before realizing that my MC had no agency and was just reacting to things happening to her rather than actually doing things herself 😂 Live and learn, I guess. She’s kicking some ass right now.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had a an idea that I loved but the problem was exactly what you just wrote. The protagonist was passive. No matter how hard I tried he was who he was. Because of the idea of the novel I refused to let it go. I mentally placed it on the shelf and waited until something in my mind clicked.

    When that click happened it became an easy fix. I felt bad for letting him go. He was a nice guy but to nice and to boring for anyone to read Sometimes we have to kill our darlings and replace them with an action-packed darling.

    Fun stuff, my friend. You always have great topics.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You make a valid point! I prefer a character to actively be doing something to change their situation. Sometimes you might have one passive character you need to move the story along. I enjoyed your post and talking about what not to do:)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A very thought provoking post. The passive (or minor) characters are often the oil which keep the machine of the narrative moving along.
    Since I’m writing fantasy with a great deal of action and unusual events no one gets a chance to be very passive. More a case of folk saying things along the lines of
    ‘What the —–!’,
    ‘Thank you for saving/helping me’
    ‘What’s it got to do with you anyway?’
    ‘I know you’re up to something!’
    ‘Let me explain things to you,’
    ‘Were you looking for this?’
    ‘Works for me’
    ‘Hah! Foolish mortal,’ (not that literally I assure you)
    ‘Urk!’ (before expiring)
    They do help the narrative all the same.
    This has to be reblogged.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think there is a balance between a character being active and passive. All passive is BORING! All active is tiring. If a character doesn’t do anything, he or she doesn’t belong in a story. Put them in a retirement home. 🙂 Great post, Craig!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post. I’ve only finished one book. (I call it “The Novel I Learned To Write A Novel On.”) My critique partners sometimes referred to my protagonist as passive. Thank goodness! The story is character driven (I’m an inveterate pantser.), so the main character had to get moving. A few teaks (excising the first 19 chapters) and voila(!) the book worked. I always enjoy your posts.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. This is good, Craig. It made me think (always a scary prospect, lol). I use sarcasm and humor as tools to push my characters through the watching, watching scenes, as you put it. Dialogue can help to switch from passive/slow reading to something much more engaging.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Last week, I did a DNF on a book because I was six chapters into it and the MC was just–meh. Sad part is, I was REALLY looking forward to the story. What a let down. I don’t need characters to be constantly reacting (I like introspection too), but I do want to connect with them. That’s almost impossible to do if they are passive.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. My main characters have periods of reflection or indecision, but in general, they are action-driven. I think I’d go nuts writing a passive hero, let alone trying to read one. Thought-provoking stuff, Craig. (And no, I could not think of an example of a passive hero.)

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I also remember Melvin Mole form MAD magazine in 1954. After escaping from jail several times he was stripped of anything he could use to dig and thrown in a dungeon. He still attempted a break using one of his nasal hairs. (he made it) Good post. I’m up there with having every character do something that the reader would find interesting.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. I loved this post! Great advice. I’ve read books where a lot is happening all over the place, and it’s all interesting, but I still want the protagonist to at least TRY. Try was the perfect word. I retweeted this and put it on my author Facebook page.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I prefer action to the passive. Before I would finish a book no matter what, simply because I had to know the ending. Now, if the plot is dull, passive as you noted, I move on. There needs to be something to keep us interested. Yes, there can be a passive character, but not the main character. If you cannot keep the reader interested, they do move on.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I think it depends on the level of passivity. For example, a story about a character hiding from enemies because they’re too scared to fight could work. Harrowing chase scenes and tense ‘nearly found’ events can bring tension. Not every story needs to have a head-to-head conflict, which is odd for me to say because I always build up to those. There has to be something to replace the aggression and create tension, so this is where atmosphere can come in and allow for a less ‘action star’ protagonist.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. If I picked up a book with the MC being that passive throughout, I’d soon put it down. It would drive me nuts. I need the characters to be driven and active. Thanks for a great post, Craig. Like Anita and Jaye, I love how your brain works 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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