This is an edited version of an excellent four-part blog by Anne Mimi from her site Author! Author! If this subject grabs you I highly recommend you read whole series of blogs. This is the link to the first in the series.
Let me share a secret: any screener, agent, editor, editorial assistant, and/or contest judge who has been at it more than a week automatically rolls his/her/its eyes when such a protagonist lumbers his way across the pages of yet another manuscript. Because, you see, a similar malaise plagues the lead in, oh, 85% of the manuscripts they see. At least in a scene or two.
Over and above notoriously low thresholds of agent boredom, this phenomenon presents a genuine obstacle to the creation of a compelling narrative. It’s hard for a reader to sympathize with someone who is purely acted-upon without pushing back, at least in some miniscule way.To be fair, the vast majority of protagonists are not uniformly passive (and for good reason: it’s a challenge to construct a storyline around a static character). In most manuscripts, the hero lapses only occasionally into total observation mode.
It’s not uncommon for agency screeners to be told to use the protagonist’s passivity for more than a page as a reason to reject a submission. Yes, you read that correctly: more than a PAGE. And in the opening scenes of a novel, often even less than that.
Go through your manuscript, scene by scene. No need to read for specifics; the general sense will do. If your protagonist is not the primary actor in any given scene, mark it, as well as any scene where she is observing action around her rather than participating in it. Employ different kinds of markers for these two types of scenes; top and bottom folded page corners or Post-It™flags will do. If you really want to be thorough, you can make a list of scenes as you go, marking them accordingly.
After you’ve rated the scenes, go back and revisit those where the protagonist is not the main mover and shaker. Could adding a line or two here or there beef up her presence in the scene? Could she ask some of the questions currently in the mouth of a third party, for instance, or take a more aggressive stand against a villain? Or against her mother? Could you, in short, inject some conflict into every page of the scene? How about every half-page?
Now turn to the scenes where the protagonist is watching what is going on. This one is going to sting a little: ask yourself honestly, without weighing in the balance how much you like the writing, whether this scene is actually essential to the book. If not, could you cut it? It’s often apparent to an outside observer (like, say, an editor) that a protagonist is merely observing a scene because it’s not central to the plot or to her character’s development. And when a scene adds to neither, it’s a prime candidate for trimming.
In any story, the protagonist is going to be acted upon by external sources. Certain matters are beyond the control of even the most active protagonist. A tree falling upon her house, for instance, or a boss’ annoying whims. Her boyfriend’s being gay. Civil rioting. Not winning the quilting prize at the county fair. Death. That sort of thing.
In each of these cases, it would be unreasonable to expect the protagonist to be the generator (or generatrix, in this case) of the action of the scene. Gravity made that tree fall, after all, coupled perhaps with a little root rot.
Obviously, the protagonist is going to respond to these external stimuli. A passive protagonist will respond primarily, from the reader’s point of view, with descriptive information about the effects of the catastrophe du jour. (“My God! Why did that tree have to fall on Aunt Eugenia’s tea service!”) Often, this takes the form of self-recrimination (“Why oh why did I not listen to that handsome arborist?”) or resentment against the cause of the problem (“Daddy never got around to retrofitting the house. Mama always told him the roof would cave in someday!”)As informative and entertaining as such responses frequently are, they don’t actually change the situation at hand, do they? And that should be your rule of thumb when deciding whether a protagonist’s response to external stimulus is too passive: is anything within the situation DIFFERENT as a result of the protagonist’s response?
For instance, if protagonist Angela is living through an earthquake, she is not what is making the ground shake: unless she possesses some godlike powers, she is being acted upon by the ground. But the writer can choose to have her just crouch under a table, riding it out (a good plan in real life) or show her doing something in response (saving a puppy from falling glass, perhaps.)In neither instance is Angela the cause of the primary event of the scene, but the first case, she is passive; in the second, she is not.
That was an easy instance; it becomes more complicated when other, more action-generating people are involved. This time, let’s have Angela be acted-upon by another human being: she’s waiting in line at the bank when a robber walks in and threatens everybody.
Again, in real life, Angela would probably be best served by being passive — she might well choose to down on the floor as requested, waiting all a-tremble for the robber to get the money and go. On the other hand, she would be most active if she jumped up, wrestled the gunman to the floor, and once again snatched a puppy from the jaws of imminent harm.
But realistically, Angela could still be active in her response, even without heroics. She could, for instance, surreptitiously work her coat over that puppy while she is lying on the floor, ostensibly following the robber’s directions, or whisper encouragement to the hysterical old man lying next to her who might be shot if he keeps whimpering.
In both these cases, although an outside observer might consider Angela passive, the reader knows better: she is struggling against her fate in small, believable manners. And that makes her the primary actor in the scene, if the narrative perspective remains focused upon her.The protagonist does not need to cause the action in a given scene to be an actor in it, for our passivity-analysis purposes — she merely has to ACT. Necessarily, she’s not always going to be the primary actor, but she can always do or say something, however tiny, in response to what is going on, to keep herself in the game.
I’m not saying it’s always going to be easy to discover how to demonstrate this on the page, particularly for shy characters. The greater the external stimulus, the more difficult it is to find that spark of autonomy: when people feel helpless, “How can I alter this situation in an indirect manner?” is not usually the first question that leaps to their minds.
But the attempt to change the situation — not necessarily the success of that attempt — honestly does make a great difference from the reader’s perspective. On the page, whether a murder victim scratches her attacker or freezes in fear — both completely understandable reactions, right? — can be the line between an active protagonist and a passive one.
When your protagonist is acted-upon, concentrate upon finding that instant of autonomy, rather than trying to force the protagonist to take control of a scene that would realistically be beyond her control. Figure out where a miniscule change is possible, or where an attempt to fight back would be plausible.
If you can find the time, a great exercise for developing a sense of active response is to write a scene where a protagonist is listening to a non-stop talker, a situation where it would require actual rudeness to get in a word edgewise. How can the protagonist control or alter the interaction, if only for a second at a time?
When you are in doubt about a scene, ask yourself the following series of questions about it, to reveal whether your protagonist is taking an active enough role in, well, his own life. If you can honestly answer yes to all of them, chances are good that you don’t have a passivity problem on your hands.
(1) Is it clear why these events are happening to my protagonist, rather than to someone else? (Hint: “Because the book’s ABOUT Paul!” is not an insufficient answer, professionally speaking.)
(2) Does the scene reveal significant aspects of my protagonist’s character that have not yet been seen in the book?
(3) Is there conflict on every page of this scene? If yes, is my protagonist causing some of the conflict?
(4) Does the conflict arise organically? In other words, does it seem to be a natural outcropping of a person with my protagonist’s passions, skills, and background walking into this particular situation?
(5) Does this scene change the protagonist’s situation with respect to the plot? Is either the plot or an important interrelationship between the characters somehow different after the scene than before it? If not, is this scene absolutely necessary?
(6) Is my protagonist doing or saying something to try to affect the outcome or change the relationships here? Is the protagonist integrally involved in that change, or merely an observer of it?
(7) If the scene contains dialogue, is my protagonist an active conversational partner? (Hint: if Paul’s linguistic contributions consist of “What?” “What do you mean?” “How is that possible?” and/or “Really?” you should consider tossing out his lines and writing him some new ones.)
(8) If my protagonist is not saying much (or anything), does he care about what’s going on? If he doesn’t feel that the situation warrants intervention yet, are the stakes high enough for the reader to worry about the outcome of this conflict? If not, is this scene necessary to keep?
#8 may seem like a harsh assessment, but make no mistake about it, to the eye of someone who reads hundreds of submissions, a protagonist who observes conflict, rather than getting actively involved in it, seems as though he doesn’t care very much about what’s going on. Or, to translate this into the language of the industry: if the protagonist isn’t passionate about what’s going on here, why should the reader be?