Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Active versus Passive main characters

I love Alex Cavanaugh's Insecure Writer's Support Group - whenever I see writers sharing insecurities it makes me sigh with relief - oh yeah that's how I feel too! So it's long past due time for me to share some of my insecurities.

My biggest insecurity? That readers will think my writing (and my ideas) are weird and un-relatable.

Another big one? My main characters tend to be passive, introverted types (like me, huh, imagine that!) Everyone wants STRONG main characters. Pro-active main characters. People who make daring and risky choices and speak up boldly!

In my first novel, my character never made any choices or did much of anything active except follow others. Things kept happening to her, pulling her and pushing her this way and that. My wonderful fellow writer/critiquer, code name Lorvallis Scholar, pointed out, "your protagonists needs to protag!"

And forcing my character to make a choice early on in the story was definitely the best thing that ever happened to that story; it was a revelation.

So in the next three stories I've tackled, I've forced all my protagonists to make a tough choice early on.

But somehow after that choice they revert to their passive, introspective nature again - thinking about things but not actively pursuing things. I constantly fight this tendency. If I make them too active and loud and blustery, it feels all off to me. Even though I love active, mouthy, bold main characters in other books. I adore them!

But then again, I also love main characters like Meg in A Wrinkle in Time. Sure, she makes a choice (near the end of the book). But most of the book she's being pulled along by Mrs. Whatsit and company and by her little brother Charles Wallace. Her little brother is more active than she is!

Another favorite character is Harry Crewe in The Blue Sword. She gets kidnapped and doesn't even fight it! She's carried along by a strange magic, kelar, and doesn't make a truly active choice until near the end of the story (but wow. what a choice). And though at first I really questioned myself why I would like a girl like this,  who doesn't fight her kidnapper  and even falls in love with him (ewww the Stockholm syndrome!) the author does an commendable job of developing the plot so there is a very good reason why Corlath needs to kidnap her, and why she doesn't resist him until she needs to resist him.

Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo is a more recent example. Alina is as mousy and uncertain and indecisive as they come! But I love her story. She makes some bold choices but again they don't come until near the end.  Hey, come to think of it, Girl of Fire and Thorn by Rae Carson is another one.

So now that I've faced my insecurity about having a passive main character, I have to face the insecurity of building a strong enough plot (like the four stellar examples above!) to make such a character believable and  relatable and not just "I wish she'd grow a backbone!"

I used the image of Katniss Everdeen and Bella Swan because it's a famous contrast of a strong female character that speaks her mind, and everyone admires, versus a passive helplessly-in-love girl that lately everyone seems to despise.

Now I'm way too insecure (ha ha) to tackle the Katniss vs. Bella issue myself, but there are opposing views on what makes a strong female character out there, like this one. Stuff to think about! But really the bottom line is, everyone has different likes, different desires, different ideals of what they love in a main character. No main character is going to connect with everyone out there.

So we have to believe in what we write (after we have taken the time to be well-informed) , in what ignites our love and drives our imagination, and go for it. Insecurity, begone.


  1. My take on the passive vs. active characters, especially in MG and YA lit, is that the passive, quiet people in life need role models and relatable protags, too - they need to know it's ok to sometimes sit back and let events wash over you, as long as you have the inner strength to stand firm and do something when the time is right (as with all of your examples above). It's only when the characters STAY passive through the entire story that it becomes problematic for me.

    And after all, something the strong, assertive, active protagonists would really benefit from sitting back and observing once in a while, instead of always leaping before they look!

  2. Stina LindenblattApril 3, 2013 at 5:30 AM

    I have no problem with passive characters, unless they get to the point where I'm screaming, "Get a backbone!" Moving from being a passive to active character is part of their character arc. There's nothing wrong with that.

    Good for you, Margo, believing in what you write. It's the only way you can survive the roller coaster ride we're on.

  3. I just peeked at Louise's comment and decided to ax what I was going to write. She's written my thoughts to a T. I will say that sometimes, depending on the story, passive protags can be extremely enticing to the reader as long as the protag ends up learning and developing throughout the story.

  4. I think when the passive character remains passive and still somehow inexplicably gets the guy, the job, the whatever, that it becomes a problem.

    Moody Writing

  5. There's so much to read about writing and so many ideas about what makes a great story or a great character, but what I always hope is that my stories will find the readers who love them and need them. It's hard to think not everyone will love them, but I know it's simply not possible.

    And the passive vs. aggressive debate is so intriguing.

  6. Margo, I have the same struggles with passive, often too-thoughtful characters (mostly because that's the type of person I am!). I usually end up going through my outlines and making sure that my MC is making at least one significant choice in each scene. Tricky, but I find that things move along in a much more interesting way when I force decisions on my MCs.

    As always, good to know I'm not alone. :-)

  7. I absolutely think we need *both* types of characters in our fiction. We aren't all bold, go-for-it, take-no-prisoners people. There are lots of us who are passive. I believe the key is to make these characters stretch - put them out of their comfort zone. It can make for lots of great conflict and tension.

  8. Oo. I can so relate to this post. I tend to write quiet heroines who are beaten down by life, but who are inwardly strong. (A heroine doesn't have to be kicking butt and taking names for me to like her.) I've decided that, while I need to be sure I don't shy away too much from conflict, I have to write my characters the way I see them. If I enjoy them, surely there are other readers who will, too.

    IWSG #131 until Alex culls the list again.
    Welcome to the group. :)

  9. Joylene Nowell ButlerApril 3, 2013 at 12:53 PM

    A lot of great fiction has been written about passive characters. I think the reason the books are so appealing is the characters were quiet, but active. Forging ahead despite their fears. Jane Austen's novels come to mind. I think if you believe in your characters, and are true to their nature, then their story will be just as compelling as those bigger than life characters.

  10. I think if you love stories about quiet characters who blossom late in the book, you should pursue that in your writing. Although some may prefer more active characters, everyone's tastes are different. I think your writing will find its own readers and own niche, and you should believe in yourself.
    Good luck! :-)

  11. Elisabeth KauffmanApril 3, 2013 at 4:00 PM

    I think the key is that someone out there will relate to your character... whether she's passive or active, aggressive or demure, people want to find what resonates with them. I love a good female role-model as much as the next girl, but I think that making fiction into a lesson in assertive behavior for girls can be a bit boring. I agree with Louise (below), passive, quiet people want someone to RELATE to sometimes in literature, not just someone to look up to.

  12. That's the beauty of character arcs, passive characters learning when to speak up and take risks and be bold, and the assertive characters learning to sit back and observe before leaping. I love books with characters that complement each other this way. Thank you for this comment, to believe in the important of a quiet passive character but to keep pushing her!

  13. This is really helpful, thinking about characters not just in terms of someone to look up to, but to relate to. I love a character I can relate to, that also, in the end, is someone I can look up to.

  14. This is an awesome post. I like all kinds of protagonists from Bella to Katniss and Buffy and everyone in between. What I get tired of is all of the protagonists seeming the same. When I read book after book with a tough as nails, emotionally detached, butt kicking heroine. What I want is interesting characters, active or strong, and I do not like being told that all heroines need to be a certain way. Being passive doesn't make you stupid. Sometimes going with the flow is the smartest thing to do.

    I say write your characters the way you seem them. Make them real and complex and interesting, and you're gold. :)

  15. One significant chocie per scene... I'll have to think about that. Does the MC saying "I don't want to answers your questions anymore" count?

  16. I do love to stretch my characters and push them out of their comfort zone!

  17. You put it so well: "hope is that my stories will find the readers who love them and need them" - yes, that's exactly it!

  18. Excellent point. Would it work if they get what they wanted without being active, but then it backfires on them?

  19. "extremely enticing" - yes that's what famous examples that I listed were to me. I need to analyze more why these books became famous (and also just occurred to me, the books are famous, but the characters, not so much!!! Hmmmm)

  20. And a rollercoaster it is! Ha ha I'm going through my own character arc as I'm having to grow a backbone!

  21. Ah, you bring up a very interesting point about passive and active protags. And not that I commonly come to Bella's aid in any discussion, but she does go active. Her choices are not big ballsy I'm-gonna-take-down-the-capital choices, but she does have and make them. She chooses to do things that get her into situations, and she chooses trying to get out of them. In the alley scene, she was moving towards self defense, yes, the vampire saved her, but she wasn't betting on it, she was getting in a position to outrun them. And again, towards the end of the book, she makes all kinds of choices that get her into trouble. So I think there are ways to have your character making choices and choosing their destiny without volunteering as tribute. I think it's a matter of subtlety.

  22. I think one of the main keys is to place the characters in situations outside of their comfort zone, that push them into making choices - even if they are passive. Even Katniss attempts to blend in and hide out up until her sister is selected for the Hunger Games.



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