There are many types of characters in fiction—villain, mentor, etc.—and each is important to any story. But none is more important than that of the protagonist. A Protagonist, after all, is the person which the conflict and action focuses around (not to be confused with the narrator, as The Great Gatsby has proven). They are the driving force of the plot. That is, they should be.
In this essay I want to examine a dangerous trend I have been noticing in modern writing. That is, the usage of a passive protagonist which, frankly, ruins an entirely fine book. I will also be talking about some ways that I and other authors have avoided this easily fallen pitfall. But first, let me help you understand exactly was a passive character is.
What is a Passive Protagonist?
As I said earlier, a protagonist is the character which drives the plot. Well, a passive protagonist is exactly the opposite of that. Instead of driving the action, they instead are pulled along for the ride. As Shipwrecked.com correctly states, the traits of a passive protagonist include “has no strong desire; doesn’t make decisions; doesn’t pursue a goal; reactive, instead of active, as a rule; allows someone else to dictate their fate.”
One example that annoys me is Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Just about the only active decision she makes throughout the series is to take her sister’s place as tribute to fight in the games. Besides that, she makes no active decision about her future. She does not have a goal she is working towards and instead is just surviving in the present.
She allows herself to be manipulated (thankfully by relatively good characters) and really can never make up her mind about anything (whether in romance or loyalty). Admittedly, in the last book she is a bit better (but just a bit), but the first two books are aggravating to read because she is supposed to be such a powerful figure of rebellion when she doesn’t really rebel at all.
Now, not all passive protagonists are detrimental to the quality of a book. Take Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Shadow is very passive and yet oddly enough the book would feel wrong with all the power surrounding him if he was not passive. In this sense, I am not saying that all passive protagonists are horrible—just most of them are. And, if you don’t know how to play with troupes in an interesting way, I suggest just avoiding them to begin with.
How to Avoid Passive Protagonists
So, you’re writing a book. Maybe you have already finished it or you’re just coming up with ideas. Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your main character to inhibit them from falling into the dreaded “passive protagonist” troupe.
Behavior with Other Characters
Does the protagonist have their own opinion when talking with other characters (whether they vocalize it or not)?
Do they not do what they are told by others, even those in power positions over them? And if they do obey those characters, do they have an active reason for doing so (for example, they want to learn something)?
Perhaps the protagonist is passive in the beginning and allows people to drag them around (like Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), but do they eventually come into themselves and take a more active role in the action by the end?
Does the protagonist have an active goal they are working towards (such as, a detective hunting a murderer)?
Do they have an active motivation for working towards their goal (the man in hunting the murderer who killed his beloved family)?
Even if they are distracted or stray away from their goal, do they come back with determination?
Do they work actively against the villain/antagonist or do they simply sit back and let what happens happen?
Maybe your character does have a goal, but do they not do anything about it? Are they constantly complaining about how they want change something but never do anything to actively change it? This is a sign of a passive protagonist.
Hopefully these ideas will help you create protagonists who successfully propel the plot towards success. Saying that, like I said, not all passive protagonists are horrible, but using these types of characters lightly in books without understanding the dangers can lead to disastrous results which turn a good book into a mediocre monstrosity.
What are some of your favorite books that actually succeed in employing passive protagonists? Which books really annoy you for featuring such a character? And, as always,
Best wishes on your life full of adventure,