As an editor, one of the most common problems I see in stories and novels is the passive protagonist. The author clearly wants a character to be the main one — the point of view character who the reader is supposed to follow. Yet this character doesn’t act, merely reacts to the things happening around them. Often the key reveals or actions are carried out by other characters while the hero merely observes, comments, and goes along for the ride. After a while you wonder why you are following this person at all.
Of course, passive observing characters have their place in fiction — take John Watson of the Holmes stories — but as a rule we want our protagonists to have agency. So why do so many beginning and even experienced writers have passive characters — at least in their first or second drafts?
I’ve recently come up with a theory for that — are you surprised I would do that? Every writer begins life as a reader of books and a watcher of movies. We are the passive protagonist. We go along with the story, reacting emotionally, intellectually, even physically but we have no role to play in the action, only in our reaction to it. We might imagine different outcomes but all we can do is urge our heroes along, wish them to do the right thing, because we wish to do the right thing.
So when we become writers we still have that passive observer in our head and when we try to put our heroes — ourselves – into the story, we get a reactive observer instead of a hero with agency.
Pretty simple, maybe even trite, but there is a life lesson here, too.
Too often we see wrong being done. We may, in our heads, be outraged. Maybe we even go home and say to our partner: you won’t believe what I saw today. We might even write it down — work out our moral indignation on paper. But really it is not enough.
As citizens we need to take agency. We cannot be passive reactors to wrongdoing — especially when the wrongdoing is committed by people who should know better. Sometimes taking agency is dangerous — we’ve heard several stories recently of what happened to those who tried to stand up to bullying or harassment. Now they are heroes — unfortunately dead ones. But agency doesn’t have to be dangerous.
We live in a democratic society, we have means to make sure good things happen and especially that those — like police officers — live up to our highest standards, instead of being let off the hook. We can demand the politicians stop giving lip service to the right thing — as Minister Fantino has done with respect to veterans — and start doing the right thing.
That is our choice and that is our responsibility – if we want to be heroes in our own story.
But that’s ten minutes.