Don’t Write about Passive Observers—Like You


Don’t Write about Passive Observers—Like You

I know you are not a passive observer in your life. But you might be in your writing.

Writers, by their very nature, observe life. This is good for your writing in providing interesting-looking people, like the man with the enormous beard or the woman with the three dogs, whom you can turn into characters or involve in a plot.

But this penchant, when coupled with the edict to write what you know, can lead you to assume that observant, reflective, and/or dreamy characters make good protagonists.

They do not.

(But there are always exceptions to the rule. Witness Hamlet. But you need Shakespeare like talent to pull it off so, for the rest of us mortals, we need to stick with non-passive protagonists.)

They don’t work because of what readers expect of a story.

What readers expect from stories

Ask a reader what she expects from a story and you’ll likely get a blank stare. Which is right since it’s not her job to know. But it is yours. Your reader is unconsciously expecting the plot to roll out in what we call story arcs.

There are any number of story arcs so pick on which fits your tale. But mostly, they go something like:

  1. There is an opening state—i.e., how things are before the story starts. Middletown was a quiet place for the most part, except for football season.
  2. There is a change to the status quo or a threat to the protagonist. The team’s quarterback has been injured during the summer.
  3. The protagonist struggles toward his goal. He needs to find the person who set up his accident.
  4. There is a crisis. The point of greatest tension. The attacker is his best friend. What should he do?
  5. There is some kind of resolution. The quarterback takes revenge, forgives, etc.

Stories need active not passive characters

Somewhere around steps two and three, the danger of bogging down raises its head.  Confronted with a threat, the protagonist may be filled with angst and doubt. Which is fine but a little goes a long way. If the protagonist keeps going on and on, your reader will get impatient. It is a matter of **** or get off the pot.

At some point, the protagonist must take action to overcome the threat.  If he doesn’t, it isn’t a story and your reader will know that, however unconsciously.

How do you know if you might have a passive protagonist?

This is not an exhaustive list but here are some ideas:

  • As discussed above, if the protagonist spends a lot of time wringing his hands and worrying about the consequences of the actions contemplated. Again, some is fine; a lot is overkill.
  • Stories with frames. Some novels start with “It must have been twenty years since I thought about it.” Although this was once a popular way to write, this format can force the narrator into the passive role of telling the story. Get rid of the frame and show the narrator/protagonist fighting for what he wants.
  • The protagonist does NOT have a series of obstacles to overcome. If there is just one big goal which the protagonist spends a lot of time wondering how to tackle, you may have an over-thinker. But if he keeps trying different ways to accomplish his goal or there are a set of steps which must be completed to achieve it, then you are good to go.

You need to understand the underlying structure of a story so that you can give your reader a tale which she can’t put down.

Too Many Characters

Too Many Characters

You sometimes find yourself writing a story with a lot of characters. A jury trial, for example, or a large family, or a gang. At times, it is unavoidable; you don’t usually call two nasty people a gang and you can’t pretend in your memoir that you don’t have six siblings.

But the writing problem created by this can be indistinguishable characters. The reader can’t keep the different people straight. Is Mary the crazy cousin or the successful lawyer? Didn’t Alfred die a couple of chapters ago? This makes for at least confusing and often annoying reading.

Dealing with many characters

Dickens dealt with this question by giving his players memorable names. Mr. Pumblechook and Uriah Heep from Great Expectations, Peggotty from David Copperfield, etc.  This is not usually a device open to the modern writer unless there is comic intent. But you can tackle this issue in other ways.

Don’t use similar names. In particular, don’t start major figures’ names, or minor ones who interact with the major ones, with the same letter. Mary talking to Marg about Melanie. I understand that there might be some reluctance to rename relatives in your memoir, so if ‘John’ is a tradition in your family, you will have to work really hard to ensure that the reader has a distinctive picture of each ‘John.’  This may not suit the story to elaborate on every ‘John’ kicking around, so you may need to consistently use another identifier. ‘Cambridge John’ or ‘Toronto John’ could help.

  If you can, also steer clear of similar sounding names—Hamish and Amish, Bonnie and Ronnie.

Focus on a few.  In the classic jury trial, 12 Angry Men, we don’t get to know all twelve jurors equally well. The screen writer focused on a few to interact with Henry Fonda, the hero of the piece. The other jurors might throw in the occasional independent comment or contribute to the general disagreement with Henry Fonda’s character, but they don’t get highlighted.

  This is probably true for your narrative. Even with a cast of hundreds, you still need to concentrate on telling the story of relatively few.

Introduce them one at a time. Although you won’t want to spend as much time as you would with a primary figure, introduce each of the minor figures you want to include one at a time. Doesn’t have to be a long scene but pairing the new character with an already established one will help fix the new player in the reader’s mind.

Include a cast of characters. If all else fails, you can include a cast of characters at the beginning of the novel. And believe me, I was very grateful for the list when reading many Russian novels.

Doesn’t this take focus away from the main protagonist?

You may be concerned that spending time introducing the minor characters will take the focus away from the central character. First of all, remember that you only need to do this with the relatively few of the cast who will interact with the hero of the novel. Secondly, pairing the protagonist with the minor character being introduced can also be used to learn something more about the main figure by how he deals with the minor ones.

Typically, exploring the interactions among a few characters in a novel is both easier to write (I’m not saying ‘easy’) but also clearer for the reader. But if your heart is set on a trilogy of sweeping historical novels, you can use these techniques to avoid making the reader work harder than he has to and risking breaking the continuous dream.

Deathless Prose


Deathless Prose

Whether we admit it or not, deep down and at 2:00 in the morning, we think that every piece of prose we write is a gem which must be preserved. That’s why writers keep copies of everything they’ve ever written (you know you do). I create an ‘extras’ file into which I deposit all the bits of writing which don’t fit this story but might have a place in some other piece of deathless prose. (Almost never happens.)

And honestly, why shouldn’t we? Don’t we write because we have something to say? Didn’t we start this journey for that reason? Why delete our attempts to do so?

Yes, of course, but I think we all need to get over ourselves. Keep all the files, by all means, but we need to lose the idea that every piece is worthy of publication.

Writing prose for the sake of

I know this sounds harsh but if we expect/assume that everything we write has to be published, it discourages writing.  You may avoid:

  • Learning a particular technique like foreshadowing or flashback
  • Working out a problem in the story
  • Doing backstory to understand the character better
  • Experimenting with different endings, openings, characters, etc.

Worst of all, assuming that everything you write should be published can morph into I should write only for publication. And then that really dampens your willingness to play or otherwise access your creativity.

Benefits of launching many expendable pieces[1]

‘Wasting’ time on pieces which aren’t in the ‘must publish’ file will help your writing in the long run because you can:

  • Stop work on something which has done what you needed it to
  • Let go a lovely piece of prose which slows the action or confuses the reader
  • Allow yourself the freedom to move on, not just because the piece isn’t working, but also maybe because you are bored with it or your interest has moved elsewhere.

You still need persistence

None of this should be interpreted as urging you to avoid working to perfect your pieces, or to trying to get your work published, or that you are not ready for prime time. But a more relaxed view on the need to publish gives you permission to throw in the towel if you need to.

[1] I know this is something the writer William Stafford said, but damned if I can find the actual quote, Sorry.

Categorizing Reader Opinion


Categorizing Reader Opinion

In the last post, I suggested you decide on your own how to treat reader opinion of a piece of your writing or memoir. That leaves the question open, of course, on how to decide which to keep. Here’s my not-very-rocket-science way of doing it.

The obvious

This one is, well, obvious. Spelling mistakes, seasons of the year out of whack, missing one place where you changed the character’s name from Wendy to Sue. These are no brainers but are nevertheless valuable as you need to fix them at some point.

This category you change immediately.

The doubtful opinion

Sometimes you’re not sure whether the feedback is applicable. Here are some examples:

The opinion

Why you’re doubtful

The historical period you’re writing about doesn’t seem real or credible

If you know the period well, you might be unsure that this is a piece of feedback worth taking. Follow-on question might be: Were there particular points which didn’t seem credible to you?

The premise of two cats talking is not particularly funny

Well, you think it’s funny. The definition of funny is wide so you should try it out on others. Follow-on question: Can you point out where you didn’t think the humor worked?

The main character’s constant malapropism is annoying

You think it gives the character an eccentric appeal—at least that’s what you were going for. Follow-on question: Is it the quirk itself that is annoying or its frequency of use?

The subordinate characters take the spotlight off the main protagonist.

This surprises you as you know whom you intended to be the key character. Follow-on question: Where (i.e. what scenes) did you feel that the subordinate characters dominated the main one?

In all these cases, feedback from other readers would be helpful to allow you decide whether or not you agree with the initial feedback.

The rejected

Okay, so you’ve gotten a range of feedback and the consensus seems to be that the cats really aren’t funny.

Generally speaking, it probably makes sense to look at your piece to see if it is salvageable or whether it is destined for the trash heap.

The only exception is if, all the feedback notwithstanding, you still believe in the potential of the piece. You might take some of the minor suggestions but fundamentally, you feel it works.

While I think this category should be used sparingly (i.e. not like Fred), it should be used. You need to think hard on it before you reject the reader reaction (especially consensus) but if you feel strongly about a point, do it. After all, whose writing is it anyway?

Using Feedback Well


Using Feedback Well

In the previous post, both the defensive writer and the one who accepts all feedback are not doing themselves any favors.

Dealing well with feedback is a three stage process.


First of all, when you are receiving feedback, just listen. Take notes if useful but the key thing is to listen. Sheila has this stage down pat. For the Freds in the world, listening is not simply keeping quiet or running counter arguments in your head until the others stop talking. This is not listening—that’s just not putting your hands over your ears.

Try to take in what’s being said. And say nothing. I repeat this for Fred. Say nothing.


The time to speak is when the feedback is finished. But (Fred) not to jump into the defenses you’ve been storing up. Nor (Sheila) the time to thank everyone and vow to make all the changes suggested.

You want to make sure you understand the feedback, whether or not you agree with it. Possible questions:

  • You said you couldn’t understand Alfonso’s motivation. So the paragraph on page 5 wasn’t enough? What else would be needed?
  • One of you thought the flashback was too long. Does everybody feel that way?
  • Patty thought that Melissa needed to be more wild and crazy while Donald wanted Melissa more introspective. Could you tell me how each of you came to your conclusion?

This is a period of clarification, not defense of the best laid plans of mice and men.

Decide on your own

After the feedback session, and in a quiet time with a glass of wine, go over each comment. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Review each comment seriously, making sure you understand the point. If there’s a split opinion, read over why each person felt the way they did and choose the one which makes the most sense to you or ignore both suggestions if you don’t feel they fit.
  • What to do with consensus opinions. If there was general agreement on a point, this is important information. But it still doesn’t mean you automatically make that change. Consider whether this change is taking the piece in the direction you want to go. Will it help or take you off course? If the latter, then even a unanimous view may not be enough to make you change it.
  • This is your work not a composite effort and only you can decide what changes are improvements. If the suggestion helps the piece, great. If it doesn’t, then it’s okay not to take it.

Balancing belief in self with listening to feedback

You are after a Sheila-Fred amalgam. Be Sheila in the feedback session itself, with the addition of ensuring you understand the reasoning behind the comments. But when you are later considering what to change, be a little more Fred (although don’t take it too far). You should take the piece in the direction you feel is right. Hold onto that when you consider what changes you will make.

 The next post will help you make the decisions on which piece of feedback you’ll accept and which you will not.