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.