Sunday, December 7, 2014

How to make passive characters work

Someone on the Absolute Write forums asked why so many readers dislike passive characters, characters who need some time and effort to find their own strength. That made me think about active vs. passive characters, and what makes them work.

1. Genre

It’s going to be very difficult to sell a science fiction novel where the main storyline features a cyborg who thinks a lot about the meaning of life. He can philosophize about the ramifications of melding man with machine until the spacecows come home. But readers of science fiction will be bored, and readers of literary fiction (who might be more open to in-depth character studies) will never have picked up the book in the first place, because if they see “cyborg”, they’re going to assume it’s an action-oriented story.

2. Other aspects of the story

There’s one fantasy novel which features an extremely passive heroine, and that’s Stephen Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams. But I enjoyed other aspects of the story, like the mirror magic, and there were plenty of active characters to balance the heroine out. Plus, there was more of a plot than just Terisa sitting around trying to summon up the courage to do something.

Her passivity also descended into an unusual neurosis: she wasn’t even certain she existed, so she had mirrors all over her apartment. In them, she could see her reflection and know she was still there. That was odd enough to keep me reading until the fantasy part of the tale kicked in.

Likewise, both Rebecca and Wide Sargasso Sea feature heroines who are often passive. But the riveting or evocative parts of the books balanced out the protagonists’ helplessness. There was more to the stories than “this is how Heroine thought about making a change for 300 pages and then finally did it”.

3. Level of passivity.

What’s Melanie’s first spoken dialogue in Gone with the Wind? She says to the man she’s going to marry:

“I fear I cannot agree with you about Mr. Thackeray’s works. He is a cynic. I fear he is not the gentleman Mr. Dickens is.”

Melanie is shy and polite, self-effacing and traditional. But in that moment, she also shows she’s intelligent and has no qualms about disagreeing with a man—her future husband—when it comes to something she feels strongly about. Because of that, I never thought of her as weak, even when she was contrasted with Scarlett’s strength.

A protagonist doesn’t have to be bouncing off the walls Matrix-style to struggle against an antagonist. Paul Sheldon in Misery certainly couldn’t; he was too badly injured. But he found other, subtle ways to fight back, so when he stole a hairpin to pick the lock, that was a great moment.

If he had resigned himself to his fate, or waited wistfully for someone to save him, he’d have been boring to me.

A protagonist needs to make choices, and those choices need to affect the plot.

4. Real life

Sometimes, the writer’s reason for making the character passive is because there are very passive people in real life. For instance, a woman who stays with a man who uses her, because she’s not sure whether she should leave and is scared to be on her own. That’s realistic, right?

Sure, but is it interesting? There are people in real life who spend all day playing computer games or shooting heroin, and I wouldn't want to read about them in fiction. The computer games would be boring and the heroin would be depressing.

That said, I’m the kind of reader who prefers active characters on the whole. There are a lot of readers who don’t, so it’s also a matter of finding your target market. SF fans who want to read about a cyborg contemplating his robo-navel—probably not. Literary fiction fans who want to read about a woman gradually realizing why she’s unhappy in her marriage and what she can do about it? That’s more likely.


Jennifer R. Donohue said...

What a great post! You've picked a good array of books/characters to illustrate your point. Rebecca is one of my favorite books, and I find myself defending Melanie fairly often (though the depth of many of Gone With the Wind's characters is fantastic.

I think it's best for characters to have growth, and if they start passive and work up from there, that's fine. Not everybody can be as cool as they (we) would like right from the get go.

DRC said...

Great post. And then, stick a passive character in a situation that's out of their depth and where they have to make choices and take action, and you have your character's growth and conflict :)

Marian Perera said...

Glad you liked the post, Jennifer. It was inspired by a great discussion. :)

And yeah, no matter what Gone with the Wind's faults, the characters are amazing. Mitchell is one of the few authors who wrote a love triangle I enjoyed.

DRC - yes, that's a great way to make me like a passive character. Some of my favorite women's fiction reads start out with the heroine being passive and sheltered, but circumstances soon force her to wake up and take control of her life.