The Truth About Passive Protagonists

“Put yourself in the hero’s shoes and you can see that it’s a difficult passage. You’re being asked to say yes to a great unknown, to an adventure that will be exciting but also dangerous and even life threatening. It wouldn’t be a real adventure otherwise. You stand at a threshold of fear, and an understandable reaction would be to hesitate or even refuse the Call, at least temporarily.” (The Writer’s Journey 1999 p107)        

* * * * * * * * * * 

I venture to say that most of us writers have at some point created a passive protagonist.

I remember looking at my manuscript in an entirely different light the day I realized my main character had done nothing to further conflict in my novel. NOTHING.

Everything happened to her. Poor girl. 🙂 I had created a victim of circumstance, unwilling to participate in her own story, and I knew this was an issue I had to correct.

So…I began researching Active vs. Passive Protagonists. And guess what? There are times when it’s okay to be passive.

  1. In the very beginning of the story, before the main character gets ambushed by the Inciting Incident. Life is usually still normal here. **Note: The protagonist can still be active here if they cause the Inciting Incident. (See post by Jean Lorrah)
  2. Just after the Inciting Incident: It would be understandable for a character to be a reluctant hero once they learn that their world is not what it seems. Though this is usually temporary, characters can have a time of refusal to participate here.
  3. At the end of Act II: The impossible task. The darkest hour. That all is lost moment. It’s when what will be will be and it’s happening to the protagonist whether they want it to or not.  Blake Snyder says this about this moment of passiveness:

 “I don’t know why we have to see this moment, but we do. It’s the ‘Oh Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?’ beat. I think it works because, once again, it’s primal. We’ve all been there – hopeless, clueless, drunk, and stupid – sitting on the side of the road with a flat tire and four cents, late for a big appointment that will save our lives. Then and only then, when we admit our humility and our humanity, and yield our control of events over to Fate, do we find the solution”. (Save the Cat 2005 pp88-89)

NOW!!! Keep in mind…That is only three instances out of an entire book (hopefully filled with conflict) that a protagonist should be passive.

The rest of the time, the protagonist should actively participate in creating chaos within her world. This is the plot, people! The meat of the story!

To do that in your manuscript, stick to the basic cause and effect. One event causes another. The cause is why it happens, the effect is what happens as a result.

Give your protagonist a goal.  Make her want something so badly she’d give up her life for it.

Then…..put it far, far out of reach.  Like on the moon.

Make her struggle to attain her goal.  Make her fail.  Miserably.  Watch the situation worsen with each attempt.  This is what builds tension and leads to the climax.

With each conflict, more about the protagonist should also be revealed.  She will inevitably change.  As I’ve said before...we are all products of our experiences.  We grow and change with each struggle in our life.  Characters are no different.

So there you have it!  Though there are instances passiveness is okay, the main character should actively drive the plot forward through a series of cause/effect events.

For more info on this topic, read these great posts:

Does Your Protagonist Protag?  By Beverly Diehl @ Writing In Flow
The Character Driven Plot  By Jean Lorrah @ SimeGen Inc.
Passive Protagonists?  By Trevor Mayes @ Scriptwrecked
Structure and Plot  By Elements of a Novel (Great post on ThreeAct Structure)

And good luck!

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  1. I LOVE Save the Cat. Awesome book!

    Great post! I think this is often one of the things we struggle with the most (especially in first drafts) because, in real life we tend to let things happen to us and react to them accordingly. But what works in real life doesn't really work in fiction…so changing the mindset of our main characters takes a little practice.

  2. Thanks for including a link – and you (and Save the Cat) are absolutely right about there being beats where it's okay, in fact, desirable to be passive. Because we can't hook into a character swirling around like the Tasmanian Devil, 24/7, either.

    I love the "put it out of her reach, like on the moon."

  3. This is an awesome post and you should feel awesome for posting it. I'm particularly intrigued by your – and Snyder's – description of #3, because it's one I have in my manuscript and cherish, but never realized how common (and visceral) it truly is.

  4. Beverly…You are very welcome! And I do believe in making a protagonist struggle 🙂

    And Rick! Nice to hear from you and glad you liked the post. I too love Snyder's explanation. Visceral is the perfect word to describe that moment.