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Monday, July 1, 2019

The Passive Value Heroine

Probably the majority of us have brainstormed or written her at some point, but if we haven't done that, we have encountered her, even if we didn't realized it. She's a reoccurring character type with a long history, and as a trope, she probably has a name, but I don't know what it is.

So I call her the passive value heroine.

She's a protagonist, a main viewpoint character, or a side character. Actually, she pretty much can be in any role.

But she's a female character that is valued based on what she is, rather than what she does.

Thus, her value is based on a passive trait. Not something she chose. Not something she harnessed and worked at. Something she just is.

In contrast, the passive value hero almost never appears (at least from my experience--I mean, right now, I can't think of a single one). Rarely, it seems, are males only valued solely based on what they are.

The passive value heroine can be problematic for obvious reasons.

But she's not always bad and can be balanced out or handled in successful ways.

She still appears in successful stories.

So don't feel like you have to scratch her out completely. But it's helpful to be aware of her.

But why does she keep appearing all over the place and in our writing? Even when more than ever, we are pushing for active female characters? Even when we are trying to write pro-feminist heroines, she's there. Even when she's meant to be a "strong female" lead, it's actually her, in disguise.

If you've written her, you aren't crazy. You aren't a woman-hater. And you aren't a jerk.

The reality is, she's been prevalent in storytelling for so long, that a lot of us just grab her without realizing who she is. It's subconscious.

The passive value heroine goes way back in history. I know for a fact she goes clear back to the King Arthur legends, but I'm sure she probably goes back even further than that.

The passive value heroine goes back to the King Arthur legends, and is probably even older.

You see, back in the day, in most dominating societies, female characters were valued based on passive traits. Usually these traits were things like virginity, innocence, and beauty.

Knights and male leads would revere her, go to battle, even die for her, to protect and uphold her. 

Look at those traits though. They are all passive. Virginity isn't even necessarily the exact same as being chaste. A woman could be taken advantage of, losing her virginity against her will, but still be chaste in spirit. (Okay, this could go on a historical tangent, so let's move on.) Innocence is just something someone is--it's based on a lack of experience of the world. Likewise, beauty is the same. Sure, in today's day and age, we can enhance our appearance and look more beautiful, but traditionally (and some would still argue this today) beauty is just something some people have.

Likewise, a lot of these sorts of traits are qualities that encourage inaction and inexperience. Obviously a virgin is someone who doesn't have sexual experience. Someone who is naive and innocent lacks experience of the world. And often the enemy of beauty is aging--which just comes with the experience of time.

It's kinda crazy, but in one sense, by having stories where males are willing to fight and die for their women who exemplify these qualities, we are a shaping a thought process, an ideology, that states that a passive woman is a most valuable woman, which is also a great way to keep women from progressing and being active in society.

But this idea has been perpetuated through centuries, even through the millennia.

Even today, when we try to write "strong female protagonists," a lot of us try to do it by giving the heroine a super powerful ability that she just has or is just born with.

She just is the strongest hero.

She just is the best shield.

She just is the key to saving the world.

She just is crazy talented at X.

She just is the best fighter.

In some cases, the value may be something she does obtain, but the choice for her to become or obtain said attribute, is made by other people, not her.

Someone else made her the most powerful superhero, without her consent.

Someone else did something that made her crazy talented at X.

Someone else marked her as the chosen one.

Now this doesn't mean that every female character like this is horrible and we're bad writers and this is the end of the world. But it's something we should be aware of and check in with from time to time.

Don't go overboard and run to the other extreme . . . with a similar result.

On the flip side, I don't necessarily think we all need to go write stories about heroines who aren't virgins; have so much worldly experience, they are cynical; or that are super ugly (spoiler: "ugly" is arguably still a passive trait).

Sometimes by trying to fix what we perceive to be "weak" or "passive" heroines, we go overboard to the other extremes. And (kind of hilariously) end up on just another passive value, like ugliness. (Or, instead of being weak and powerless, she's incredibly strong and powerful, and yet it's still manifested as a passive trait because of how it is handled in the story.)

Instead, we might need to write more heroines who have active value. They have value because of what they choose to do, because of talent they've worked to develop, because of experience they've made a point to gain.

A lot of times, these things may come from unexpected or unobvious areas. But at least some of her value to the story, to the other characters, to herself, and to her society, needs to come from what she actively chooses to do and be. Not what she just is or has done to her.

Sometimes I wonder if in our quest to write more "strong female heroines," we've in a strange way become afraid of rendering true active traits. Active traits don't just happen. They require personal decisions. Even sacrifices. They require actual work. And often the most rewarding active traits come from hard work, which means moments of vulnerability and struggle. Not un-ending invincibility. In fact, sometimes being vulnerable is one of the strongest things a heroine can do in a moment. And in order for a struggle to actually be a struggle, it shouldn't be something she can easily do or obtain the first time.

In our quest to write "strong female heroines" don't be afraid to let her have weaknesses, be vulnerable, and legitimately struggle. We want to avoid extremes (usually). We may not want her weak and passive about everything. But we may not want her to be powerful and invincible with everything either. (In most stories anyway. There are absolutely exceptions, and stories where that is the point. I'm using this as a generality.)

Okay, so what do you do if you have a largely passive value heroine? Are you an awful person who needs to delete the whole story? Can you never have a passive value heroine?

Of course not.

Passive value heroines can be hecka interesting in their own way.

After all, passive values actually exist. There are people who are just amazingly naturally talented at something. There are people who are just naturally drop-dead gorgeous. There are people who are so naturally goodhearted, that you may want to take on an army to keep them from being eaten alive by the world.


You (often) need to balance that passive value out with some active values. Even if it's not always obvious.

She needs to be making her own significant decisions.

She needs to be working to develop something.

She needs to be gaining some of her own experience.

You can also find ways for a heroine to develop, enhance, or take advantage of her passive values intentionally, to be more active. Maybe she is weirdly, crazy good at playing the piano. Well, so what? What does she choose to do with that? How can she actively use that to contribute to the plot? And affect other characters?

Is she naturally drop-dead gorgeous? What can she choose to do with that? What sort of choices would someone like that make? What struggles will she be confronted with that she'll have to find ways to actively overcome? Life ain't always easy for the beautiful woman.

Vanya is largely a passive value heroine

If you've been online or around, you're probably aware that The Umbrella Academy on Netflix is making waves. And guess what? One of the main characters is largely a passive value heroine. If you haven't seen it and plan to, I definitely recommend you don't read the rest of this paragraph and skip the next one. But if you have, let's talk about some things. Who is the strongest superhero in the show? Vanya. Guess what? She's full of passive value. Not only does she have a power she was just born with (like all the others), but it's the most powerful ability, and it's the most uncontrolled ability. That's a passive value heroine. To make matters worse, she believes she's normal and doesn't have any ability--why? Because someone else made the decision for her (cue entry of the patriarchy, if you want to go that direction, analytically), that she needed to believe she was normal and take medication. Forever. Through her life, she has things done to her.

But she at least has some active outlet she works on. Her violin. And she works hard at it. But then her boyfriend enters the story, and she starts discovering her powers. But guess what? It's the boyfriend making the decisions. It's the boyfriend "giving" her the ability back (patriarchy strikes again). And yet, with all that said, we see her make some of her own decisions. There is her violin, yes, but she makes her own relationship decisions. She writes her own book. She ultimately chooses to use and control her power. So she's not all passive value. She's a good example of a passive value heroine that I feel works.

So, it can be pulled off and successful.

But ultimately we need to be careful that not all her value is passive.

And we should seek out and create moments that illustrate her active value just as well.


  1. I would argue that passive value is independent of gender. And passive value male characters are just as prevalent. In fact, Sir Lancelot was valued by Arthur precisely for his virtue. He appears in the story fully formed--passive value by what you write above. Interestingly, one could argue both the passive value of Lancelot and Guinevere are necessary to deliver the punch of the story that has resonated for centuries.

    Almost any character that follows the mentor pattern has passive values given to them, and given just so that they are valued as a mentor. Gandalf, for example. Sure, he becomes active later, but is quite passive in the Hobbit.

    I agree there isn't anything wrong with it. Motion is focus--like on the stage. The main characters take actions and make the big choices, and supporting characters only do so when it's important to the story.

    Interestingly, in a series a character may start out very active and then in later books be quite passive. We see this in the character of Cordelia in Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga. I think this works very well as the passive traits are then "earned" by an earlier active role.

    What bothers me about a lot of "politically correct fiction" is how crowded the stage is. Everyone is trying to be everything. Passive support roles are absolutely critical to real life, and when they are missing in fiction the story becomes hollow and adolescent in depth.

    1. Thanks for adding your insight to this post. After I posted it, I got to thinking there probably were more passive value male characters. I personally still feel that this is more of a common thing for female characters that are intended to be characters we focus directly on, like protagonists or close to protagonists (in degree).


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