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Monday, January 4, 2021

Getting Passive Protagonists to Act


Many beginning writers struggle with protagonists who are too passive. The plot seems to constantly be happening to him or her, but the protagonist doesn’t take an action to make the plot happen. 

Ideally, when an event happens to a protagonist, the protagonist responds by taking an action that influences the next event, which then influences the protagonist, which then influences an event—and on and on. But that can be easier said than done. Especially if you have a protagonist who prefers to live life passively.

This could all get confusing, though, because in story structure, almost all protagonists will more or less become more proactive. But for the sake of this post, I'm talking about protagonists who are characteristically passive. A protagonist who may want to kick up his feet in a hammock with a glass of lemonade and watch the world deal with its own problems. How do we write a story about that guy?

Many people will tell you that you can't--you must change the character. 

But that is not wholly true. 

It's true in a good story, we need the protagonist to act--especially at key moments--but that doesn't mean he innately yearns to act. 

Often the best solution in dealing with a passive character is to strengthen the stakes. Let me explain.


Anyone will Act with the Right Stakes

The stakes are potential consequences; they are what are at risk in the story. We often think of them as negative things (someone's life may be at risk), but they can also be positive things (the opportunity to be taught by a professional in your ideal vocation). 

Stakes are important because if there is nothing at risk, then what happens, doesn't really matter, which means what the protagonist does, doesn't really matter, because it doesn't change any outcomes. The story only matters insomuch as we understand potential outcomes. The protagonist's choices only matter if they affect the outcomes.

For example, we only care about Frodo destroying the Ring because we know doing so could rid Middle-earth of Sauron’s evil. If we didn't know that, what happened with the Ring wouldn't really matter. And what Frodo did wouldn't carry any weight. (You can learn more about stakes in my article "How to Write Stakes in Storytelling.")

When struggling with getting a passive protagonist to act, (almost) always look at the stakes. 


No Stakes

Make sure that you’ve at least laid out stakes. Sometimes writers feel like the stakes are obvious, so they don't mention them. Just as bad, if not worse, the stakes may be too vague. And definitely worse: nonexistent.

If the protagonist doesn't have anything clearly to gain or lose, why would she act? If what happened to the Ring didn't change something, why would Frodo go to Mount Doom? Why would any of us do anything if it didn't make some kind of difference?

In a case like this, clear stakes need to be on the page. 

Let's look at some examples of what one might consider passive people within the context of their stories. 

Shrek wants nothing more than to live alone on his swamp. If there is nothing at risk, is he really going to go on an adventure to rescue a princess? Probably not.

In The Edge of Tomorrow, I think it could be argued that the protagonist, Bill Cage (played by Tom Cruise) is somewhat passive in relation to the main conflict. The story is about him fighting in a war against aliens, but he has absolutely no desire whatsoever to enter combat--in fact, he's a coward. You think he would sign up to be the first in combat out of the goodness of his heart? No way. 

In Trigun by Yasuhiro Nightow, protagonist Vash would rather spend all day, every day eating donuts, playing with kids, and helping out the person down the street. He'd rather live life under an alias than face the fact he's the only one capable of standing up to the antagonist and saving the human race. 

If none of these characters ever had anything at risk, then they would have never taken the actions they needed to, to move the story forward. They would have been forever passive. 

In short, they only acted once there were stakes.


Wrong Stakes

If there are stakes on the page, and the character still isn't acting, then chances are they are either the wrong stakes (things she doesn’t care about) or the stakes are too small (the potential consequences don’t pose a real threat or a meaningful gain).

If they are the wrong stakes, you need to think about what the protagonist cares about and put it in jeopardy. We all care about something--whether that’s a reputation or a pet. 

For a passive person, you might need to dig deeper and brainstorm longer to figure out what it is. And if you are having trouble, keep in mind that it's also possible the passive protagonist wants something for someone else or his environment. Maybe she's satisfied drinking lemonade and getting picked on, but she's not okay with her kid getting bullied--that's not something she can let happen.

Shrek mostly cares about living alone on his swamp. If his distant neighbor is at risk of dying in loneliness, Shrek's likely not going to do much about it. The best way to get him to act, is to put his home and lifestyle at risk. He will be willing to take action to save that. 

Bill is afraid of dying (it's part of what makes him a coward). If he's put in a situation where he could die, he'll be forced to act.

Vash is obsessed with saving people. Children, friends, innocents, criminals. It doesn't matter who. He doesn't want anyone to die. If no one is at risk of dying, then it's unlikely he will be drawn to fight his antagonists. Almost always he is led to act because someone's life is at risk.

Small Stakes

If the stakes are too small, you need to make them bigger by making them broader or more personal.

Even the most passive person is unlikely to feel passive with a gun pointed at them. Unless they have a death wish, in which case, you could have the gun pointing at a loved one, or you could threaten torture. Even people who have a death wish don't want to be tortured. Almost all of us will act if the stakes get big enough. 

Alternatively, you can promise an opportunity that is too good to pass up. If all I want is to live out my life on a hammock by the beach sipping lemonade, then maybe the best motivation is the promise of getting that. Maybe I'd be willing to act, if it ensured that.

It's bad enough for Shrek to have a few creatures come on his swamp, but the fact that countless numbers of them will be exiled to his swamp, is even worse. This is a big enough issue to get him to act--he decides he must visit Farquaad, which moves the story to the middle. 

It's bad enough to die once, but it turns out for Bill, that he has to die over and over and over again. He also has to go on the battlefield over and over and over again, too. He keeps repeating the same events. This is enough to get him to try new tactics (and really, what other choice does he have?).

It's bad enough that Vash can't save everyone. But when it turns out the antagonists plan to destroy the whole human race, well, he can't live out life in donut-filled peace, playing cops and robbers with tykes. He has to act.

Inaction Stakes

If your passive character still really does not want to act, it's worth keeping in mind that inaction is an action--it just needs significant stakes. There needs to be negative ramifications for the protagonist not acting. Ideally, eventually these negative consequences get so big or so personal, that the protagonist has to do something about it. 

For example, at one point, Vash decides to live under an alias and do nothing. He decides to be inactive. Unfortunately, this results in an entire town getting wiped out by the antagonist. Doing nothing has steep consequences. He needs to at least try to do something.

This can become a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation--where "damned if you do" at least carries a small chance of success over "damned if you don't." 

At one point in Edge of Tomorrow, Bill decides to do nothing. He even goes to a bar to drink in the middle of the day. Guess what? He still has to repeatedly die. Whatever he does, he ends up dying, and having to repeat that time frame. He can either be endlessly in a tortuous loop where he dies, dies, and dies, or he can keep trying to fix the situation. On the surface, it seems like he has a lot of options, since he gets to make different choices each time he repeats the day, but 99% of them lead to the same outcome. So in reality, he has very few choices. Act and maybe die. Or don't act and keep dying.

Limit Options

Related to the last one, one way to push a passive character to act, is to limit her choices and the outcomes. In fact, if we want to take this to the real world, studies show that the more options people have, the less likely they are to make a choice--or even make a good choice.

Like Bill, when there aren't really any options, the protagonist will be pretty much forced to act. Either keep reliving the same torture or try to do something about it. 

Add to it some kind of countdown or convergence, so that the protagonist has a very limited window to act, and she'll have to do something. 


Stakes Reveal Character

How the protagonist acts when there are things at risk, will reveal what kind of person she is. 

In this sense, one might argue, that by strengthening the stakes to get her to act, you are changing her character after all. 

Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say that you are now revealing who she truly is.

Whatever the case, it can become an argument of semantics. 

Similar things can happen with the term "passive." 

Just understand the concepts and the tools.

The Reluctant Hero

In most, if not all cases, a characteristically passive protagonist will create a reluctant hero. Shrek doesn't want to save Fiona. Bill doesn't want to win the war. Vash doesn't want to confront the antagonist. They just want something to not happen, more than they want to do The Thing™️.

In this sense, while the passive protagonist will ultimately still be acting within the plot (which is necessary to write a good story), he or she may still yearn for passivity. 

Of course, the character's arc may possibly shift that yearning by the end. 

And it should go without saying, that pretty much all these same tricks will work for passive side characters, as well--when you need to get them to act. For example, in The Office, Stanley is characteristically passive. He pretty much sits in silence and does crossword puzzles. But when pushed far enough, he will back talk his boss. And when he wants something bad enough (like a free pretzel on pretzel day), he'll actually act.  


Free Online Writing Summit Jan. 18th - 29th

My friend Traci Skuce has brought together 20+ writers, creatives, editors, and publishers for a complimentary masterclass series that will serve fiction and memoir writers who want to write and finish their books.

Whether you’re just getting started, feeling stuck on a project, searching for new ideas, struggling with time management, or nearing the finish and wondering what’s next, this summit has something for you.

And it’s totally free. You can sign up here. I'll also be a guest, talking about theme. 

Editing Services

With it being the new year and all, I just wanted to mention that I have several spots open for editing projects. You can learn all about my editing services at FawkesEditing.com

"I am a young writer and needed some help with one of my projects. I hired September to edit my work and was thrilled with her detailed work on my story. I came away more excited to write and still use her notes as I rework the story. She is thorough, honest and yet encouraging in her style. I will use her again." --Michael Anderson



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