Defying Conventions: When Protagonists Don’t Want to be a Hero by Erin Jamieson
by Writing Workshops Staff
A year ago
It’s age old advice, as familiar to writers as write what you know. Passive protagonists, and what it means to be passive, has become obfuscated by decades of advice, that, at its core, holds true for writers who hope to connect with their audience. Conventional wisdom within literary circles tells us that passive characters make unsuitable protagonists because they did not take enough action or stakes in their own lives. And if even the protagonist does not take an active and invested role in his or her own life, why should potential readers?
Peter Winkler, blogger for the Huffington Post and a biographer by profession, suggested that how successful a novel will ultimately be is more simple than some authors would think. While the article’s name is rather dubious and arguably flirting with click bait material (“How to Write a Bestseller-According to a Formula”). He does, nonetheless, make a fair argument. Quoting James Hall, a Creative Writing Professor and novelist, Winkler emphasizes the need to characters to “act decisively” in order to achieve “high emotional intensity.” And while he does ultimately conclude that any formula cannot predicate a novel’s success, and that creativity and variation are in of themselves the most important elements, the point here is clear.
In essence, Winkler is shedding light on a concerning issue: what do novelists “do” that with a character who is innately reticent to the point of passivity? Conventional writing wisdom dictates that our protagonist need to be compelling, and in order to be compelling, they need to have clear stakes, a willingness and desire to change, and an active role in that change. In most cases, there is a level of truth behind that sentiment: no reader wants to commit to a short story, let alone a novel, where the protagonist him- or herself does not care about changing in any meaningful way, or has nothing to lose.
With careful planning and purpose, I argue that an externally passive character can indeed lead a compelling narrative, so long as he or she is not also internally passive. Anthony Elers, the main course facilitator for Writer’s Write, argues that protagonist that do not take action must have a reason for doing so, and at times, forced into action, in order to function both on a plot and empathy level.
Jeffrey Eugenides's The Virgin Suicides is one of his most well known works, perhaps because it defies conventions of what we think a protagonist should be. The novel is narrated through a collective voice, a group of men trying to piece together the suicide of the Lisbon girls which occurred decades ago, when they were teenagers. These choices makes for a strange but compelling dynamic: the retrospective voice itself seems to be more active and interested in solving the mystery of the Lisbon girls’ deaths, while their recollection of their teenage selves are at times, frustratingly passive in moments taking action might have produced a different result.
Over the course of the novel, the men remember signs that something was not quite right about the Lisbon girls, but, instead of pressing someone who might be able to help, they become more and more fascinated with watching them:
Sometimes we caught sight of tattered knee socks rounding a corner, or came upon them doubled over, shoving books into a cubbyhole, flicking the hair out of their eyes. But it was always the same: their white faces drifting in slow motion past us, while we pretended we hadn't been looking for them at all, that we didn't know they existed.
The retrospective voice is important, then, for adding perspective and meaning to what might look to us as simple and callous approaches to the Lisbon girls. It also adds a dynamic to the obstinate passivity of the teenage boys. If readers are wondering why these boys notice these things and romanticize but do little to seek help, we see that the mature, retrospective voice is at least in part acknowledging this problematic passivity.
In a sense, this passivity also adds to the novel’s tension . . . the reader knows the outcome of the story from the first line of the novel (“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese”), and thus there’s a sense of fatalism that runs through the book, knowing the inevitable result. While the boys do attempt (also via the retrospective voice) to find out what they can about the Lisbon girls, when it comes to actually helping them, or trying to understand them, they do very little. Whether it’s because they simply do not understand the girls or lack the maturity to know what to do, there are moments where they might have intervened but didn’t, and the narrators in the present moment, looking back, seem haunted by their own inaction.
The novel culminates in a dramatic series of scenes: the Lisbon girls, grounded by their parents following a homecoming dance where Lux has sex with her boyfriend. Essentially hostage in their own house, the girls grow isolated and growing more desperate. It is here where the boys appear to be playing a more active role, finally discovering that they can communicate with the Lisbon girls by playing old records over telephone. In their secretive communications, the boys arrange to sneak the girls out of their home one night, ostensibly to “rescue them”.
Indeed, even after decades, and a novel of reliving these events, the overall pronunciation of these events is less than exemplary, and, certainly, has a note of resignation rather than acceptance or a sense of maturity:
It didn't matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn't heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.
The reason this is compelling is not because we exactly have seen a dynamic change in our narrators, or even because they took initiative to try to change the course of things. What keeps us reading is our interest in peeling back the Lisbon girls, our distance from them, and our implication in watching them alongside these boys. We keep reading not because these boys might change, but in hoping that they will discover something about the Lisbon girls. And we are drawn to the narrative because of the repeated missed attempts.
In fact, this passage is haunting because the narrators express both desire and their inability to change. And this is especially poignant because we know how the story ends. In the opening passage, Eugenides tells us that the Lisbon girls will commit suicide. We are reading with that end in mind, and knowing that the boys will ultimately fail, yet hoping they will not.
That is, perhaps it is more accurate to say that they are reactive, rather than passive. K.M. Weiland, a Lyra-Award winner and internationally published author, explains that there is a very crucial, if little known, difference between a reactive and passive character. A reactive character, is what she calls “off-balance”: essentially, a reactive character has things happen to him or her and is at times responding to the plot, rather than driving it. In addition, reactive characters tend to have a lack of awareness of either the conflict or the source of the conflict, something that is undoubtedly true in The Virgin Suicides, at least for the narrative voice.
However, unlike a passive character, a reactive character still has desires, ambitions, or goals. Hillary Manton Lodge, author of the 2010 Carol Award Finalist, Plain Jayne, and other critically acclaimed novels, also cautions that while reactive characters may exist in novels, it’s ideal that at least some characters are proactive; that is, they take initiative to achieve their goals or at least have moments of taking action, as we see in The Virgin Suicides. To that end, she advocates that characters, at very least, need to be making decisions, and decisions that matter to them. No matter what characters ultimately decide to do, they are at least attempting to deal with the forces put upon them and are trying to act in the best ways they conceive in the moment; having no interest or stakes, or refusing to make decisions, is another thing entirely.
Part of what has endeared over a million readers to Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is its reticent, awkward, and exceedingly hesitant protagonist, Charlie. In the first half of the book, Charlie is passive in his actions and a very reactive character. That is, things happen to him, and he does little to initiate them: he becomes friends with the beautiful and adventurous Sam and her outcast brother Patrick after first being approached. He attends school events because of them, attends a Rocky Horror show, and eventually participates, because of their influence. He even chooses to date a young woman he does not truly care about, at Sam’s urging. And time and time again, Charlie resists his desire to tell Sam his romantic feelings for her.
Yet, as reactive as he is on the surface, Charlie’s stakes are very clear: he wants to be accepted, to understand who he is, and to escape his spells of deep depression. In addition, his conflicting desires of wanting to be Sam’s friend and also wanting to be with her romantically create a level of tension and result in his inability (or unwillingness) to act.
When Charlie finally does act, it is almost something that happens to him, so to speak. At a party with his current girlfriend Mary Elizabeth, as well as Sam and her brother, Patrick, a turn at spin the bottle ends up poorly. Asked to kiss the prettiest girl in the room, a inebriated Charlie makes what he later recounts as a colossal error:
By the time I had knelt down in front of Sam and kissed her, the silence was unbearable. It wasn’t a romantic kiss..but it didn’t matter...When I lay in bed that night..I stared at my reflection and the trees behind it for a long time. Not thinking anything. Not feeling anything...Something is really wrong with me. And I don’t know what it is.
In this moment, it is clear that Charlie is struggling to come to terms with his actions, actions that he less consciously took as much as mistakenly made.
Yet it is also certain that, despite surface appearances, Charlie is indeed making decisions in this novel. And those decisions are crucial as they tie to his understanding of himself, and the conflicting desires he must grapple with as the year continues. Because while one could argue that Charlie is a reactive character, and things essentially “happen to him”, he still is making small decisions along the way, and still very much invested in what course these actions and events take, and how they shape his life.
The growth we do see in Charlie comes when he finally faces his depression, and comes to realize that some of his desires-dating Sam, for instance, will do little to help him overcome his emotional turmoil. In this instance, Charlie might once again be consider at least partially a reactive character. It is only after Sam leaves for college that he is left with little choice but to face the haunting spells of isolation and depression her friendship had, for a time, muted. Yet there is a subtle, and powerful change: his ability to write about his sense of loss, and his desire to at very least examine it more than he has in the past.
To this end, a novel that aptly uses a reactive protagonist must also still show even some small sense of change, whether it is positive or negative, profound or rather modest. Even if the character end up backtracking, or at least, not reaching his or her desire, there must be some sense of progression, or some sense that the character has attempted in some part, to come to some sort of understanding.
This is perhaps the chief, and only reason why Herman Melville's Bartleby is successful, if at times unorthodox. The narrator, whose name is not directly indicated, is an aging Manhattan lawyer looking to hire scriveners for his firm. Arguably, it is the recalcitrant Bartleby he hires that is the main character (if protagonist is too much of a stretch) of this story.
And yet it if Bartleby is acting as a stand in protagonist of sorts, it is a bold and odd choice. Bartleby's stand by response to nearly every request made to him is the now iconic “I would prefer not to”. In this way, Bartleby is passive in a frustratingly literal sense, in both words and actions.
For every example of an effectively executed passive or reactive leading character, of course, there are countless instances where such a character would prove ineffective, or render the novel or story incoherent. That is to say, protagonists do tend to be active agents, involved both externally and internally in their own lives, as well as others.
As Claire Rudy Foster argues in the title of her essay: “Emotion is not a plot”. While she contends that “[g]reat writing...awakens feelings in us”, and through the internal motivations and desires of characters, these emotions, however dynamic, cannot by themselves make a story worth reading.
If a main character is passive or largely reactive, the author does run a great deal of risk. This is partially because passivity must be purposeful, as we have seen, as use a number of techniques in order to be portrayed in both an organic and compelling manner. It is easy, as a beginning writer, to justify a passive character by insisting that is simply “how the character is, naturally”. But such authors, particularly inexperienced ones, need to be cautious and make sure the passive character isn’t, instead, pointing to possible holes in understanding their character and the story itself well enough. Conventional wisdom is conventional for a reason: it often has a great amount of truth behind it. The key is understanding if that conventional wisdom is being manipulated in a meaningful way, or simply serving as an excuse for inadequate prose.
BIO: Erin Jamieson holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Miami University of Ohio. Her published work includes two poetry chapbooks, over 80 pieces of short fiction and poetry, and a Pushcart Prize nomination. Erin teaches English at the Ohio State University and her research has been published in The Journal of African American Studies.
Chbosky, Stephen. The Perks of Being a Wallflower. New York: Gallery , 1999. Print.
Elers, Anthony . "The Challenge Of Writing A Passive Lead Character." Writers Write. N.p., 11 June 2015. Web.
Eugenides, Jeffrey. The Virgin Suicides. New York: Penguin , 1993. Print.
Foster, Claire Rudy. "EMOTION IS NOT PLOT: Using Detachment to Create Powerful Fiction, a craft essay by Claire Rudy Foster • Cleaver Magazine." Cleaver Magazine. 08 Aug. 2016.
Melville, Herman. Bartleby. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2013. Print.
Rourke, Lee. "Endless fascination: in praise of novels without neat conclusions ." The Guardian. N.p., 23 Nov. 2012. Web. 5 July 2017.
Weiland, K.M. . "A Reactive Protagonist Doesn't Have to Be a Passive Protagonist! Discover the Difference." Helping Writers Become Authors. N.p., 31 May 2015. Web. 05 July 2017.
Winkler, Peter. "How To Write A Bestseller - According To The Formula." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 May 2012. Web. 05 July 2017.