Time to get passive aggressive – get your main character out of the back seat

We hear a lot about passive and active characters, but what does this mean? And why is character passivity such a problem?

A problem I see in many manuscripts is that the main character is passive. By this I mean the character doesn’t seem to do very much. The trouble and events are inflicted on them and the story consists of them reacting or trying to extricate themselves. They’re in the back seat of the story – and other people (and forces) are in the driver’s position.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Certainly, many stories might kick off with an act from an outside person, a coincidence or bad luck. But if most of the mess and trouble that follows is caused by other people, and not the central character we are reading about, what happens?

The person in the driving seat becomes the more interesting character.

Well, of course they do. They have more gumption. They are pushed further by their hopes and fears. They are active shapers of their own destiny. They are more likely to surprise us. In short, they are riding a bigger rollercoaster than the character who is centre stage.

(Of course, you may be making a deliberate choice to make your character passive; but if not, you’re probably unintentionally neutering them.)

Not just novice writers

But the problem of making main characters passive seems to be a tricky blind spot – and not just for first-time novelists. I was once in a writing group that included several much-published authors, at least one of them award winning. While they read excerpts from their WIPs, the rest of us would frequently tell them off for making their main characters passive.

So it seems our natural inclination might be to put our characters in the back seat, rather than the one that has the wheel. Which makes me wonder – why?

Because we like it that way

For most of our lives we’re in routines – juggling the conflicting demands of work, play, family. Traditionally, a story might start when an event bolts out of the blue and disrupts the status quo. The writer thinks as we all would – what would I do? We’d deal with the distraction and try to restore normality as soon as possible. Because this is how real life works.

The second reason we naturally make our characters passive is this – most writers are the hermit, routine kind of person. It’s not that we aren’t shapers, making our destiny, but we do it most actively inside our heads. We observe, react, shuffle the cards – and write. It’s no wonder our natural inclination is write passive characters.

Stories are not like life

So all that is true to life, but stories and entertainment don’t work in the same way as real life. In stories we want trouble and change or they’re hardly worth telling. We also want to feel we are on a journey with a person who is driven to unusual and interesting lengths by what is happening to them. Someone who isn’t just reacting, but has interesting urges awoken by what is going on. Not fire fighting, but about a fire that is forging a new them. Active characters aren’t naturally more dashing than you or me. They are driven to new extremes – possibly to do things that they never thought they were capable of.

With all that in mind, there are two ways to naturally make your main character more active.

1 – If possible, don’t start a story with an event from outside – a death, a job loss, a hit and run, a murder. Instead, make the kick-off event arise from what the character is already doing. Grafting drama on from the outside can only produce reactions – when an active character needs to take action.

2 – Make this inciting incident something that makes it impossible for the character to go back to their life as they were before.

Find a way to force your character into the driving seat.

Do you have problems with recognising when your main characters are passive? Or do you prefer them that way?

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  1. #1 by Stacy Green on May 22, 2011 - 8:49 pm

    Great post, Roz! This is a problem I’ve conquered – for the most part. In my original outline and draft, my main character was very passive and almost whiney as she flailed around trying to figure things out while doing nothing to defend herself. I had a hard time writing her, and I finally realized it was because I didn’t like her.

    So I went back to the drawing board and make her more active, less whimpish, and less of a closed off personality. I enjoy writing her now, and my WIP has been much easier to write.

    • #2 by rozmorris on May 23, 2011 - 5:25 am

      Thanks, Stacy! It’s funny how our gut reacts to something in our writing but it takes our head longer to catch up! And well done for figuring it out.

      • #3 by Stacy Green on May 23, 2011 - 10:39 am

        Thanks Roz! I’m slowly learning to trust my gut when it comes to writing:)

  2. #4 by Sally on May 22, 2011 - 9:05 pm

    Hi Roz,

    As always, a thought-provoking post. Would it also be fair to say that sometimes the main protagonist is passive because they essentially take on the position of the narrator?

    • #5 by rozmorris on May 23, 2011 - 5:35 am

      Sally, that’s an interesting point – and it’s one of the reasons people find the passive position is more natural. They are a conduit for the reader and the events are happening around them – this happens in some murder stories, for instance, where the characters we share the adventure with are less extraordinary than the murderer. In that case, they might be more reactive instead of kicking the action off – but perhaps they will react with a bit more pizzaz than your average observer. If all they do is observe – and particularly if they don’t have strong drives – they might seem rather limp.

      • #6 by Sally on May 23, 2011 - 6:42 pm

        I agree absolutely. The protagonist can’t be a pure observer. The whole point of the protagonist is that they have to grow or change in the end. Plus I have recently come to realise that the best passive protagonist will also be the catalyst. Even if every character in the story is much more interesting, weird or louder than the protagonist, none of those characters will resolve their own problems without his or her presence or input in some way.

        • #7 by Alice Fleury on May 31, 2011 - 4:42 pm

          Gosh, thanks for this. I found you in a round about way. That’s it. My protag is the narrator. She’s letting everyone make decisions. I have been mulling for 3 days. Now I know what she needs to do. Escape, run, not stay at the foster home. :)

  3. #8 by Irene Vernardis on May 22, 2011 - 9:16 pm

    Great post Roz :)

    The thing is that we want stories to show us what we are not or we don’t have in our lives. Otherwise, why read them. :)

    I don’t like passive characters or passive story starts. I like dynamic beginnings and characters, and action.

    And I think that a story with dynamism has more chances to succeed with readers.

    Thank you for the interesting post.

  4. #10 by kevinonpaper on May 22, 2011 - 9:25 pm

    Oh, my oh my. This was/is my main problem with my MC. At one point, I actually had one of my supporting characters yell at him and tell him to do something about it. Of course, in some schizphrenic way, the supporting character was yelling at me.

  5. #11 by kevinonpaper on May 22, 2011 - 9:34 pm

    In retrospect, I should have developed my outline around the character. I was so focused on my world and the greater plot, that when I got around to Nikolas, he was just shoehorned in. In fact, whole chapters (probably close to 30,000 words) had to be deleted because of this. Lesson learned: If my MC is not the engine for the story, then we have a problem.

    • #12 by rozmorris on May 23, 2011 - 5:37 am

      Brilliantly deduced, Kevin! This can often be a problem when you’ve got a story about a world. The writer can be more interested in the world than in the person who’s having the defining adventure of their life.

  6. #13 by taureanw on May 22, 2011 - 10:54 pm

    Great post! This is definitely something I need to start being more mindful of!!

  7. #15 by Zelah on May 22, 2011 - 11:00 pm

    This is definitely something I’m going to have to bear in mind when I re-write The Omalfi Society. I have a character who is brave, bold & decided by comparison to the actual main character (who only really discovers his strengths as a result of his experiences). She kept pulling protagonist at one point near the start & since she isn’t the love interest (and has her own romance within the plot), that was rather tricky.

    I’m going to have to see if I can make it work with the (in my mind) greater depth but lesser show of my actual hero. If not, then I can see myself having to re-write the whole thing with a heroine rather than a hero.

    She’s the main driving force behind their journey but she doesn’t really change, she just rounds out as a character – and I don’t think it would work as well told from her perspective. At the moment the hero is the only one whose thoughts we see. I’d either have to step totally out of everyone’s heads or have a go at writing through her perspective to see how it works, or share the protagonist role between them or…. Gah!

    I feel it can work with my current main character & I recognise that sometimes the hero isn’t the protagonist (Han Solo or Aragorn for example). However, lots to think about!

    Thank you Roz, not for the work I’ll need to do but for the recognition that this could indeed be the problem I feared it could be. This will need some thought!

    • #16 by rozmorris on May 23, 2011 - 5:38 am

      Hi Zelah – is that one of those aha moments? And do I detect also a hint of ‘aarrrghhhhhhh’… ?

      • #17 by Zelah on May 23, 2011 - 4:59 pm

        A mixture of the two Roz! I foresee me doing several experimental re-writes of the first few chapters – keeping, swapping & sharing the role of protagonist to see which works best.

        • #18 by rozmorris on May 23, 2011 - 8:59 pm

          BTW, Zelah, do you recognise some of the bods in the photo? It was taken as we left after your wedding!

          • #19 by Zelah on May 23, 2011 - 9:30 pm

            Ah yes! I didn’t notice! :o)

  8. #20 by David mark brown on May 22, 2011 - 11:15 pm

    Very interesting post. I’ve been receiving feedback that my bad guy is more liked than me good guy. Since the story is essential a chase story, the bad guy originally forces the good guys to flee. So he is being more active, and this could have something to do with why everyone wants to root for him. I just had a discussion a couple days ago about creating a new conflict for the protagonist that happens just before the antagonist starts the chase. Now that I think about it, this new conflict would resolve the passive problem.

    • #21 by rozmorris on May 23, 2011 - 5:38 am

      Hooray! Good luck with that, David!

  9. #22 by Jody Moller on May 23, 2011 - 6:55 am

    My dislike of a passive main character was actually the trigger for me writing my first novel. I’m sure you’ve heard of her, Bella Swan? As much as I (and a few other people about the place) enjoyed Twilight, the protagonist drove me crazy, she was just so pathetic. So I sat myself down and plotted out a story with a heroine that stood up for herself, and didn’t require her boyfriend to stand between her and danger. I believe (well hope anyway) that as a consequence my protagonist is a far more likeable character than Miss Bella Swan! FYI my book is also not about vampires:)

    • #23 by rozmorris on May 23, 2011 - 7:03 am

      Jody, I’m sure I’ve written about this sometime back! But being irritated by a book is often a brilliant spur to write our own version – and not necessarily in the same genre. It’s more the core of the story that we want to explore – the genre is just trimmings.

  10. #24 by catwoods on May 23, 2011 - 1:51 pm

    Ach, I faiiled miserably with your first no-no. My inciting incident IS a death. And number two is impossible because I don’t want/can’t have my MC going back to the way things were.

    Thanks for this post. It’s a serious concern of mine because of the very nature of my current manuscript.

    • #25 by dirtywhitecandy on May 23, 2011 - 8:39 pm

      Hi Cat! Oh dear, I’ve spoiled another writer’s day… Actually there’s no harm in the inciting incident being a death if it shakes up something more fundamental. (Don’t we sound heartless?!)

  11. #26 by Rachel on May 23, 2011 - 2:53 pm

    This is a great post (as usual on your blog!)! I can think of one other reason the Backseat Effect may happen, which is that in our stories we usually want the protagonist to be likable, but don’t have the same qualms about the villain or even necessarily the supporting characters. So this may sometimes give the non-main characters a bit more freedom of choice in that they aren’t constrained within the bounds of likability and can do any jerky thing they want. Of course, with the awareness your post brings to the issue, it becomes clear that we could think out more complex actions, urges, and motivations that can make the MC active but not a jerk. Thanks for the food for thought!

    • #27 by rozmorris on May 23, 2011 - 8:56 pm

      Good point, Rachel – we might be more inhibited with our MC. Perhaps because we worry too much about them being likable. Of course they do need to be likable, but they also need to be the person we are most interested in.

  12. #28 by Jeffrey Russell on May 23, 2011 - 4:26 pm

    I just put away a ms for that exact reason, Roz. The character I needed to be the main character kept getting overshadowed by the other more interesting, complex characters. Re-write after re-write I just couldn’t find the right mix. But I wrote that story without an outline at first, and by the time I did one it was too late. The story was too well developed by then and I couldn’t ‘shoe-horn’ in the types of things I needed her to have.

    This time I’m doing my outline first!

    • #29 by dirtywhitecandy on May 23, 2011 - 8:40 pm

      Jeff, I’ve found it always pays to think about these things before you write the story! The story will be better for it. Shoehorns don’t make good writing tools.

  13. #30 by Michael Kistner on May 23, 2011 - 6:14 pm

    I just finished reading The Shining the Stephen King, and I actually pondered this exact topic when I put the book down. This is a novel that is known for its world: the horrors of the Overlook Hotel (mostly b/c of the movie I’ll add). However in the novel, Jack Torrence’s martial issues and struggles with alcoholism, guilt, anger and in some cases, envy, actually brought the hotel’s horror to life, so to speak. If it weren’t for these character flaws, the hotel would have nothing on Jack, and the novel would have been pointless. Contrast that with the countless number of ‘haunted house’ films where any old lifeless character is haunted by any old scary ghost. I think that’s a decent example of what you’re saying, Roz ;)

    • #31 by rozmorris on May 23, 2011 - 8:58 pm

      Excellent example, Michael – of good and bad. The whole reason a story is worth telling is because it’s a personal journey for the character – and affects them more deeply than it would affect anyone else.

  14. #32 by erikamarks on May 24, 2011 - 12:35 am

    Once again, Roz, you, well, nailed it. I think we could all do well with seeing this question as an every-few-scenes check. It is so easy to fall into that trap–and yet, as you’ve demonstrated, there are some key ways to correct it. Even the sort of Date Night storyline (couple goes on date and finds themselves in one mistaken-ID scenario after another) still has to begin by that couple setting the ball in motion, even if it is a somewhat “harmless” event/choice. Otherwise we don’t feel their investment in their own life, frankly. An issue of “what’s at stake,” really.

    • #33 by rozmorris on May 24, 2011 - 5:59 am

      Thanks, Erika! And that is such a good point – we need to ask ourselves this question every few scenes because it is so easy to let an event blow in from outside when it should be the characters generating the story. Date Night is a great example in that they make their destiny (although I remember being a bit underwhelmed by most of it).

  15. #34 by Jonathan Moore on May 24, 2011 - 12:09 pm

    Hi Roz,

    This is precisely why I had to put away a novel I’d been working on for years, because the MC never did anything but mooch around meeting people. It was so boring it was unbelievable.

    In my current WIP I endeavour to have the MCs take charge of situations and drive the story, but I suppose theres different ways of this happening – effects are caused by choices they make, or as reactions to them as people (see Shining reference above), and in the interaction and mutual assumptions that exist between them and other characters.

    It can be very difficult to put into practice – the basics of the plot being a series of encounters which create obstacles to the eventual goal. I suppose the way to make it more engaging is to make these obstacles more personal – to make them a greater obstacle because of the specifics of the characters. But that still makes the character reactive to an outside agent rather than authoring their own difficulties. Needs some further thought…

    Cheers for now,
    Jonathan

    • #35 by rozmorris on May 24, 2011 - 7:41 pm

      Hi Jon! So many people are saying this – they’ve realised they don’t like the novel they’re writing and suddenly twig it’s because they don’t like what’s going on.

      And yes, you’re right it’s not easy. In Life Form 3 I sweated for months on the story events before I ever wrote a word of the draft, because I wanted the MC to be active and for each thing he did to be driven by what mattered. This takes a lot of time and a lot of scrapping ideas and going back to the drawing board!

  16. #36 by Lila Swann on May 26, 2011 - 4:28 am

    I was referred to this page on Twitter, and I’m glad I did! I primarily write YA fiction, so you might not be aware of these books (even if they are ridiculously popular). But anyway, what do you think about The Hunger Games in relation to your point about passivity? Katniss was forced into the Arena. Admittedly, she came out changed, but so would anyone who survived it. Katniss is by NO means passive; she’s fierce, strong, and decidedly take-action. But she’s forced into a situation and forced to react to her surroundings…at no time does she ever decide to start a rebellion. What do you think?

    • #37 by rozmorris on May 26, 2011 - 8:01 am

      Hi Lila! I think it’s okay for Katniss to be pushed by fate sometimes – although I don’t agree she was passively pushed into the arena because she stepped up to take the place of her sister. But if she had been the candidate chosen by the lottery, what would be important was what she did when pushed. Many people would probably do their training, worry about things, keep their heads down and make friends along the way – that would be an ordinary person’s response. Katniss, though, reacts defiantly, smartly. And although what started the story was a number being drawn out of a hat, she never waits around to see what’s going to happen. She seizes the initiative each time, in many times risking making things worse.

  17. #38 by Markh on May 26, 2011 - 4:32 pm

    Hi Roz,

    This is off-topic — sorry — but I’ve just completed a sprawling first draft of my first novel and read it, and it’s, well… appalling. Once upon a time I would have given up at this point, but I’ve just read Nail Your Novel, which chimed with a lot of instincts I’ve always had about the writing process, and it’s given me the confidence that it’s fixable with a lot of hard work and patience.

    • #39 by rozmorris on May 26, 2011 - 4:47 pm

      Hi Mark! Feedback like that is welcome on any post, any time! Fix it a step at a time, with patience and listening to your instincts, and you’ll get it done. Honestly, honestly honestly!

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