Protagonists who act

To add a final comment to yesterday’s post, readers want a protagonist who does things, not a protagonist who has things done to her.

This is an important point — not just for Twilight, but for all stories.  If the damsel-in-distress is the main character, she’d better turn into a damsel-in-shining-armor pretty fast.  Typically, people don’t want to read about a victim.

Now, I don’t mean a victim in the sense that they have their planet blown up (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), their family slaughtered (Star Wars, Harry Potter), or their normal life taken away (almost every story has “normality” taken away from the MC).  No, what I mean by a victim here is a passive person; the person whose life is thrown off balance, but he/she chooses to do nothing about it; the MC who watches the plot unfold around him without contributing to it.

Now, the MC can say things, think things, and maybe even interact with characters/setting, but in the end, the MC just waits for other people to get things done, for other disasters to arise, for life to happen.

Example:  What sort of story would it be if Luke had decided not to join Obi-Wan, but to instead drink away his sorrows at the local cantina?  Hmmm.  Not very interesting.

Example:  Why would we care about Elizabeth Bennett if she let her parents, society, and “betters” decide her life’s course for her?  Oh, that’s right, we wouldn’t care.  (It would be as if Jane Bennett were the protagonist — *shudder*.)

How to tell if you might have a Passive Protagonist:

  • He whines, complains, and expresses his overall dissatisfaction with life.  Yet, that’s all he does.  The whole book.
  • Her best friends do all the work for her — they sign her up for the contest, they dial the number for the cute boy, they drag her down to the starting line of that marathon.
  • He’s a nice guy and everyone likes him.  He’s so nice, in fact, that he never disagrees with anyone, never causes trouble, and never works to gain people’s approval.  He’s just darn perfect.  (See Mary Sue.)
  • Secondary characters “apply” traits to her, but the readers doesn’t actually see the traits in action.  These other characters call her charming, intelligent, witty, and maybe even snarky, and yet…she never acts this way on the page.  We just have to trust that the other characters are right.
  • Perfectly-timed coincidences.  The beautiful blonde he’s had a crush on since childhood suddenly arrives at his office needing a detective.  Then the secret letter falls into his lap at the movies, followed by a scared witness who happens to live in the same apartment complex, an incriminating roll of film that got mixed up with his own, and a whispered secret from his taxi driver.  The detective really doesn’t have to detect anything.

If any or all of these symptoms are occurring in your manuscript, stop.  Take a breath.  Relax.  It’s okay.  You can fix the passive protagonist by simply making her do what your active secondary characters do, by having his personality trait lead to conflict that propels the plot forward (e.g. the über-victim Hamlet who still causes the plot), or by showing us why the character has earned all her complimentary comments (show versus tell is a critical skill in any fiction writing).  You aren’t the first person to make this mistake, and you won’t be the last.

Don’t let the river decide where you go.  Take charge and row.  Like an Active Protagonist, you can do this.


Back to K-Pop today.  Here’s Rainbow with “Gossip Girl”.  Somehow, this is another new K-pop girl band.  I don’t understand how there can possibly be this much demand for bubblegum girl groups.  For that matter, how are there this many attractive singers in South Korea?  Are their genetics just better?