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Active Protagonists are a Tool of the Patriarchy


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7161239421_bce0b19250_o.jpg?resize=525%2I feel like I’m committing a grievous writerly sin by even typing these words, but I must speak my truth:

I would like to see more passive protagonists in fiction.

While the title of this post is tongue-in-cheek, I do think that passive protagonists are unfairly maligned in part because of the unspoken association between passivity and femininity. I’ll get into why I think so a little later, but let’s discuss what “passive protagonist” means first.

The importance of intent

Passive protagonists are the antithesis of what we’re told makes a good story. A good story, says common wisdom, is driven by the choices and desires of the main character. Passive protagonists, on the other hand, do not drive the plot through their choices and actions, but rather have the plot inflicted upon them. Without goals and desires, and without challenges to overcome toward those goals and desires, what are the stakes? Where is the tension?

Such a story can absolutely be boring and frustrating to read.

But common wisdom also tells us that the choices made by an active protagonist must build toward a climax. In her craft book Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Jane Alison argues that the traditional path through fiction in the Western world has been the dramatic arc: the wave that rises to a climax, then falls. There are variations on that wave or triangle pattern, of course, but by and large, storytellers are told that things must build and build until they come to a head, then be resolved in a way that denotes to the reader that the story is complete.

As Alison says, “Bit masculo-sexual, no?”

If written compellingly, passive characters have a lot to teach us. That’s easier said than done, of course. Getting a reader to bother caring about someone who doesn’t seem to want anything is difficult, which is why passive characters are hard to write well. It’s much easier to tell a compelling story about a character striving to get what they want. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Active characters make for great stories. I don’t want to knock active characters, or argue that everyone should only write passive ones. This is more of a plea for more diversity—of all kinds—in fiction. Passive protagonists have as much to teach us as active protagonists, and can make for stories that are just as interesting.

The difference between a “good” passive protagonist and a “bad” one boils down to what causes many writing problems: purpose. Not the character’s purpose. I’m talking about whether the author has written a passive protagonist intentionally or not. As Matthew Salesses says in Craft in the Real World, “Everything is a decision.”

If an author doesn’t recognize that they’re writing a passive protagonist, or if they take no steps to keep the reader’s attention, then yes, you will have a puppet show, not a book. But by intentionally exploring what it means to be passive in a world that is constantly telling us to hustle and grind, we can unearth a lot of juicy material.

Frankly, I want to reclaim the passive protagonist as someone who resists the values we are told we should want in this late-stage capitalist society: success, recognition, money, dominance, control. That we should always be striving for more, better. What happens when we rebel against the idea that characters must be in the driver’s seat?

What makes passive protagonists bad, really?

There are a few reasons why passive protagonists have been categorized as “bad” storytelling. I’ve already mentioned several, such as lower stakes and slowed tension. In a publishing environment where unputdownable plots are frequently (though certainly not always) seen as critical to selling books, that’s already a big strike against the passive protagonist.

But aside from narrative issues, I often see another criticism leveled at passive protagonists: they are perceived as weak. In an article on LitHub, Jessi Jezewska Stevens even says that there’s a “special danger” in writing passive female characters, which risks playing into misogynistic stereotypes of women as the weaker sex. As feminists, we of course want to portray women as strong, as equals, as powerful forces in their own right. And to do that, we must cast off the traditionally feminine trait of passivity.

Passive protagonists, we’re told, don’t want anything. Wanting things makes for a good story. Ergo, passive protagonists make for bad stories. But here’s a thought experiment:

A passive protagonist doesn’t have everything they could possibly want. But they might think they do. Perhaps they think so because they’ve fully bought into a certain idea of what success looks like, and they’ve achieved it.

Or it’s because they never learned how to even recognize what they wanted.

Or because they think that they don’t deserve to get what they want, so they don’t bother wanting anything.

Or because they were taught at a young age that the needs of others must come first.

And—wait for it—who is often told they must put their needs behind others? Who has been more traditionally associated with caregiving roles? Who is expected to quit their careers when a global pandemic exposes the shameful lack of affordable childcare?

You guessed it: the woman.

Strong female characters, we are told, are active. They drive the plot. They know what they want, and they go for it, damn the consequences. Think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien, or Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones, or Princess General Leia Freaking Organa of the Star Wars franchise (RIP Carrie Fisher), to name a few famous examples.

Contrast those with alleged “weak characters” like the beloved but unambitious, sickly Beth March from Little Women. Or Cindy Heller from Blue Valentine, who sacrifices her dreams of being a doctor to support her good-for-nothing husband as a nurse (never mind the whole issue with treating nursing like it’s a demotion from physician, but you know, it’s a traditionally female career, so…).

Even today, female desire and appetite is a staple of the horror genre.

I’m oversimplifying quite a bit here, but I think it’s always worthwhile to question what’s widely considered good writing, and to ask who benefits from these “rules.”

Why care about a passive protagonist?

Since writing about being a conflict-avoidant writer earlier this year, I’ve been thinking about the kind of people in real life who are encouraged to be passive. To not have goals. To make sacrifices. And I thought about how the unspoken expectations of my upbringing have affected the way I write. In that post about conflict avoidance, I wrote about how I was raised in a culture where women bear the responsibility for managing the emotions of men, and how I unknowingly transferred that same desire to smooth things over into my writing.

Part of that upbringing meant that I was socially rewarded for being passive: for not having preferences, for not expressing opinions (this makes it sound like I was raised to be one of Margaret Atwood’s handmaids, which I assure you was not the case, and that I did have many strong, opinionated women in my life who encouraged me to be confident). But the point still stands that women who lead or speak up for themselves are often labeled as “bossy” or “shrill,” and women who are more passive are called “easy to get along with.” And that’s doubly so for Black and Brown women.

Passive people—certainly not just women—deserve to have their stories told without being dismissed as “weak” or “uninteresting.” What does it say about us as a society that we deem someone who is not a driving force in their life as unworthy of our attention? I say let’s talk more about those of us who aren’t always in the driver’s seat.

So screw the patriarchy: write passive characters.

Do you have any favorite passive characters? Would you consider reading a story in which the protagonist doesn’t drive the plot?

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About Kelsey Allagood

Kelsey Allagood (she/her) is a writer, occasional photographer, and trained political analyst specializing in the causes of war and systemic oppression. This background led her to begin writing fantasy fiction steeped in the anthropology of conflict. Her writing can be found in literary magazines such as Barrelhouse, GRIFFEL, Menacing Hedge, and Wanderlust. Her photography is forthcoming in RESURRECTION mag. She has also written on peaceful resistance movements, art as a form of political resistance, and countering violent extremist ideology. Kelsey has a Bachelor’s Degree in international and cultural studies from the University of Tampa and a Master’s Degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University. She lives in Maryland with her husband, mother, and a rescue dog named Henry.

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