Let’s Break Stuff: Passive Characters

Hi, Gang, Craig here again. I may make this a sporadic series, and I welcome my Story Empire compatriots to steal it and use it any time they like. We talk about all kinds of things here, always with a positive shiny face on it. That ends today.

Today, we’re going to break things. Honestly, we see all kinds of posts about good things to do, helpful tips, and downright cheerleading. We also need to know what to avoid, and the topic today is passive characters.

Main characters have to drive the story. They have to take actions to solve whatever the main issue is. I’ve mentioned before that I keep living documents with pointers and tips. One I saved years ago is from the Pixar recipe book: Readers will appreciate the character more for trying than succeeding.

That’s a powerful thought. Trying must be pretty important in the scheme of things. Let’s make up some examples,starting with your own personal Game of Thrones.

Your main character is convicted of a crime he did not commit. He’s been sent to the wall in the north to join the Night’s Watch. He’s facing a life of celibacy, servitude, and an important job… watching.

How do you see this playing out? Chapter One, vows and settling in. Chapter Two, touring the wall. Chapter Three watching. 4, watching, 5 more watching… 6 thought I saw something, turned out to be a fox…

Think of the princess, locked in her tower… waiting for someone to rescue her. Dear diary, made friends with mice…

Don’t laugh, I’ve done this. My guy lost two family members, one to a cannibalistic alien. He’s depressed, and his world is spinning out of control. Friends and family make recommendations, so he takes them. He’s not in charge, and he’s not acting to solve the main issue. He ultimately settles up with the killers, but it takes a dozen or more chapters to get there. How many readers stuck it out to get to the place where something happened? Answer: Not many.

Give a thought to these words: hiding, avoiding, guarding, watching, protecting. If this is the main goal of your character, perhaps you should rethink some of your story. We have a comment section to add some other words, or share you own foibles.

Passive characters have a place in stories, but not as main characters. Think about Indiana Jones. There was a secret society that protected the resting place of the Arc of the Covenant. They were interesting, but weren’t the main character. Sir Richard protected the Holy Grail, but nobody is rushing to tell his story.

There is a cure, and it involves a bit of backbone. Change hiding and avoiding to aggression. Maybe build an IED to blow up the aliens. Doesn’t have to work, but your character is trying.

Someone is probably going to weigh in with some good story that contradicts what I’m saying here. I doubt that it does. Think about Misery. The author guy is injured and trapped. He takes to re-writing his novel to distract the crazy lady, hopefully giving him a chance to escape somehow. It isn’t much, but he’s trying. Play off Stockholm Syndrome, but make sure he does something.

How about it, gang? What do you think about passive characters? Are you interested in more posts like this? I love the comments section, so let me hear from you.

78 thoughts on “Let’s Break Stuff: Passive Characters

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  3. I’m currently rewriting my second novel because of this. I wrote nearly 70K words before realizing that my MC had no agency and was just reacting to things happening to her rather than actually doing things herself 😂 Live and learn, I guess. She’s kicking some ass right now.

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