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Diviner
10-01-2010, 05:43 AM
Recently, I became aware that my main characters were more acted-upon than energetically scrambling to achieve their goals. http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=190382
Danthia reminded me that “Stories are about someone trying to overcome something to get something. It’s not about stuff that happens to someone.” This is excellent advice and makes for good story telling, but I am not sure that something that happens to the MC might not be just as interesting. Some things have to be endured, and the story there is how the character is changed by the experience; things like grief and loss and cataclysmic disaster cannot be fought against, only survived.

During her long and event-filled life, my great-grandmother became the heroine of her own story. Sometimes she did things like sweet-talking the Kiowa and feeding them pies, our very own Wilder heroine, and sometimes things happened to her, like a wave washing her overboard in an Atlantic storm and another washing her back, soggy and coughing but otherwise safe. Both these events were dramatic, but she could do nothing about the wave, and there was no sequel, either, except she learned not to go on deck during a storm. In her life, she balanced an ability to respond effectively to challenge with a desire to avoid problems if possible. She was a much-admired woman in our family and among her small circle of friends. She shaped my view of not only the quintessential heroine but also of the ideal way to live, though I am a mere shadow of her.

So I am wondering what is the best way to handle what I think of as necessary passivity, the elements in the story where the MC is more witness or victim than protagonist. We all know s++t happens. When it is really bad, there may be a triumph of the spirit (Anne Frank), but does anyone have ideas about how to make it dramatic in the scene-sequence pattern?

I have also been wondering if my concerns with this, with what I think of as a realistic rather than novelistic choice of material, may be more like literary fiction than popular or adventure stories. I am pretty hazy about this, but Life of Pi seemed like a story where Pi is more reactive, and it never lost my interest.

I realize these are two different questions, but they are related in my mind.

Aerial
10-01-2010, 05:58 AM
Many things do simply happen to us, like deaths and financial catastrophes and the like, but that's not what the conversation about passivity is about.

The question is, what do you, or your MC, do to rise up and triumph over the unavoidable calamities? If things keep happening to the MC and he or she never steps up, exerts his or her will and spirit to deal with those things to whatever level that person is capable of, then it's passive. The boring-ness comes from watching a character get hit with their catastrophe (be it physical, personal or spiritual) and then do nothing about it.

Aerial

PoppysInARow
10-01-2010, 06:08 AM
This can happen to your MC, but an important aspect of the story should be what your character does about it. So their ship has been hit by a tidle wave, what are they going to do? Do they wait for help or built a raft to find their own way home?

Truthfully, I can't stand a novel in which a character does nothing. A great deal of things can be happening to the character, but as long as the character is acting and working out a way to better their life, that's the important part.

You can have things happen to the character as well as have the character act. But if your character just lets the actions dictate where they go and doesn't actually do anything, reaction or action wise, then your readers will be bored to tears, or have no sympathy for such a passive character.


Hey, 900th post!

Maxinquaye
10-01-2010, 06:27 AM
Recently, I became aware that my main characters were more acted-upon than energetically scrambling to achieve their goals. http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=190382
Danthia reminded me that “Stories are about someone trying to overcome something to get something. It’s not about stuff that happens to someone.” This is excellent advice and makes for good story telling, but I am not sure that something that happens to the MC might not be just as interesting. Some things have to be endured, and the story there is how the character is changed by the experience; things like grief and loss and cataclysmic disaster cannot be fought against, only survived.

During her long and event-filled life, my great-grandmother became the heroine of her own story. Sometimes she did things like sweet-talking the Kiowa and feeding them pies, our very own Wilder heroine, and sometimes things happened to her, like a wave washing her overboard in an Atlantic storm and another washing her back, soggy and coughing but otherwise safe. Both these events were dramatic, but she could do nothing about the wave, and there was no sequel, either, except she learned not to go on deck during a storm. In her life, she balanced an ability to respond effectively to challenge with a desire to avoid problems if possible. She was a much-admired woman in our family and among her small circle of friends. She shaped my view of not only the quintessential heroine but also of the ideal way to live, though I am a mere shadow of her.

So I am wondering what is the best way to handle what I think of as necessary passivity, the elements in the story where the MC is more witness or victim than protagonist. We all know s++t happens. When it is really bad, there may be a triumph of the spirit (Anne Frank), but does anyone have ideas about how to make it dramatic in the scene-sequence pattern?

I have also been wondering if my concerns with this, with what I think of as a realistic rather than novelistic choice of material, may be more like literary fiction than popular or adventure stories. I am pretty hazy about this, but Life of Pi seemed like a story where Pi is more reactive, and it never lost my interest.

I realize these are two different questions, but they are related in my mind.

Every novel is a narration of a story about ONE thing. Every novel can be boiled down to one line, which is the essence of the story.

Stephen King's "The Talisman" is about 'a boy that travels across the USA and an imaginary country to get a talisman that will cure his mother's cancer'.

Romeo & Juliet is about 'two lovers from feuding families that want to join each other for life'.

The Firm is about 'a young lawyer that gets a VERY nice job, but it's with the maffia's lawfirm'.

Nearly every story can be reduced to one line like that, and these lines will present a beginning and a dilemma. This is what the story is about, essentially.

Lots of stuff will happen in the novel; there may be explosions, both physical and emotional. It may be sidetracked down bypasses, but it will keep running along or beside the main route toward solving the central dilemma. All the rest of the novel is about the MCs attempts to reach his or her goal, and about the obstacles in his or her path.

The passivity you speak of often happens when the MC doesn't have the goal and the motivation to go after what s/he wants.

Diviner
10-01-2010, 06:49 AM
Every novel is a narration of a story about ONE thing. Every novel can be boiled down to one line, which is the essence of the story. . .

The passivity you speak of often happens when the MC doesn't have the goal and the motivation to go after what s/he wants.

My hero's goal is to survive with his honor intact. He is not passive throughout the story--far from it--but he has to put up with a lot after he is enslaved and trained as a warrior (like a Mammelukes). It is the early part of the novel where he can't act. I wanted to show how, even as a boy his spirit did not fail and he kept his integrity, but his acts are minor: aiding another slave, being kind, , not giving way to despair, and refusing to give up dangerous secrets. His passivity is that he can't do anything beyond this. It makes for a too-quiet opening. Since it is YA, i need something livelier, but I really want to show his complete helplessness at the same time.

sunandshadow
10-01-2010, 09:25 AM
Don't know if you are familiar with Dramatica theory, but they say there are two types of characters, Doers and Be-ers. Doers solve a problem by making changes in the world. Be-ers solve a problem by adapting themselves to the world. They're both good types of main characters you can tell great stories about.

Their main book is online free:
http://www.dramatica.com/theory/theory_book/dtb.html

elindsen
10-01-2010, 09:37 AM
I once heard that we, as writers, should put our main characters up a tree with a pit bull on the ground, ready to rip their throats out. I think past problems are interesting, but your characters need to be in that tree. Whether its from the past or stuff happening now, its important to telling a good story.

backslashbaby
10-01-2010, 04:39 PM
I think your MC's triumphs and decisions can be mostly emotional. There is no problem with the obstacles seeming to be external. She has the choice to be a bitter, closed-off, foul kind of person after a tragedy. She has a choice to wallow in self-pity or not. That sort of thing.

I especially like stories where someone makes the choice to be caring and compassionate after they have been through such hardship. Where do they find the strength, you know?

I'd try to find moments in the plot to make actions/scenes that demonstrate this. All talk/thoughts gets kind of boring. But you can dramatize it without needing cars exploding or anything ;)

ETA: I'll try to give an example we all know.

The Frankenstein monster is ignorant of the ways of the world.

Cool. But that's just a state. There is nothing active there.

So you have him throw the little girl in the water because she is pretty, and she has been throwing pretty things -- the flowers -- in the water.

Bam! Awesome dramatization of something that isn't active in and of itself.

Greeble
10-01-2010, 04:45 PM
Recently, I became aware that my main characters were more acted-upon than energetically scrambling to achieve their goals

And that's fine, as long as you make it entertaining.

Prawn
10-01-2010, 06:30 PM
It is great for characters to have goals, but often it is interesting enough to show that the character changes. A goal provides the character with a character arc. If you don't have a goal, you need to show the character arc in other ways.

A common way of doing this is for an older character to recall things through flashbacks, as in the movies Titanic, or Little Big Man. The older character shows how these interesting events changed them.

Lady Ice
10-01-2010, 06:32 PM
My hero's goal is to survive with his honor intact. He is not passive throughout the story--far from it--but he has to put up with a lot after he is enslaved and trained as a warrior (like a Mammelukes). It is the early part of the novel where he can't act. I wanted to show how, even as a boy his spirit did not fail and he kept his integrity, but his acts are minor: aiding another slave, being kind, , not giving way to despair, and refusing to give up dangerous secrets. His passivity is that he can't do anything beyond this. It makes for a too-quiet opening. Since it is YA, i need something livelier, but I really want to show his complete helplessness at the same time.

The bolded could be a strong girl but you've made it sound weak. Him wanting to survive with his honour intact could mean that he is unwilling to compromise himself- however trying to survive may inevitably involve doing dishonourable things.

I think perhaps you're just thinking about him as being weak when he doesn't have to be. For example, you say he can't act in the early part of the novel- this could be because he has had to accept his life as a warrior but he is still actively trying to do honourable things, because he wants to find the dignity that the people who enslaved him have taken away from him. I don't know how accurate a picture that is of your protagonist, but it makes him sound stronger. Just because a character cannot achieve their goals, that doesn't mean that they stop trying to achieve their goals.

RemusShepherd
10-01-2010, 07:58 PM
Recently, I became aware that my main characters were more acted-upon than energetically scrambling to achieve their goals.
...
So I am wondering what is the best way to handle what I think of as necessary passivity, the elements in the story where the MC is more witness or victim than protagonist. We all know s++t happens. When it is really bad, there may be a triumph of the spirit (Anne Frank), but does anyone have ideas about how to make it dramatic in the scene-sequence pattern?

I have a story with this same issue, and I've been brainstorming how to fix it. I have a plan, although I'm not sure it's going to work.

I plan to highlight the fact that my heroine always has a choice. Making a choice is a dramatic act, even if the choice they make is to remain passive. I need to make the reader understand that my heroine could leave the story and go live an easier life, but she chooses to put up with all the events being shoveled in her direction. I'm hoping that choice makes her feel like a less passive, less reactive character.

Again, I'm not sure it'll work, but I thought I'd offer it up as advice.

Jamesaritchie
10-01-2010, 08:08 PM
Something should always happen to characters, but a story is about what the character does in reaction to these events. A passive character that simply has things happen to him is not a story anyone will want to read.

Danthia
10-01-2010, 08:24 PM
Trying to survive can be active. Standing still in the face of certain death when every fiber of your being says to attack the person in front of you is acting. The goal is to swallow your anger and do what needs to be done to fight another day. The struggle is internal, not external.

Your character would be passive if he sat there in the face of that danger and felt nothing. "Well, I can't win so I'll just take it." If he isn't even trying to overcome anything. When he accepts his lot and does nothing to change it, either internally or externally.

You might try reading Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey. One of the POV stories follows a group of kids in magic school, and what's done to those kids is horrible. But they have to endure it because they have no choice. Terrible stuff is done to them and asked of them, but they're not passive, even when they can't act. Sometimes the act is minuscule, but it carries great emotional weight because of the risks involved in making that action.

Try looking at your hero and finding the small things he can do that allow him to act and rebel, without getting him killed. They can be tiny if they matter to him. He sneaks a flower inside his cell. He does some small ritual of his people to maintain his faith or sense of identity. Whatever it is that shows his conflict even though he's powerless to do anything substantial.

tko
10-02-2010, 12:42 AM
I define a reluctant hero as someone who is forced by circumstances to be strong. He didn't have a choice, he reacted to events as they happened, the story is told by how he coped. It's still a quest, still a hero story.

It's an extremely strong theme, something neither you nor the reader know your character is on such a journey to the end, when it hits it will be all the more powerful. Think of an old women in her rocker, going over her chair, think about Forrest Gump in the opening scenes of the movie.

I found by accident that it's best not to worry about the hero part when you're writing. Too many preconceived notions about a hero. Once you in the review process themes from the hero's quest may emerge, and you can use them to strengthen and refine you story.

In short, don't try to make your story fit a theme in advance, let it flow.

Diviner
10-02-2010, 11:46 PM
I define a reluctant hero as someone who is forced by circumstances to be strong. He didn't have a choice, he reacted to events as they happened, the story is told by how he coped. It's still a quest, still a hero story.

It's an extremely strong theme, something neither you nor the reader know your character is on such a journey to the end, when it hits it will be all the more powerful. Think of an old women in her rocker, going over her chair, think about Forrest Gump in the opening scenes of the movie.

I found by accident that it's best not to worry about the hero part when you're writing. Too many preconceived notions about a hero. Once you in the review process themes from the hero's quest may emerge, and you can use them to strengthen and refine you story.

In short, don't try to make your story fit a theme in advance, let it flow.

Thanks for the input. I'll look at my work in the light of the reluctant hero, though that does not exactly fit my MC. Truth is, he wants to be a hero, just can't be when he is so young and completely at the mercy of others. Still, I think his impotence needs to be more active, particularly since the work is YA.

Thanks to all the rest of you for your input.