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View Full Version : The Success of passive characters



Darzian
10-23-2008, 05:25 PM
I suppose you could say that there are two types of main characters: active and passive. I'm not sure if these words are appropriate but I'll tell you what I think:

1) Active- story moves because of this character. HE does everything and the consequences of his actions make up most of the book.

2) Passive- Various events take place around this character, but the character himself doesn't do much. Other characters may do more work that this one. The passive character is central to the plot (those events around him occur only due to his existence) but he doesn't DO much.

Passive characters sound incredibly boring, wouldn't you say? I was wondering how successful each type is. The most popular passive character I can think of is Bella Swans in TWILIGHT. However, considering the popularity of that series............

I just realized that my own MC seems passive, so I'm making huge edits to make HIM do the stuff, and not just let the stuff happen to him.

Alpha Echo
10-23-2008, 05:51 PM
I think that passive characters are NOT successful. Characters need to take ACTION. They need to do something.

Think about it. The people in your life that just kind of sit back and let life happen to them...are they exciting? Do you really want to hang out with them? I know someone whose relation to me I won't mention, but this person does NOTHING. Just sits back with a beer in the evenings. Doesn't really want to go out. Doesn't really care to experience anything new. The only thing this person does sometimes is ride a motorcycle or visit family. This person has no ambitions past the current job, no desire to live anywhere but the little town in which this person was raised....Actually, come to think of it I know two people like this.

The other person is marrying one of my good friends, and I can't stand him. In the evenings he plays computer games. My friend had to drag his ass out of the house just to go househunting. She on the other hand has all these ideas for her life and ambitions she wants to follow, and he does not. He is happy being passive.

The difference between life and novels is that real life is boring sometimes. Even if we're active people. In our novels, we have a chance to create characters who are larger than life, characters who always have the witty comeback and who do the things we would never do. They HAVE to be larger than life. Otherwise, why bother reading? Most people read to escape the everyday monotony of their own lives, not to read about someone who just lets life happen to them.

tehuti88
10-23-2008, 05:53 PM
I think what you say makes sense, though it seems for the most part that many characters are a mix of the two, albeit in different amounts. An active character might be passive now and then. I notice that in the story I'm currently reading, the MC is active now and them but damn he sure is passive throughout most of the book! (He's literally stuck locked in his room most of the time while stuff happens.) Though, even while he's being passive for major events, he's active in minor ones. (He does do things while locked in that room, just not the major things.)

It's the same with my characters. Most of the important ones are mainly active but there are times when passivity is required for the sake of the plot. And passive characters can serve the plot by highlighting the difference between them and active characters, or their passivity might have a greater bearing on events than being active would. I guess it all depends.

I'd say it's better to try to make a character active, but it's not ALWAYS necessary. Just usually. It's hard to write a passive character without them coming off as wimpy and ineffectual, and boring, though I bet some people have succeeded.

Alpha Echo
10-23-2008, 05:55 PM
tehut - you're right I think. I agree. You have to make it realistic. And there are moments when my characters aren't completely active.

Sassee
10-23-2008, 06:04 PM
Passive vs active was something I wasn't familiar with until the last year or so. There were just characters that I liked and disliked. Though now that I think about it, the active ones were always my favorites. I mean, they went out and grabbed life (or the villain) by the balls. How wouldn't that be exciting?

My own character starts passive and becomes active (written before the whole "ah ha" moment I just talked about). I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not but we'll see how the revisions turn out.

What's the general opinion of passive that becomes active? If you don't like passive characters, would you put the book down before the character became active? Would you read it anyway? Does anyone have a published example of another character that starts passive and becomes active?

Darzian
10-23-2008, 06:50 PM
Does anyone have a published example of another character that starts passive and becomes active?

The closest I can relate to right now is Fitz in Robin Hobb's The Fareer series. He is very young in the beginning, and things happen to him, though not due to his own actions. Needless to say, I found the beginning incredibly boring.

Later on, as he matures a little, HE starts to do stuff. That's what makes the second book in the series absolutely wonderful.

Also, the most active character I can think of is Harry Potter. He practically does everything.
Someone in danger? Jump on a flying horse to save them.
Innocent people getting attacked in the school? He runs after the culprit, despite the hundreds of other students that do NOT do this.

Harry's active nature is a large contribution to Rowling's success.

Also, as I mentioned, the MC in Twilight is incredibly passive. But the books sell.

Toothpaste
10-23-2008, 07:07 PM
Ah but I would argue what makes the Twilight books sell is two fold. One the character of Bella that has virtually no personality so that the girls reading the book can therefore slot themselves into the role, and secondly, and most importantly - Edward.

I was there on launch day of Breaking Dawn reporting the event. All the girls we interviewed went gaga over Edward, they couldn't say enough good things about him. But many many of them could not stand Bella, and noted how passive she was. But even though she is the MC, she isn't the main focus. All the attention, all the story, everything, is ABOUT Edward, and that is the reason all these teen girls read these books. They have a crush.

For that reason they are willing to put up with Bella. Trust me, kids aren't stupid. Everything I've read, on message boards etc, confirms that most of the people reading these books really don't like Bella for being passive. But it don't matter because "Edward is perfect."

(don't get me started though on how unattractive and boring I personally find "perfect", that's another topic)

Darzian
10-23-2008, 07:13 PM
Toothpaste, what are you? I thought you were an actress! I thought you were a writer! You were reporting???? ;)



One the character of Bella that has virtually no personality so that the girls reading the book can therefore slot themselves into the role


:roll::roll::roll::roll::roll:

Good answer, BTW. I completely agree. I hated the large segment where Edward was missing. Bella just plain sucks.

Alpha Echo
10-23-2008, 07:22 PM
What's the general opinion of passive that becomes active? If you don't like passive characters, would you put the book down before the character became active? Would you read it anyway? Does anyone have a published example of another character that starts passive and becomes active?

There are very few books I put down. Very few. I usually read the whole thing. So, I think in a situation where a character starts passive and becomes active....I'd like it. That's part of the character's growth. That'd be good...hopefully that's what the author intended. ;)

Toothpaste
10-23-2008, 07:24 PM
Toothpaste, what are you? I thought you were an actress! I thought you were a writer! You were reporting????


lol. I am an actress. I am an author. And I am a correspondent for a website called Hardcore Nerdity. Get this . . . I am ALSO a director (currently directing a production of Romeo and Juliet)! You can find links to each part of my life in my signature. I am just so multi-faceted .. . truly it is spectacular! ;)

Back on thread:

The problem I had with the Twilight books (or at least Twilight, I can not even think of reading the others . . . shudder) was basically that I was the complete opposite person for whom they were written. I had no desire to use Bella as a cipher, she in no way reflected who I was as a teenager nor who I am now, and I found Edward truly unappealing. So it makes sense then that I would not like the books. Considering there is little to no plot to them, the author is relying totally on people being involved with the characters, especially Edward. It seems to have worked. Just not for someone like me.

josephwise
10-23-2008, 07:28 PM
Watson was passive for the most part. And he's pleasant enough in his own right.

Bartleby was sort of passive. And you won't find a more interesting characters in all the world.

They can observe, they can incite, and they can do wonderful things to a story. But chances are, they aren't the only characters in it.

Chasing the Horizon
10-23-2008, 11:57 PM
I think the most important thing with active vs. passive characters is that what they're doing makes sense with the setting, plot, and character. In my adult fantasy series, the characters are all professional adventurers (they call themselves other things, but that's really what they are). Everything that happens to them in the books happens as a direct result of things they do (usually things they do knowing full well that they could get in trouble). They incite the villains to come after them, and constantly get themselves into dangerous situations. They're also entirely responsible for getting themselves out of the trouble they get themselves into. In the context of those particular people in that particular story, being extremely active just makes sense.

In my YA series a lot of things do happen to the characters through no direct fault of their own. Because they're kids, it also makes sense for their friends and some of the adults around to sometimes get involved in helping them. The MCs take an active role in the story, of course, but not everything that happens is a direct result of their actions. (For the record, I found the amount of activity in Harry Potter unrealistic at times.)

If you want examples of books where the characters at least start out passive, just about anything by Stephen King would seem to fit. His characters almost always are just reacting to crazy events completely outside their control, and often don't really become active until their only choices are doing something or dying. The Stand might be one of the best examples of this. That is one passive group of characters, and a lot of people consider it one of his best works (I'm not one of them, though).

Karen Duvall
10-24-2008, 12:13 AM
Richard Mayhew in Neverwhere is very passive, but he makes all the other characters around him really shine so it's okay. Love that book, it's one of my favorites, and Richard neither adds or deters. It's just such a fabulous story!

Other than Twilight, I can't think of any other books with a passive MC. I like strong MCs as long as they're not "invincible." Ugh. Boring. My manuscript that's currently on submission has an MC who can be passive, but she's more active than not. The progression is part of her arc. The book I'm working on now has a single-minded MC who gets incredibly grouchy with those who get in his way. But at the beginning of the story, he's fighting against something he doesn't yet understand, so he's active, he just doesn't yet know what it is he's acting against. He and I are learning it together.

WendyNYC
10-24-2008, 12:16 AM
My manuscript that's currently on submission has an MC who can be passive, but she's more active than not. The progression is part of her arc.

Mine too. She's too concerned with what others think in the beginning, but by the end, she learns to say "F**k it." Hopefully people will stay with her for that long!

kuwisdelu
10-24-2008, 01:35 AM
I'm going to say that passive characters can be extremely successful.

They're just much, much harder to pull off well.

After all, one of the most successful characters in the history of fiction was obscenely passive for about 90% of the plot: Hamlet. Look at him. He spent more than half the play just thinking about what to do.

TrickyFiction
10-24-2008, 03:33 AM
My own character starts passive and becomes active (written before the whole "ah ha" moment I just talked about). I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not but we'll see how the revisions turn out.

Same here. And I'm writing it, so obviously, I don't mind reading it. What's important to me is if the character starts out passive, they've got to learn to take the wheel by the end. In my story, that's the whole point. The MC needs to take control of her own body, and eventually her life. I do hope it works. But we'll see.

Other's have mentioned Bella Swan, as an example of a too-passive character, and I agree. I've heard she becomes an active player in the final book, but I think that's a little too late in the game.

maestrowork
10-24-2008, 04:26 AM
A passive main character'd better be damn interesting and hot and fascinating and the secondary characters'd better be damn interesting and hot and fascinating, and something'd better be happening -- even if it's just an asteroid hitting Earth and everyone dies.

The more passive your main character is, the more you need to compensate with the other stuff.

Phoebe H
10-24-2008, 04:38 AM
This may be the place to say that main character<>viewpoint character.

I think that you can have a passive narrator/viewpoint character, but that then another active character will usually take over the role of 'main character.' Josephwise mentioned Watson & Sherlock Holmes, and that is a perfect example of this.

mario_c
10-24-2008, 06:03 AM
A passive character exists only as a means for the primary character, the alpha active role, to succeed in his/her acheivements. The best example is in Dracula (a good time of year to re-read that ;) ). Renfield and Lucy van Harker are passive characters; they are basically there for Dracula to suck some blood and flaunt his power over the wimpy Victorian humans. Actually Renfield only becomes potent and believable as a character when he becomes Dracula's silent partner in London.

Now characters can seem passive, but use it as a front. As a movie guy, I point to The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Here's a character that seems to reactively bumble into one plot point after another, always a pawn in someone else's game, yet he finally takes control of the weird and deadly situation handed him and makes a positive outcome. Plus he's always engaging and entertaining, so the audience thinks of him as the hero.

Something like that?

kuwisdelu
10-24-2008, 06:19 AM
This may be the place to say that main character<>viewpoint character.

I think that you can have a passive narrator/viewpoint character, but that then another active character will usually take over the role of 'main character.' Josephwise mentioned Watson & Sherlock Holmes, and that is a perfect example of this.

A good point to remember. E.g., The Great Gatsby, as well.

Doesn't always hold, of course.

Darzian
10-24-2008, 06:23 AM
What wonderful answers.

I also think that readers would particularly want the MC to be active, if they really like him. I can remember in the second Farseer book where the MC doesn't do much at all, while the evil guys destroy everything around him. His lack of action was making me pull my hair out.

I think that when the reader emotionally bonds with the character, they would want the character to DO SOMETHING when they're sitting on the road and a steam roller's coming along.


The more passive your main character is, the more you need to compensate with the other stuff.

Interesting angle. Sounds like something I could try after getting more experienced.

Thanks everyone! God, this site is such a goldmine.

virtue_summer
10-24-2008, 11:57 AM
I wanted to comment on characters who start passive and become active. Quite a few books actually do this, where the main character is just living their life and something happens to them and they are thrust into a new situation they then have to become active to deal with. Harry Potter is mentioned as an example of an active character but in the beginning of the first book I believe he was much more passive. His aunt and uncle and cousin were bullying him and he was just kind of going along with that life until he was swept away to HogWarts. It's only after he started to go to school, to learn magic, and to make friends, that he became a more active character.