Friday, 10 May 2013

Passive Obsessive

If there's one criticism that's been regularly levelled at my work over the last ten years, it's that my main characters are too passive - they allow themselves to be dragged into adventure rather than initiating it. Well, no more – I finally have a protagonist who is feisty, focused and determined. But re-watching The Graduate last night, I was reminded of why passive characters carry such a strong resonance for me. In the film, Benjamin Braddock (played by Dustin Hoffman) spends much of his time in a state of near depression, paralysed by the expectations heaped upon him. He hates himself almost as much as he hates the smug, moneyed world of his parents, and his affair with Mrs Robinson is more like self-harm than a quest for pleasure. For much of the running time, Benjamin doesn't know what he wants and moreover doesn't know why he should bother trying to find out.

Even though I'm closer to Mrs Robinson's age, I still identify very strongly with Benjamin. That feeling of being adrift in a world full of people who seem so sure of themselves, while you yourself remain so uncertain. What should I do with my life? What is the one thing that I love to do above all others? These are questions I still regularly ask myself. But many readers, especially young ones, aren't particularly interested in waiting around while a character goes through the process of questioning their motivation. They want characters with clearly focused goals that will drive an exciting plot. Robert McKee's Story is very specific on the use of character motivation to resolve a scene – a protagonist wants something and goes into the scene trying to get it from someone else. Almost every time, they will fail and actually end up further from their goal than they were when they started. Thus, there is rising tension as the goal becomes ever more important while the protagonist faces an ever larger struggle to reach it, prompting them to take ever bigger risks.

It's fair to say that there are some of these mechanics at play in the last third of The Graduate as Benjamin becomes infatuated and chases the object of his desires. But this would be far less affecting if it hadn't been preceded by Benjamin's inability to find his path. The famous final scene on the bus is almost a reset point, sweeping away the excitement of that final act and indicating that perhaps none of the characters really knew what they wanted after all.

Despite my enthusiasm for passive characters and the mirror they hold up to society, I have to be honest and admit that this is a subject better suited to adult literary fiction, where plot takes a backseat to social commentary and writing technique. When we choose to write for children, we don't just sacrifice vocabulary, we also have to accept the wider restrictions of the form. To truly connect with a young audience means presenting and structuring a story in a way that will resonate with them, from a killer first line through rising tension to a meaningful resolution. Active, motivated characters are a key component in that journey.



  1. I've struggled with this a bit, too, Nick, but hadn't thought about why I was so drawn to passive characters. Really interesting to hear your thoughts--I know this will keep rattling around in my head for a few hours, if not a few months!

    I found Libba Bray's Going Bovine a really fascinating example of this. The main character is dying of mad cow disease, so he's totally passive (and annoyingly so, I found). Yet he goes on this incredible adventure, and I ended up enraptured with the story. And I have no idea how it could've worked without his initial passivity. The whole story is basically about approaching death, and how we want to die.

  2. Great post! And what a great film. I'm now imagining you in Dustin Hoffman's shoes.

    Terrific to see Going Bovine mentioned here, too. I agree - it's a wonderful example of a book where a passive hero is essential. But I think even in YA that's unusual, and in MG it's not often seen.

  3. Really good post, Nick. I also struggle with this issue, but I guess the trick is to find ways to shake the world of a story so that passivity is not an option! Loved The Graduate analogy.

  4. But wouldn't it work to have a character who is passive in that they just want a normal life, but they get mixed up in something against their will? That way they are forced into being active, even though they are naturally passive. That would work, no?!?!?