Agency, and the Problem of the Passive Protagonist
Okay—you have a brand-new book by a new-to-you author, and you’ve been itching to dive into it. Finally you have enough peace and quiet to start. The strong writing draws you into the story world right away. As we expected to, we learn that Brad, the hero, is a good guy. We like him. We’ve learned his dog shelter is in deep financial trouble, and we’ve seen his devoted kindness to the rescue dogs. He hasn’t taken a salary for three months in order to pay his assistant. He’s got unpaid bills, and the mortgage payment is due in two weeks.
Besides that, though, Really Bad Things have happened to Brad. He’s sleeping on the shelter’s reception area couch, because a week ago he came home unexpectedly to find his partner in bed with their hunky neighbor, whereupon the partner announced that he’s moving in with hunky neighbor. Brad can’t afford their apartment on his own, nor can he afford first month’s rent and the deposit on a new one.
But thirty-five pages in, even though we’re rooting for him, a problem quietly pushes itself into the story. Yes, Brad is suffering. He’s in a tough spot. But he’s utterly passive. What is he DOING to fight his way out of this situation? Maybe there’s a throwaway line in his internal dialogue, that he would talk to the bank manager again about restructuring his loans, but we know the banker will again say no because his situation hasn’t changed. Although the stakes are high (he might lose his shelter and end up on the street himself) and his angst is intense, he is psychologically and physically passive. For a protagonist, this is a big problem, and as I see it, is often overlooked in our stories. Suffering is not enough. A protagonist must act. That’s his job, if it’s his story.
There’s a pervasive concept that in order for a reader to empathize with a hero, the hero has to suffer. “Don’t hold back! Pile it on! Torture your protagonist!” the how-to handbook exclaims.
Yes, a protagonist has to have problems. But I’m going to suggest that the problems a hero faces must serve a bigger purpose than just making him miserable. That’s a minor part of the equation. The larger part of the equation is this: Those problems are his opportunity to show what he’s made of, and how resourceful, how determined he is in pursuing his goals.
It seems to me that all too often the second part of this equation is neglected in favor of noble helplessness. As a result, we end up with a lot of limp, suffering heroes populating our stories. That’s the equivalent of the “damsel in distress” trope of het romance, a trope now generally rejected as misogynist. It’s just as hateful to men. Is our hero Brad so overwhelmed with his despair about the shelter that he’s paralyzed and has to be rescued? Damsel in distress.
So here’s my argument. By page thirty-five I should know what Brad is doing to solve his immediate problem. I don’t have to know all his back story, or that he wants abuse of dogs to end forever. But I do need something grounded, to know what our resourceful Brad is going to do TODAY, in the circumstance just as it is, about his situation. What does he want, and what is he going to do to achieve it? What’s his plan? What’s his first step? When he takes that step, he’s a protagonist again, and driving his story.
What the hero wants in the first few pages is rarely what he’ll want all the way through the story. And what he wants may well vary with the story’s genre. But the more a hero simply reacts to events initiated by others, rather than initiating them himself, the less of a protagonist he is. A passive hero simply is merely the subject of the story, playing a minimal role in shaping the plot. A passive hero has no chance to reveal his character, simply because he doesn’t act. Feelings alone don’t reveal character. I love internal struggle, but it must lead to action or internal struggle simply becomes an emotional hamster wheel. Actions reveal both feelings and character.
How often have we authors been exhorted to show, not tell? It applies here. Describing the internal state of the hero is not enough to reveal character. The hero must act, and his actions will reveal his character. Actions speak louder than words.
Some might argue this idea just applies to “action” stories, but I don’t think that’s true. Not every action has to show the hero reclaiming Dragon’s Eye, the mighty sword of kings, from the corrupt priesthood of Xanthrax to take his rightful seat on the throne of his murdered father. It could just as easily show the hero setting all the clocks in his apartment to the same time, a declaration of his commitment to reality. Action can be of any scope, appropriate to the story’s context.
Last year I wrote a short solstice story from the point of view of a little boy who wanted to find a new husband for his dad. An eight-year-old boy is not able to act in the same way an adult can. So with the help of his aunt he builds a solstice altar to attract a partner for his dad. He works at it every day. Regardless of who the hero is, his actions reveal his reality, which is also his character.
Over and over in a full-length novel, the hero’s goals lead to his actions, which create repercussions he then must face. He grows by facing them, by clarifying his goals, and by acting to achieve new ones. No matter how much he suffers, if he simply navigates his way through the actions of others, he’s not really the protagonist. He is an observer. A protagonist takes initiative and thereby changes the unfolding story.
I mentioned psychological passivity earlier, and rather than make this article way too long, I offer two examples.
The first example is peripheral: the set-up phrase, “He was tired of meaningless hookups.” This is usually authorial convenience, a shorthand set-up to show that the protagonist is maturing, and now is ready for a “Real Relationship.” But on examination this moral judgment is an insult to the protagonist’s character. It casts him as needy and psychologically weak: If his hookups are meaningless, what is so wrong with the protagonist that he has repeatedly failed to BRING any meaning to his hookups? Is he that lazy? That selfish in sex? Does he expect his hookup partner to deliver all the meaning he craves?
How pathetic is that? Most of us have learned the hard way that depending on others as a source of meaning is a false premise. The open door to greater meaning is the meaning we ourselves bring to what we do. To know love, first we ourselves must love.
The second psychological example is more central—the protagonist is allowed to hang out in desire or intention instead of taking action. Brad wants desperately to save his dog shelter. He sincerely intends to find a solution. But what does he actually do? Talk to his banker again without creating a new business plan to show her? Hardly enough to qualify as a protagonist. Does Brad take a second, or even a third job? Does he sell the cherished antique tea cart that belonged to his grandmother, the only person in his estranged family that ever really understood him? Does he become a sex worker on the side? Does he rob the bank? How badly does Brad want to save his shelter? What he does to solve his problem reveals his character. If he does nothing but fret, he is a limp hero, and I lose respect for him.
Too often the Brads in our stories are conveniently rescued by another character—perhaps by the handsome, high-powered attorney (with money) who comes to the shelter to find a puppy for his niece. The meet-cute is charming, the romance is lovely, Brad even refuses the attorney’s financial help at first because he’s too proud to say yes. (Which is a pretty negative message about Brad’s character, that he’d let his pride condemn his beloved shelter dogs to death.) But ultimately, Brad is rescued, and becomes the gay male equivalent to the now (happily) out-of-fashion damsel in distress.
This isn’t an issue of plot or genre. It’s an issue of agency. The job of a protagonist is to act. His actions must drive the story, or the story ceases to be his.
(This article first appeared November 2017 in my column “Through My Lens” for Genre Talk at http://www.thenovelapproachreviews.com.)