Passive Characters

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Can Passive Characters Still Be Engaging?

Kurt Vonnegut once said that "every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water." But can some characters, like some people, be partially passive elements in a story? The orphan who doesn’t care who their parents are, the divorcee who makes no attempt to salvage their marriage, the hero that saves the world because..they do. Is it possible to have a compelling story with such characters playing a central role?

  • Interesting topic, but to me the title and description are asking different things. The dichotomy between active/passive is not synonymous with wanting/not wanting. Someone can want something without taking action to achieve it; likewise, a "reluctant hero" can take action toward a goal that s/he doesn't really care all that much about. To use Vonnegut as an example, Billy Pilgrim is a great example of a protagonist who doesn't really appear to want anything in particular. He's just floating through time and space (or rather his own PTSD-inflicted psychosis), but never seems to have a goal in need of pursuit. The logic of that is, if you know everything that'll ever happen to you, and understand the inevitability of it all, then there's no point in exerting effort into anything to the contrary (aka Dr. Manhattan Syndrome). I suppose that still counts as being passive; perhaps a better example would be Lyubov Ranevskaya from The Cherry Orchard, or Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot. All of them have a specific goal (to save her estate from being sold, to meet Godot), but spend the entire duration of their respective plays doing nothing to achieve them. To answer your title question, all we need to do is ask whether or not we find such characters engaging, and then maybe follow that up with "why." – ProtoCanon 3 years ago
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  • I'd be interested to see you explore characters whose situations force them into passivity. Often, we as readers or viewers criticize characters for not doing anything or wanting anything, but we forget they can't. Cinderella is probably the easiest example. She's criticized for not changing her situation, but has few or no options other than to stay with her abusers. Miss Honey from Matilda is another example, as is Solomon Northrup from 12 Years a Slave. But a character doesn't need to be enslaved to fit this description, or even abused. Sometimes an oppressive culture can do the job, or just reluctance to leave a situation because someone you love is in a more vulnerable position, leaving you feeling they must be protected. – Stephanie M. 3 years ago
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  • ProtoCanon: I understand what you're saying, but I think I'll leave the title and description different so that the author of this article can choose which they prefer. Thanks for the great comment! – m-cubed 3 years ago
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  • I really like what Stephanie said. If an author writes a character who is passive, he/she likely had some specific reason for doing so. What in the character's background caused them to be as such? Is this just part of the character's personality? How does this trait function within the storyline? If there isn't a specific purpose, then the character will fall flat. – itsverity 3 years ago
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  • I actually like characters with more passive or introverted personalities because to me, they are easy to root for. You want to see them break out of their shells, experience the world, and not feel so "buttoned up." At the same time, you want them to come to a place where they are at peace with *natural* passivity, as opposed to what has been forced on them. – Stephanie M. 3 years ago
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