Feb 21 2016

Inactive Protagonists

Published by at 2:43 pm under Character Development,Discussion,Plotting

Are there any circumstances under which a highly inactive protagonist would be more promising dramatically than a more active protagonist? E.g. a main character that is weakly unenthusiastic about participating in the plot*, or opts to do nothing in situations where almost every protagonist in the genre would have taken some sort of move (like a superhero story about someone that develops superpowers but doesn’t want to be a superhero/villain or otherwise interact with superhero activity).


*Weakly unenthusiastic: not all that promising. In contrast, I think someone who’s being coerced into doing something but actively rebelling/sabotaging is helluva more promising.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Inactive Protagonists”

  1. Princess of Egocentriaon 21 Feb 2016 at 3:33 pm

    Hm.. well I feel like every protagonist needs SOME motivation, so I suppose you would need to have some motivation for being inactive. If the characters are interesting then you could make a plot based around various factions and/or people trying to control the protagonist.

    I like the idea of the protagonist failing to act in scenarios where another protagonist would have. For example not trying to get revenge on the villain who killed his father- where would that take the story? In that case you could have a hero whose main attribute is being very cautious, and/or not doing things without a sound logical reason to do so. Maybe being passive in general but then moving decisively when he chooses to act.

  2. B. McKenzieon 21 Feb 2016 at 10:03 pm

    “I like the idea of the protagonist failing to act in scenarios where another protagonist would have. For example not trying to get revenge on the villain who killed his father- where would that take the story?” There are probably situations where inaction would be an interesting alternative, but I think it’d be a really rare case where refusing to be incited by the inciting action would be one of them. At the very least, I’d recommend having the MC be incited to do something unusual (e.g. become a gun magnate, or write a tear-jerking crime novel) rather than stand still (go to work Monday like nothing’s changed). Off the top of my head, I can’t easily envision a promising scenario where the main character can just walk away from the inciting event like nothing happened…

    If the main character does choose to stand still at some point, I feel like it’d probably be more promising to have it come later, especially at the climax or after (e.g. like cop stories that end with the main character quitting the force, a la Dirty Harry*). Or, for whatever reason, if a hero chooses to let the villain walk away or gives up on the original quest after an exhaustive, character-changing effort, which I think would probably be more satisfying than him just not undertaking the quest or an alternative quest.

    *A great ending, but of course it didn’t stick when the sequel rolled around. Ex-Detective Callahan would have been a lot harder to work with than Ex-Ex-Detective Callahan, apparently.

  3. Linebylineon 23 Feb 2016 at 4:36 pm

    I think you’re going to wind up in a similar situation with inactive protagonists as with incompetent ones: In most cases, it can’t last. Most of the responses you got on that one involved the incompetent protagonists either getting some skills or switching to something they aren’t so incompetent at. Likewise, I think most of the time you’re going to end up with the previously inactive character becoming active, or forced into action, or something like that.

    After all, a character that isn’t doing something isn’t really a character, much less a protagonist. More like a prop.

    But I second Princess of Egocentria’s idea of a character choosing inaction in a situation where a different protagonist would have taken action. After all, choosing to do nothing is still a choice, and often a valid one. In fact it’s often a choice that people are afraid to make. I want to read that story about the guy who chooses not to take revenge. Sounds like my kind of guy. (That said, it’s worth noting that forgiveness isn’t quite the same as just ignoring things.)

    That’s less an “inactive protagonist” than a “protagonist choosing inaction at a particular point in time,” though.

  4. B. McKenzieon 23 Feb 2016 at 6:09 pm

    “I want to read that story about the guy who chooses not to take revenge. Sounds like my kind of guy. ” Okay, but I hope it works on some level besides the aborted revenge plot, because it sounds like the character just shot that plotline in the face (ironically by NOT shooting someone in the face).

  5. RJon 25 Feb 2016 at 8:05 pm

    I think it would go back to “What is the protagonist’s overall goal?” here. Inaction *can* be interesting if it ties back to “goal – conflict – disaster” formula of writing scenes. http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/how-to-structure-scenes/

    The protagonist’s goal could be “Don’t get revenge for my father by killing the bad guy because the bad guy’s death will activate a bomb that will wipe out the universe.” Since inaction *is* the character’s goal, the conflict (i.e. what’s keeping him from achieving his goal) would be things working to drive him to kill the bad guy (maybe the bad guy will murder his daughter, enslave all the children, etc) or even protect the bad guy from other heroes that are trying to kill him, thus making it look like he’s a turncoat in the process.

  6. Linkon 22 Mar 2016 at 8:17 am

    I have a story that centers around a gang in the midst of a heated gang war in Paris, which has been war-torn by WW3 and became a police state. The main characters are orphans, and their age range is about 14-17 (I haven’t decided). And not only are there only 4-5 members of the gang that are in over their head and mourning the loss of their fellow gang-mates, but the ecologists of the world reversed the effects of global warming (a little too well) and now the world is locked in a terrible ice age.

    What do you think?

    (Also, is it cliche? ANy improvements to be made? Any suggestions?)

  7. B. McKenzieon 22 Mar 2016 at 3:48 pm

    “Any suggestions?” Unless the ecological/AGW angle is really important to the plot or thematically important*, I’d recommend having the ice age be caused by WWIII (e.g. cities on fire, people desperately burning things to stay warm, etc) rather than taking the time/space to introduce a backstory element that may be unnecessary.

    “Is it cliche?” Personally, my impression is that a more innovative and/or involved premise would probably help. How much of the plot can we guess from “postapocalyptic orphans”? (It doesn’t sound like there’s all that much room for surprising readers, unless there’s something substantially bigger going on than on just surviving a gang war).

    *E.g. the themes of unintended consequences and/or the inability of man to shape nature to his goals and/or the difficulty of acting without overreacting disastrously.

  8. MWon 05 Apr 2016 at 3:28 pm

    Back to the inactive character, my friend is writing a story about a female who has the ability to save people but a long the way she realizes that every time she heals people she slowly losses part of her life. In the story she is viewed by the public as a modern savior but selfishly refuses to save people after realizing the draw back of her powers. I also see characters like Bruce Banner who are afraid of what their power can do to everyone around so instead they do their best to be inactive. An Idea I you just inspired me with was a boy inherits powers from his Super Hero parents, growing up around all these supernatural elements he becomes desensitized by his powers. (In my mind) He only uses his powers for menial things he doesn’t want to do, one day a friend realizes he has this power and tells the rest of their friends group. From there his friends put him in situations that would generally make people use their powers but instead he ignores the problem because to him his parents are the heroes. I’m sure there could be all sorts of funny scenarios where he ignores another kid getting beat up because he thinks the kid deserves it, or perhaps a mugger tries to intimidate him. but he continues to walk past the guy like he wasn’t waiving a gun in his face. In most stories the Protagonist would have used their power to teach him a lesson. I like this concept, Thanks.

  9. B. McKenzieon 05 Apr 2016 at 4:17 pm

    “In the story she is viewed by the public as a modern savior but selfishly refuses to save people after realizing the draw back of her powers.” Some ideas here:

    1) If the superhero activity is a major part of the book, I’m not sure how an author could proceed without quickly abandoning the inactivity (or the character*). Unless maybe the superhero angle is very short-lived (e.g. a few episodes of Jessica Jones have briefly mentioned that the character was once a superhero, but it didn’t work out, and it’s mainly a hardboiled PI story with some superpowers mixed in). I’m not sure I’d build a Chekhov’s gun into a story (her superpowers, in this case), unless either she wants to use it and/or there’s pressure or coercion to use it.

    *E.g. Invincible did this once.

    2) In these circumstances, I think most protagonists would have also chosen not to use a self-lethal power (unless maybe the stakes were incredibly high). Also, I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t donated my second kidney even though it’d probably help someone else much more. Might be more dramatic to have the character decline to go into superheroics for some reason that’s more distinctive to the character and/or objectionable. Alternately, increasing the stakes of the character walking away, like the character being the best hope at stopping some sort of plague. (Alternately, it may help to give the character a power that is naturally more high-stakes than healing). Maybe resurrecting people that have recently died. (If it’s just a healing power, in most cases there’d probably be alternatives to her superpowers. Postmortem, she is the only option, and her refusing to get involved would probably infuriate a lot of people, which could get interesting. Maybe a team of superheroes just lost a member? Maybe a major criminal is dying and has a week or two to get a contingency plan ready?)

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