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The Passive Character



The Passive Character

Roller coasters can be a lot fun, can’t they? Hehehe! Unless you’re deathly afraid of them like I was when I was a little kid, and then had to try them out and find a love for them a bit later on. That was when I learned to appreciate the twists and turns, the highs and lows, and the overall speed involved with the joy of getting onto one of those massive monsters and being tossed around like a rag doll for a little while. And whenever I’m writing something that I want to be thrilling or exciting or dramatic or packed full of action...I make it my goal to somehow find ways to recreate that same feeling in the hearts and minds of my audience. It’s almost as if they’re sitting in the roller coaster seat next to me and is following along for the ride. A very cool skill to have when it comes to creating a memorable addition to the world of storytelling.

Sounds like a good time, doesn’t it?

Now….let’s compare that to one of you guys hopping into a classic muscle car, revving up that loud engine, and slamming your foot on the gas to race top speed through an open area, gripping that wheel with both hands until your knuckles are white, screeching tires across the pavement, sliding around with the danger of possibly making a wrong move and flipping the whole vehicle over on top of you. Wind fiercely blowing through your hair as you finally stomp on that brake pedal and slide to a stop just inches away from a brick wall!

They could both be fun, sure. But from a writer’s perspective, and especially from a reader’s perspective...there’s a pretty big difference between the two. Between enjoying the ride and controlling the ride. And that’s why I want to have a somewhat balanced conversation about the ‘passive voice’ in your projects when it comes to your main characters, and some of the weirdness that comes along with it. Because there’s just...a touch of weirdness. Hehehe, I won’t lie. But you can still use this to your advantage once you’re able to see it, even if it’s more practice to be used in the editing process than it is when you’re writing. So, let’s discuss...

I’ll try to talk this out without sounding like a madman...

I know that there are lot of experts that really discourage and condemn the passive voice when you’re writing, and they really do have good common sense reasons for avoiding it when you can, but I still find occasional uses for it when it comes to building your narrative up to what you want it to be. It’s that roller coaster effect, but taken a bit more literally when it comes to your protagonist and the other characters surrounding them.

What is ‘passive voice’? I believe we talked about this once before a long long time ago, but it’s a voice that you use that turns your protagonist into a bystander or a passenger in their own vehicle. The vehicle being the story itself, of course. You sideline them, and might end up making them forgettable or even just plain boring. They’re called the ‘PRO-tagonist’! We’re supposed to be following behind them as they fight their way through this particular adventure or whatever. You don’t always want them to look like a bunch of rewards and consequences are just random things that ‘happen to them’ throughout your story. Basically, it makes for a much less engaging story if your main character is just standing out of bounds and watching everything around them without actually interacting with the rest of the story. It gets bland and it makes it harder for your audience to really get on your protagonist’s side. How can you sell them on a hero who isn’t really doing anything special to earn the title? You know?

More times than not, ditching the passive voice for a much stronger showing from the characters that you’ve built your characters around is going to be the best way to go. Don’t allow their forward progression happen accidentally or just become some kind of fortunate stroke of luck. Have them get in there and do the work. Have them make things happen, and motivate them in a way that will demonstrate to your readers that they’re intelligent, or reckless, or driven in some way to take further steps towards their ultimate goal. This is all done with the way you write it out. Just a few words, here and there, can make a big difference. Tiny little details that most people won’t notice when they read them, but will ultimately give them a feel of control and purpose.

Find ways to connect your words and the actions of every single scene to your main character somehow. It’s difficult to recognize the passive voice sometimes, because it’s written correctly, it feels as though it’s focused and still on task...but once you see it in your own writing and learn what to look for, you’ll begin to shy away from using it as often as you do. (Assuming, of course, that you use it at all)

What you want to avoid more than anything is to have a main character that people are constantly watching as things are happening to them...instead of having some kind of action where they’re actually doing something themselves. Otherwise, your narrative becomes a spectator sport that gets old very quickly if it becomes too obvious. It puts your readers back in the passenger seat, watching the scenery go by without any sense of being involved or encouraged to take a part in what’s going on. One of the reasons that people talk about the ‘video game curse’ when it comes to making movies is greatly due to this very fact. How is that possible? Video games have extremely compelling characters and intricate storylines to go along with them. Not to mention a whole mythology and amazingly detailed amount of world building already done and locked into place. So just take all of that storytelling gold and create a movie based on a near carbon copy of the source material, right? How hard is that?

Well, here’s the thing...you watch movies. You play video games. So you’ve basically taken an active character and made them a passive character. That’s the glaring malfunction in a project that believes it will be the same experience for old fans and new visitors alike. Bring your readers and have them be a part of what’s going. There will be many that might not agree with your protagonist’s decisions, but even if it causes them a great deal of frustration and disbelief...at least you’ve got their attention. And if they’re arguing everything out in their head, they will still feel like a part of the process. That’s the power of having an active main character. Even when they’re not fully in control of what’s going on around them...they’re still in control of what’s going on around them. And they achieve this by being an active participant instead of a bystander in their own story.

In my story, “My Only Escape” (https://gayauthors.org/story/comicality/myonlyescape), my protagonist is only a young teenager and suffering his way through horrible physical and verbal abuse on an almost daily basis. Obviously, he’s not in control of what happens to him, and he doesn’t have any options like ‘leaving home’ or anything open to him in the story. But despite his powerless position, his mind and his actions and his defense mechanisms are in place to actively deal with the pain and fear that he’s trying to protect himself from. He’s not just sitting there allowing his circumstances to overpower him repeatedly while my audience looks on in horror. Do you know what I mean? There has to be something for him to DO while everything is going on. Even if it’s something as simple as trying his hardest not to cry out from the pain, refusing to give his father the satisfaction of knowing how close he is to being totally broken from the torture of it all. Connecting my character to the action, connects my readers to the action. And that makes for a more interesting experience than simply absorbing details and plot points through some well written prose. Not that the other way isn’t ‘functional’...but is it memorable?

Ask yourself what the action is in the scene. Doesn’t have to be anything major or overly dramatic...just...what’s happening. Little additions or reworded sentences can make big differences. Something tiny, like...”There was an open window to see out of” can be strengthened just a bit by writing, “I walked over to open the window and looked out of it.” The first sentence is functional, but the second sentence has your character actually interacting with his environment. He’s doing something as opposed to just taking notice of something in the background. You want to deliver the same amount of information, but you want to give it a slight feeling of momentum when doing so. Does that make sense?

Find the ‘action’ in every scene that you write into your story and focus on connecting it to what your character is doing to interact with it or react to it. Not just the details. The door is open, the car won’t start, the spider crawled up the wall...ok, so now how is your main character going to somehow become a part of that scene? Are they just there? What are we doing here?

Bottom line...active characters are more dynamic than passive characters. Even if it’s only in a very quiet and subtle way. If you’re going to have one of characters take a passive approach during one of the moments in your story, make sure that you have a valid reason for doing so. And make sure that it doesn’t become that particular character’s defining trait. Because, ultimately...if they’re just going to be background noise, then why have them there at all? A few scenes are fine, if that’s what your writing instincts are telling you...but if one of your main voices is constantly wandering around in the shadow of other characters for no rhyme or reason...then that’s a waste. One thing that readers don’t have time or patience for is waste.

I hope this helps, and at least made a little bit of sense...as it gets more and more difficult to write tips about things that you just have to ‘feel’ and learn to recognize on your own. It’s not really something that comes with a blueprint that I can give you. It’s just something that I notice and do what I can to avoid in my own writing as I continue to grow and change over the years. Never too late to evolve in a brand new way, after all. Hehehe! Happy writing, you guys! And I’ll seezya soon!


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