Two weeks ago James Scott Bell wrote a terrific post on hero passivity, and how to handle it (carefully) in a novel. Which in a nutshell is this: in general you should avoid it, because it’s absolutely a radioactive story killer if handled wrong.
The mistake, and the temptation that leads to it, is to get too caught up in the intention to write a character-driven story (a noble goal, but like trying to run a marathon, you need to understand the role of pace), and a facet of that character is passivity in the form of lack of motivation, lack of courage, lack of direction or simply lack of interest.
Sooner or later, you need to give your hero something to do.
This issue is an example of how story structure touches and drives everything.
This includes character arc, the beginning of which can indeed be a viable context for your protagonist’s passivity (which may be the very thing that gets them into trouble). Nay-sayers on structure handle this differently, and yet end up – at least when the story finally works – aligning with where structure seeks to take a story in the first place.
Which is why mastery of story structure is perhaps the most critical phase of an author’s development. Because everything in the story connects to and is informed by structure.
When someone tries to tell you that’s not true… run.
Showing your hero in a passive context can actually be a good thing…
… provided you understand when and where to allow passivity to show itself.
Some stories begin with the hero simply not yet having fully collided with a forthcoming problem or situation (which absolutely needs to happen, and at a specific place in the story sequence), while others show the hero actually contributing to that problem by virtue of being passive (like, for example, someone in a relationship being cold toward their partner, resulting in… well, you know, all kinds of issues).
But be careful with this. Because passivity can get you – the author – in a real pickle, too. Stories are nothing if not a vicarious experience of a central hero-centric problem/situation (plot) for the reader. Just don’t suck on that pickle for too long… because it’s toxic if you do.
And that’s where structure will guide you.
In her book “The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By”, Carol S. Pearson is credited with bringing us life’s hero archetypes, four of which align exactly with the sequential/structural “parts” of a story. (For those who live by the 3-Act model, know that the 2nd Act is by definition contextually divided into two equal parts at the midpoint, with separate hero contexts for each quartile on either side of that midpoint, thus creating what is actually a four–part story model; this perspective is nothing other than a more specific – and thus, more useful – model than the 3-Act format from which it emerges.)
Those four parts align exactly with these four character contexts:
Orphan (Pearson’s term)/innocent – as the story opens your hero is living life in a way that is not yet connected to (or in anticipation of) the core story, at least in terms of what goes wrong.
And something absolutely has to go wrong, and at a specific spot in the narrative.
The author’s mission in this first story part/quartile, prior to that happening, is twofold: make us care about the character, while setting up the mechanics of the dramatic arc (as well as the character arc) to come. There are many ways to play this – which is why this isn’t in any way formulaic – since within these opening chapters the hero, passive or not, can actually sense or even contribute to the forthcoming storm, or it can drop on their head like a crashing chandelier. Either way, something happens (at a specific place in the narrative sequence) that demands a response from your hero.
Now your hero has something to do, something that wasn’t fully in play prior to that moment (called The First Plot Point, which divides the Part 1 quartile from the Part 2 quartile). In this context, and if your chandelier falls at the proper place (in classic story structure that First Plot Point can arrive anywhere from the 20th to 25th percentile; variances on either end of that range puts the story at risk for very specific reasons), you can now think of your hero as a…
Wanderer – the hero’s initial reactions to the First Plot Point (chandelier impact), which comprise the first half of Act 2 (or the second of the four “parts” of a story). The First Plot Point is the moment the story clicks in for real (everything prior to it was essentially part of a set-up for it), because the source of the story’s conflict, until now foreshadowed or only partially in play, has now summoned the hero to react. That reaction can be described as “wandering” through options along a new path, such as running, hiding, striking back, seeking information, surrendering, writing their congressman, encountering a fuller awareness of what they’re up against, or just plain getting into deeper water from a position of cluelessness and/or some level of helplessness.
But sooner or later, if nothing else than to escalate the pace of the story (because your hero can’t remain either passive or in victim-mode for too long), your hero must evolve from a Wanderer into a…
Warrior – using information and awareness and a learning curve (i.e, when the next chandelier drops, duck), as delivered via the Midpoint turn of the story. The Midpoint (that’s a literal term, by the way) changes the context of the story for both the reader and the hero (from wanderer into warrior-mode), because here is where a curtain has been drawn back to give us new/more specific information – machinations, reveals, explanations, true identities, deeper motives, etc. – that alter the nature of the hero’s decisions and actions from that point forward, turning them from passive or clueless toward becoming more empowered, resulting in a more proactive attack on whatever blocks their path or threatens. Which is often, but not always, a villain.
But be careful here. While your hero is getting deeper into the fight here in Part 3, take care to not show much success at this point (the villain is ramping things up, as well, in response to your hero’s new boldness). The escalated action and tension and confrontation of the Part 3 quartile (where, indeed, the tension is thicker than ever before) is there to create new story dynamics that will set up a final showdown just around the corner.
That’s where, in the fourth and final quartile, the protagonist becomes, in essence, a…
Martyr (Pearson’s term)/hero – launching a final quest or heading down a path that will ultimately lead to the climactic resolution of the story. This should be a product of the hero’s catalytic decisions and actions (in other words, heroes shouldn’t be saved, rather, they should be the primary architect of the resolution), usually necessitating machinations and new dynamics (remember Minny’s “chocolate” pie in The Help?), which ramp up to facilitate that climactic moment.
This is where character arc becomes a money shot. Because by now everything you’ve put the hero through has contributed to a deep well of empathy and emotion on the reader’s part. This is where the crowd cheers or hearts break or history is altered, where villains are vanquished and a new day dawns.
Instinct, Intention or Accident?
Too many writers aren’t in command of the difference. You can be, and you should be.
In this context these three options don’t refer to your hero, they refer to you, the author of the story. All three modes may play a role in how a story comes together, but the good news is that you don’t have to rely on any single one of them. Armed with a deeper knowledge of craft, you get to choose which to harness, and when.
Truly, successful storytelling exceeds the sum of these three states, so listen to all the voices in your head that contribute to the way you build the arc of your character: yours, those of your characters (that’s a metaphor, by the way, because when a character “speaks to you” that’s just your story sensibility weighing in), and the sum of the learning you have accumulated from venues like this one, and the books the authors here have written to show it to you.
(image by Esther Dyson)