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Passive protagonists in SFF writing

Updated: Jan 19

Passive protagonists cross my desk a lot. In this blog post I’ll cover:


· Why they especially affect SFF writing

· Why new authors especially struggle with this issue

· When a passive protagonist is okay

· Whether demanding an active protagonist is a Western cultural imposition


Passive protagonists are really common. Writing a passive protagonist is a mistake I’ve made in my own writing too, and it even happens to writers with a lot of experience.


If you have a passive protagonist, the story happens to them. It’s almost as if they are a blob or a camera that we follow as they move through the storyworld, while other characters and the setting have an influence on them.


Passive protagonists in SFF writing


This is especially common for protagonists who are also viewpoint characters in SFF writing. It usually happens because the SFF author’s first passion is often worldbuilding. Concocting and laying out the parameters of the storyworld is much more interesting than deciding on what the protagonist wants in life. Developing a magic system, for example, is usually much more fun than defining the goals and motivation of a character (which are probably much more similar to real world people’s goals and motivations).


Because we experience the world through the viewpoint character’s senses, it’s easy to drop into thinking of the viewpoint character as a medium through which we experience the storyworld, rather than as a person, animal, magical being – whatever – with mundane desires.


The ‘chosen one’ trope is a bit passive too – here the character doesn’t choose a destiny; it is chosen for them and it fatalistically happens to them on their quest.


It’s important to sort out this problem, as the protagonist’s actions at each point in the story will have big repercussions for what happens later – trust me, I learned this the hard way! If the problem is serious, a substantial rewrite will be necessary.


Why new SFF authors often struggle with passive protagonists


New authors are likely to struggle with passive protagonists for two reasons. First, because they’re super focused on the worldbuilding and the plot. Second, because they haven’t thought in detail about how to develop a character with motivations, goals, and so on.


It’s usually possible to diagnose this problem by reading the synopsis.


I highly recommend you write a synopsis, by the way! Not just for querying, but for getting your head around your story.


One great solution, which I learned on the Club Ed Editing for Character Development course, is to ask the author to make a table in which they list each main character’s goals, motivation, and conflicts.


These can change over the story. Here's an example:


o An evil wizard has cast a spell that makes the season winter constantly.

o Queen Ariel’s granaries are depleted and she needs to find a solution.

o A stable boy, Aaron, is starving and believes the queen is hoarding the remaining grain supply.


At the start of the story, Aaron’s goal might be to start a riot to protest against the lack of food.


Once he finds out about the evil wizard’s evil spell, his goal and feelings toward Queen Ariel may change. He could form a popular alliance between the peasants and the queen’s court to banish the evil wizard and undo his spell. OK, feudal political involvement may be stretching it, as this article argues!


But let's continue. The characters' motivations and conflicts are multifaceted too. I’ve outlined some possible ones in this table:


Goal

Motivation

Conflict

Evil wizard

To weaken Queen Ariel's kingdom

To rule over as much of the world as possible

Tension between weakening the kingdom vs not having anything worth ruling over

Queen Ariel

To break the evil wizard's spell and restock the granaries

To maintain the status quo (continue ruling over the kingdom)

Conflict between listening to her serfs and not wanting to endanger her position

Aaron

To eat and expose Queen Ariel's lies in the process / later, the break the evil wizard's spell

To survive, to improve his lot in life

Class conflict with Queen Ariel that is paper over to form an alliance with her against the evil wizard


When a passive protagonist is okay


Now, the first part of this blog post describes one kind of passivity that relates to a fundamental developmental issue: a character hasn’t been developed enough.


But there are other situations where you may have a passive protagonist. For instance, you may write a romance novel where the protagonist’s character arc is about a shift from taking a passive approach to romantic relationships, to taking a much more active approach to them. Here, the goals, motivation, and conflicts are fleshed out, but the protagonist chooses a passive course of action.


This example is about how a character interacts with other characters, whereas the developmental issue usually applies to how they encounter the setting and characters.


If you flesh out the goals, motivation, and conflict for your main characters, and then choose for a viewpoint character to behave passively, then the narration will be different to if the character is left undeveloped.


Are active protagonists specific to Western culture?


Finally, it's fair to say that commercial fiction in Anglo-American publishing favours active protagonists. An active protagonist literally acts on the world, which can drive the story forward, increase the narrative tension and get the ball moving. But this advice is limiting. Feminists have critiqued the emphasis on active protagonists as masculine.


Equally, many SFF novels involve a protagonist encountering an unfamiliar cultural setting. Being an active goalseeker in this context could easily be inappropriate as it doesn’t involve listening to and learning from a person’s cultural surroundings.


So, in short, it can be fine to write a passive protagonist – the key is that it’s done with intent, and doubling down on the main characters’ goals, motivations, and core conflicts will help you achieve that!


***


Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. His expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.


He is an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.


You can contact him here, or feel free to leave a comment below!

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