In the last twenty-plus years, the face of everything has changed significantly. Thanks to the internet, writing and publishing has become more accessible to a lot more people. It’s also opened up the publishing world to the rest of the world – different cultures, perspectives, stories. The argument for more diversity can be discussed elsewhere, but believe me when I say it is a far cry from back then.
And it’s not just new cultures that have been opened up. There’s now a much wider range of perspectives outside of what was once mostly straight, white and male (the romance sector an exception). Back then, women were making their author names gender neutral in the hopes that their books wouldn't be immediately dismissed as 'chick lit'. More recently, marginalised people from all corners are seeing their voices brought to the fore more and more often. We are now so much more aware of mental health issues, abuses and health conditions we’d never have once heard about if we weren’t directly affected. There are more conversations going on around all sorts of issues that were simply not being had twenty years ago.
Something that has cropped up in some of those conversations is the subject of how western literature – and maybe especially in the US – tends to favour a leniency towards the active protagonist. Critics of this leniency quite rightly point out that sometimes characters are not in the position to be active, to take control of their own destinies, or to act in ways that will move towards those destinies. The argument goes that, in real life, and in the spirit of character authenticity, people in abusive relationships or imprisoned in modern-day slavery, for instance, might not be in a position to actively change or drive their situation. The act of just trying would be too high a risk. Some people in life have things happen to them, rather than make them happen. Some people merely survive.
This is a subject I’ve been meaning to cover for quite some time, because I want to point out that a survivor as a character is a lot different than an inactive, or passive, character. And that the two shouldn't be mixed up as being one and the same. For, "merely" surviving is an active pursuit in itself. Just getting through each day - each hour!
There is a difference between a passive observer of events who plays no active role in the story or their own fate and simply watches circumstances unfold towards their own demise – or even just watches other characters unfold theirs – and a character who witnesses same said events, but spends their time investing in their own survival. Yes, maybe escape or avoiding abuse or even death is beyond their control and they are not empowered, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t participate in trying to stay alive or sane. It doesn’t necessarily mean they participate in big events or taking action against their oppressors, but, instead, focus on the micro-actions. Finding any nourishment they can when they are denied food, even if that means trapping and eating insects. Finding ways to keep even the smallest flame of hope alive, even if they know their fate is written on the wall. Doing what they need to do to keep their captors happy, or at least at bay. The cliche of the prisoner scratching a tally on the jail wall is a worn one, but it’s the perfect analogy for a person who has no control over their lives, their destiny, and yet performs the smallest action each day to keep their mind focused and draw even the smallest amount of strength from that. A great example of a character who falls in with what happens around them and what is thrust upon them, never driving events and acts to survive, is the story of Cambodian child soldier Arn in the book Never fall down by Patricia Cormick.
Coincidentally (and maybe what reminded me to write about this subject), I came across a video in my feed on Facebook about Shasta Groene. Her family was murdered and she was abducted by the culprit. She had to endure her abusive captor for over a month and survive that captivity at the mere age of eight years old. For her to escape, she forced herself to charm her abuser and create a relationship with him to keep her alive through that fabricated endearment.
Survivors everywhere find the smallest things to draw strength from all the time in real life, so I don’t buy into the argument that an inactive protagonist is acceptable in fiction when being likened to a survivor.
A survivor isn’t inactive. Not by any measure. To an outside observer, their seeming inactions may not seem much but, to that person, it is everything. It’s their breath, their heartbeat, their will. Just to keep going minute-by-minute.
That’s different from an inactive, or passive, character. When we talk about them, what we’re referring to is someone who has no stakes in the game. Someone who observes and follows. Someone without drive. Someone the reader isn’t invested in. To repeat, they do not participate in their own survival, or even in the survival of others. What do I mean by that? Not all stories are about survival.
Except they are. Maybe not life and death survival, but there will be a form of survival inbuilt into the story somewhere.
Now, you might be thinking of examples of stories where the main character is passive. Two possibilities that spring to mind are Dr Watson in Sherlock Holmes and Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. Having never read a Holmes novel, I can’t comment on Watson, though I will note that in the films or TV series he always seemed to be more of an errand boy, soundboard and stand-in ignoramus for the audience, so they could have Holmes’ ingenuity dissected for them.
Gatsby, however, I did read, albeit many years ago. Carraway didn’t do much in the story, other than to act as a convenient witness, enabling the author to avoid head hopping into too many characters. He gave the reader access to the true players in the story – the toxic love triangle between Gatsby, the hero, Daisy, his love interest, and her husband, the story villain. But, come on, whoever gave a hoot about Nick Carraway? Nobody, that’s who. He had no investment in the story outcome, no survival need attached to it. And in the end, if I remember correctly, he waltzes off into the sunset with an unknown wife and a new life on his arm. None of us cared about that. We wanted to know about the enigmatic Gatsby, the over-entitled Daisy and her villainous husband who needed taking to task over his abhorrent actions. Had we direct access to any of their perspectives, the reading experience wouldn’t have been half so much interesting. Carraway provided a barrier to that access, held them at a distance, so that they were more intriguing, and certainly around Gatsby. In fact, I'd argue that Dr Watson was also used as a tool to keep Holmes at a mysterious distance.
By using a passive character as the filter of contact between Gatsby and the reader, Gatsby became instantly more enigmatic because we don't have direct access to his fears, anxieties and self-doubt - all traits that would undermine his outward façade of a confident and charismatic playboy. But, for sure, the protagonists – or main characters – in the story were Gatsby and Daisy, and her husband, the antagonist.
With each of these examples, the stakes reside with Holmes and Gatsby. No one expects Watson to solve the case. It is Holmes' skills that derive triumph or failure, life or death.
Simultaneously, it is Gatsby who must save Daisy from an abusive marriage, not Nick.
Now, let’s bring this back to what this means in terms of the types of characters that are passive to the degree of resulting in a rejection. First off, we need to differentiate between a protagonist and a narrating character. The former drives the plot while the latter bears witness and relays that to the reader. And, of course, they can be both.
However, if your narrating character is not also the protagonist, what is their purpose in the story? Simply to observe (this crops up all too often)? If they play no meaningful role, have no true investment in the outcome, are not affected by what happens to or by the actions of the true protagonist, and they also do not act as a vehicle in the scopes I have laid out in my above examples, maybe consider if you are telling the story from the right perspective. Whose story is it to tell? And I mean that in the sense of which character, not which author.
The next thing to consider is why you are writing from the perspective of a passive character. What difference would it make if you rewrote your short story or chapter into the perspective of the actual main character/protagonist? Is there something you are afraid to face within that character that makes it easier for you, as the author, to keep them at a distance by not slipping into their direct perspective?
Even after considering these things, you might find that your instinct fights against switching character POVs. Contrary to popular belief about how editors think, I do not ascribe to the idea that editors know everything and writers know nothing. Writer instinct is hugely important in the process of creating great fiction. That's not to say that every instinct you have will be the right thing for the story. Sometimes you should listen to external advice, and sometimes you should have the confidence in yourself that you're right. Maybe, the order of the day is that your narrator needs more development, more thought on what their personal investment is in the story with which they are currently just hitching a ride?
It doesn't have to dominate the main character's storyline, but I'm confident some small yet significant personal stakes on their part can do nothing but increase your chances of an acceptance.