The Passive Protagonist

A few years ago I wrote a novel about the Nazis, told from the German perspective. The main character was a Gestapo bureaucrat intimately involved with the administration of the Holocaust. Instead of countering or resisting the horrors unfolding around him, he acquiesced, following his orders and dutifully going about his work, even as he struggled to justify it. I depicted his increasing brutalization, his attempts to remain human as those around him turned into monsters, and his devastation at ultimately confronting the results of his involvement with the regime.

The novel was meant as an exploration of the ordinary Germans who found themselves caught up in an ideological war that set patriotism and duty at direct odds with morality. It was about the propensity of individuals to absolve themselves of responsibility by claiming to be a small cog in a big machine, culminating in the realisation that it is only by the work of the small cogs that the big machine can operate. All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing, and all that. Heavy stuff indeed.

I researched it to within an inch of its life, polished it to a sheen, and when I sent it out into the world, I had the best response I’ve had for one of my novels. The consensus, however, was that while it was well-written, challenging and thought-provoking, I had fallen into the trap of many would-be novelists: I had written a passive protagonist, and as a result, despite many interesting scenes, the novel didn’t work as a whole.

My question, then, for all the readers and writers out there is this: Can a passive protagonist ever work? And can you think of any famous examples?

In its simplest, general sense, a protagonist is the work’s main character – the person we follow because it is their story. Elizabeth Bennet, Horatio Hornblower and Kurt Wallander are obvious and indisputable examples. But in the more specific, literary sense of the term, the protagonist is the character that drives the action by making choices. Their estate might be entailed away; they might sight overwhelming numbers of French warships sailing over the horizon or discover a prominent Swedish politician has been scalped; but how they choose to respond to these situations is what makes the story. They have goals and they work towards achieving them, and the protagonist is therefore always active. They don’t simply allow things to happen to them: they make things happen and shape how they happen.

Imagine if the main character of Pride and Prejudice was a cook who simply watched what unfolded without having any power to influence events. If she was simply an observer instead of a participant, and if removed would not affect the outcome of the story, it would be legitimate to ask why we are following the cook when the novel is about the growing love between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. But what if the novel wasn’t about the love affair between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, but the impact of that love affair upon the cook? Would a passive protagonist, in that context, be okay?

I can think of several instances of passive protagonists in works of fiction. The unnamed narrator in HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, and the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, seems entirely reactive, simply running from the alien threat until eventually (SPOILER ALERT) the aliens die anticlimactically from earthbound pathogens. While I don’t find the ending at all satisfying as a reader, the passive protagonist fulfils his purpose since he exists merely as the means for the author to suggest a scientifically-realistic outcome to an alien invasion. The human aspect of the story, and characterisation, is incidental and unimportant.

In the opposite way, Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast effectively utilises a passive protagonist in the form of the book’s narrator, Charlie Fox, who is swept along through events that he cannot control or influence by his father Allie. It is clearly Allie Fox’s story since he drives the plot, but what is key is that the novel is not so much about his increasing madness but the effect of that madness on his family and in particular his son’s opinion of him.* Indeed, telling a story with a passive protagonist is an effective means of conveying the emotional and psychological impact of adult behaviour upon children.

This is especially evident in LP Hartley’s The Go-Between, in which the story of an illicit love affair is told from the viewpoint of Leo, the boy who delivers their love notes. As an innocent, naive and easily-influenced child, he is in no way in charge of events, and the novel is as much about the destructive effect of Ted and Marian’s manipulation on his development as it is their secret romps. Passive protagonists can therefore tell the engaging stories of the people around them as well as explore the wider ramifications of those stories.

What is important to stress, however, is that neither Leo nor Charlie Fox (nor my Gestapo bureaucrat, for that matter) remain passive throughout. While they are caught up in events beyond their control for most of their respective novels, the decisions they finally make bring about the climaxes of their plots. Is it fair, then, to call them passive protagonists, even if they spend 90% of the time simply reacting in the stories of other people?

Here’s what I think overall. Passive protagonists might be a big no-no when writing straightforward, plot-driven narratives, but when exploring ideas and delving deeply into the emotions of situations, they can provide context, texture, interest and insight. I remember loving Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but afterwards struggling to understand why it was Richard’s story when all the main events of the plot would have happened anyway, irrespective of whether he was there or not. I reasoned that he was there because it wasn’t about the events of the story – it was about the perspective on those events that he provided – and his lack of influence on the narrative as a whole did not bother me.

So, what do you think? Depending on the story you want to tell, do passive protagonists have a place in fiction? Let me know in the comments below.

* As a side note, in the book of The Mosquito Coast, Allie Fox is quite clearly mad; in the movie, he is a genius with a thoroughly unsupportive family!

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