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!

The Dream

I wrote this story in late 2015 for a competition on the theme ‘heart’. It was about my fears at becoming a new father. I have submitted it to various places and have received much positive feedback. However, several places have said it is too sad for them. I thought it was too good to leave wasting away on my hard drive as it might actually help people in the same situation. Let me know in the comments what you think. 

The Dream by Gillan Drew

The new parents looked up as the midwife entered the room, the little bundle in her arms wrapped in a white blanket.

‘Here she is!’ she announced cheerily. ‘Who wants to be the first to hold her?’

‘I’ll have her,’ said Stephanie, over on the bed. She wore a light blue dressing gown over her hospital smock – it made her face, pale from blood loss and the ordeal of the birth, look grey in the strip lighting.

‘Be sure to support her head,’ said the midwife, a broad fifty-something with a Geordie accent.

The girl took her baby, careful to place the little one’s head in the crook of her arm, and looked down into her face.

‘Hello,’ said Stephanie. ‘I’m your mummy.’

‘Do you have a name picked out for her?’ the midwife asked.

‘Yes: Cora.’

‘That’s a lovely name.’

‘Tom chose it, didn’t you, Tom?’

Slumped in a chair in the corner, his face as pale as his wife’s and black bags under his eyes, Tom merely grunted.

‘Do you want to see her?’ the midwife asked.

Tom shook his head. ‘I’m good,’ he said.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Really,’ said Tom.

Stephanie rocked the baby in her arms. ‘How much does she weigh?’

‘Eight pounds,’ said the midwife. ‘A good size.’

‘You hear that?’ the girl said, nuzzling close to her daughter. ‘You’re a good size. No wonder mummy found it so hard to get you out.’

It had been a horrible labour, coming on the end of a horrible pregnancy. Nine months of morning sickness and mood swings had given way to twenty-six hours of agony, which culminated in an injection into Stephanie’s spine, followed by a ventouse suction cup on the baby’s head and, ultimately, forceps. She was still numb below the chest, unable to get off the bed.

Looking over at Tom, Stephanie smiled. ‘She has your nose,’ she said. ‘My good looks, of course. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You need to come look at her.’

Tom shook his head again.

Unfazed, Stephanie pushed up the woolly pink hat on Cora’s head. ‘Dark hair! Like your daddy.’

‘They normally lose that in the first few months,’ said the midwife. ‘Then it grows back the colour it’s going to be.’

‘What colour are her eyes?’

‘I imagine they’re blue,’ said the midwife. ‘They normally are with newborns. Do you want me to have a look?’

‘No, that’s okay,’ said Stephanie. Reaching inside the blanket, Stephanie pulled out Cora’s hand. ‘Look at those little fingers,’ she said. ‘They’re so perfect.’ She looked over at Tom again. ‘I can’t believe we managed to make something so perfect.’

Tom looked away.

‘Please come and meet her,’ said Stephanie, and for the first time her voice started to crack. ‘Please don’t be like this.’

‘You really should come and hold her,’ the midwife urged.

‘Why?’ Tom asked. ‘What’s the point?’

Stephanie let out a sob.

Sighing, Tom studied his feet for a few moments before his shoulders sagged. ‘Fine,’ he said, standing in one swift movement. His legs ached from all those hours standing by the bedside, flitting between hope and despair.

‘Thank you,’ Stephanie whispered, her eyes glazing with tears.

‘I won’t be holding her long,’ he replied. ‘I’m only doing this for you.’

‘You’re doing it for all of you,’ said the midwife as Stephanie eased the little bundle into Tom’s arms.

‘Careful of her head,’ she said.

‘I know,’ Tom replied. He’d practiced for months on dolls and teddy bears and in his dreams – he knew exactly what to do.

He was struck by how light Cora was. Stephanie had put on almost two stone during the pregnancy, and the baby was only a quarter of that. And she was no bigger than a rugby ball, when Stephanie had been huge – still was, he thought, as though Cora was still inside, still waiting to be born.

There was a tight band about his chest and the lump in his throat burned, but he wasn’t going to cry. They were watching him. They were expecting something of him. So eventually he had to look down, had to engage with this, loathe as he was to do so.

Stephanie was right – his daughter was beautiful. Between the rough white of the hospital blanket under her chin and the pink hat pulled down almost to her eyes, she had the face of an angel. Long, dark eyelashes, full lips, and she did have his nose. Her skin was impossibly smooth, free of the slightest blemish. And her purple fingernails, so delicate, her fingerprints, the little dimples of her knuckles – he could have lost himself contemplating the mysteries of how they’d been able to create something so complex, so pure.

The hands those hands would hold, the fingers that would intertwine with hers. The smiles that would crease those lips. The things she would see, smell, touch, taste. The life she would live – what a life.

The ticking of the clock on the wall, the distant hum of the traffic on the spur road, cut into his thoughts. Years later, he would still be haunted by their indifference.

‘Talk to her,’ the midwife urged.

‘What should I say?’

‘Whatever your heart is telling you to say.’

He turned away from the others, gently squeezed his baby girl, gazed into her cherubic face, half Stephanie’s, half his, and he wet his lips.

‘I would have been your dad,’ he said quietly, rocking her softly from side to side. He puffed out his cheeks, fought back the tears. ‘I would give anything to have been your dad.’

‘You were her dad,’ said the midwife. ‘You are.’

‘I would have been,’ said Tom. He sniffed, tried to compose himself. ‘So what happens now?’

‘Well, I can leave you alone with her, if you’d like. There’s some paperwork to be filled out, I’m afraid, but we can sort all of that out later. For now, take some time as a family.’

Tom nodded and the midwife opened the door. ‘I’ll be back to collect her in a few minutes.’ She hesitated in the doorway. ‘The way to look at it,’ she said, ‘is that she was just born sleeping. That’s all. She was born sleeping.’

‘Do you think that helps?’

‘I do,’ said the midwife, and closed the door.

The look on Stephanie’s face broke Tom’s heart, and it was all he could do not to break down.

‘Is it true?’ she asked. ‘Is she just sleeping?’

Tom clenched his jaw. The lump in his throat was choking him. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘She’s just sleeping. We’d best not wake her.’

Taking a deep breath, he placed Cora on the bed alongside her mother, watched as she gazed lovingly down at the little baby and gently stroked her cheek.

‘You’re so small,’ she said. ‘So beautiful. And mummy loves you very much. I’ll be here when you wake. I’ll be waiting for you forever.’ She looked at Tom. ‘Tell her you love her.’

Wiping his eyes, he managed to say, ‘I love you, sweetheart.’

‘And you’ll be there for her when she wakes up.’

‘My heart will be waiting forever for you to wake,’ he said, before, overcome, he buried his head in Stephanie’s belly, as he’d done a thousand times since they found out they were expecting.

When his sobs had finally subsided, he felt her fingers in his hair. ‘What do you think she’s dreaming of?’ Stephanie asked, so softly he almost didn’t hear her.

He looked at Cora through his tears, so peaceful, so serene. ‘I think she’s dreaming of us,’ he said. ‘She’s dreaming of all the love we’re going to give her, all the things she’s going to experience. We’re digging a sandcastle and she’s decorating it with shells. She’s playing with her toys and laughing because I’m making funny faces, and she’s cuddling her mummy and smiling because she knows she’s safe. She’s dreaming of castles and mountains and forests, horses running across the plains, and we’re always with her. Her heart is full, fit to burst with the love we share.’

He felt exhausted, battling to get the words out against the pain searing in his neck and chest.

‘Her heart is full,’ he repeated.

Stephanie continued to stroke Cora’s cheek. ‘It’s a good dream,’ she said.

‘She’s safe there, and happy, and she never has to grow up.’

Stephanie smiled, though there were tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Then maybe it’s okay if she never wakes up. She can live forever in her dream.’

‘Yes,’ said Tom. ‘And she can visit us in ours.’

‘Then I’ll never want to wake up.’

‘Me neither,’ said Tom, and lying down on the bed beside his wife and daughter, he closed his eyes to sleep.


Copyright, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew, 2015

Welcome to The Struggling Writer

Welcome to The Struggling Writer. As the name and tagline suggests, this is a site about a struggling writer, namely me, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew. Almost forty, writing fiction all my life and increasingly fed up at getting nowhere, I figured that here would be a great place to share some of my work, discuss some ideas, and go off on frustrated rants about anything to do with writing, publishing and the wider world around me.

Come for the blog, stay for some stories, and hopefully be moved, entertained and provoked in equal measure. Click on the menu above to access my fiction and feel free to comment.

I look forward to engaging with my fellow writers.