At the invitation of Niall Harrison from Torque Control I’m participating in a blog discussion about N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that has me thinking about active versus passive characters.
Discussions around active and passive characters tend to make me uncomfortable. It’s possible to discuss active or passive traits as value-neutral dimensions, but most often, people seem to want to make judgments about them. Active characters are lauded. Passive characters are considered deficient.
I don’t accept those judgments.
For one thing, I find it awfully suspicious that ‘active’ is a coded masculine trait and ‘passive’ is a coded feminine trait. It seems unlikely to me that it’s just coincidence that the so-called masculine trait is awesome-pants and the theoretically feminine trait is icky.
But more than that, I feel like there’s a coding here that I just don’t agree with–the idea that some people are suitable protagonists for fiction, and others aren’t.
This is an old idea, right? Kings are suitable protagonists! Knights are suitable protagonists! Stories about mill workers? What’s wrong with you?
I think this class-based attitude toward who is the acceptable lead of a story is still very much alive in modern fantasy fiction, and I occasionally hear complaints about “boring” protagonists that are made about very exciting, action-filled stories, and thus seem to boil down to “he’s a farmer” rather than a sorcerer.
While I think the issues are more distinct in fantasy where readers and writers are more prone to succumbing to feudal nostalgia, there are certainly still vestiges of class issues in all of fiction. And beyond fiction, in television–with shows like Sex in the City, where (absent a couple episodes which read like one writer turned to another and said, “What about money?” and the first said, “Oh, yeah.”) money seems to grow on shoe-store trees. There are lots of stories about thin, white, rich people everywhere. Granted. But in general, I think the cultural discourse has moved to a place where, if someone says, “I’m going to write about a working-class mother,” most people aren’t going to act shocked because that’s just not suitable for fiction. Either that, or there are reactions like that, and I haven’t run into it, which is also possible.
We’ve moved partially away–though we could move further away–from the idea that protagonists have to be upscale from us. And, to some extent, we’ve moved away from the idea that they have to be paragons. The ghost of “likeability” still hangs around, and it can be a weird locus for anxieties, but we do acknowledge the existence of anti-heroes and many writers express interest in writing the “everyman.” The everyman may be a politically fraught concept (since he can’t really exist), but his popularity suggests that we acknowledge, on some level, that everyday people are acceptable protagonists.
As long as they’re active.
Look, most people aren’t particularly active–and no, I’m not making a shot about outdoor exercise. Most people are trapped by circumstances. Most people go with flows. Most people are acculturated in one way, and don’t act in ways that counter that–even if you, acculturated in a different way, would.
I’m always mildly shocked when someone looks at a text where the main character is, say, imprisoned by a totalitarian regime, and says that character is acting passive. How? Well, they could spit in the guard’s face. They could try to escape. They could try to steal a gun. Okay, perhaps. But faced with overwhelming odds, most people aren’t going to be able to do those things. They’re things people do more in stories than in real life, because the risks are high, and the chance of success is very tiny. If the writer is attempting some kind of realism, then heroic daring do is likely to be out of consideration.
Does that make the character passive? Maybe. But it also makes them human.
Even on a much quieter level, the same thing applies. Could a high-class white Victorian woman, faced with a tedious life that’s driving her mad, like the character in Yellow Wallpaper, cast off her corset, steal some money, dress as a man, and try to make a living somewhere? Maybe. Some women did; we have records of women who did things like that. But it’s not a suggestion of deficiency that she doesn’t, and the fact that she stays and goes mad rather than finding an active solution doesn’t invalidate The Yellow Wallpaper as literature. I can certainly imagine an intriguing story about a swash-buckling, cross-dressing, Victorian lady coach driver (there’s at least one such historical case), but I also have read the frightening, compelling story The Yellow Wallpaper. God forbid it should be destroyed by having an active protagonist.
I think the urge to force all protagonists to be active is coming from the same place as the original urge to write only about kings. It’s the idea that only heroes, only exceptional people, should be at the heart of fiction. I like stories about exceptional people as much as anyone, but I object to the idea that heroes should be the only main characters of our literature.
It’s true that even realist fiction is not entirely mimetic. It portrays a slice of reality that’s meant to be exciting or story-like in some way. Authors pick and choose which details to include.
I’ve heard some people suggest that this is the reason why it’s okay to argue that characters must be active–if we pick and choose only telling details, to tell a good and worthwhile story, then we can also pick and choose what people appear in that story. That’s true, but it presumes that a passive character requires that a story be bad, which I don’t believe that it does.
Passive characters aren’t a problem in themselves, in my opinion. It’s true that there are many bad stories that feature passive characters–but I think that it’s lazy to blame this on the characters themselves when it seems likely that something else has gone wrong. The story is boring, perhaps. Or it doesn’t feel sufficiently real. Or your expectations of what would happen based on genre (e.g. a swashbuckling fantasy populated with heroes) clashed
with what actually happened in the text, and you don’t think the text effectively communicated to you that it was headed in a different direction. Whatever’s gone wrong, it doesn’t begin and end with the character’s passivity.