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Passive versus Active: DEATH MATCH, or possibly, just a cup of tea

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.

  • Hi, I'm Rachel! I write science fiction and fantasy short stories. I've won the Nebula Award twice, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and some other things. My seventy or so short stories are available around the internet as well as in print, and many of them are in my latest collection, How the World Became Quiet. I have a masters degree in fiction from the University of Iowa. I have five cats. I like my cats, but strongly suggest one stops at three. Or two. Excuse me, I have to go take care of cats.

61 thoughts on “Passive versus Active: DEATH MATCH, or possibly, just a cup of tea

  1. Visiting from Alas…

    This is something that I’ve struggled with (at least on a theoretical level) with all forms of fictive story-telling today (by which I mean: film, theater, and literature).

    Why are all the protagonists white people who seem to be independently wealthy? Why do they always live in a giant house? How do they have all this time and money to restore it and where did they get enough cash to live independently while doing so? Wasn’t the rejection of this false ideal the point of “Death of a Salesman”? (For spite!!)

    Even the modern “working man” character owns his own business, or is an executive, or is involved in some vague career that allows him all kinds of free time during the day. I don’t know anyone that has that kind of free time… other than the multi-millionaire that owns the company I work at.

    But, at the same time, I think we see, even in stories like Yellow Wallpaper, a form of demonizing of the passive. The passive character goes mad. With the implication that, if she had been active, this wouldn’t have happened to her.

    Heck, Poe does the same thing with Ligeia and The Fall of the House of Usher.

    The moral: horrible things befall passive characters.

    1. That’s a good point.

      If I think about my own writing, I have pretty terrible things happening to my passive characters–murder, suicide… one of them has to get shocked out of his apathy by the end… hmmm.

  2. We hear this same argument in the field of history instruction. In fact, I heard it last semester when I was teaching Western Civ One.

    “When are you going to talk about regular people?”

    I responded, “Oh, you mean the fishmonger, the bricklayer and the guy who collects the urine so it can be used to bleach the togas?”

    “Yeah, those people?”

    “When hell freezes over. Look, in a thousand years, no one is going to give a damn about McDonalds burger flippers, Starbucks barristas, and the poor schmuck manning a floor buffer in the lobby of a skyscraper in some Midwestern City while everyone else is out getting hammered during Happy Hour.”

    To my eyes, this feels like a rehash of the Mundane Science Fiction argument. Thing is, I don’t want to ready stories about people I see doing very mundane, boring things. I have spent most of my life engaged in being bored to death (90 percent of military service is sitting around waiting for someone to bark at you about something, just as an example).

    What I’d like to read about, and write about, are characters who make the decisions I can’t, won’t or don’t. I don’t want to read about someone who is living pretty much the same life I am already living. If I wanted to do that, I’d pick up a copy of The Missouri Review or New Letters. I certainly do not want to write that.

    As for passive versus aggressive, I’ve seen plenty of passive, non action, go with the flow thumb up their ass men in my thirty-eight years. My girlfriend’s soon to be ex-husband is a classic example. Doesn’t file his taxes so she gets screwed with the bill for their back taxes. Many of my Sergeants in the Army were also classic exaples, so I do not see it as a gender issue per se.

    I do prefer a proactive, aggressive protaganist. I do not particularly care what class they come from, I just ask the same thing of them that I ask of the rest of my fiction.

    Don’t bore me.
    Don’t preach at me.
    Do surprise me.

    My thoughts off the cuff.

    S. F. Murphy
    On the Outer Marches

    1. I intended to say this in the post, and then I forgot.

      I have no problem with people saying they prefer reading or writing stories about active characters. That’s cool. I like reading stories about active character sometimes. They’re often good stories. If that’s what flies your kite, and you’d prefer to avoid writing or reading stories where a passive character takes the strings–I have no problem with that.

      I dislike it when people make claims that are universal. “Stories don’t work with passive characters.” Well, they can. If they don’t work for you, that’s fine, but it’s not an inherent truth of the universe, you know?

      That’s where I parted ways with the mundane SF movement. I really like fiction that fits under the mundane SF umbrella, so when they were urging people to write more of it, I was right there with them. Then they called all other forms of science fiction childish, and I was like, “What the fuck? Dudes, shut up. Your kind of fiction can be good without making everything else objectively bad.”

      I was disappointed when the trend toward optimistic SF did the exact same thing. It’s such a cool idea and I’d love to see more people writing to Jetse’s specs! But other kinds of SF aren’t bad. Bleah.

      1. There was a phrase floating around Iowa I really liked. I think it was “pathetic naturalism,” but now I’m wondering if I got that wrong. Anyway, it was meant to describe what happened when someone thought they had to write about every little tiny thing that happened, when they could probably skip some of it because it detracted from the story.

  3. Rachel, I’m curious as to the source for these terms “active” and “passive.” I’m more familiar with the concepts of stable and changing characters, and flat and round characters.

    Or can we have some examples of active and passive characters? In particular, active characters that are lauded, and passive characters that are considered deficient?


    P.S. I suppose one could write some characters in the active voice, others in the passive voice…

    1. hmm. They seem to be all over workshops. It’s not just a genre thing, there’s been plenty of railing against passives in lit workshops I’ve been in… I don’t know where the origin is.

      Here’s one link that discusses it:

      Note that active characters are good because they’re “not a buncha weenies,” unlike passive characters who are concerned that they might get hurt, which is apparently a bad thing, because… nevermind. Passive characters are “heavy-handed” with “drama” and writers who write them are “fall[ing] into a pit.” Passivity makes characters “weak,” “unlikeable” and, again, “weenies.”

      I reject this because it assumes a connection between passivity and weakness, but also because it assumes we shouldn’t write about weak people.

      Another link:


      It starts straight out with the universalizations: “the character must make things happen.” Must. And then it makes assumptions about “the reader” (because we all know there’s only one): “The reader will get bored with a character who has a strong goal but who sits around waiting for something to happen to bring it to pass. An active main character takes charge of the story by doing something to get his/her goal. She may make mistakes, or even take the wrong action–but the important thing is she’s active. Passive characters may evoke sympathy and engage the reader’s believability. After all, who hasn’t at one time or another felt paralyzed by uncertainty and doubtful circumstances? But the reader will find her interest drifting after awhile away from passive characters toward more active characters. If the main character is passive and the reader finds an active supporting character, then the latter character will take over the story in the reader’s mind.”

      I’d say this is a pretty good definition of active versus passive characters, as the terms are popularly used. The good versus bad judgments are inherent in the definitions.

      Are these good rules of thumb for some stories in some genres? Yeah, of course. But when people start presenting them as universals, well, that’s when I start saying, “Wait, are you really saying we shouldn’t write stories about some people?”

      1. I asked because I’ve never heard these terms before, at least not in regards to fiction.

        One hears ideas like this a lot in screenwriting. So I wonder to what extent this is Hollywood screenwriting being applied to literary fiction. Which could be useful, and could also be…miserable.

        The “rules” that Keyan lists below are all things you’ll learn in a screenwriting course (I did in the one I took) or book.

        I remain skeptical to how widespread an argument this is, though (in fiction). I would guess it’s more the case in mainstream commercial fiction, since as we all know that’s a synonym for the first draft of a screenplay. (Well, if the author’s lucky!)

        1. I see no way to synch up mismatched experiences on this, but they were terms I heard bandied about in this fashion in the commercial fiction world, yes, but also in my undergraduate fiction program at UC Santa Cruz and also as a graduate student at Iowa.

              1. No, I’m sure you do. The folks I know, they’re still debating whether psychologically plausible characters are OK use, or if they’re “the Instruements of the Devile.”

                1. Man, I can’t believe anyone’s still having that debate in the 21st century. I mean, what more do we have to do to prove the devil’s hands are in the DSM?

                  1. That might make an interesting satire. Satan collaborating on writing the revised DSM and how it will bring about the apocalypse.

                    S. F. Murphy
                    On the Outer Marches

  4. I think two things are at work here: Culture, and fashion.

    I do think that in the US, editors strongly prefer stories/ novels with active protagonists. It’s not something that has always been true (and may change), but here and now, it is.

    Another ‘rule’ is that the main character should be the person with the most at stake, because that will give the ‘strongest’ story.

    Other rules of thumb that work in the same way:

    – Active voice vs passive voice.

    – Adverbs = lazy writing

    – Happy endings vs dark endings.

    – Resolved endings vs unresolved endings.

    – Omniscient voice vs close third or first person

    They’re shibboleths. But useful ones, because they represent the norms of the moment.

    In the past, an omniscient viewpoint with auctorial intrusions was considered quite “normal.” Now, it has to be justified as a special case.

    1. Agree. And, as I believe I’ve provisoed, I don’t mind these things being considered from a pragmatic viewpoint. But then there are discussions, as I believe recently happened on a message board we both frequent, that try to naturalize the culture and fashion by talking about how “third person is just a natural point of view” or whatever, and I go totally aaaaarrrrrrrgh.

  5. Characters are useful for a few reasons. One of which is that they can have agency in the story, which can motivate plot. And from that point of view, an active character can be useful. Although a passive character could be equally useful, if you want nothing to happen for a while. (See Hamlet.)

    But characters are more than just doers (or non-doers) of action. As Shklovsky notes, they can motivate the inclusion of other information: Don Quixote can give a speech about chivalry, allowing Cervantes to write about chivalry. And then Sancho Panza can spout some aphorisms, allowing Cervantes to switch registers and include a different kind of text.

    And as Gass notes, characters serve as mnemonics, hierarchizing the text: a lot of the writing in Madame Bovary goes to be about Madame Bovary, and can be remembered under that tag.

    From those points of view, it don’t matter whether them characters do action heroes or depressives.

    Characters also serve as hooks. Readers seem to like them. (Lord only knows why.) I imagine some might like characters who do nothing. Just like how some readers love reading about dogs. (My screenwriting professor told us to always put a dog in our scripts, for that very reason. Although then of course you need an animal wrangler… And who likes to act opposite a dog?)

  6. “the character must make things happen.”

    Seems like the author should make things happen. I know, I know, I know.

    Someone once said to me, “I don’t like reading stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations,” and I thought, wow, you are cutting yourself off from much of western literature.

    Aren’t we all ordinary? At least a little bit. For me it comes down to love (sniffle, sniffle). How well can you love someone? How much can you care about someone other than you? Whether King or Oprah or the man at the bagel shop, we’re all dealing with the same shit.

    1. I agree with you, Greg: It’s the author who makes things happen. Let’s not let those characters have too much autonomy. We’ve seen from At Swim-Two-Birds what happens then…

  7. I believe this is why so many people hate Mansfield Park, because Fanny Price is a passive character. No doubt this is also why the moviemakers decided to completely alter her personality.

    But how could Fanny be other than passive, considering her social and familial position? I find her a sympathetic and interesting character. Despite her external passivity, she has a lot going on in her mind.

    Mansfield Park has a comforting and realistic message for the passive person, that even a timid, anxious person who feels trapped by circumstances can find happiness, because there are plenty of good people in life who will eventually find you, like you, and treat you well. All that is required of you is to reach out to them and take advantage of the opportunity to move to a more benign environment where it doesn’t take heroism to attain more autonomy.

    Could it be that active characters are more popular because the reader is usually pretty passive in life, but likes to imagine her/himself in a heroic role?

  8. This is an interesting discussion. I think, for me, I want story. Story is often described as ‘a character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a goal’. So if the character doesn’t do anything and has no goal, there’s no story.

    Maybe we need a better way to define ‘story’.

    I was thinking about Scarlett Thomas’s novel, Popco, in which the main character spends much of her time on her own in her room, with a cold, reading. And certainly doesn’t have any clearly defined goals, at least not to begin with. But her story is about how she changes her mind about a few things. And I found it immensely engaging. And I think it did have all those goals, obstacles and reverses, but on a human scale.

    I think we like people who struggle, and don’t accept things, even if they can’t do anything to change them, and have no power, and can only sit in a room and drink tea and watch events unfold, think about how something makes them sad, or tries to figure out how they direct that part of their personality that can’t find expression in their society, or something.

    1. “even if they can’t do anything to change them, and have no power, and can only sit in a room and drink tea and watch events unfold”

      Based on how I’ve always heard the terms used, this would be considered a passive character, no matter what her internal struggle or lack of accepting things.

    2. Hi Georgina, all,

      I just wanted to note that the idea that stories tell of characters overcoming goals is a very Western concept, and beyond that a very US-centric concept. And very contemporary.

      This becomes clear when one watches, say, European films. The 400 Blows, for instance, tells a clear story, and Antoine isn’t necessarily what you’d call a passive character—he rebels against authority and runs around and pursues his own interests—but he also doesn’t overcome any obstacles, and by the film’s end he hasn’t achieved any goal. Quite the opposite, if anything.

      Indeed, the lack of clear goals, and the failure of the protagonist to accomplish anything, are hallmarks—almost cliches—of the European art film. See, for example, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s writing on the subject (in Film Art, Narration in the Fiction Film, and elsewhere).

      So there are plenty of ways to tell very satisfying and artistically successful stories where characters don’t necessarily want anything, or accomplish anything—and that doesn’t mean they have to sit around doing nothing.

      After a day’s worth of reflection, I’m not very fond of this active/passive distinction because 1) I think it’s too sharp a binary, obscuring a lot of possibility. And, 2) as I alluded to earlier, it smells to me more informed by Hollywood screenwriting principles than anything else. That’s just a suspicion I have, but… And I’m not opposed to Hollywood screenwriting, which has generated many, many excellent films (even today), but I’d hate to see its more singleminded preferences obscure the complexity of literary characters, and the myriad roles that characters play in storytelling.

      Don’t believe the hype!


      (Of course people should like whatever stories they like. But do check out Bordwell and Thompson if you’re interested in the differences between Hollywood films and European art films—their analysis is rather illuminating. And helps guide one toward liking both, and appreciating the respective merits of each approach to filmmaking.)

      1. Yeah, I agree they’re kind of unhelpful terms. But since they’re extant… at least in my circles… I hope I don’t come across as endorsing them?

        1. I should clarify that while I’m being somewhat critical of the terms, I’m not trying to be critical of anyone.

          Terms are useful as useful does. I can imagine situations where this pair are helpful. But I don’t think they really take one all that far, in the end. So I personally wouldn’t get too wrapped up in them. (But that’s just me.)

          Someone somewhere wrote a very good criticism of flat versus round characters—which still remain very useful terms despite that! But I can’t remember now where I read that criticism…

          Well, no doubt many have written something along those lines…

          1. I tend to perk up when characters are mentioned, because they’re my favorite thing in literature. Or: They’re the formal element in literature that most interests me (besides perhaps narrative).

            Surprisingly, there’s been less writing done about characters than you’d think! Especially from a formal point of view.

      2. Someone just gave me that Bordwell/Thomspon – only one mention of Tarkovsky (boo!).

        I wonder if the end of LA NOTTE 1961 by Antonioni is really an epiphany-one saying we are animals and we can hardly handle love and what it entails. Is this a rape?


        1. Just to set it up – from Wiki- At the party, Giovanni socialises with the guests and appears to be in his element, while Lidia walks around in a state of boredom. Eventually, Giovanni romances Valentina (Monica Vitti) the lively, charming daughter of the host. Briefly, Lidia leaves with a young man who has been observing her all night, after calling the hospital and learning that Tommaso has died. Both couples are aware of what the other is up to and while Giovanni seems slightly displeased with Lidia’s behaviour, Lidia almost seems to encourage Giovanni’s flirtation with Valentina. When morning comes, Lidia admits to Giovanni that she wants to die because she is no longer in love with him but Giovanni reassures her that they are in love and can make their marriage work.

          Fun that the letter is all epiphany, but he doesn’t remember writing it. I guess epiphanies come and go.

        2. Which Bordwell/Thompson? Film Art? I love that book beyond all earthly measure. People often ask me for a good book to read on film, and I always say, Film Art! It’s just so informative! (I also really adore Bordwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film, but I love everything by those two, both singly and together.)

          That said, it’s true that they haven’t written too much on Tarkovsky. But that means it’s waiting for you to write!

          And Bordwell’s written extensively on Ozu and Hou, as well as Angelopoulos and Tarr. A lot of those ideas can be easily applied to Mr. Tark.

          There’s also some discussion of Tarkovsky at their blog. Which is probably my favorite blog. Besides Big Other.

          1. Yes Film Art – though when I studied film in the mid-90’s I thought I read an earlier version of the book. Am I wrong? Was it out then? Their use of stills are extraordinary and on one flip I saw a still from Il Grido (Antonioni) and I’d only seen that film once 15 years ago.

            I think I want to read Tarkovsky’s own books on art and cinema before tackling posts. Teh 2nd half of MIRROR in particular requires many viewings and I don’t have it at my disposal.

            Did you read Schrader’s book on Ozu, Bresson and Dreyer???

            No thoughts on La Notte?

            Hou? Uh-oh, I know you’ve spoken about him before, but…

            1. Film Art: There have been many editions since it was first published, in the late 70s, I think.

              Tarkovsky: I love his films, but I never read his book. Well, I started reading it once, and found it uninteresting (embarrassing, actually), so I stopped. I felt bad about that but life is short! Tarkovsky would understand that better than anyone.

              Schrader’s book: I haven’t read it. I don’t really have much interest in that fellow, although to be sure he’s done some good work. But there are still Bresson films I haven’t seen, and I’d rather just watch those. Sorry, Paul! (But he’d understand.)

              La Notte: No, no thoughts on it at present time. I haven’t seen it in a long while—although I was at an Italian restaurant a while back, and they were showing it on repeat. And I was at the restaurant long enough to see the film play through 2.5 times.

              I will say this, though: I’ve never thought of Antonioni’s work in regards to epiphanies. Speaking very honestly and frankly, I think the US realists of the 80s through today have mostly managed to turn that idea (the epiphany) into something hackneyed and meaningless, and very far removed from Joyce’s original concept—enough so that I usually run from discussions involving it. I think it’s very important to keep in mind the original religious meaning of the word, which Joyce himself was thinking of very strongly, even if he was doing so in an ironic fashion. But today it doesn’t mean much more than, “The character realizes something at the end of the story.” To me, that’s not epiphany, and not even anything all that interesting. It’s mainly a formal convention the realists have embraced to signal that the story’s over (and without which the story doesn’t end).

              I mentioned this in another thread, but Fucked Up said it best: NO EPIPHANY!!!


              And you don’t mind my pasting this here again because, goddamn but that’s such a fabulous song!

              Hou: He’s magnificent. Contemporary Taiwanese art cinema generally is. Hsiao-Hsien Hou, Edward Yang, Ang Lee, Ming-Liang Tsai—all all-stars…

              1. No, certainly Antonioni is interested in epiphanies. He’s too smart for that. Thomas pretending to throw the ball back at the end of Blow-Up isn’t one. I’m not sure what it is-probably that he’s not going to stray to far away from the crowd in the future. Disappearing into the crowd-but the images speak to me and I don’t want to draw too many conclusions-one can’t with Antonioni.

                I think you are on to something about the realists. But aren’t we hip enough to know that most epiphanies are false? Not that I want to be hip. And that quickly falsifies the fiction-in that the more we (maybe you and me) see it, the more we reject it.

                I would think not wrapping up the story makes it go on in the reader’s mind and has a much more significant impact. Case in point – Viewfinder by Carver. Or Lydia Davis.

                1. Hi Greg,

                  What I find disappointing about most epiphanies these days—and for the past 30 years, really—is that they’re usually little more than unquestioned convention: “I am signaling the ending!” They’re like cadences. Which are fine sometimes but man do I get sick of them sometimes. And then it’s like, “Find some other way to end it!”

                  I like the ending of “Fat” because it’s so obviously ridiculous—like Carver was making fun of the practice (which he himself was rather fond of, and helped establish as convention). It’s even absurd in its falseness—practically metatextual. (An aside: I don’t think Carver was a realist. I claim him and Cheever as anti-realists. People will someday agree with me!)

                  As for whether these diminished epiphanies ring true—who turns to fiction for truth?

                  Regarding not wrapping up the story: I know I sound like a broken record, but Shklovsky said it better than anybody. When everyone else around you is ending their stories one way, it becomes a powerful strategy to do everything pretty much the same but then not end your story that way; the reader feels the absence. Carver does that sometimes, too, and I think one really senses that.

                  But I think Lydia Davis is something different, really—at least, from what I’ve read by her, which isn’t exhaustive. It seems to me that she’s not really writing stories that you expect to end. At least, they don’t look like realist stories where you expect to find epiphanies at the end (so one doesn’t feel the absence). Which is its own other thing, I’d argue. But I don’t think either way is better than the other. They’re just different ways, and the rest depends on the story and the context etc.

                  We can agree that Antonioni is Il Maestro.

      3. I agree – this is the single most prevalent definition of story I’ve encountered and I am certain that it comes from Hollywood, specifically from Robert McKee and Christopher Vogler. It’s a good way to structure a traditional three-act redemptive narrative – of either a novel or film. I would say it’s very popular amongst fantasy writers precisely because of how Vogler conceptualised the Hero’s Journey. I also agree that there are many other ways to tell a story. The best way is probably whatever way you can.

  9. Thanks for the link to the Yellow Wallpaper – what an engaging story. I don’t really consider her passive as a narrator at all, although she seems to have a passive personality. (How could she choose otherwise, with all that “knowing what’s best for her” going on?)
    I know why the advice is given – don’t dwell on boring spots of your story – but I see how in the greater scheme of things it can seem to villify things we traditionally consider feminine as well.

  10. Some people not only want superheroes in their fiction, but believe superheroics are “realistic.” You know, the people who say, “If I’d been at Virginia Tech, I would have grabbed his guns! And then I’d’ve stomped on ’em!” And so froth (sic).

    Classmate of mine, a male PI, said he had no sympathy for the Russians in the Odessa Steps sequence because, as a self-defense teacher, he couldn’t stand people who didn’t fight back. I hear similar things all the time: “Why didn’t the Three Sisters just get up and go to Moscow?” “Why didn’t Janie leave Tea Cake?” “Why,” as a Johns Hopkins undergrad wrote in a paper, “didn’t Romeo and Juliet just leave town and start over with a clean sheet (sic)?”

    One or two of my own students, reading Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism last term, noted that it’s very hard to judge what falls into “Romantic”, “High Mimetic”, and “Low Mimetic” because nobody agrees on who’s “a character with the same level of agency as ourselves.” So people, reviewers included, tore into the heroines of Rebecca Ore’s Outlaw School and Maureen McHugh’s Mission Child (an amazing book) for being “too passive,” which means “unable to exercise the cultural options that I want heroines to have.” Very Libertarian to phrase it that way, although, as you say, it’s certainly okay to prefer superheroics.

    1. This comment rocks my socks.

      “unable to exercise the cultural options that I want heroines to have.” — yes, this. I keep coming back to Iphigenia as I wrote her in “Memory of Wind”, which may be narcissistic, but it’s my deepest frame of reference in some ways because I was so immersed in that story for so many years. She’s deeply passive in some ways, but really, what was she going to do?

      Your examples are really clear and precise. It clarifies my thinking–thanks!

      1. My only problem with the contempt for the, “I would have grabbed their weapons,” bit is that, well, peopel DO take a proactive tack in such situations. People do fight back when confronted by threats. People do take action when a theft is in progress. People do intervene in some situations.

        Not everyone does, but some do. I’ve seen it happen.

        So I wouldn’t brush off the commentary about what people would do quite so easily. Conversely, I’d qualify this with the remark that most people do not really truly know what they will do until they are confronted with something like a school shooting, a theft, etc.

        S. F. Murphy
        On the Outer Marches

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  12. I’d note that a lot of stories published in literary magazines seem to follow instead a Chekovian-Carverian-Cheeverian line of stagnation/defeat/immobilism with small epiphanies. Case in point, the Kim Chinquee flash a couple of posts down.
    So many stories follow that structure.

    This review of Lavinia has some very interesting things to say on the matter of active vs passive characters, especially on the “inability to exercise the cultural options that I want heroines to have.” point:


    The Yellow Wallpaper reminds me that just a week ago I did post my personal “horror” top ten. In chronological order, a single story for each author:

    E.T.A. Hoffmann – Der Sandmann – “voice”: middle
    Charlotte Perkins Gilman – The Yellow Wallpaper – passive
    Ryunosuke Akutagawa – Cogwheels – passive
    Arthur Machen – The Novel of the White Powder – passive
    Flann O’ Brien – The Third Policeman – passive
    Ray Bradbury – The October Game – active
    Shirley Jackson – The Haunting of Hill House – passive
    Michael Moorcock – The Black Corridor – middle
    M John Harrison – Gifco – middle
    Kelly Link – Stone Animals – passive

    The middle voice, of course, is syntactically active and semantically passive.

    Their “voice”?

    middle – passive – passive – active – passive

    1. Marco,

      I’ll have to disagree about the endings of the Carver stories following that mode, at least most of the early, Lish-edited ones. Many just end with no epiphany. Charles Baxter in fact uses ‘Viewfinder’ as an example in his essay Against Epiphanies. A guy is the process of throwing rocks off his roof.

  13. Yeah, what I meant was “at best” small epiphanies, in the sense that there’s never that kind of sudden illumination that makes you think there’s the possibility of change.
    Of course many stories do not even have minor epiphanies.

  14. Hello Mrs. Rachel Swirsky!

    I gather from the discussion we’re only speaking of characters who are active in real, physical ways, as opposed to characters who are very psychologically active, or active in ways not germaine to what could be considered the larger problem (eg. a prisoner who cooperates with the guards, but builds herself a lavish fantasy world into which to escape, or an abused house husband who never stands up to his drunk and overbearing wife, but seeks out his happiness in a series of ever more elaborate and delightful cakes? Both characters are, after a fashion, deliberately and actively pursuing their own happiness, but very passive and/or avoidant of their problems- yet I would say either could be a really fabulous story, and if asked to say why… honestly how active the characters were would be part of the appeal.)

    I think part of where passive characters can be unsatisfying arises from the same vein as “duh” plots- stories that are only stories at all because of one or more characters’ stupifying lack of basic sense, prolonging a problem that could otherwise have been easily solved. The most unsatisfying passive characters I have read have almost always been the ones who were tortured and upset about their situation but refused to take any seemingly obvious steps to fix it- like a prisoner whining about the harshness of his captivity while standing right next to an open gate. At that point it feels hard to have sympathy for them. My personal response is sort of a knee jerk “why are you bitching to me? You could fix this yourself.”

    Most of the best truly passive characters I’ve read or seen have been paired with active characters. Even when it was the passive character’s story, having an active character there to try and succeed can highlight the passive character’s psychological stress in a way that has more events and narrative flow than the passive character taking no actions out of fear- and having an active character there to try and die while the passive character survives can highlight the danger and oppression of whatever system keeps the character passive. Honestly, I think even if you’re shooting for ambiguity about whether or not the passive character’s fears are all in their head, having an active character whose success is up to the reader to determine still makes for a more satisfying experience.

    I think there’s something basically satisfying about reading about actions and reactions, and the passive character makes this difficult, out of a tendency not to act and provoke a reaction, nor to react when actions are perpetrated upon them. That back and forth- that conflict- works to escalate both the situations and the intensity of the characters- essentially narrative tension. If one party is non-reactive, I think it makes the experience less enjoyable. Consider an active character moving about in a completely passive world where nothing ever pushed back against her whims and actions (I’m sure, as an editor, you’ve seen some smashing examples of this). They can leap as many tall buildings as they like, and murder any number of dragons, but it’s generally not interesting or exciting, right?

    I don’t know for sure, but these are my thoughts on active and passive characters.

    I’ve also read some really great fantasy stories about farmers and merchants. Though at the time none of them were doing much farming or merchanting- something had generally happened to distract them from it.

    1. I haven’t had a chance to rea dyour post as a whole yet; it looks long and detailed and interesting and I look forward to it. :D

      I did want to say that I prefer not to be called Mrs., though. Politically, I strongly dislike the title.


      1. I’m terribly sorry about that. I wasn’t sure it would be welcome, but on the other hand I also wanted to be polite.

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