We all encounter the problem of a passive protagonist at some point, whether we realize it ourselves or have a beta reader or editor point it out to us. But is your protagonist truly passive? Is that so bad, really? And if it is bad, how do you fix it? All these questions have run through my mind before, and today, we’re going to address them.
Note: To avoid semantic nightmares, I’m going to use the singular “protagonist” or “point-of-view character,” but all of these areas can apply even if you have multiple protagonists and/or point-of-view characters in a story. In such cases, these areas apply individually to each protagonist and their individual storyline.
What Is a Passive Protagonist?
A passive protagonist is a main character who doesn’t do enough in a story and isn’t a driving force. Their goals aren’t the most important goals in the story, their motivations don’t have enough weight, or they simply don’t take enough actions that matter to the plot.
Why Does it Matter?
Protagonists are supposed to be the center of the story. If they aren’t doing enough, then why is the story focused on them? If other characters are doing all the heavy lifting, then it will feel like those other people are the ones whose stories we should be reading.
To illustrate these five places where you can identify a passive protagonist, I’m going to use two books that I love. They’re both good books, but one has the unfortunate flaw of having a passive protagonist, while the other has an awesome, active protagonist. The examples for a passive protagonist are from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling; the examples for an active protagonist are from Sabriel by Garth Nix.
1. The Inciting Incident
The inciting incident is the event that kicks off the main action of a story. Without this event, the rest of the plot would never happen. Since the protagonist is at the center of the story, the inciting incident is one of the crucial points in the story where they need to take action.
Often, the trigger itself is outside of the main character’s control. In Sabriel, the inciting incident occurs when a Dead spirit arrives at Sabriel’s school to give her a message from her father. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the inciting incident occurs when Harry’s name comes out of the goblet of fire, which determines that he should compete in the Triwizard Tournament.
However, the protagonist has to make an active choice in response to the trigger. Their response should depend on their goals, motivations, personality, and past. In Sabriel, Sabriel’s response is to set out for the Old Kingdom to find her father, whom she believes is in trouble. In Goblet of Fire, on the other hand, Harry doesn’t make any decisions: he must compete in the Tournament, and that’s that. The plot is fully determined by external forces and not by who he is.
2. The Protagonist’s Main Goal, Desire, or Motivation
The second place where passivity shows up and where you can focus your energy toward fixing it is your protagonist’s motivation. First of all, do they have a motivation? Is there anything they want? Do they strive toward a goal, or are they simply responding to events that come from the outside? Are they letting someone else dictate the outcome of their lives?
In Goblet of Fire, the only thing that could be described as Harry’s motivation is to survive the Triwizard Tournament. This isn’t a good goal for a protagonist, because it’s reactive. He’s only responding to external forces. His motivation doesn’t spring from his personality: anyone would want to survive. He doesn’t take any steps toward preserving his life; he only responds to things to keep from dying. His goal isn’t even to protect his life—it’s to avoid dying.
This is passivity in the extreme. If your protagonist doesn’t have a goal that is in some way actionable, something that they can take steps toward, something that defines them and drives them, then your protagonist is probably going to be passive.
In Sabriel, the protagonist’s main goal is to be reunited with her father, which is why she takes most of the actions she takes throughout the first two thirds of the novel. Her goal is in response to the fact that her father is in danger, which is an external trigger. However, she’s not merely reacting in response to it; she’s being proactive by packing up and setting out on a journey of her own volition.
Adding a protagonist’s motivation to a story that’s already written isn’t an easy task, because the story’s plot should revolve around that motivation. That’s why motivation should be part of the pre-writing process. However, even if you’ve already written the story, this problem is fixable.
Whatever stage you’re at, ask yourself what your protagonist wants and what do they sacrifice or risk to accomplish that goal. This question can be useful to ask even if you think you know the answer, because you might be surprised to find that there isn’t a unified goal that drives the plot.
3. Who Overcomes the Major Obstacles
If you have an ensemble cast, your supporting characters are probably helping out and overcoming some of the obstacles that pop up. However, your protagonist should be the one to overcome the major obstacles of the story.
The major obstacles in Goblet of Fire are the three Triwizard tasks, and Harry doesn’t do much to overcome any of them. He receives an extraordinary amount of help from everyone around him, including the villain. He is completely helpless throughout the whole book. If not for the actions of everyone around him, there isn’t a single life-or-death situation, a single obstacle, that he wouldn’t have overcome.
It’s okay if the point of a story is that you need to rely on other people sometimes. Teamwork is awesome. But the protagonist is the protagonist for a reason: if they don’t provide the final push for overcoming important obstacles, then they’re not doing their job.
In Sabriel, Sabriel’s actions are essential to overcoming the major obstacles of the story: getting to her father’s house, fighting Mogget when he’s released, locating her father, rescuing Touchstone, and destroying the big evil thing in the sarcophagus. She gets plenty of help from other characters to get past these obstacles, but she’s the major driving force. She has ideas, she takes actions, she has skills, she asks for help when she needs it.
Supporting characters can solve minor or secondary obstacles and assist in solving the major ones. But when it comes to the story’s main hurdles, your protagonist’s actions have to matter more than anyone else’s.
Often, the major obstacles are related the protagonist’s motivation, which is why the protagonist is the only one able to overcome them. Maybe the protagonist has the biggest emotional stake—the most to lose. Maybe the protagonist has a certain talent that’s suited to overcome the obstacle. Major obstacles should be somehow related to the protagonist’s goal and personal growth.
If your major obstacles are impossible for your protagonist to overcome themselves, maybe you need different major obstacles. Or maybe your protagonist needs to have the tools, motivation, or drive to solve the obstacles themselves.
4. Who Strikes the Final Blow
As a parallel to the inciting incident, we have the climax and the final blow. Your protagonist should have a central role in the climax of the story. Sometimes, and I know this from experience, if you have a big cast of characters whose motivations are clashing and coming together, you can lose sight of what the protagonist wants or can contribute.
But the protagonist needs to strike the “final blow” in one way or another. Like I said in the beginning, this doesn’t mean your protagonist has to be an action hero—the “final blow” can be metaphorical.
Here is the one place in Goblet of Fire where Harry actually acts like a protagonist. In the climactic encounter with Voldemort, Harry strikes the “final blow” by using his skills, his experience, and his resolve to escape. He receives some help from the outside, but it’s mostly his own guts and ability to think and act under pressure that get him through.
However, Harry only got to that point through the actions of literally everyone else in the story except for him. That kind of takes away from the “hurrah!” moment.
In Sabriel, the climactic battle involves a lot of different players: all the allies that Sabriel has gathered come head-to-head with the forces of evil in a large-scale confrontation that takes place in Sabriel’s old school. It’s Sabriel’s idea to bring the sarcophagus of evil to the school so that they can buy time to destroy it; she chooses where and how to make the final stand.
Sabriel is also the one who drives a lot of the failed attempts to destroy the sarcophagus in the lead-up to the battle by suggesting ideas and motivating her allies. Even though a lot of her efforts don’t come into fruition, she keeps trying. Other characters support her and even take crucial actions, but Sabriel is ultimately the one to face down the Big Bad.
The good news here is that you have given the protagonist a strong motivation, if they have overcome the major obstacles leading up to the climax, and if they have responded to the inciting incident with choices of their own, you have set yourself up to have the protagonist to play a pivotal role in the climactic sequence.
Having a lot of characters play a role in the climax can make it a little difficult to figure out how your protagonist will strike the final blow. It’s important to keep coming back to the protagonist’s motivation: what do they want above all else? What is it about them has driven them to overcome the major obstacles up until now? What is it about them that makes them the protagonist? Why are they here?
It can be a tricky balance to give “yay!” moments to all the side-characters we have come to enjoy and yet keep the focus on the protagonist in the climax. I encourage you to read Sabriel if you haven’t already, because the ending strikes this balance wonderfully. Everyone contributes to the cause, but Sabriel still keeps the spotlight.
Another great example that’s fresh in my mind is Avengers: Endgame. All the superheroes come together to fight Thanos, but Tony Stark is ultimately the most important figure in the final battle, because he’s the protagonist. (You can fight me on this, but if you go through this list, I think you’ll see how Tony Stark accomplishes everything he needs to be an active protagonist.)
5. The Resolution of the Protagonist’s Motivation
The protagonist doesn’t have to get what they want at the end, but there has to be some kind of resolution or bookend to what they set out to do. Their motivations might change throughout the story—in fact, it’s often the mark of a good story if they do change—but there has to be some acknowledgement of what initially motivated them.
Obviously, if your protagonist doesn’t have an actionable central motivation, like Harry in Goblet of Fire, it’s hard to talk about the resolution. Harry’s goal to not die is, I guess, resolved by his being alive at the end of the book (no thanks to him, except at the very end). That’s not a very interesting or surprising resolution, though.
Sabriel started out her journey wanting to rescue her father. That goal isn’t exactly fulfilled and a different, though related, motivation drives her through the climax. But there’s still a resolution: inspired by what her father taught her, she takes his place. Even though she’s not able rescue her father, she does what he would have done in the end.
Regardless of whether a beta reader, editor, or your own intuition has suggested your protagonist might be passive, it can help to look at these five areas where passivity most often rears its ugly head. Protagonists can be active in some regards but passive in others, which makes passivity harder to detect. I believe your story will be strengthened the more active your protagonist is, no matter if their actions have good or bad consequences.
Share this post on social media and comment about your own experience with making your protagonist active. Did you realize anything by looking at your story through this lens? Do you have any tips of your own for combating passivity?