If you’ve received any sort of editorial feedback on your manuscript, or rejections giving you a reason your manuscript was turned down, you might have been told that you have a passive protagonist. Figuring out how to fix this can be difficult – especially if you’re a new writer! It will usually involve quite a big overhaul and a lot of revisions. But there are methods you can use to make this easier and more manageable.
What causes a passive protagonist
Protagonists become passive when they are more like passengers in their own story. A passive protagonist will go to places, and do things, because the plot/author requires it (and this is noticeable in the text), or because other characters direct them. They often read like side characters. For example, you may have intended your protagonist to be the hero of the story – but wait a minute! That side character seems to be the one making all the plans and decisions, they’re the ones who have all the goals, and the big beef with the villain! This is one way in which a protagonist becomes passive: when they have less agency than everyone else in the book.
All of this can lead to a sense of inactivity in your plot, low stakes, and a duller or less satisfying story. Why? Because readers want your protagonist to be at the centre of everything. If someone else is at the centre, they’ll notice.
Fixing your passive protagonist
Give them a major goal
Every protagonist needs a goal – something they’ll chase throughout the story. A goal-less character is a recipe for passivity and inaction. The best goals are directly linked to the overarching plot, tying into this in a way that feels coherent. Goals don’t always have to be these huge, sweeping villain-vs-hero ambitions; it will depend on what you want to accomplish and sometimes, your genre. For example:
- Finding a romantic partner – or, often in romance books, not getting involved with someone and following some other goal until the love interest comes along to shake things up (The Love Hypothesis, The Bride Test)
- Overcoming a villain (the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Wheel of Time series)
- Solving a murder or crime (The Lovely Bones, A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder)
- Entering or winning a contest (The Hunger Games, Ready Player One)
- Fighting an injustice (The Hate U Give, Perfect Match)
- Survival (The Road, The Martian)
- … and so on
Goals don’t always need to be fixed. They can shift and change over the course of the book, but a strong, active protagonist will have something that they’re actively working towards throughout the story. Your character should go to places and take action because of this goal.
Character goes to Place because they want…
Character does Action because they want…
Character makes Choice because they want…
Make sure your character has a strong enough motivation and desire to go after their goal. Even if your character struggles with something like low self-esteem or a lack of confidence, odds are, they’ll end up fighting against this flaw in order to try to accomplish their goal – and this is exactly what makes for an interesting story. For example, maybe your character has always wanted a particular career, but their low self-esteem has prevented them from pursuing it, and has kept them inside their comfort zone. But then – oh no! Someone close to them dies suddenly, someone who has always encouraged this dream, and it makes them rethink their life.
Interesting, active characters have both goals and some sort of motivation to pursue that goal.
Making the reader care
Readers need to care about your protagonist first and foremost. This is THE main way you get them to care about the book as a whole. If they don’t care about your character, they won’t care about the story and how it unfolds. A huge part of fixing a passive protagonist is making the reader care about them.
How can you do this? There are lots of ways. The main thing is that your protagonist needs a major flaw. Every protagonist needs to be flawed – otherwise, why should we get on board with their story? A perfect character is uninteresting and not believable.
Character flaws can be minor or more extreme, and which ones you choose will depend on your story. If you’re writing from the point of view of a killer or a criminal, you’ll want to have different flaws to someone writing about a young person in their twenties looking for love. I recommend grabbing The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws as this contains a fantastic list of flaws and traits you can use to develop your protagonist.
Here are a few other ideas for making readers care about your protagonist:
- Show them doing something kind for others
- Have them make a relatable mistake
- Show their vulnerability
- Give them likeable traits (a sense of humour, kindness, a unique quirk, an interesting hobby, loyalty, friendliness)
- Don’t make things easy on them (readers care more about characters who struggle!)
To sum up…
Fixing a passive protagonist means making sure your character has a strong goal (ideally connected to the main, overarching story), and the motivation to chase after it. They take action and make decisions in pursuit of this goal, and this is what drives the story forward. Active characters are flawed people who fight against their flaws as they go after their goal – this is what makes readers care and feel invested in their story. The more obstacles (both internal and external) you place in their way, the more engaging your story will be.
I hope this post gave you some ideas for tackling a passive protagonist. If you still need help, I offer editorial services to authors.