Writers Write creates writing resources and shares writing tips. In this post, we discuss the challenge of writing a passive lead character.
As writers, we’re taught that your characters must never be passive. If your character is passive — the classic doormat, or victim — there must be terrible consequences for their inaction.
The Challenge Of Writing A Passive Lead Character
Here’s a scenario: Sarah, a freelance PR agent, is looking for a flash disk in her husband’s home office. She wants to save a presentation for a new client. On the disk, she finds a spreadsheet of her husband’s expenses. She’s shocked to see he pays the same monthly amount in school fees to a prestigious academy school in another province. The only problem: the couple has no children.
What does she do? What if she does … nothing? Just closes the drawer and walks out the room.
What are the consequences?
If Sarah doesn’t confront her husband or investigate the payments on her own, she’s going to be tortured by this secret — by mistrust, doubt, and fear. It will affect her marriage.
She will be suspicious of every business trip, late night at the office, telephone call, even the way he looks at her. Her inner conflict is going to grow in silence.
Forcing her hand
As you can see, to get a plot from the above is going to be difficult. That’s why in most stories something will have to happen to force the character to act, even if it’s in an irrational way.
Her friend might spot a picture on Facebook of her husband and a young child at a school event and tell her about it. Now the shell around the secret is starting to crack.
Maybe her husband is hurt or killed in a car accident and the school will call to find out who will continue the payments. She’ll be forced to make a decision.
Change and contrast
The reason we put conflict in a story is to force a change in the character through inner conflict. If your character is incapable of change and that’s the point of the story, you have to build the story around that.
Perhaps Sarah’s inability to face her husband’s secret causes her to start drinking, or lose a major PR client, or fall into an aimless affair with another man. Her husband leaves her.
Maybe when he finally comes clean and admits the child he supports is not his biological child but the child of an ex-girlfriend who died, she can’t accept that he didn’t tell her and the marriage breaks up.
If you’re going to write a passive character, one way to balance them out is to show some sort of contrast.
- While Sarah can’t confront the secret in her marriage, she is successful in her PR career and she works obsessively to avoid her personal problems.
Another way to put the heat on your passive character is to surround her with characters that try to challenge her dormant state.
- Maybe Sarah has a friend who is always provoking her, a domineering mother who wants to ‘fix’ her marriage, or a new client who is trying to get her to work for his company.
Passive characters are the hardest to write. If you’re going to go this route, you will need to have a strong sense of their failures or flaws to elicit empathy in the reader. Your plot will have to be subtle but clever.
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