Enlivening Passive Characters

by Susan Breen

One of the first things I tell my fiction class is, “Make sure your characters want something.” Whether searching for love, money, world peace or even a glass of water, active characters propel stories forward. When a character wants something, she has to struggle to get it. Struggle means conflict, conflict means tension, tension means the reader is going to turn the pages.

So what do you do if your character doesn’t want anything? What if you have a passive character? Maybe he’s depressed, maybe he’s overwhelmed, maybe he’s happy, or bored, or tired. Can your story still be interesting if your protagonist doesn’t act?

I ran into this problem when I began writing my short story, “Dear Murderer,” which was eventually published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. The protagonist, Stacey, appealed to me for the very reason that she was passive. She liked her job at a candy store, was satisfied with her husband, happy with her kids. I enjoyed her warm, earnest way of looking at the world, but I worried that she had no goals. I struggled to shape the story. In the end, I found six steps to writing a compelling story with a passive character.

Dig deeper.
Probe a passive character and you’ll find he cares about something, even if it doesn’t seem, at first, to be important to the story. Say, for example, you’re writing about a man named Joe, who works in a dead-end job and never met a woman he cared enough about to marry. But he’s listened to every Yankee game since he was a boy. He’s got Yankee bumper stickers, Yankee mugs, and a season’s pass. What will he do if a Red Sox fan moves next door and puts out a banner?

Or what if you’re writing about Martha, a young mother depressed by her responsibilities as an at-home mom. She loves her kids, but they overwhelm her. Some days she can’t bring herself to go outside. In her few spare moments she loves reading poetry, because it reminds her of her favorite college class. Her professor told her she had talent. What if now, ten years later, the professor calls up Martha and tells her that one of her old poems has been selected for an anthology, but the professor thinks Martha plagiarized it?

With my own story, I probed and found that the protagonist loved her brother deeply. He’d stuck up for her in high school. He’d looked after her when she was an adult, lending her money when she and her husband hit hard times. She idolized him. Although her life revolved around her husband and children, her brother was special to her. She’d go out of her way to make her brother happy. What started off as a small detail became the heart of the story.

Introduce your character to interesting people.
Passive characters benefit from having interesting friends. Imagine how different the classic TV show Seinfeld would be if Jerry didn’t have George, Elaine and Kramer in his life. Claire Messud’s novel The Emperor’s Children is about three friends, on the verge of turning thirty, who can’t quite get their lives together. One is writing a book, but she can’t finish it; another is trying to find a job, but doesn’t know what she wants to be; the third is looking for love, but he’s not really sure. Were the novel just about one of those passive characters, it might drag. But Messud masterfully weaves their lives together. She also introduces her passive three to some high-powered active characters, among them an egomaniac editor and a young journalist determined to make his mark.

In my story, the protagonist had to deal with a sharp-tongued sister-in-law, who questioned the choices she made, or didn’t make. Stacey also had to deal with an odd woman who came to her candy shop.

Which brings up a related point. Get your passive character out of the house. She can’t meet people if she’s sitting at home, thinking. Get her to the park, library, grocery store, doctor, train station, vet or any other place of your choosing. Just make sure she’s not alone in the house.

Use active writing.
Just because your character is passive, doesn’t mean your writing has to be. Use active words and unique descriptions to get across your character’s way of seeing the world. For example, Martha the depressed mother probably makes breakfast every morning. You could write about that in a bland way:

Martha woke up, went into the kitchen, took eggs out of the refrigerator, cooked them, ate them, then turned on the TV.

But what if you write the same thing more actively:

Martha struggled into the kitchen, plucked two eggs from the box, smacked them against the faux-marble island and whipped them into nourishment.

A little exaggeration there, but you get the point. Use words to jolt the story. While you’re at it, go through the manuscript and try to replace “was” with more active verbs. Compare: “She was sitting” to “She sat.”

Listen to your passive character talk.
Some of the most entertaining characters in literature are passive characters. Consider Sully, the protagonist of Richard Russo’s humorous novel Nobody’s Fool. He’s a classic passive character who spends his days drinking coffee at a diner, provoking his friends, provoking his enemies, and messing up jobs. He has no ambition, wants nothing, yet manages to be an entertaining and compelling character for more than 500 pages. You turn the page because you can’t wait to see what Sully will say next.

A compelling story doesn’t just come out of plotting. Sometimes an interesting character is sufficient to move the plot along. Other great voices from passive characters include from J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and almost all of Nick Hornby’s heros. Think about what drew you to write about your passive character. What does he have to say that makes him unique? Get that on the page.

Jolt the character into action with an inciting incident
Inciting incidents get the story going. They’re the tornado that whisks Dorothy to Oz, the letter calling you to jury duty, the phone call from your mother telling you she’s arriving in two days, or maybe the talk your boss wants to schedule. Something has to happen to set the story in motion and with a passive character, it’s important that the inciting incident be sufficiently jolting to get him moving.

In Benjamin Kunkel’s humorous debut novel Indecision, the main character is a 28-year-old man whose inability to make a decision is damaging his life. He works at a pharmaceutical company and one day he’s offered the opportunity to try an experimental drug that banishes indecision. One thing leads to another and he winds up in the jungles of the Amazon. Along the way he’s forced to make some decisions.

That’s an extreme example. On a smaller scale, in “Dear Murderer,” Stacey finds out her brother’s wife is planning a big 40thbirthday party for him. She has to get her brother a birthday present, but, knowing how often she has messed up gifts in the past, she struggles to think of the right thing. The inciting incident sets in motion a whole train of events.

Turn up the heat.
My mother often said, you don’t know what a person’s made of until she’s tested. Characters are the same. Put a person under pressure, even a passive one, and you might be surprised by what he does. Good-natured Sully in Nobody’s Fool has no ambitions for himself, but when his son moves back into town, and he sees his son about to make his own mistakes, he decides he has to take action.

Love changes people. So do fear and anger. Go back to our depressed mother, Martha. She might be infuriated that her professor accused her of plagiarizing the one thing in her life she’s genuinely proud of. Maybe she feels forced to write a new poem, which leads her to the library, which leads her to…? See how turning up the heat churns up your character.

Of course, you might put your character under a more quiet form of pressure. Yankee fan Joe might realize that his new neighbor is his one chance at love. He desperately wants her, but she’ll only take him if he renounces the Yankees. He can’t do that. (Possibly they both agree to become Mets fans.)

Stacey’s story took a dramatic turn when she inadvertently gave her brother a present that put his life at risk. Suddenly she’s forced to take action. She is rousted out of her passivity, and becomes, briefly, I think, almost heroic. Whether she changes permanently, I don’t know. That’s the tricky thing about these passive characters. When you stop pushing them, they tend to settle right back where they started. But hopefully before that happens, you’ve got a good story out of them.

This article first appeared in The Writer magazine.