You can ask all your friends, family, followers, and even strangers about who is the worst main character that they have seen from any book, TV show, streaming series, film, or game and I would bet that there will be a common factor that these characters share: their passivity.
One thing that I will note is that a majority of other unfavorable characters lie at some extreme. For example, the extremely talkative character that does not allow for a moment of silence or in the case of this article, the extremely passive character.
Musings: Active v. Passive
Let’s take a look at how building a character is actively or passively can affect the story. Passive characters have been utilized since the beginning of storytelling, but what makes these characters less desirable compared to their active counterparts?
Now, I’m no psychologist, but there was a concept put forth by Julian B. Rotter called one’s Locus of Control that I think highlights why writers are taught to use active characters rather than passive ones. In its most basic sense, one’s locus of control is broken into two types: internal or external.
If someone has an internal locus of control then they believe that they are “in control of their actions, destiny, fate, etc.” while one with an external locus of control believes that they are “at the whims of outside factors such as those around them or fate and they cannot change it”.
To simplify the difference, I would claim that active characters recognize what they want and are willing to work towards getting their desires while a passive character has desires that are buried deep and are less willing to pursue them.
Imagine that you are reading a story, playing a game, or watching a movie, the main character that you are supposed to connect with does absolutely nothing and the narrative of the film just ferries them around or they are heralded as the hero though they have not worked for that position. It would feel unsatisfying, right?
I would argue that it is because of our intrinsic nature of working hard and expecting others to work just as hard as we do thus, we can empathize with characters who go through hardships and attain their dreams or goals. This is what is appealing about the American Dream and why so many novels used it in the past, though many modern writers choose to subvert those ideals as not everyone achieves their goals or dreams. However, even then we can empathize with their characters if they continue to push forward rather than languishing in failure.
This is why when you look at the Heroes Journey or Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, there is a moment where all hope seems lost, but the characters do not stay there! They push forward come hell or high water.
Great writers know how to craft active characters that propel the plot rather than having the plot lead them along.
There have been and will always be stories that have passive characters that evolve into active protagonists, but we as the reader or viewer need to recognize that growth is not immediate otherwise it will cheapen the experience of seeing these characters grow and mature.
You can look to The Giver and many others that have more passive characters grow over the course of the story. He grew not to only have his society or the book’s narrative pull him along, but into an active character that moved the narrative.
One note that I do want to make is that active characters can have passive or reactive moments rather than being proactive. This is evident when writers create living worlds around their active characters meaning that even the antagonists can be pushing the plot forward in response to the protagonists leading into a character-driven narrative that highlights the qualities of both characters rather than pitting a two dimensional antagonist against a fleshed-out three dimensional protagonist.
So, when you are working on your next project keep in mind whether your character has an internal or external locus of control and whether that changes or strengthens over the course of their journey.
“I would argue that it is because of our intrinsic nature of working hard and expecting others to work just as hard as we do thus, we can empathize with characters who go through hardships and attain their dreams or goals.”