Storify: Passive Characters

Storify is shutting down in May and has informed users that we have to migrate our content elsewhere if we wish to save it. This is one of my old threads.

I've been talking to my writing-group friends this week about the words we use to describe marginalized protagonists. One of the things we hear a lot about marginalized--particularly female--protagonists is "passive". I have a lot of thoughts about this and I'm going to try to organize them here.

One: We cannot 1-to-1 compare a marginalized character to a more privileged default we've become accustomed to. Marginalized people have been taught from birth to minimize ourselves. Don't stick your neck out, don't cause trouble, don't stand up. That marginalized 17-year-old or 25-year-old protagonist had a lifetime of being smacked down when they tried to excel. I know I did. So when we see a marginalized protagonist being "passive" or hesitant or fearful, where some see a Personality Flaw, I see their trauma. I see someone who has learned "passive" behavior in order to survive.

Now, we can argue whether such a character is "interesting" or not, but that comes back to the "depressed characters are boring" problem which is to say (a) they aren't boring to depressed readers (we exist!) and (b) it's problematic to declare a marginalized group "boring". So to sum up this first point: we can't expect a marginalized character to have had the same experiences as a privileged one.

Two: Much as how "Mary Sue" is rarely applied to male characters, "passive" is rarely used against them even when it would be fitting. When a male character pulls a Refusal of the Call and runs away from his duty, that's not "passive", it's a character arc. When a mentor or an elf girl or a dragon egg plops into his lap and he's pulled into a greater story, we don't see him as passive. When stormtroopers burn down his home and make the decision to leave FOR him, we don't call him passive. When a wizard takes him to a stone--or his adopted brother says 'get me a new sword'--and he gives it a tug, we don't call that "passive". When clues fall into a detective's lap, or when a video game sucks him into the electronic world, or when a girl kidnaps him... not passive?

I feel almost like the passive/not-passive arithmetic is reserved for non-default white cisallohet male protagonists. Which is interesting. I wonder if we don't see privileged men as *inherently* active in ways that marginalized people have to "earn".

Three: I have noticed that "active" marginalized protagonists get complaints for not being passive enough. A girl thinks she's good enough for that hot vampire boy? Mary Sue. A girl dreams of bigger and better things than the life she's been born into? She's a bitch leaving her family behind. (Oh, the SO MANY hot takes about how Katniss didn't love her mother enough like a good daughter should.) A girl throws her drink at a boy who scared and upset her? Violence and abuse! A girl actively seeks out a lover to divest her of her virginity because she wants to be sexually active? The reviews will EXCORIATE her.

All of this points to a problem with using the "passive" label when there's an invisible line, once crossed, that makes her Unacceptable. By which I mean "passive" becomes meaningless as a criticism if being "active" also results in criticism.

Four: This is subjective (as are most book discussions) but "passive" isn't an objectively bad or uninteresting thing. I *like* the story of the quiet little hobbit whose life was turned upside down because a wizard decided he needed an adventure. Stories about passive protagonists are, perhaps, written for readers who feel passive themselves, as escapism. If presented with a magic portal and the title of Chosen One, I might NOT leave my family and my responsibilities to go adventuring. But if thrown into that situation, I would react in ways true to myself. Why do I have to *choose* to go to Narnia for a story to be valid? Life includes things we *didn't* choose to happen to us. Those stories are valid to write. Maybe not for everyone! But valid.

@sapphixy: [quoting Dante from CLERKS] "I'm not even supposed to BE here today!"

YES. A VERY APPROPRIATE QUOTE! Stories are about people and character. It troubles me when we act like an entire TYPE of people--"passive" people--aren't valid characters. Especially when that label is often applied to folks who have been marginalized and traumatized, whose "passivity" is really "survival".

NOW HAVING SAID ALL THAT, reading tastes are what they are. If some people prefer active characters that's 100% fine! But simply saying "Bella Swan is passive", however true, doesn't make the book bad any more than saying "Bella Swan is a brunette" does. And I think it's critical to note that "Bella Swan is passive" is very much a thing, but "Bilbo Baggins is passive".....kinda isn't. Or whoever. Luke Skywalker. Eragon. Harry Dresden. Hicks from Aliens. John Connor. Think about why we rarely discuss their "passivity".

@fromankyra: Arthur Dent's whole shtick is his passivity, and that's used as THE example for the relatable everyman character.

YES. I adore Arthur Dent and have never heard him called an uninteresting character for being passive. Anyway, I think that's the sum of my thoughts. This thread brought to you by a discussion I brought up in writing-group last night.

A fifth point has occurred to me on this active/passive topic and I'm struggling with how to phrase it properly. We do not have nearly enough marginalized rep as protagonists in fiction. When I read someone with my marginalization, I identify with them. But I've noticed that more privileged readers/viewers will not "identify with them" so much as enjoy *observing* them for entertainment. This can manifest less as "oh god, it's ME but set in Narnia" and more as "do things to entertain me, Mx. Character!" So "this character [I don't identify with] is passive" can come from a character they don't identify with failing to grippingly entertain. Whereas other "passive" characters they DO identify with--Arthur Dent, Luke Skywalker, Dante from CLERKS--aren't expected to entertain.

This isn't necessarily a BAD way to approach fiction, but I think it's important to understand from an audience-centering approach. I've had to explain to a lot of guys in my life that while THEY don't identify with lady-reboots (SW, GB) the movies aren't really FOR them. Ladies in Star Wars and Ghostbusters and so on give feminine-identified people a protagonist to identify with. They aren't FOR men. So "this character was passive" when we mean "this character didn't entertain me" can sometimes point to maybe the character wasn't FOR you.

On an individual level, that's okay! Nobody has to like something just because it's ~diverse~ in one way or another. Like, I know some folks who read protagonists that aren't like them and then feel guilty for not 'getting' something that wasn't FOR them. Please don't feel guilty! Tastes are subjective and weird and they're allowed to be what they are. I think it's just something we want to think about when we talk about critiquing, reviewing, sharing, etc. "This wasn't my kind of thing and that's okay" is very different from "This was bad because it failed to entertain me, personally."

I wonder if it's worth recognizing that, say, "Entertainment Value" and "Identity Representation on Page" may not be the same things. An active character will entertain me, but a passive character is more likely to be someone I identify with. And I think that's due in very large part because my entire life has been shaped to traumatize me into a passive position for survival.

While I have you here, this might be why so many women adore Sansa while the men tend to favor Arya, afaict. Because a girl "quietly surviving" isn't entertaining, but she's identifiable. A girl running around on a murder spree is very exciting! But I can identify with a girl's anger and desire for revenge, and I can be entertained by murder, but it's... a different kind of "identify".

@lirelyn: YES. I like Arya fine, but Sansa is the one I'm most anxious to see come out on top. Zero men have understood when I say that.

@StoryHospital: Identifying with Arya's desires is the wish-fulfillment fantasy. Identifying with Sansa's survival is the mirror.


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