Recently on Writer Unboxed there was a discussion about passive characters. Now, 99% of writing coaches tell us to avoid passive characters like COVID-19. Thus, I was flummoxed by the suggestion that passive characters could be the protagonists in a story.
I’m now reading a book with a passive heroine. Despite threats to her home, her livelihood, and her beloved village, she refuses to act. Why? She’s shy.
I can’t imagine how that premise got by an acquiring editor, but it did. The book is published by Random House.
The plot, setting and secondary characters are all appealing enough that I’m still turning the page. But, for all that there have been some laugh-out-loud moments, I’m still annoyed by the heroine. Surely she’ll have to break out of her shell sometime, but I’m half-way through the book and it hasn’t happened yet.
Perhaps the author hoped to provoke empathy in the reader by showing the heroine incapacitated by her extreme shyness, but in this reader, she only provokes irritation. Not a great way to promote sales.
In his book, Writing the Break-Out Novel, Donald Maass has a whole chapter on characters. The first requirement he lists is “larger than life.” When your main character hides in a corner, it is hard to think of her as larger than life. In The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, Jack Bickham says, “don’t write about wimps when you can build strong, active characters.” Dwight Swain says the character “must care about something, feel that some aspect of his world is important — important enough to fight for.”
If all these giants of the writing business urge authors to create active characters, how did I end up reading a book about a crybaby? I well remember one of my many rejection letters saying that the heroine, whom I loved for her strength in the face of catastrophe, was too reactive. This editor wanted the lead character to “drive the story,” to be the agent of change, not to merely respond to situations beyond her control.
The reviews for this passive heroine novel are mostly favourable, with many middle-of-the-road ratings. I ordered the book from my local library on the recommendation of some other authors. Despite my annoyance with the protagonist, I do find the writing engaging and the secondary characters are a world of fun.
What have I learned from all this?
Even the best advice in the world, is imperfect. An author can use that wisdom to improve her craft, but the story she writes must resonate with the writer if it is to resonate with the reader. I’m grateful for all the coaches and teachers and authors who have shared their knowledge and advice. I’m also grateful to this annoying heroine for showing me that adherence to “they say” is not the only route to publication.