Saturday, July 22, 2006

Passive Protagonists

“[In my latest script] I intentionally created a passive main character, but the feedback I received said all main characters should be active. Do you find that many readers share this particular bias towards the standard active protagonist cliche?”

It’s true that you generally want to avoid using a passive protagonist in your screenplay. It’s something a reader will easily identify in the script and will offer it as the first point of critique for your story. Most of the time, it’s an accurate reflection of how the hero is not driving the story but occasionally, the use of a passive protagonist is a perfectly acceptable way to characterise the main player.

A lot of films successfully use passive protagonists. It just takes a specific skill to put this approach into practice. The main hurdle that new or inexperienced writers fail to jump over is that they let the story happen around the protagonist, thus making him passive to everything that’s going on in the plot. He/she makes no active choices or decisions for herself and the plot feels contrived rather than organic to the character’s main desire.

The main difference between a passive protagonist and an acceptable passive protagonist is that the former lets the story happen around him while the latter makes decisions that affect the story based on his passive characterisation. Still with me? Let’s run with the paradox. What’s important is that a passive protagonist is forced to act, or that he makes choices to maintain his ‘passivity’ but they completely backfire on him, making his situation (the story) worse.

Look at The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Throughout the film, he just wants to chill out, do nothing. The ultimate slacker. Lazy. Unmotivated. Completely passive. But once the mistaken identity kicks in, The Dude is very active in trying to restore the balance of his life and as a result he gets himself into all sorts of mess. And take a look at Griffin Dunne’s character in After Hours. He's just the helpless passenger to the wild night of events but he does have a narrative drive, to find Rosanna Arquette, and that keeps the story more interesting.

So yes, passive protags are fine. Inexperienced readers will jump on a passive protagonist as it's an easy comment to make but someone with a more insightful or appreciative knowledge of story will accept a passive protagonist. But beware. A passive protagonist can't do 'nothing'.

Take the most famous passive protagonist of all, Hamlet. Although he dithered about murdering his Uncle, he made very active choices in his procrastination that only made his story worse for him... From Hamlet to Neo. It’s been argued that Neo in The Matrix is a passive protagonist: “he doesn't even want play the role of the protagonist, and so doesn't make an active decision that drives the plot until page 92 of the shooting script.” But I disagree with that particular notion. It’s an interesting argument but Neo’s story seems like a strong Hero’s Journey template that was extremely effective and entertaining (just don’t mention the sequels).


Lucy V said...

I think the notion of a passive protagonist is paradoxical personally: even the dude in TBL WANTED to do nothing, hence that was his character desire. I think the impression of passivity is key, as opposed to actual passivity - take for example last night's episode of Eastenders. Events conspired against Billy (the old "things get worse and worse" comedy trick) from getting to his wedding - everything happened, from his mates playing tricks on him to his getting locked in the bathroom with Minty. Though he never got there, he still WANTED to get there, hence dramatic satisfaction for the audience when his bride turns up and he says "Hey babe. I've been having a bit of a time of it." In my view, if a character has a desire, s/he's got to make choices to get that desire, even if it's not immediately apparent.

Chris Parr (ukscriptwriter) said...

I think Dante in Clerks is another example (apart from the fact he 'wants' to play hockey that day).

He is woken early, has to go to work, doesn't get to play a full game of hockey, gets fined for something he didn't do, and to top it all, his date does it with a dead guy in a toilet.

And the line he uses quite a few times (although I've never counted) in the film:

"I'm not even supposed to be here today!"

Tim Clague said...

I wonder - I don't know the exact definition - but I wonder if the protagonist HAS to drive the story. That's what being a protagonist is. But the central character or the person in the film for the most amount of time doesn't have to be the protagonist. Its more of an observation really as in most films this would be the same person. Perhaps 'Brazil' is different.

Anonymous said...

Hello Danny,

is there any chance of a posting about how to avoid an 'episodic' script?

Anonymous said...

How about the narrator in Fight Club? Or James Spader's character in Crash (the real one)

Allen said...

Wells aid Danny... I have been through the passive protagonist 'lets shoot the writer' reading scenario myself. I love a good reader but the PP is one of the easiest things to critique and feel like you are a real editor so gets done too much and screws up scripts. Actually this makes me cross!

If you are planing to become a good reader (or indeed writer!) I think you need to understand what I am going to write here:

Situation One is which a PP is not a PP...

The Fish out of Water story, in which the main character comes across a different and alien world where an ongoing struggle between the Protagonist and Antagonist causes them to grow up and realise their previous view of life is shallow.

In the Fish out of Water story there is a clear and deliberate difference between the main character and the protagonist - the protagonist is driving the alien world along and the main character is experiencing and learning from it.

So there you go, make bloody sure you know exactly what the writer is trying to do and what kind of story you are in before passing out the PP Top Trump. The main character and the Protagonist are almost always the same, but it's not compulsory.

Of course if the writer thinks they are writing an action hero and all said hero does is react then sure, you have a PP problem...