Making Sure You Don’t Have A Passive Protagonist

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I’ll be writing about the video Why you shouldn’t have a Passive Protagonist – writing advice and tips to write a good book or film, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.

One of the first rules for your Protagonist is that they should want something and, ideally, they should be wanting something they are actively in pursuit of. Being active in your story means they’re taking direct action to accomplish their goals.

A passive Protagonist has things happening to them and around them. They’re reacting to things, rather than pursuing something themselves. I’ll be writing about why this is a problem for your story, and how to write an active protagonist.

Transitioning From A Passive Protagonist to Active

Your story should begin when your Protagonist transitions from passive to active. At the start of your story they’re living their life but not trying to change it, then the inciting incident happens which sends them in pursuit of their goal.

That goal might be something they are setting out to accomplish or an object they want to acquire. Or, it might be when they become aware of the story antagonist, and want to stop them from accomplishing their goal (such as blowing up the world if you want to go full action story.)

The Problem with a Passive Protagonist

If you leave your Protagonist as passive for too long, you have no story and your audience will not connect to them. You need your audience to want to read or watch your story for its entirety, which means they have to want something for your Protagonist. If your Protagonist wants nothing, your audience will want nothing, and they’ll stop caring.

When you have a passive Protagonist, bumbling from moment to moment and reacting to the things happening around them, they won’t draw focus. You’ll find other characters in the story are motivated, interesting, and pursuing goals which is what the passive character is bumping into. This will mean your audience will want to spend more time with them, but because you’re centering the character who’s doing nothing, they won’t get to.

Aim to spend only a little time with your Protagonist in their passive state, just enough time that you understand why they become motivated.

Use the Passive State to Demonstrate Frustrations

During their passive state, show what is happening in their mundane ordinary life that is frustrating or unsatisfying. When the inciting incident happens your audience will connect with why your Protagonist pursues their new goal.

For example, in Lilly Prospero and the Magic Rabbit, I spend a little time with Lilly in her passive state of going to a new school and being lonely and unhappy, wanting more from her life and longing for friendships. This means that when things change for her and she meets the talking rabbit Jeffrey, you understand why it matters to her, and root for her to get what she wants.

The Inciting Incident

You can drop the inciting incident into the Protagonist’s first scene, such as in The Matrix. Or you can spend a little longer which your Protagonist in their passive state such as in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, which sees Luke Skywalker stuck on Tatooine staring at the two suns and feeling like he wants more. There is no definite right way or wrong way, and we can all have our own personal style, as long as you do send your Protagonist on a journey.

There’s a reason you’re piggybacking on that Protagonist at that point in their life, and it’s not to watch them living their ordinary life and doing nothing noteworthy. That’s boring. That’s not a story. You’re on their shoulder for their life now because of the active goal they’re pursuing.

You can find more writing advice on our YouTube channel where we’ll help you become a better and more confident writer. If you have any writing questions, comment below and we will try to do a video for every question we get. If you’ve found my work helpful, please consider dropping me a tip in my Paypal tip jar to help me keeping bringing you free writing advice!

Don't have a passive protagonist, JJ Barnes Writing Advice
Click to buy books by JJ Barnes

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I'm author, writer, screenwriter and filmmaker. I've always been passionate about stories, both on the page and on the screen, and now I'm lucky enough that I've been able to turn that passion into a career.

Myfirst novel, Lilly Prospero And The Magic Rabbit was the first release from Siren stories and launched the Siren Stories Universe (the SSU). Now there are multiple stories, on page and screen, all connected and exploring the world I first began to develop all those years ago. Find all my books here.

Hollowhood, the first independent film from myself and my writing partner, Jonathan McKinney, is currently in post-production. Making my own film has been an incredible experience and only affirmed my love of all things to do with film. From the camera to the costumes, I will always love everything about being on set.

As well as releasing my own stories, I'm hoping to spread love and passion for the art of story telling to others, by guiding you through different aspect of writing. I do a series of Writing Advice videos for adults, and a Creative Writing For Kids series, both on YouTube. I'm also releasing regular Writing Advice blog posts explaining different writing techniques and advice for how to get the most out of your writing experience.

Other than writing, my life is mostly spent with my partner, Jonathan McKinney, our three children, Rose, Ezekiel and Buffy, and our extremely foolish Springer Spaniel, Molly.

I love reading books, watching TV, and falling asleep during movies. When Jon comes to bed he usually finds me face down with my face on a book, or hiding under the duvet waiting for him to protect me because I've got myself in a dither reading a ghost story.

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