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JJ Barnes – Writing Advice

Free writing advice – writers supporting writers

By - JJBarnes

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. A passive Protagonist has things happening to them and around them, and they’re reacting to those things, rather than pursuing something themselves.

Your story should begin when your Protagonist transitions from passive to active. At the start of your story they’re living their life, then an inciting incident happens which sends them in pursuit of their goal. That goal might be something they are setting out to accomplish or do, or it might be an active conflict when they’re set against the Antagonist and want to stop them from accomplishing their goal (such as blowing up the world if you want to go full action story.)

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 it’s 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, you’ll find other characters in the story are motivated and pursuing goals which is what the passive character is bumping into. This will mean the characters around your Protagonist are interesting and your audience will want to spend more time with them, but because you’re centring the character who’s doing nothing, they won’t get to.

Aim to spend a little time with your Protagonist in their passive state, just enough time that you understand WHY they become motivated. What is happening in their mundane ordinary life that is frustrating or unsatisfying so that when the inciting incident happens you 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 and want her to get what she wants.

Of course, you can drop the inciting incident into the first scene, such as in The Matrix, or you can spend a little longer which your Protagonist in their passive state such as 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 out of the ordinary. That’s boring. That’s not a story. You’re on their shoulder for their life NOW because of the active goal they’re pursing.

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!

Click the picture to find details about all the books written by JJ Barnes and where to buy them.

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