“It was nothing more than a whisper…”
One of the first rules that most aspiring writers are encouraged to follow, along with such chestnuts as “Show, don’t tell,” is that the story should be driven by the protagonist’s actions and decisions. As obvious as this all sounds, the number of unpublished novels or short stories that founder on a passive hero is large enough that it probably bears repeating. Not every good story needs to be built around a protagonist with the wit or resources of a James Bond, and some of my favorite novels, like The Magic Mountain, center on characters who are all but defined by their passivity. But it’s still a useful baseline, and if you scratch a seemingly passive protagonist, you’ll often find that he or she is more active than it might first appear. Hans Castorp withdraws from the world, but it’s still a conscious choice, and he remains active throughout the novel in small but meaningful ways, whether in his attempts to get to know Clavdia or in his efforts to survive his ill-advised excursion in the snow. And while John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom may seem utterly hapless, he’s brimming with unfulfilled needs and desires, and although he addresses them in unproductive ways, he’s still defined by his frequently self-destructive actions. It’s no accident that the first novel in the series is called Rabbit, Run.
Really, though, as with all writing “rules,” the proof rests in the outcome. Thinking in terms of an active protagonist is less important in itself then in the material it generates, and you usually find that when you structure each scene around a clearly defined action on the part of the central character, you get a more interesting story. In this blog, I come back repeatedly to David Mamet’s idea of a story as a series of concrete objectives, simply because it’s a machine for producing workable plots. Much of writer’s block is caused by the author’s inability to figure out what happens next, and choosing to make the next plot point, whatever it is, emerge from an objective and its logical pursuit is a useful sieve for deciding between possibilities—or for generating them in the first place. And it doesn’t need to be anything big: Kurt Vonnegut famously noted that a character’s initial objective can be something as simple as a glass of water. (“Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”) Like any rule, it deserves to be broken whenever the story demands it. But in general, an active protagonist is both a courtesy to the reader and a way to get the writer from first page to last. Writing is hard enough in itself that a smart author will tilt the odds wherever he or she can, and making sure that the hero is driving the action is as effective a trick as exists.
And it’s especially useful in stories that seem to resist it. A thriller, for instance, would appear to lend itself naturally to active heroes, and it’s easier when your lead character is a criminal, a cop, or anyone whose life depends on a proactive engagement with the world. Yet many of the most important—and beloved—stories in the genre depend on the opposite: an ordinary man or woman thrust into circumstances beyond his or her control. We’re more likely to identify with someone whose life is initially as mundane as our own, and the transition between the everyday world and one where life and death hang in the balance is one of the most productive conventions for any writer to mine. The issue, obviously, is that an everyman character doesn’t go looking for trouble: it’s thrust upon the protagonist from the outside. This means, at least at the beginning, that the hero isn’t in control, and whatever decisions he or she makes have little bearing on whether the situation becomes better or worse. If the writer isn’t careful, this can easily turn into a victim story or an idiot plot. But it’s precisely at such moments that a skilled author needs to be especially alert, and to look for meaningful action for the protagonist even more relentlessly than in a story built around a conventional hero. It’s a challenge, yes, but a plot that requires the writer to think harder than usual is almost invariably a good thing.
In Eternal Empire, for example, it would have been easy to portray Maddy as a victim: she’s constantly being manipulated by more powerful forces, both visible and invisible, and she has few resources on which to fall back aside from her own intelligence. Chapter 27 represents a low point: she’s been kidnapped, held in the back of a car in the middle of nowhere, and she’s about to be blackmailed into becoming a pawn in a conspiracy she doesn’t fully understand. She’s more of a victim here than she’ll be anywhere else in the series. As a result, when the time came to write it, I tried hard to find ways of preserving her integrity as an actor in the story, no matter how small they might be. Even with a hood over her head, she pays attention to her surroundings, and she even tries to keep track of the route the car takes, like they do in the movies—and the fact that she fails doesn’t take anything away from the attempt. After being released, she searches the car that brought her there for clues, and she makes some smart observations about it, even if most of what she does here has already been anticipated by her antagonists. She even thinks about smashing the car’s windows with a rock, but she doesn’t. Instead, she says a few quiet words to herself. We don’t hear them, and we don’t even know if they’re addressed to her abductors, to Maddy herself, or to someone else entirely. But to me, they were a vow that she wasn’t going to be used so easily. And by the end of the novel, we’ll discover that she wasn’t nearly as passive as she seemed…