No Passive Protagonist!

Jack Brislee shatters some of the screenwriting principles the gurus so passionately advocate.

First he introduces us to the rule, then explains how it has been successfully broken (or bent).

The Rule: No Passive Protagonists!

Most screenwriting books regard a passive protagonist as a major error.  Audiences want to see a hero who instigates action, rather than one who reacts to a series of events.

According to Ray Frensham,

“…the protagonist is the one who should

  • drive the plot (their outward motivations and goal/s are the engine of your story)
  • initiate the action”

(Teach Yourself Screenwriting 2003  p72)

Christopher Keane tells us to

“…remember that your main character always wants something and will do anything to get it.  The main character’s drive becomes the spine of the story.  Your character sees something he wants.  He goes after it.  He’s blocked.  He tries another approach.  That one’s blocked.  He knows he needs to get creative.  He tries another…”

(How to Write a Selling Screenplay 1998  p26)

The classic protagonist has a well defined goal and is active in his pursuit of this goal.  If he does not have a goal, or does not actively pursue a goal (and hopefully suffer during the experience) then the audience will lose interest.  If the protagonist is not passionate, why should the audience be?

Christopher Vogler, however, suggests there might just be room for the passive protagonist.  He writes,

“It seems Heroes are of two types: 1) willing, active, gung-ho, committed to the adventure, without doubts, always bravely going ahead, self-motivated, or 2) unwilling, full of doubts and hesitations, passive, needing to be motivated or pushed into the adventure by outside forces.  Both make equally entertaining stories, although the Hero who is passive throughout may make for an uninvolving dramatic experience.  It’s usually best for an unwilling hero to change at some point, to become committed to the adventure after some necessary motivation has been supplied.” (The Writer’s Journey 1999 p41)

Tom Lazarus solves the active/passive dilemma quite neatly.

“Characters are more interesting when not only do they make things happen, but things happen to them.  A nice way to think about a character’s relationship to the story is:  situation pushes character, character pushes situation”.  (Secrets of Film Writing 2001  p92)

Trevor Mayes points out three places in even the most traditional Hollywood script where the protagonist can be passive:

1. at the beginning of the story, in the Ordinary World.

According to Vogler,

“Often Heroes are unaware there is anything wrong with their Ordinary World and don’t see any need for change. They may be in a state of denial. They have been just barely getting by, using an arsenal of crutches, addictions, and defence mechanisms”. (The Writer’s Journey 1999 p101)

2.  after the inciting incident, where the enormity of the call to adventure might result in initial refusal.

As Vogler comments,

“Put yourself in the hero’s shoes and you can see that it’s a difficult passage. You’re being asked to say yes to a great unknown, to an adventure that will be exciting but also dangerous and even life threatening. It wouldn’t be a real adventure otherwise. You stand at a threshold of fear, and an understandable reaction would be to hesitate or even refuse the Call, at least temporarily.” (The Writer’s Journey 1999 p107)

3.  at the end of Act II in the “All is Lost” or “Dark Night of the Soul” moment.

Blake Snyder suggests it is the moment when the protagonist cannot initiate action. Instead he leaves the initiation of action to fate.

“I don’t know why we have to see this moment, but we do. It’s the ‘Oh Lord, why hast thou forsaken me?’ beat. I think it works because, once again, it’s primal. We’ve all been there – hopeless, clueless, drunk, and stupid – sitting on the side of the road with a flat tire and four cents, late for a big appointment that will save our lives. Then and only then, when we admit our humility and our humanity, and yield our control of events over to Fate, do we find the solution”. (Save the Cat 2005 pp88-89)

These three occasions are often the most moving passages in a screenplay, and they all depict a passive protagonist.

There are many highly successful films that depict a passive protagonist throughout Act I, eg

  • Rocky Balboa – Rocky does not do anything in the first act.  All he does is show us how he lives at present.  This will lead us to understand why needs that final bout, so it works well.  But he is still a passive protagonist in Act I.
  • Star Wars – Luke spends a lot of time complaining about why he wants to leave, but does nothing about this until his aunt and uncle are killed.  That occurs 45 minutes into the film.  All this time R2-D2 is given the task of moving the story forward.
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – Cameron is the real protagonist and the only one with an arc.  But in the first act he is passive, allowing himself to be dragged around by Ferris.
  • The 40 Year-Old Virgin – Andy makes no attempt to lose his virginity in Act I.  If this is his goal he does not actively pursue it.

There are also successful films that depict a passive protagonist for the length of the screenplay, eg

  • The Graduate – according to Paul Gulino

“It is useful to remember that a writer is not bound by rules and formula but only by the need to keep an audience wondering what is going to happen next.  In the case ofThe Graduate, the tool used to achieve this, in the central part of the film, is dramatic irony… the story is propelled primarily by fear in the audience of what will happen when Ben’s secret is revealed, and hope that he will be able to keep it concealed.  While he clearly wants sex, he doesn’t strive for it, and his partner is willing, so there is no obstacle to getting it.”  (Screenwriting – the Sequence Approach  2004  p145)

  • Being There – Peter Sellers as Chance Gardner barely moves without someone or something nudging him forward.  He rises to unbelievable heights of success by doing nothing.  He is the perfect passive protagonist.  He just happens to be there.

So it is possible to break “no passive protagonists” rule.  It just isn’t easy.  An active protagonist is easier to write, but a protagonist who is sometimes active and sometimes passive is often more interesting.

Any more examples of successful passive protagonists?

- Jack Brislee

Jack Brislee is a business broker and property developer by day and a screenwriter by night.
He has written 12 scripts, one in pre-production in the
UK and one in pre-production in South Africa.

He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.

2 Comments

  1. Billy Marshall Stoneking November 8, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    PROBLEM > GOAL > PLAN these are the basic grammatic touchstones of DRAMATIC ACTION – no one says you cant write a screenplay that isn’t dramatic – BUT if you want drama you have to realise it is a language for presenting emotional ENERGY and that energy doesn’t happen unless the grammar is employed. There is one caveat to this – it is possible to provoke the audience’s attention and involvement through the use of MYSTERY and SUSPENSE – and so long as these are alive in the action one can sustain one’s interest through any number of scenes that are not dramatic – for more on this visit my website.

  2. David Bishop February 13, 2014 at 1:03 am #

    Not sure I wholeheartedly agree with some of your examples. A protagonist can appear passive when Refusing the Call because it seems they are not driving events – but they are still making decisions.

    Luke refusing to go with Obi-Wan is Luke making an active decision, albeit one that embraces the status quo. The death of his aunt and uncle force another choice on Luke.

    He can stay [and most likely die], or go with Obi-Wan. Arguably, staying is the tougher option – he’ll be alone, knowing the stormtroopers might well return at any time. Going with Obi-Wan is dangerous, but at least he has the safety of numbers around him…

    There’s another kind of protagonist you didn’t mention: the character who doesn’t change or learn, but who is an agent of change. Aside from ill-fated romantic entanglements in Casino Royale and OHMSS, James Bond rarely changes – but he changes others. [Usually the female associate of the villain, and she almost always ends up dead for helping Bond.] Indiana Jones doesn’t change much, either.

    The alternative agent of change is a protagonist that changes the audience. For example, the protagonist in The Hurt Locker is [I would argue] the same from start to finish. The audience learns about different facets of the protagonist and our attitude to him changes – but he remains the same.

    Are agent of change protagonists passive? Not really. Indeed, they’re a staple of action-adventure movies. I would tend to put the incarnation of Rocky seen in Rocky Balboa into the agent of change category. He doesn’t change, but he effects change in his son, and Little Marie, and in her son.

    For all of this, your mileage may vary!

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