Musing: The Persecution and Defense of the Passive Main Character

Alongside my reading lists, I’ve been reading a lot of material by authors in my same boat.  Authonomy.com is a great place to find it.  I’ve noticed a recurring issue in pitches and first chapters. The main character doesn’t do anything of note.  They’re just along for the ride.

final_fantasy_vaan

I’m not pointing fingers.

In general, it’s fair to assume a story is told from a single view point (unless told otherwise).  It is easier to pitch the story from one point of view and demonstrate (through the conflict) the potential a second PoV (third etc. PoV) could bring to the story.

The problem I see is the introduction of the main character then loading up the pitch with interesting details that do nothing to justify their position as the main character.  I have a fictional example here:

Gnirob is the best plumber in the universe. When an general of the Ecaf Krej empire gives him a job, he’s pulled into a war he doesn’t want to fight. He falls for Rela Etsthgil, who leads the Ypparc rebellion against the empire. She trains him to fight and inspires him to play his part in the war.

At a glance, Rela is a more interesting character than Gnirob, the presumed main character. The reason? He’s not doing anything.  This may or may not be an issue limited only to the pitch, but if you have a hard time fixing this, your main character might not be doing enough in the story.

Let’s flip to the other side of the coin.  It’s fine to have a main character that isn’t invested in the main conflict at first this is a fairly common and natural progression to many stories including (but not limited to) coming of age stories and epic fantasy. The trick here is to show where the character starts and where they end up while enticing the reader by this transformation.

Gnirob, the best plumber in the universe, suffers under a dwindling economy with barely enough jobs to make ends meet. Until his fame lands him as the head of the imperial sanitation department and he’s got all the work he could want. Until Rela Etsthgil, the leader of the Ypparc rebellion, opens his eyes to the evils of the empire. Only he holds the key to wash away an entire empire– they couldn’t have picked a better guy for the job.

While silly, this should show my point. Writing a pitch can help you find the soul of your story without falling into straight synopsis mode.

When it comes to the story itself, the same rule applies.  Your main character needs to be as interesting (or more interesting) than the world around him/her.  The main character needs to be invested in the primary conflict; the stakes need to impact him/her.  Imagine reading a crime novel from the point of view of someone who lived down the street from the detective in charge of the case.  The first order of business would be to rope the PoV character into the conflict and keep them there.

Balthier_and_vaan_in_nalbina_dungeons

I am the leading man, after all.

 

So if done well you can have make a ‘passive’ main character work, but it is an uphill battle.  It usually involves putting someone else in the spotlight and overcoming this with the main character’s actions.  If this never happens, you may get that ‘why am I following this person again?’ vibe.

P.S. Vaan from Final Fantasy 12 is used as an example in this post because they tried (and failed) to emulate the ‘coming of age’ angle of countless fantasy novels.   He never really had / gets a reason to be on the adventure.  Well, maybe one.

2 thoughts on “Musing: The Persecution and Defense of the Passive Main Character

  1. Man, Balthier got robbed in FF12. And Basch, too. And Ashe, too. I’m about ready to declare that Fran would have made a better lead than Vaan did (I’m glad it didn’t come to that, but you get the idea). And Penelo might as well have not been there. Then again, the game had some really bad luck behind the scenes, so maybe it’s a little unfair to pick on it. Now, certain OTHER games in the franchise? Fair game, all things considered.

    In any case, this post might as well been a marriage proposal to me. Not to play devil’s advocate, but I get it — some stories need a guy who’s a little out of the loop so the audience can latch onto something and slowly adapt to the story’s “rules”. But nobody demanded that the Gnirob has to be so — well, you can imagine. The leading man is the leading man for a reason. At least, that’s how it should be. Who’d want to follow a AA battery when there’s a walking, talking Tesla coil just a couple of feet away?

    Assuming that Tesla coils don’t have lethal properties. They probably do, but that’s research I’ve yet to conduct.

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