An uninvited journey: active and inactive protagonists

A child's plastic sled cable-locked to a bike rack on a snow-free pavement

Lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) I came across this thread about inactive protagonists, and this other thread pointing out that it was an extremely Western-centric take. I think that both threads make good points, but the first one offers an extremely limited solution to a genuine problem. (When you have a hammer, etc, etc…) I rather like the way that they’ve both linked to each other, so the conversation rolls round and round forever. And this post isn’t really meant to be an answer to either of them, but more an excursion on my own train of thought.

There are many, many books that aren’t particularly engaging, and that could really do with a good editor, but shoehorning them all into the hero’s journey format isn’t necessarily going to help. In fact, I think a flat novel can be made more engaging by deepening the characterisation as much as by sharpening the plot.

And then in the replies to the second thread, someone linked this list of alternative structures, and that ate some more of my day. There are plenty to choose from, even if one is writing an action hero. I’ve been reading a lot of James Bond novels lately, and it’s really striking how adventurous Ian Fleming is in terms of structure. OK, The Spy Who Loved Me is a complete dog’s breakfast in terms of pacing, and you might argue that From Russia With Love starts a bit slow and ends a bit abruptly, but he isn’t afraid to experiment.

Back to inactive protagonists. In at least two of my novels so far I’ve spent most of the book getting my protagonist out of their own head in order for them to appreciate the world around them and make decisions based on what’s really going on rather than what they think is going on. Is that ‘active’? The author of the second thread talks about ‘radical acceptance’, which I think is an important theme in all my books: being who you are, not who you or anyone else thinks you should be. All of my protagonists could be described, to a greater or lesser extent, as inactive. The closet, depression, disillusionment, prejudice and petty politics provide quite enough of a challenge to be going on with. Sometimes they need to become active. Sometimes they need to make their peace with inaction.

And yes, sometimes during the writing process those books felt sloooooowwww. Sometimes I’ve dealt with that by growling at the entity they call the Inner Critic: what do you want, a car chase? Other times I’ve chopped out scenes, characters, chapters. I’ve added bits elsewhere. I’ve rewritten an entire book to come from a different character’s point of view. I’ve taken literal scissors to a manuscript. And the book has been better for it. An inactive protagonist might very well be a valid choice for the story that needs to be told, but that choice doesn’t exempt anyone from editing. (In fairness, I don’t think I saw anyone suggest that it did!)

I’m fascinated by the way that the individual interacts with the system, but writing about that, for me at least, has meant that those individuals have a limited amount of control. As the author, I can pull a certain number of strings, but I can’t reform student Evangelical Christianity/professional cycling/the Church of England/academia through the actions of one character. I can have them make small changes to improve matters locally. (I’ve pulled an ‘And then everybody on the bus clapped!’ precisely once. If I were writing that book now I’m not sure I’d put it in.) Or I can let them step away on their own terms.

Now I’m trying to write a Ruritanian thriller (well, not at the moment, but you know what I mean) and, while I have a good idea of how the thriller beats ought to fall, I’ve been uncomfortably aware that it’s inevitably a bit… condescending? (And I’ve felt like that since before I read Inventing Ruritania.) I want to keep writing it, because it’s fun, and because I love the genre for all its faults. What keeps tripping me up is that the ‘plucky British youngster single-handedly saves the nation of Ruritania’ narrative does not feel truthful. Even throwing in a second plucky British youngster and her Ruritanian partner hasn’t helped a lot. It may be that I’ve worked for a trade union/been a member of the Church of England/followed sports for too long, but I’m very aware of just how many people it keeps to keep even a moderate-sized organisation going, let alone a nation state. Same with stopping it. Very, very rarely does it hinge on the efforts of just one person.

And that, I think, has given me a way in, a way to save this. I’ve ended up with a structure that’s something like a zoetrope: the thriller narrative is broken up by snapshots of the ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Spin the cylinder fast enough, and you get a moving picture. The horse gallops. The country keeps on running.

Well, it might work. I’ll keep you posted. When I get back into it.

Incidentally, the consequence of lurking on Twitter (when I said I wouldn’t be) was coming across a thread in which someone was asking for recommendations for Christian fiction, and in which nobody had mentioned me. So I sulked, obviously. But then somebody recced me on another thread, so it all worked out. The moral of the story? It doesn’t really make much difference to the rest of the world whether I’m on Twitter or not, but it’s probably better for my state of mind if I’m not.

1 thought on “An uninvited journey: active and inactive protagonists”

  1. Shades of Junius: “I’m very aware of just how many people it takes to keep even a moderate-sized organisation going, let alone a nation state. Same with stopping it. Very, very rarely does it hinge on the efforts of just one person.” I’ve just been working on your grandfather’s book again, we ought to do something with it, it shows that is possible to defeat a corrupt administration with the pen ratther than by the sword or the mob.

    Liked by 1 person

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