Passive Protagonist Syndrome
I’m in an online discussion group for writers that’s run by the lovely and brilliant author of the just-published middle-grade fantasy Jinx. Last week her topic was “Passive Protagonist Syndrome,” a well-timed subject for me because of some problems I’ve been having with my middle grade work-in-progress. I’m about seven chapters into a novel with the working title LIKE A HURRICANE, about a hurricane-obsessed seventh grader whose imaginings of nature’s death and destruction obscure major changes in his own life and the potential breakup of his large family at the hands of Children & Family Services.
The problem is that in these chapters, a lot has happened TO my protagonist, but he hasn’t actually done anything himself. Except maybe fret about a hurricane and a mysterious letter that his alcoholic mother is ignoring. In fact, when other kids try to push him around — he is frequently the target of bullies — siblings or friends of siblings stand up for him.
Basically, I started this novel because people liked this secondary character in my just-completed YA novel with title of ANTS GO MARCHING. But I’m discovering that the kind of passivity that’s acceptable in a secondary character doesn’t work when the character is the star of the whole show. The protagonist of ANTS GO MARCHING fought battles on behalf of this younger boy, and I’m glad that beta readers of the earlier manuscript believed he was worth the fight, but that doesn’t make this secondary character a worthy protagonist. The protagonist, I’ve realized, drives the action, not just witness it.
I have officially put LIKE A HURRICANE on the shelf. The author of Jinx said last week that “Passive Protagonist Syndrome” is the principal cause of manuscript death, and if that’s the case, my WIP is a statistic. I had been working on it for four months, and I hope that one day I can go back to it.
Fortunately, I’m really excited about the short story I’m writing for my Portuguese class. And my protagonist is definitely not passive.