Monday, September 12, 2011

What's the Big Idea? - pt. 6


Passive characters don’t get much love in the creative writing classroom.  Yet passive characters number among some of the strangest and most memorable in classic stories: just think of Hamlet (“To be or not to be”), Bartleby (“I prefer not to”), and Fanny Price (“Don’t fucking touch me”).  So what gives?

The problem is that passive characters have been conflated with victims.  Victims are characters whose problems have absolutely nothing to do with who they are.  A victim is someone who is mowing his lawn when a giant radioactive pterodactyl from outer space takes a dump on his head.  There is no way he could have prepared for that contingency.  There is no way he could have prevented it.  And there’s no reason that it happened to him rather than to his next door neighbor.


It’s fine to open a story with the character as victim.  A lot of revenge narratives start out this way, for example, with a person getting cheated, raped, or seeing a loved one murdered, often for no real reason other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But this is actually only the preamble to the real story, which begins when the victimized individual responds to the event by taking some kind of action.  The trouble with victims comes when they stay victims – when, to misquote Chumbawumba, they get knocked down but don’t get up again.  Watching someone lie motionless under a pile of glowing pterodactyl excrement is only entertaining for the first couple of minutes.  Then it gets dull fast.

Passive characters, on the other hand, are characters whose inability or unwillingness to act brings about dramatic consequences.  Hamlet’s tortured indecision about whether or not to avenge his father doesn’t bring the story to a halt; to the contrary, it has disastrous repercussions for almost every character in the play, which could have been avoided if he just accused Claudius and they duked it out.  Bartleby’s refusal to do his work, and later, even to eat, torments his boss and ends up taking Bartleby’s life, permanently removing him from a bleak world of brick walls and dead letters.  Fanny Price’s abstinence from the drama ( both theatrical and romantic) surrounding her and her rejection of a marriage proposal in fact craftily position her to get everything she thinks she wants.

Just like action, passivity needs to matter.  It needs to present an obstacle to achieving or a means of attaining a goal.  It needs to connect with what the story is about. up: voice
OR... back to: what's a query for, anyway?  AND the art of the pitch?? AND literary rebellions & literary excuse-making AND thinking about answers AND making connections


John Wiswell said...

I don't agree that a victim is a character whose problems has absolutely nothing to do with who they are. They feels like you're ascribing a new definition to an already loaded word. However, those types of hapless negative characters are incredibly annoying, and their passivity is likely their worst dimension.

What you call victims might well be a subset of passive characters in general. Your notion of a strong passive character, who develops despite inaction and for whom the plot is enriched, can work. I'll suggest that Hamlet (and every mouthy Shakespearian tragic figure) works a lot better as a play than a novel, where they're supposed to stand around, talk, and do very little unless a fight choreography was hired. Three hundred pages of a guy being inactive gets very cloying. To make an outrageous comparison, the decidedly passive character may only be worthwhile in the way that new zombie stories are: the old good stuff works for the old good stories, but you must extract new stirring materials from the source.

The Chawmonger said...

To the contrary, I think I'm totally right :-)

Seriously, though, if a character has something terrible happen to him but it's *through some fault of his own* -- even an unintentional action, a la Oedipus -- we no longer call him a "victim" but a character with a tragic flaw, who, wittingly or unwittingly, sowed the seeds of his own destruction. (Passivity can be one such tragic flaw, among many others.) It's only when the character is acted upon, by an external force, an Other over which he has no control, that we can properly call him a victim. This is right there in the way we use the word "victim" itself in language. A victim is the object of an action, not the subject performing it: a rape victim, a murder victim, a flood victim.

Now, I suppose I should clarify something: when I say a victim is a character "whose problems have absolutely nothing to do with who he is," I'm defining "who he is" as "who he has defined himself as through choices and action" not as "his position in the world." The daughter of an oil magnate might be kidnapped because of "who she is" in the second sense -- she's the daughter of someone who can afford a huge ransom! -- without having done anything to bring this fate on herself in the first sense.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Hamlet is broody and indecisive, but he's hardly a passive character. "Hamlet" is a very active play and Hamlet spends four hours on the stage investigating the relationships between the members of the royal household. He takes forever to finally act because he working toward certainty as to what happened and what the right thing to do about it is.

The Chawmonger said...

Hey Scott, thanks for reading. As you can see above, I'm defining passive characters as "characters whose inability or unwillingness to act brings about dramatic consequences." I'm not suggesting that the play is static, or that Hamlet has no reasons for his paralyzing indecision (although I would say it's more psychologically complicated than "working toward certainty": he knows Claudius killed his father after the play-within-the-play, and still he hesitates). What I'm trying to argue is that passivity -- "taking forever to finally act," or even refusing to act at all -- can be as dramatically compelling as immediate, decisive activity, because both things are choices that define characters.

In other words, a character who can't or won't act can still fascinate us; what's boring is a character who's only acted upon by others.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Ms Chaw: I apologize, because in my late-night haste I misread John's comment and was responding to a straw man! I take no issue with what you actually wrote in your post. Though I will stand by my "working toward certainty" for Hamlet, if I'm allowed the idea of his working toward moral certainty; one of the play's larger questions is whether revenge is a righteous act and I don't really think Hamlet ever comes to a conclusion there, even at the end when he stabs Claudius and forces the poisoned wine down his throat. The moments before the duel, where he asks Laertes' pardon for the death of Polonius, might be read as sincere. Hamlet makes rash and violent decisions during the play but he regrets them.

Anyway, I agree that that a character on the horns of a dilemma can be compelling, and that this is wholly different from a victim, to whom things just keep happening.