Today I’m going to focus on a critical story flaw that’ll get stories rejected, including mine. This is when your MC (main character) is considered “passive.” A passive MC is when he or she does not influence the story development, and rather outside sources, circumstances, or coincidences drive the story instead.
A good rule of thumb to check if your MC is passive is to imagine your story without him or her in it. Did the plot change? If not, your MC is passive. Why is passive a bad thing? Because your MC is supposed to be the center of attention. This makes the reader question the relevance of the MC since it makes them weak, boring, and sometimes even unlikable.
I believe many of you will be familiar with this story flaw and will have already taken measures to avoid a passive MC. However, there are some sneaky ways that your MC might come off as passive without you even knowing it.
1. Consequences drove the plot
I was victim to this sneaky passive MC ailment in a recent story submitted to a pro-level magazine. My story had made it into their final short list for the month and I was highly praised by the editor to have made it that far with an “elite group” of stories. When offered feedback on why my story didn’t make the final cut, it turns out one of the main reasons was a passive MC.
This caught me off-guard because I had written the story with the belief that my MC wasn’t passive at all. Upon inspection, however, I realized my critical mistake.
My character’s actions came with a consequence that was my first plot point and inciting event. The rest of the plot that unfurled was completely out of his control. Things fell into place in his favor, and it made things seem too convenient when he got his way even when he hadn’t done anything intentionally to make that happen.
This is an important lesson that I’ve added to my edit checks. Now I always investigate what caused each plot point and make sure that they aren’t just consequences of my MC’s actions, whether he planned it or not.
2. Lack of Action
You may have a scene that occurred because your MC chose not to act. Again, unless the MC made a conscious decision not to take action that led to the next plot point, then their inaction would be considered passive.
To give an example, imagine a store clerk who noticed a child stealing a loaf of bread. The clerk chooses to pretend not to notice. The child does it again, every weekend, and the clerk lets the child get away with it every time.
When that child grew up, he realized that the clerk would have done inventory and approached him about it. After learning that the clerk knew all along, the young man is inspired and saves the clerk from debt and the threat of the bank repossessing her family’s store, thus fulfilling the conclusion of the story.
But what if the clerk hadn’t known that the child was stealing bread? What if she was inept at her job, didn’t run inventory, and had no idea? When the child grew up and approached the clerk, he didn’t have the clerk’s charitable heart to become inspired. Instead of saving the clerk from debt, the thief made apologies and lived with his guilt for the rest of his life.
It’s important to note that the MC behaved exactly the same in both examples, but the plot changed when the MC’s inaction wasn’t on purpose.
For every scene, evaluate how your MC contributed. If their contribution was unintentional, your MC is in danger of being passive.
3. The “Chosen One”
The “Chosen One” is a popular trope. Frodo Baggins, Zelda’s hero: Link, and Harry Potter are all the “Chosen One.” Readers love an underdog “Chosen One” predestined for greatness.
The danger, however, is if your MC is a “Chosen One,” they’re automatically at high-risk of being considered passive.
Note that I called the famous characters previously mentioned an “underdog,” and that’s what readers like. Being the underdog is a commonly added attribute that helps mitigate a naturally passive character. When your MC is already destined for greatness, it comes with the insinuation that they’re guaranteed to meet their goals, no matter what they do.
A “Chosen One” must be presented with obstacles that they’ll need help of others to overcome. If they’re an all-mighty “Chosen One” and can trample every plot point on their own, their achievements are a consequence of their heritage rather than their own actions. Sound familiar?
The key to making a “Chosen One” character active is by putting obstacles in their path and providing resources that your MC will creatively utilize to reach their goals. They definitely should fail their first attempt, and come to the realization that being the “Chosen One” doesn’t mean that achievement is guaranteed. You must dance the tight-rope of a predestined plot, and making your reader believe that the MC could fail at any moment and all would be lost.
In conclusion, your MC needs to be a go-getter. Things don’t need to go his way, and in fact, I hope they don’t. Your MC needs to be continually trying to solve a problem, encounter obstacles, and be trying methods to overcome those obstacles until they achieve their goal. A passive MC is one who just sits by the sidelines and hopes it all works out. A reader won’t be inspired by that and wants an exciting character to read about. Make sure your MC isn’t passive, especially by avoiding these sneaky mistakes, and you’ll be one step closer to a story that’ll sell!