A reader asks about Passive Protagonists:
Let’s break the question down into two parts:
Part 1: Thoughts on “Passive” Protagonists like Officer Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) in Training Day
First things first. What is a passive protagonist?
A passive protagonist is a main character that displays some or all of these traits:
- has no strong desire
- doesn’t make decisions
- doesn’t pursue a goal
- reactive, instead of active, as a rule
- allows someone else to dictate their fate
You get the idea.
Are any of those traits, ones that you would respect, like or enjoy in a friend, business partner, lover, person you want to hang around with, etc.? Of course not. That’s why readers/audiences don’t embrace that type of character either.
A Common Mistake
It’s extremely common for beginning writers to craft screenplays with passive protagonists. One of the reasons why many screenwriters (including myself) have fallen victim to this trap, is that on first glance, many beloved movie characters seem to be passive.
In Star Wars, for instance, Luke Skywalker:
- hangs out on the family farm
- doesn’t protect is his aunt and uncle
- gets dragged on a mission by Obi Wan
- is put in his place by Han Solo
- is given help by Obi Wan to save the day
But let’s take a closer look. Luke actually:
- yearns to join the rebel alliance, but decides to help his family on the farm for now. He’s also proactive in finding his missing droid, which leads him to Obi Wan.
- races to save his aunt and uncle as soon as he figures out they’re in danger
- makes the choice to go on the adventure with Obi Wan
- comes up with the plan to save the Princess, takes action, and convinces Han to help him
- makes the decision to listen to Obi Wan’s advice, and in doing so saves the day
It turns out, Luke is actually a very active and willful character, determining his own fate.
If we look at Training Day‘s Officer Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) using that same lens, he’s actually not a passive protagonist.
- has made the choice to work for crazy Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) to advance his career
- is passionate and excited about that decision
- makes the choice to take the hit off that pipe
- takes action when he sees two guys raping a girl in an alley
- makes the choice not to take any money from the murdered cop
- goes after Alonzo on his turf
See I mean? Officer Hoyt is the one making the major decisions that determine his fate in the movie, even though at first glance it may appear that he’s getting dragged along for the ride.
Part 2: Can a protagonist be reactive?
Sure they can. In fact, most protagonists are reactive — for at least ONE key moment in the story. Whether you refer to it as the Call to Action, Call to Adventure, Catalyst, Inciting Incident, Opportunty… typically this is an event that happens to the protagonist.
It’s one of only three places1 where the protagonist can appear to be somewhat reactive or passive. But overall, your protagonist must be a “willful character” for readers/audiences to embrace her.
It’s okay for your protagonist to be forced into a hairy situation at the outset. Just make sure your protagonist quickly begins to take action, or makes the critical decisions from that point on.
That’s really the secret to great screenwriting — coming up with situations where your protagonist is forced to make difficult decisions.
Can anyone out there think of a recent movie that featured a true passive protagonist — successful or otherwise? Please post below.
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- For more information, please see my previous article on passive protagonists ↩
I know it’s not recent, but Terry Malloy is passive from beginning to end in “On the Waterfront.” I was completely annoyed by him! 🙂
ON THE WATERFRONT is one of those few classic movies that I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never seen.
Thanks for mentioning it. I think it’s time to push it to the top of my Netflix queue. You’ve piqued my curiosity.
I’ve been going through your website and enjoying it very much.
I’m going to try and respond to a few areas where you ask for feedback 🙂
“Can anyone out there think of a recent movie that featured a true passive protagonist — successful or otherwise? Please post below.”
I would argue that “BEING THERE,” one of my favorite movies, is the best example of this I can imagine.
Peter Sellers as Chance Gardener “The Fool Triumphant” is so passive that he barely moves without someone or something else nudging him along and he does not make a conscious decision most of the time, which defines passivity.
And while I can’t think of any others at the moment I’d also say that there are stories where the protagonist is really an observer/narrator and he watches the story for us in the audience.
Perhaps “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” could qualify too?
Great site great questions
Great question John! Answered it here (and the other half of your question by email).