Passivity, Paralysis, and Restraint

A post at Writer Unboxed: When a Character Does Nothing: Passivity, Paralysis, and Restraint

Modern readers tend to like protagonists who do stuff, rather than those to whom stuff happens. Bold, feisty characters who choose, persevere, overcome, attain.

Largely true, but you could also say, “Modern authors tend to present protagonists who do stuff.” Readers can only enjoy the protagonists who are presented to them. It’s a bit like saying, “Readers of YA dystopias tend to prefer first-person narratives.” Do they? Or do they read first-person narratives because that became the standard for YA dystopia following The Hunger Games, and therefore if they want to read YA dystopia at all, they’d better be okay with first person?

Still, I think this thing about active vs passive protagonists is largely true. That is, I certainly dislike protagonists who are too passive, particularly if the protagonist is drifting through life, making occasional ineffectual gestures at doing things and then sinking back into hopeless passivity. I know for sure I’ve condemned protagonists who were too ineffectual, as in, for example, Wildwood Dancing. Beautiful story, protagonist just cannot get a grip and move decisively to solve the problem, it’s thoroughly frustrating. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the protagonist’s job to take effective action and the author’s job to make sure they do.

Paralysis, if it arises from any personality style that looks to me like clinical depression, would be worse. That’s the very last thing I want to see in a protagonist. I’m not sure whether that’s what the author of the post has in mind. Let’s see:

Passivity, as a trait, stems from a lack of force rather than a lack of means—a temporary (situational) or permanent internal condition that makes action impossible. … Think of William in Hello, Beautiful by Ann Napolitano. William is the book’s central character, but not the agent of the plot; he responds, generally by acquiescence, to what others want or do or fail to do.

As trauma theory teaches us (see, for example: Bessel Van Der Kolk), paralysis can occur when both fight and flight seem impossible and the only option is to freeze (the third trauma response). … Inaction through paralysis may be followed by regret, guilt, shame, and/or rash acts of over-compensation, which have their own consequences. In that way, the paralysis can actually fuel the plot.

Neither of those works well for me as a reader, but particularly not paralysis. This wasn’t exactly what I was thinking of. I was thinking of Hamlet, who’s indecisiveness and inability to act look to me like depression. This idea, of paralysis occurring when both fight and flight options are impossible, seems at least as bad. I have no desire to follow a protagonist through regret, guilt, shame, and/or rash action. I would prefer to see an effectual protagonist who takes decisive action, and then oops! Whatever the action was, it turns out to have unforeseen (and unforeseeable) consequences. Then you may see regret, guilt, or shame, but not for failure to act. I prefer that.

How about restraint?

Why would a character refrain from acting, which action seems so obvious?  From fear of the consequences, perhaps; better to stay invisible, and safe. Or from the desire to protect someone else, honor a pledge, or refrain from an over-sharing that would cause discomfort, confusion, shame. … Restraint might even be an act of generosity—holding back so the other person has a chance to step in, prove his mettle, and have the life he desperately needs. … [Restraint can be] a gesture of kindness and power.

Now we’re talking! That’s what I want to see! Suddenly I like the linked post much better.

I do think restraint is an undervalued virtue. Culturally, we like boldness, bigness—from the larger-than-life hero who singlehandedly vanquishes the band of attackers to the Everyman who finds his moxie and surprises us (and himself) by standing up to the big evil corporation. Restraint seems old-fashioned. Yet it’s the basis of so many powerful and enduring stories

I like all this. Not that I dislike singlehanded heroism. But I like this whole idea of having the protagonist exercise restraint so that someone else can step in and shine. That would indeed produce a powerful moment.

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4 thoughts on “Passivity, Paralysis, and Restraint”

  1. I’m with you there; I don’t like passivity or paralysis in main characters (or secondary characters, really; I’ve stopped reading some stories recently because of both traits), but restraint – now, that can lead in some really interesting directions in a story. Especially self-imposed restraint.
    It can also be done badly, however. I recall a certain series where the main character struggled with a certain relationship until BAM! – at the end of the story, because of who her parents were, suddenly the moral constraints she’d imposed on herself no longer applied, or something. It undermined all of my respect for that character to the point that I almost threw the book across the room, I was so mad at her – and at the author, who I think may have written herself into a corner with a tight deadline and just couldn’t figure out a better solution to the moral conundrum she’d created.

  2. On Kindle, something weird happened : suddenly Black Dog is showing up for $4.99 and there’s no copy in my library. The former has happened for other books before when there’s quietly a new edition. But never the latter.
    Also, book 2 (short stories 1) has the lowest price, which is unusual.

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