Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On The Do-Nothing Hero and Why He Kills Your Story

Blake Snyder, in Save the Cat, states it concisely:

A common mistake in a lot of rough drafts is the problem of the inactive hero.

Not that I wasn't already aware that the main character in my YA Dystopian needed to grow parts. I had that revelation a few weeks ago. But for some reason, when I read the above sentence, it really hit home. REALLY.

It's one of those things you don't necessarily "hear" in the feedback you're getting. Or if it's pointed out directly, it may not resonate. "What do you mean, my hero is inactive?! Did you see what he had to go through? All that angst and pain and fear and struggle?"

Well, yeah. But in the course of the story, did your hero propel things by his actions and decisions? Or was he sorta...dragged along?

It's ironic, really. My belief that I couldn't write a novel (being a self-proclaimed anecdotal essayist) was shattered as I read The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge and thought, "This is bad. I think I could write a better story." My reason? The heroine is propelled through the entire story by external circumstances! Everything is convenient, pat, and painfully predictable.

It's accurate to say, I think, that the heroine really doesn't do anything except REACT. A truly disappointing read.

So what have I gone and done? I've written a novel with an inactive hero! Over the past eight months, I've received all sorts of feedback on the story, touching on everything from worldbuilding to character development to voice and back again. But woven throughout those comments was a thread of "Eric needs to be active" that I totally missed.

Until now.

Here comes the bare-nekkid part--actual agent comments on my manuscript. Some of these are from revision requests and some are from rejections on fulls. One was even from an extreme-near-miss, I-almost-offered rejection. And ALL of them point to an inherent activity problem with my hero:

I found myself less engaged by the character.

It was difficult to concretely understand what the characters were fighting for.

I couldn't get Eric to resonate as a stand out for me. Part if this may have to do with his lack of evolution as a character.

I worry that you get to be almost half way through before you get a sense of where the book is going.

Eric never really has it out with Vann--you're kinda hoping at some point that they'd have a real conversation.

And my all-time favorite, which pretty much says it all:

Eric is inert the first half the book.


Well, she was right. One day, I'll tell her she was right. And thank her.

So now I've begun what can only be described as an exhilarating revision journey. Truly. Eric is going to DO things. Right from page one. As in, the story has opened and he's got a knife in his hand.

And it ain't a butter knife.

What about you? Is your hero the true leader he needs to be? And how can you be sure?

Blake Snyder offers a four-item check-list:

1. Is your hero's goal clearly stated in the set-up?

2. Do clues of what to do next just come to your hero or does he seek them out?

3. Is your hero active or passive?

4. Do other characters tell your hero what to do or does he tell them?

(And yes. I really do recommend you read the whole book. It's that good.)

No one wants to read a story with a main character who leaves us with a "what's the point of all this?" feeling. Action, fueled by clear motivation, will drive our main characters--and our readers!--compellingly through the story. We'll want to cheer for him. Because he'll deserve it.

Here's to your next, awesome, unstoppable hero!


  1. Ouch. I needed this. In fact, (insert lightbulb) this may just be the reason I got bored with my current WIP. If my heroine is so passive as to lose even my own interest, how can I ever expect someone else to be engaged?

  2. I do this in my first drafts without realizing it sometimes, especially in the first few chapters. Thanks for the reminder to make my hero take charge!

  3. Wow, I hadn't heard of this book yet, but I'll have to pick it up.

    I think an "inert" hero was the problem with my first novel. It's been shelved for a year now. Maybe I'll dust it off and take another look.

  4. I had the very same problem and have recently worked hard to overcome it. I did a Guest post last Friday on a very similar topic. Not sure if it will help, but feel free to check it out.

  5. I think a good rule of thumb is to ensure the MC has choices to make at all times, and there are consequences to anything and everything he or she decides to do. A goal is set for every chapter and one of 3 things must happen: 1) Character does not achieve goal so a new direction is needed; 2) Character achieves goal BUT it causes something else to happen that must be dealt with asap; 3) Character not only does not achieve goal, but a new complication is added to double the fun.

    Facing one of these 3 turn-of-events will keep the MC active at all times and get the plot moving as well.

  6. The man is a genius. I talked about the Snydermeister on my blog today, too! *great minds o' meter goes off*

    Sounds like you're re-energized by this revelation - good for you! So many people would be discouraged, but kudos on taking it head on!


  7. Great post, Authoress. Although whenever I read a post like this (with a specific piece of writing advice), I always start to wonder if I'm falling into the trap described. Wonder if that means I am...

  8. Oh, I agree!

    If you read through the one, two, and three-star reviews on Mockingjay at Amazon, you'll see that this lack of driving action on the part of the characters is a major complaint.

    I blogged about this several days ago. Part of what I said was this:

    But this last book was problematic because the characters didn’t act as much as they were acted upon. That was a huge departure from the first two books. In the first two books, Katniss was smart. She was thinking. She was planning. In this book she did very little. Peeta did very little. Gale did very little. Nobody really did much of anything, except die. Lots of people died. They died metaphorically and physically. If they weren’t blown up or decapitated by mutts, they were dead emotionally and mentally and intellectually. Katniss was numb clear through.

    This is such a huge thing. Books with characters that don't drive the action are boring.

  9. I like The Little White Horse and consider it a childhood favorite. I never really thought about the passiveness of the heroine. I was more taken in by the mood and setting than with her (and kinda squicked at the end by how she's engaged at like 12 and has a dozen kids or so).

    However, I do understand where you're coming from because I had the same feedback on my novel. My character was too passive, reacting and feeling sorry for herself instead and acting. In my head, I excused it as an emotional arc, and the action would come in the sequel. You can see where this is going...

    I spent the past month and a half combining the two books into one. My heroine is not passive. She's actively searching for answers, which gets her in trouble, too. I finished the draft a few days ago.

    I'm mad at myself for not seeing the major plot flaws at an earlier point. I spent a year and a half honing and perfecting something in which my character did nothing.

    It hurts, but hey, now we know and we can fix it, right?

  10. I get the feeling I do this a lot myself and just haven't been picking up on it. But, great revelation! I bet the revisions will be a lot of fun, since the added/revised scenes will be much punchier :)

  11. Oh, boy oh boy! I know exactly what you are going through! I have done the same darn thing (four novels on)! It wasn't until I had a phone consultation with Martha Alderson from Blockbuster Plots that the light bulb went off. My character was dragged along in life and didn't get out of her rut until the very end. Not a compelling read. Martha said what does your character want? What does she long for? My character really didn't want anything except to not be bossed around by her parents. so I gave my character a clear goal, but one that was difficult to attain. In the revision of my current novel I make sure she is in full story goal mode. She wants what she wants and she's going to get it, even if it means she has to lie, cheat, steal to do it. Oh, and make sure your character has an internal goal and an external goal. That will lift your book enormously.

    And good news. At a recent writer's conference I subbed the first three chapters and the editor critiquing my work asked me for a full! It's a big house too...


    PS I highly recommend a phone consultation with Martha ( She's like a literary oracle. You just talk about your story with her and she says where you're going wrong and where you're going right. She talks over plot ideas and character development. I touch base with her every six weeks or so. It's an investment in my career, that's how I look at it. After all, I'm asking a publishing company to invest money in me so I'd better start investing money in myself.

  12. great post and great point. But it made me worry a bit about my MC. I intentionally made her go along with so and so in the beginning until she finally stood up for herself and took off from there.

    Good luck with your novel. Be interested to see how you make a change and what happens from it!

  13. What a cool post, Authoress. I suppose reading a novel where the hero does nothing but have things happen to him or her would be like reading a novel written entirely in passive voice.

    It helps to have a hero who is naturally inquisitive and at least a little daring.

  14. Great topic. What if your hero evolves from inactive to active? Will the audience stay with my story, which is hard to re-write because that evolution is part of the story line? Tough call for sure.

  15. Thanks for the look into the feedback you received - it helps all of us so much!

    But as far as putting a (not a butter) knife in your hero's hand just because he needs to be doing something?


    I don't know why but this just seems unbalanced somehow. He goes from inert to violent? Why NOT just a butter knife??

    Well I'm sure you have your reasons.

  16. LOL Sharpie! Yeah, I guess that must sound REALLY unbalanced. No, it totally fits the story, I promise. And he doesn't stab anyone with it. ;)

    John K -- Good question! I think it boils down to your hero's MOTIVATION. If there is motivation behind inactivity--if he is CHOOSING the inactivity, then that is different than a hero who simply does nothing. Does that make sense? :)

  17. That's a great reminder, and now I'm rethinking my finished novel and wondering if I met all those points you listed.

    But I was trying to work on the NEXT book! ;-)

  18. Ouch from this corner, too. I just became aware of this in my novel, too, and will never let it off my radar again. After five years of revisions on the current novel, however, I have about burned out on it, so I think I'm going to have to count it as a lesson learned for the next book.

    As an aside, this is one of the things that makes me crazy about what's considered "literary" fiction. I identify a lot of "literary" fiction as essentially pointless. It's depressing at the beginning, it's depressing at the end, nothing changes in the middle.

  19. As a screenwriter, I'm very familiar with Blake Snyder. The same passive character problem exists in most first drafts of scripts as well. The side-effect of the passively written protagonist is usually a beautifully evolved antagonist. When we avoid engaging our hero, we sometimes end up falling in love with the villain, or even a different smaller character, and give them all the good stuff. That's what we did in the first draft of our Pulitzer adaptation. The bad guy and the sidekick got all the juicy choices. So, if you're looking for ideas of how to beef up the big guy, look at his supporting cast.

    Best of luck in your rewrites! Torture him ;)

  20. Oh Jeanne, that's so accurate, it's downright scary! o.o Not the villain part--mine still needs some work. But THE FAVORED SIDEKICK! I mean, I LOVE this guy. He's my favorite character! And he's, um, not the hero.

    Wow. SO glad you pointed that out!

  21. That's exactly what happened to us! Everyone who read it, said "I LOVE his sidekick!'.... and of course, I was in love with the bad boy antagonist, because who isn't :) That's when I knew we had a really big problem. No one cared if the protagonist got what he wanted, they all just wanted more air time for the sidekick. We ended up killing him - lol.

  22. It's interesting you twigged to the problem with your character when it is called "inactive" -- the classic jargon term is "passive protagonist" and I've written about how to solve that problem in one of my many posts on writing craft.

    That is one of a series using Tarot imagery to show writers how the inside of their minds work, and how to change that mental setting to solve writing craft problems.

    And the way you saw it finally, by seeing it in another writer's work, is one of the more usual ways writers learn.

    That's why writing groups can be useful (as well as encouraging laziness by too much praise for too little progress).

    If you can put your finger on why you don't like it in someone else's work, you can cure it in your own.

    I found this post on twitter Retweeted by scriptchat via @jeannevb like so:

    scriptchat #scriptchat
    RT @jeannevb: GREAT advice! #scriptchat RT @AuthoressAnon: On Passive Heroes-with real Agent Comments (gulp)

    It was the "real Agent comments" that brought me to this post.

    I wish I'd seen this before I finished my 7 part series on WHAT EXACTLY IS EDITING because you produced some excellent examples of the kind of responses a writer gets and needs to learn to interpret.

    I'd be glad if you'd drop a note with this URL on one of those posts. The 7th has a list of links to the previous ones.

    Again, thank you for this post.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  23. I'm sure I'm overlooking the obvious, but I can't figure out how to follow your blog. Any suggestions?

  24. Hi Lois! On the left sidebar under the Writer's Digest badge, you'll see the option to either subscribe via RR feed or email. You can also follow the blog via Blogger if you've got a Blogger account. I've just chosen not to display my Blogger followers (I've already got so much clutter in the side bar!)

  25. Great post! Thanks for your honesty. However, not all movies are action movies -- blockbusters aimed at the teen male demographic. Must all of our stories bear weapons, too?

    Sometimes characters have real impediments to action -- interior, exterior or both. This is part of real life, and can be dramatic. But heroes must at least make attempts to get what they want, or they will be either flat or anti-heroes. Or in a literary novel (thanks for the smile, Kathleen!)

  26. Jacqueline Lichtenberg - I'm so glad you posted. I checked out your blog and it is fascinating. I never would have found it if you hadn't spoken up here!

  27. I appreciate this post. It's all about our MC's going through internal growth. If stuff just happens to them and they roll with it, not much of a metamorphosis. That was the problem with my first manuscript in spades.

  28. It's a great post and something I've been working on as I do some revisions. I'll go to write and think "Hey, I'm making quirky sidekick do the action here and not the MC" and then rewrite accordingly. ;)

    Sounds like you've got a fire under Eric now!