Would You Like a Side of Kick-Ass with your Protagonist?

by K C Maguire

I’m always harping on this so excuse me if I’ve harped on it here before, but I keep getting myself into a feedback loop when writing, particularly when writing for younger audiences, about just how kick-ass my protagonist has to be. I’ve been to plenty of writing workshops where we’re told to avoid “passive” protagonists and to make sure our main characters are quirky and active, but that’s sometimes a problem for me because I (like many writers) am a bit of an introvert and find it harder to relate to active protagonists. Even as a reader I actually like quieter characters a lot of the time. I don’t need my main character to be kicking literary butt in order to be engaged in her story.

I also get a little confused about what folks mean by “active” versus passive. Sometimes I think folks who talk about active protagonists really do mean physically active (think black belt) but sometimes I think they actually mean that the character has agency in her own story – it’s the character herself that makes things happen rather than simply being drawn along by the story.

Thinking about some big hits in the young adult space in recent years, I’m having trouble classifying some well known and well loved heroes and heroines as active versus passive under either definition.

For example, Katniss in The Hunger Games definitely kicks butt (including killing other kids in the Games), but she’s really reacting to a situation imposed upon her. She reluctantly enters the Games in the first book, doesn’t expect to win and certainly doesn’t expect to become the face of a revolution.

And what about Harry Potter? He finds out that he’s a wizard and is whisked off to wizarding school, reacting to circumstances along the way simply to keep his head above water. He doesn’t go to Hogwarts with all sorts of plans and plots in mind (Draco does though!) but he kinda goes with the flow.

And I won’t even mention Bella in Twilight …

What do you all think about the distinction between active and passive protagonists? What does an active protagonist mean to you? How important is it that your protagonist be active to have an engaging story?

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