British Comedy Guide

Why not a passive protaganist?

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Paul Wimsett

  • Thursday 23rd January 2020, 1:05pm [Edited]
  • Folkestone, United Kingdom
  • 3,379 posts

Apparently a number of scripts are failing in the BBC Writers Room because they have a passive protagonist, things are just happening to the person they aren't taking action. As someone who things just happen to in life I'm just wondering what's wrong with using this type of character? (I remember having a script which was full of these characters, they were narrating an event and didn't notice that things weren't happening in the way they said they were.)

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chipolata

  • Thursday 23rd January 2020, 2:12pm
  • England
  • 30,067 posts

Interesting. Although if things just happen to a character and they passively accept it there's no drama or conflict to drive the story and make you engage with the characters.

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Crindy

  • Thursday 23rd January 2020, 4:12pm
  • England
  • 116 posts

I guess by definition, a truly passive character would be someone that didn't really ever want or need anything, and never made any effort to do anything. That sort of character fundamentally doesn't sound very interesting.

But it's often fine for a protagonist to be reactive rather than proactive, and for them to wander into a situation not of their own making. Even not wanting to be a part of whatever is happening is still a goal that requires them to take action to achieve, and one that can be further thwarted by the actions of others.

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Paul Wimsett

  • Thursday 23rd January 2020, 4:18pm [Edited]
  • Folkestone, United Kingdom
  • 3,379 posts

Surely you can question things and remain passive? And blindly ignoring something does create conflict, as well as humour.
Leaving the situation or attempting to leave must be active, I'm guessing?

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Crindy

  • Thursday 23rd January 2020, 4:53pm [Edited]
  • England
  • 116 posts

I mean, if ignoring something creates conflict, you could argue it counted as an action in and of itself. If the protagonist is sitting on the sofa watching Loose Women when their flatmate bursts in to tell them a flying saucer just crashed at the end of the street, and the protagonist ignored them because they were watching TV, that's not necessarily passive, it's just that their goal is to sit around watching Loose Women, rather than to board a crashed alien spacecraft.

From what I've heard and read elsewhere, when the Writers Room and other contests complain about passive protagonists, it's more about them being sent 600 of those pilot episodes where the protagonist shows up for their first day at work/school/university/prison/wherever and just spends the whole episode wandering around meeting people, without any wider desire or aims or ambition other than methodically introducing the audience to the rest of the main cast of the show. Which, full disclosure, is the plot of about 62% of all the pilot scripts I've written.

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chipolata

  • Thursday 23rd January 2020, 5:50pm
  • England
  • 30,067 posts

Plot should be character driven, and passive characters aren't going to drive it. Passive can work in supporting characters, but in central characters you really need something that drives them to do things (jealousy, greed, etc). But I'd be interested to hear of any TV shows or films with truly passive protagonists.

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Lazzard

  • Friday 24th January 2020, 9:45am
  • Ludlow, England
  • 4,647 posts

Truly passive characters are pretty rare and probably quite hard to write (why would you?).
Commissioners are not a subtle breed and when they say passive they probably mean not active or shouty enough 'for them'.
Also saying the protagonist is too passive is quite a good 'Get out of Jail' card, and a lot less distressing than having to tell a writer their script is boring.

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chipolata

  • Friday 24th January 2020, 11:46am
  • England
  • 30,067 posts
Quote: Lazzard @ 24th January 2020, 9:45 AM

Truly passive characters are pretty rare and probably quite hard to write (why would you?).

The film Never Let Me Go is filled with them. They drive me mad with their passive acceptance of their horrible fates.

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Lazzard

  • Friday 24th January 2020, 1:28pm
  • Ludlow, England
  • 4,647 posts

Classic example of why novels often make dull films - especialy iIshiguro novels - "Remans of the Day" didn't exactly barrel along.

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Paul Wimsett

  • Saturday 25th January 2020, 11:48am
  • Folkestone, United Kingdom
  • 3,379 posts

Hopkins was a butler; they're not known for their dominating personalities. Even Jeeves has to wait until someone comes to him with a problem (I know, he's a valet.)

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chipolata

  • Saturday 25th January 2020, 5:11pm
  • England
  • 30,067 posts
Quote: Paul Wimsett @ 25th January 2020, 11:48 AM

Hopkins was a butler; they're not known for their dominating personalities. Even Jeeves has to wait until someone comes to him with a problem (I know, he's a valet.)

You've thrown the gauntlet down with this one! I'm thinking Edmund Blackadder the Third was a plot-driving butler.

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Paul Wimsett

  • Saturday 25th January 2020, 9:09pm
  • Folkestone, United Kingdom
  • 3,379 posts

Oh and Alf Stokes from You Rang M'Lord moved the plot along too.

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Patrick Robinson

  • Sunday 26th January 2020, 12:03am
  • Birmingham, United Kingdom
  • 126 posts

Just for discussion:

Possible passive protagonists:

1. Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?
2. Vince written and played by Sean Lock in 15 Storeys High?
3. Dalai Lama in his cameo in Hollyoaks.
(Made one of them up).

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Alfred J Kipper

  • Sunday 26th January 2020, 9:17am
  • Aldershot, England
  • 6,093 posts

Shelley enjoyed 71 episodes avoiding doing anything as much as possible. Maybe this is the key to sitcom Protagonist longevity. Manic non passive protagonist Basil Fawlty was burnt out after 12. Text books shmext shmooks, who needs 'em?

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Lazzard

  • Sunday 26th January 2020, 11:42am
  • Ludlow, England
  • 4,647 posts
Quote: Alfred J Kipper @ 26th January 2020, 9:17 AM

"avoiding doing anything as much as possible"

Actively avoiding...
Stuff happened to Shelley as a consequence of his actions.
If someone says your character is passive they probably mean he's boring - they just don't want to sound judgmental.
Which is a crime these days, apparently.