Active: Thomas from ‘The Maze Runner’ written by James Dashner
Passive: Aurora from ‘The Sleeping Beauty’
(Too easy, I literally picked a character whose biggest action within her own story was to fall asleep! Yep, I am killin it!)
Okay, so if you are not familiar with The Maze Runner, a Young Adult book series written by James Dashner turned fairly successful, and surprisingly fun, movie franchise, it is about a boy who wakes up in a box and then pops up into a random field filled with other boys. As soon as the main protagonist, Thomas, arrives in that little field, with no idea who he is, why he is there or what is going on, he is active. Immediately he questions the rules and then flat out breaks them, setting off a chain of events that basically leads to the big blow-out at the end of the book/film, with Thomas driving the plot the entire way.
In The Sleeping Beauty, a Disney film made way back when, long before the Disney golden age of the 80s and 90s saw our heroines becoming awesome, Aurora spends the movie being pretty, singing with birds and falling in love at first sight. Then she goes to sleep and is rescued by her prince. So what did her actions and choices affect? That’s right! Absolutely nothing. Aurora’s plot happened to her.
But I think it’s kind of more complicated than that.
I don’t really think that a character who doesn’t single handedly solve all their problems themselves, should straightaway be classed as a passive character. And I don't think a character is passive just because they do not have any impact on the outcome of their story either.
Sometimes life just works that way.
Sometimes we don’t have an impact. Sometimes we do need to be saved. Sometimes everything goes wrong and we end up exactly where we started.
So I think an 'active' character, for me, just refers to a character that makes choices within your story, though the outcomes of those choices don’t necessarily need to drive your plot, or even make a difference at all.
To explain what I mean let’s have a look at the excellent movie 'Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark'.
It is well known that despite Indiana’s efforts throughout this totally epic movie, he basically has little to no effect on the outcome of his story.
Sure he steals the gold statue artifact at the beginning of the film, but he gets it stolen away from him in turn.
Yeah he looks up his old flame, Marion Ravenwood, to find her map to the Ark's hiding place, only for the Nazis to turn up and get enough of the map to lead them to Egypt anyway.
In fact, if Indiana hadn’t gotten involved with the Ark at all, the only thing that would have changed is that the Nazis simply would have dug up their prize a whole lot sooner. That is basically Indiana’s only impact on the plot. He doesn’t drive that story anywhere. In fact, without his involvement, the Nazis would have died a whole lot sooner, consumed by the power of the Ark.
Except Indiana Jones definitely isn’t a passive hero. He is literally one of the coolest heroes out there.
He is amazing.
The Indiana Jones example makes me think that a passive protagonist is simply a character that makes no decisions, being buffeted around by external influence throughout a story. Indiana Jones makes decisions. He makes heaps of them. His decisions don’t do much of anything, but the guy really tries, and I think that could be what makes the difference.
So to sum it up, I think my takeaway from this idea is this:
Make sure your protagonist makes decisions.
Essentially I think that is maybe the core answer to this whole debate. Your protagonist has to make choices. Everything else just runs off from that.
If your character makes choices, then the reader gets to understand a little bit more about who they are as a person through the decisions they make, providing character depth. If your character makes choices then they face consequences, which will always lead to something new. If your character makes choices, then they are moving forward, no matter where that leads them.
Even if your character makes a decision not to act, at least it is still a choice!
Now to finish with a quote. Funnily enough, this quote is actually a self-improvement one, but it kind of makes sense for writing characters too, I think.
In my opinion, this quote explains the exact reason why everyone wants to write 'active' protagonists, as opposed to 'passive' ones.
'The truth of your character is expressed through the choice of (their) actions.'
Dr Steve Marabol