The Passivity Solution

This week we start the many questions that came in when I asked for help restocking my list. Thanks again for the big response! The first one came from Michelle Dyck on July 23, 2014: This last week I’ve been reading over a novel I wrote three years ago. It’s book two in a series, and when I wrote it, I thought it was fabulous. Not anymore! The thing is chock full of inconsistencies, plot holes, convenient solutions, and leaps of logic (all of which I plan to fix).But one problem that’s bugging me is how passive my two MCs are. In book one, they take charge and go on a quest to save a nation. They’re independent and make their own decisions. Circumstances in book two, however, find these teens in the company of several adults. Because my MCs are respectful of authority, they wind up playing follow the leader a lot of the time. And as much as the adults in the group deserve that respect, I don’t want my heroes just tagging along for the ride. Any advice?

Let’s assume we need these annoyingly sensible grown-ups in our story, so we can’t kill them off or have them be kidnapped. What are some other possibilities?

Suppose our MCs, Adele and Beau, and three upstanding grownups, Caryn, Dennis, and Enola, are being pursued by the evil queen Francesca and a dozen of her henchpeople, who intend to torture information out of them, because each of the five good guys knows a crucial piece of a whole that will either save or destroy the future child king. The pursuit is taking place in mountainous terrain, and winter is coming on. If our heroes are trapped on this side of the pass, all is lost.

Here are eleven ways to allow the kids to be more active:

• We can give them special skills that the adults don’t have, and we can make those skills essential for success. Adele is a skilled mountaineer. Beau is a spelunker, and these mountains are full of caves and tunnels. The others may be great at swordplay or withstanding torture or planning, but when the kids’ skills are called for, the grownups have to stand back.

• The teens can discover abilities they didn’t know they had. They’re attacked by the bearions from a previous post (a cross between a lion and a bear that carpelibris drew), and Adele turns out to have an uncanny talent for predicting the creatures’ next moves.

• Caryn, Dennis, and Enola can regard themselves as teachers, or can actually be teachers. Adele and Beau have to be given a chance to act and make mistakes, so the adults defer to them. Of course, the problems have to be real. When the kids do make mistakes, everyone has to live with the consequences, or the tension is gone.

• We can include Adele’s and Beau’s thoughts, which, even if they’re not doing much, will make them seem more active to the reader. They listen to the adults but disagree in their thoughts. And they worry, which always ratchets up suspense. This strategy may not be enough to solve the passivity problem, but it will help.

• There can be more than one approach to a crisis. Beau argues his and is convincing. His plan is adopted. The adults take the lead in carrying it out, but he still feels responsible. Or, his plan includes crucial roles for himself and Adele.

• The adults deserve respect, but they can’t be perfect, because no one is. Caryn has asthma, which is worsened by altitude. In these mountains she needs the help of the teens to keep up with the others. Dennis is cautious, even in situations that require boldness. Adele discovers that if she’s subtly reassuring, he moves forward. Enola has no sense of direction. When she’s alone with Beau or Adele, the youngster has to keep them from getting lost.

• Adele and Beau can each have flaws and virtues that get them into trouble, and getting into trouble isn’t passive. For example, Beau is impulsive, and Adele is loyal. When Beau slips off to try some ill-considered approach to the problem that’s threatening everyone, Adele goes with him. They create a situation that they then have to get themselves out of while the adults are back at the campsite, fast asleep.

• We can create a temporary separation. For instance, supplies are low, so Caryn and Dennis go off to hunt, while Enola looks for a source of fresh water. They tell the teens to stay at the campsite. While they’re away, three of Queen Francesca’s people discover the camp and attack. Adele and Beau are on their own.

• Size, agility, and youth can make Adele and Beau the best choices for certain actions. They have to do them solo or duo, and the adults have to wait on the sidelines.

• We can use simple physical placement. Adele is in the path of a rockslide. Or Queen Francesca’s henchperson sneaks into the camp in the middle of the night. He captures the one on watch, who happens to be Beau.

• Queen Francesca, who is not stupid, can realize that the young people are the key to her evil designs. They’re less experienced than the adults and more prone to making mistakes. Moreover, the grownups will be less likely to sacrifice a teen than one of themselves. They may even be foolhardy in their attempts at a rescue. The kids, therefore, are the focus of their attacks. Sometimes the adults save them, but often Adele and Beau have to act for themselves and even make split-second decisions for the whole group.

Naturally, these prompts come from the post:

• Write a scene that reveals the child king and shows why he is beloved and why he’s the hope of the kingdom.

• Our five heroes are gathered around their campsite at night. They don’t know how far away their pursuit is, although they’re safe for the next few hours. They need to plan their actions after that. Write the dialogue, revealing the characters of each and their strengths and weaknesses. Include the thoughts of the two teens as the discussion progresses.

• Queen Francesca and her company are at their own campsite, planning their moves for the next day. Reveal her character and the characters of two important members of her bunch.

• Create a scene from one or more (or all!) of the situations in the bullets above. If you like, continue and write the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. This is a fantastic post!! I didn't realize why one of my stories was struggling, until it hit me that the characters were too passive! Thanks so much!!!! I also love the prompts 🙂

  2. So many ideas! Wow! I would also add that the adults, though they're technically on the same side as the kids, can also be antagonists: if they don't believe something the kids are telling them; if they are making decisions based on different priorities than the kids'; if they choose a path that is safer for the kids' sake but will ultimately make the whole mission fail. Remember the scene in Prince Caspian when Lucy was the only one who could see Aslan, and she couldn't convince her older siblings that they should follow her?

    Your discussion of the flaws of adults is particularly interesting, and it reminded me of a military sci fi series I just read where the protagonist is a non-commissioned officer—in charge of all the enlisted men but lower ranked than the lowest officer. A great deal of the plot and character development involved Sergeant Kerr allowing the officers to lead while making sure they did what she wanted them to do. (Tanya Huff's Valor series)

  3. So I'm having a problem with one of my MC's…I loved his character when I first invented him, but since then have revised my story and added in tons of secondary characters but his character traits have been completely lost. I love all of my secondary characters, each of which have personalities, quirks, flaws, etc., but my MC feels like a blank slate and I'm completely stuck. I filled out one of Gail's character questionnaires (which I LOVE), but his was very empty, and I am tearing my hair out!! Any ideas on how to add character? All I know is that this character is protective of his family–but I'm also not sure how to show that without making him bossy or cliche. Any and all thoughts are appreciated 🙂

    • Well, in one of my stories, one of my MC, Cherish, has an older brother (Ambrose Alexander, aka Alec) who is her legal guardian, because their mother died. Alec is in his twenties and Cherish is only sixteen and blind. Alec is very protective of her, because she is family and he loves her. He stands up for her when she's being teased (He even offers to hold one guy who made fun of her name so she could hit him) and, because she's blind, he does her shopping for her and even does her hair for her (He got a lot of books from the library to learn how, and Cherish gets lots of compliments on her hair). He is always there for her and puts her ahead of himself. That's kind of what it's like for me. I'm the oldest and I'm protective of my family, and that means taking care of them and putting them ahead of myself, straightening out the difficulties and doing things for them that they can't do. And standing up for them when they need it. That's what being protective means.

  4. Wow, what fantastic advice 🙂 nut something I've thought about a lot!

    Also, I wanted to share: there's a new type of chain post going around Facebook. You list ten books that have influenced you and started with you in life, then tag ten people and challenge then to do the same. I rarely do posts like that (I'm not a huge chain mail fan) but since it's books I thought it'd be a fun one. Ella Enchanted was the very first book on my list– it's the very first book that I loved and a huge reason I'm such a big reader today. What I really thought was cool, however, is that of my many friends who have also been posting their ten books, the vast majority also have Ella Enchanted listed. I just thought it was neat just how that book has been such an important part of so many different people's lives 🙂

  5. Thank you so much for this post, Mrs. Levine! The story with those passive MC's has been waiting on the backburner since I asked that question, which means I haven't dealt with the passivity problem yet. Your post is an immense help! So many ideas that I can use throughout the book. I can't wait to start dreaming up ideas based on your list (and I even took notes). 🙂

  6. I haven't commented on here in forever (technically not forever, I know, but it seems like it). I haven't written AT ALL since the spring because I have a horrible case of writer's block, but I have still been reading all your posts. I especially liked the one about writing humor; I've never been one to tell jokes, so it helped. I've noticed that in real life, and in my stories, the only jokes I seem to make are inside jokes (you know, the kind that are only funny if you were there at the time or if you read the book). When I start writing again (if I ever do) I will definitely be rereading that post.

    Anyway, I just wanted to say even though I haven't been writing anything, or commenting, I haven't missed a post. Thanks, Gail!

  7. I'm still trying to draw a decent-enough bearion to share here. (Is there even a way to do that?) I'll admit that the little guy gets cuter with every attempt, but while I can get the head right, without those bearish hindquarters he looks mostly like a brown lion. Oh well. Maybe I should just go write something. 🙂

  8. I have a blog, but it's not set up yet (I'm refraining from doing that until my book is closer to publication). And I have a question: do I own the rights to anything I post on my blog? For instance, if I post a poem or snippet of story, it belongs to me and can't be copied by someone else, right?

  9. Not legally, I don't think, but people do it.

    One thing to remember is that if you post a story on your blog, you're giving up your First Rights. That's what most editors want to buy, so you'd have a very hard time selling your story later.

    • I'm with carpelibris. For those who don't know the lingo, first rights would be first publication rights, that is, the first time a story, novel, essay, poem has been made available to the public. By putting one of these on the internet, we are doing that: in effect, we're self-publishing. A small excerpt from a much longer work, however, probably won't trouble a publisher.

      About copy protection, my words on this blog are protected. However, I'm making my prompts available to you. You can use them in your stories without fear. A lot of the point of this blog is for you to use them (and have fun and save what you write!).

  10. I really liked this post Mrs. Levine, it's great, AND it also helps some with my parent problem. Thanks a million! This week's question is…How do you make character's develop well? I mean, I have this guy, his name is Rhydor (until further notice anyway, I'm not sure if it's a good enough name) and he is a bit of a…difficult character, if you know what I mean. He's a moody, arrogant boy, proud of himself, even if there is very little in his character to be proud of. He's lazy and a terrible swordsman, so his dad, (Cyneric) the leader of Rhydor's clan sends him to an old friend of both Cyneric's and Rhydor's uncle Bryndor who is called Kari-Tava, the queen of the Skadeel Khadir (dragon slayers). Cyneric begs Kari-Tava to take his son and make a man out of him, because he (Cyneric) has had a hard time of it and is needed elsewhere what with his being in the middle of a war and such and the leader of his clan. He has to be gone most of the time, leaving him little time to spend with his son, and he daren't take Rhydor with him into battle because Cynereic's sister has pampered Rhydor and he has very little training, though his uncle Bryndor tried to teach him to use a sword (and failed, I might add. Rhydor didn't want to learn and Bryndor didn't want to discipline him without Cyneric's consent). Kari-Tava accepts the challenge. And now I have to make a man out of Rhydor. How do I go about doing this? I've placed him in good company (Kari-Tava and the other Skadeel Khadir) I've given him work to do (lots and lots of training, mostly with the sword and hand-to-hand combat) to make him strong and teach him perseverance. I've given him an enemy (also the enemy of his clan and of the Skadeel Khadir). I've given him a few new friends and an animal to take care of. What else can I do to turn him into a worthy character? Any ideas on how to develop his character? Thanks.

    • I love that story, Elisa!!!! Something I think might be helpful is to give Rhydor something that makes him want to change–people can try to force him all they like, but in the end what is it that motivates Rhydor to want to change? I hope everything works out!! I'm absolutely in love with your story!! 🙂

    • I want that book. I really want that book.

      Maybe Rhydor has the seeds of change already. It sounds like he comes from a clan that may not be all "GRAHH Warrior!" but at least is battle-competent. Is it possible that, despite his arrogance, he's not totally happy with his pampered self?

      And this is getting a bit brutal, but you could always kill the dad. (Or at least seriously injure him.) Nothing like saying 'you need to lead your people right now' to jolt someone out of their apathy.

      Over all I think you have everything in place to make a man out of a brat. What you need is an epiphany moment, get him working on his own improvement.

      On a totally unrelated note, do the Skadeel Khadir actually slay dragons here and now, or is their title symbolic/legendary?

      See what you've done? Now I'm all curious. *sulks*

    • Thanks Kenzi Anne and Klondyke! Yeah, Rhydor would definitely have to WANT to change. And if Cyneric is injured would definitely make Rhydor more susceptible to the change that would already be happening inside. In answer to Klondyke's question about the Skadeel Khadir: It's a bit of both, actually. In past times (approximately two-hundred years ahead of my setting) the Skadeel Khadir were known as the absolute 100% best dragon slayers on the earth. And then there was an alliance between the dragons and southerners, and most of the Skadeel Khadir were wiped out. Kari-Tava was the last of her particular clan of Skadeel Khadir when she was found by Cyneric and Bryndor, who sought to slay the dragon that had driven their clan from the mountains. She later went on to scour the land looking for her kin, bringing them together again. At the time of my story, there are enough of them that they have started slaying some of the dragons that live near the base of the mountains, and planning the conquest of the dragons that are congregating in the mountains highest reaches.

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