Beginning Fail #1: Passive Characters

Hey friends! 

Today I’m starting a new series. In these articles, we’ll be discussing… 

*pause for dramatic effect* 

…beginning fails! And how to avoid them, of course. 🙂  

To start off strong, we’ll be addressing the terror of all first pages: passive POV characters. 

The Curse of Passive POV Characters 

What is a passive character? 

As I see it, a passive character is one who sits by and narrates the action. She isn’t planning on intervening. She isn’t involved in the conflict. She has nothing at stake. She’s just…there. 

Starting a novel with an idle POV character keeps readers from truly getting to know her. Readers define characters by how they act. If our character isn’t moving, all readers have to go on is a bit of inner monologue.  

Making a character lazy at the start of a story isn’t a great way to hook readers, either. If our character isn’t in the thick of the action, it means she has nothing at stake. Stakes drag readers forward. Without them, our book, which may otherwise be the best on the planet, is boring.  

What is Action? 

Action can be anything from a tense conversation, a car-chase, or a full-on battle as long as there is conflict and something that stands to be lost or gained. 

Let’s pretend our story opens in the POV of our MC, Lea. She’s a manager at a nearby bank. Last week, she accidentally typed in a few wrong numbers and sent the bank into a truckload of trouble. She knows her boss will call her into his office today to fire her. She doesn’t want to lose her job, so she’s keeping as busy as possible so he won’t have the chance to call her in. 

Lea thinks her boss is going to let her go. She doesn’t want to lose her job. Therefore, she’s doing everything in her power to avoid confrontation. That’s conflict. That’s stakes. That’s interesting.  

Through this situation, we learn about Lea. We understand she isn’t the sort of person to face issues head-on. She’s someone who gets scared and avoids the unpleasant as long as humanly possible. 

Now, what if Lea didn’t mess up the numbers, and her coworker was in the fire instead? Lea’s fellow manager would be in trouble, but Lea wouldn’t care. Her job isn’t at stake. She doesn’t need to avoid a conflict. She’s an observer. Her POV won’t pull readers in. 

We Want Characters in the Middle of the Action (Sort Of) 

We want to put readers in the thick of it, but at the same time, we don’t. 

Let me explain. In our example, Lea was avoiding a meeting with her boss. This dreaded conference is the climax of all the tension in the scene. However, we don’t throw Lea into the climax right away. The opening pages are promising a future interaction, a future fight. Readers aren’t tossed into the middle of the whirlwind but are given the sense that a storm is coming. 

Just because our characters shouldn’t be passive doesn’t mean we need to start readers in medias res. We promise readers conflict without shoving them into a situation they may not understand. Giving characters time to dread the inevitable will give us a chance to set up the situation so that, when the danger comes, readers will have a better understanding of it.  

Note: Once we make a promise, we must fulfill it. Otherwise, we’re lying to readers and breaking their trust. If we threaten that Lea might get called into the office, she must be called. The clash must occur for readers to feel satisfied.  

Exceptions Exceptions 

Like practically everything in writing, there is an exception to the rule of passive openings. Some authors can get away with a complacent POV character by hooking readers with mystery, humor, etc. However, being able to grab readers by other storytelling elements as well as conflict can double the impact of a beginning.  

Adding friction to the beginning of a story is important, friends. Not only does it make readers familiar with characters, but it sets characters moving and keeps readers entertained. The rest of our story isn’t boring. Our beginning shouldn’t be, either. 

What do you think about opening a story with a passive POV character? Have you read a story that manages a passive introduction well? Have you found one that doesn’t? What other beginning mistakes do you think I should cover in this series?  

Leave your thoughts in the comments! 

The Introvert (A.K.A. Gabrielle R. Pollack)

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