Pixar Rules of Story #13 – Passive is Poison
Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
Rule #13 is a simple, but easily broken, rule that implores us not to write passive characters. While a passive character who has the world on her shoulders and just lets bad stuff happen may generate sympathy in an audience, that may not be enough to hold their interest. We have already seen in Rule #1: Characters you Admire, that an audience likes an active, “doing” character who faces challenges throughout their story and generates empathy and understanding.
Audiences want to see characters who hold opinions they can relate to and who are active in seeking their goals. Pro-actively facing choices and making decisions about obstacles that block the path to their goals, makes for a more interesting character and, hence, a more involving story.
It doesn’t matter whether they are even the right decisions – the protagonist (for example) will (should) be thwarted some times when making the wrong decision but that is okay – conflict creates drama and we want to see characters struggle because they have put themselves in danger, or turned the wrong corner! But we want to see them doing that, rather than having it done to them. Even characters in a film like CUBE who are passive at the start become progressively more active as they face up to their situation and search for a way out. They strike out, actively facing danger, which is much more exciting than if they just sat around waiting for something to happen.
As with any screenwriting “rule” we can break it once we are experts in order to to subvert expectations as there are always going to be exceptions to the rule. It’s a Wonderful Life’s George Bailey could be argued to be a passive character for most of the story. But I, for one, am going to try and master the art of writing active characters before challenging Capra!
So, read Rule #13, then go away and develop characters who struggle towards a goal, who actively make choices within that struggle and have opinions about their predicament. Do that and you are most of the way towards developing a compelling story. However,develop characters with little direction, no challenge, who are just along for the ride and the audience will get bored.
Are you guilty of creating passive characters?
How do you ensure your characters aren’t passive?
Feel free to comment below and remember to come back next week for Rule #14 – Theme – The Heart of your Story
Please also check out the Introduction to the series if you missed that!
(Thanks again to Alex Eylar for permission to use his great images)