Be active, we are told as writers; don’t say “he was walking”, say, “he walked”. Active language is more engaging, and often better paced. It enables stronger prose. It lifts your writing. By contrast, passive language slows the pace and saps excitement by using two words when one will do or placing the character in the position of the object, the thing to whom actions are done. Any writer who’s spent much time on the internet or reading writing advice books knows that (and in fact my friend Brian recently posted on this subject).
On the micro level – on the level of individual sentences and phrases – this advice is followed. On the macro level – with characters over the course of a novel – often it is not.
A passive protagonist is one who follows, who allows things to happen to them. When the adventure begins, they have no reason to leave their comfortable or at least contented existence, but are summoned, directed, ordered and manipulated into taking on an adventure. I do not refer to the reluctant hero trope here; the reluctant hero knows what he wants, namely to not get involved in the quest. A passive protagonist (I will not call them heroes) is a character who allows themselves to be guided into a quest without really deciding one way or another to get involved.
The problems with the passive protagonist are many. Firstly, from the start they do not, and have no reason, to care for the core conflict of the story; it is someone else’s battle, someone else’s ambition which directs the story, and they are swept up in it, landing one side or another of the conflict simply because of who they know or who is best at manipulating them, rather than because they have made a decision based on their own desires, dreams or beliefs. And if they do not care deeply for the quest they find themselves on, why should the reader?
Secondly, passive protagonists tend not to have strong personalities. A character driven story is driven by the personality, desires, strengths and weaknesses or its protagonist; but here the protagonist has no strong desires, what reason or means have they to drive the story? They end up pulled along by the plot instead of the other way around, and this leaves a predictable plot.
Thirdly, a passive protagonist is not a believable character. An individual has a duty to themselves to do what is in their own best interests or the best interests of their loved ones.
Now, yes, there are passive individuals in the world, people who have been brought up to be passive, people who have been conditioned to be passive, to allow others to take control of their lives. Such situations are sometimes abusive, though not always. Where the stories are in such cases, though, is where the abused leaves the abuser, where they take control of their lives back and stand up and say, “no, I’m not going to let you do this to me any more.”
The key word in the above paragraph is “stories”. We are writing stories. And in stories, readers are most interested by characters who make decisions, who take responsibility, who act and argue and defy and make mistakes – who fight for what’s important to them. Not in characters who follow and agree and do what they are told. These characters are fine in the background. They make perfectly adequate soldiers for our protagonists to lead, shop assistants for our protagonists to buy from. They’re not necessarily a bad thing in those situations (though in real life even the checkout girl and the army recruit have dreams and desires and situations they will not stand for).
But a protagonist should be the most interesting person in the story. If s/he is not active, s/he is not interesting and engaging; if that is the case, s/he is not a believable protagonist because the reader cannot believe the author picked this dweeb (yes I used the word dweeb, what of it?) to focus on.
Being an active character doesn’t mean your protagonist always does what they want to do, never listens to authority, never follows orders, never listens to other points of view. It means they think about their decisions, it means they recognise when they are in a position to make decisions and when they should cede this to someone else. It means they accept responsibility for their actions, or assume responsibility when nobody else will take it. It means they let their own goals and motivations, whether selfish or selfless, drive their actions. It means they drive the plot, and not get dragged around by it.
If a story has a passive protagonist, that doesn’t mean the story is a bad one; there are many factors involved in making a story good and if those other factors are done well then they can carry a passive protagonist; but I don’t think having a passive protagonist will do you any favours.