In praise of the passive hero

Don’t create a main character who just is passive, watching the other characters without taking charge or getting things done. Also, don’t read books by two of the most famous American authors Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald because they both broke that rule in their best-selling novels. (And, don’t expect me not to be sarcastic when it comes to dealing with rules for writing.)

Melville also wrote one of the most recognizable first lines of a novel, “Call me Ishmael.” Because of this, some people are foolish enough to offer it as an example of an icon hook, the kind of phrase that draws the reader into the story so that they feel compelled to keep reading. There is nothing inherently fabulous about introducing a character by name at the beginning of the book. He could’ve said, “My name is John Smith” with the same impact.

In this same manner, Ishmael does not fit the action hero. Rather he is a very observant person. He reports on the behavior of his strange, South Sea islander roommate, Queequeg. Then Ishmael, describes life on a whaling ship until we finally get to meet the obsessed Captain Ahab. Ishmael excels at watching what occurs around him, and the story he observes is intriguing. Modern writers assume that a particularly devious and vicious villain will present a worthy challenge for the hero to combat, a fight with no holds barred. But, who exactly is the villain in Moby Dick? Is it the monstrous white whale trying to save his own life ? Or, the obsessed captain Ahab who wants to destroy the whale that sent so many ships to their doom? That complex conflict between morally vague characters is what has kept readers persevering through massive descriptive text to reach the end of Moby Dick.

Nick Carraway, the point of view character in The Great Gatsby, is another example of the protagonist who is cautious and reluctant to act. He watches the world of the wealthy and bored weaving their intrigues around him, and even gets involved in bringing Daisy and Jay Gatsby back together. In both of these famous novels, the books bear the title, not of the main character, but of the most compelling one. The protagonist is the one narrating, even though the story revolves around another more dominating personality. The main character’s internal thoughts help develop that other character into a memorable one in the mind of the reader. In a tragedy, someone has to survive to relay the story. The passive observer may be the right person to do just that.

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