The passive characters support group

It’s a truism of writing craft that characters need to act and reveal themselves and basically fling themselves from choice to choice in order to show who they are. But a new book I’m reading has made me realize how one-dimensional writing advice so often is. I suppose the rule of active, doing, choice-making characters is valid for many books. But how come one never reads advice on how to make a main character a passive observer? Why shouldn’t writing gurus advise this occasionally?

I am wondering this because I am in the first flush of excitement over a new book with a passive observer narrator, and it is just lovely: observation after observation unrolling at a snail’s pace.

This is “A Question of Upbringing,” by Anthony Powell, book one in “A Dance to the Music of Time.” I downloaded it (yes, I now have a Kindle!) because Elif Batuman did and wrote about it, and I have been slavishly following her blog, because it has the right proportion of humor, curiosity, random association, and erudition, plus I appreciate her philosophical attitude toward life’s big and little travails.

I was a fan of Elif’s article about drunken dialing Agatha Christie on her Kindle (which led me to think about the underrated quality of coziness in literature), and upon learning that she had turned to Powell, I blindly followed her Kindle trail.

And I’m enjoying it wholeheartedly. I’ve downloaded several books that are much more pacey (an adjective I heard the cool editors use at a literary conference and now want to use myself as a way of appearing in-the-know), and find that I’m in no hurry to read them. Could it be I actually prefer snail’s-pace books with somewhat passive observers as the main characters? (Can’t be, I am, after all, the same person who also read Paranormalcy this month.) Should people sometimes think about writing observer characters?

But that would be … thoughtcrime! You can’t write a character who’s less assertive on the page than the secondary characters.

Or can you? This is where it would be so great to be someplace like graduate school again, where you can go away and tackle a question like this instead of – as I do – thinking about it late at night after writing a white paper on network security solutions.

An observer character is an interesting animal – someone whose drama is all interior, intellectual, and the meaningful action is all about a changing of perception. There’s definitely pleasure to be had in following someone like this around and seeing the world through his or her eyes. But I think you need to be such an assured, masterful thinker and prose stylist to pull this off that maybe it’s nearly impossible to do well. That may be why craft discussions steer writers the other way. The people who can do it know who they are.

At any rate, in my own writing journey I’m writing a character who acts and reveals herself in choice and (I hope) goes smartly through her paces as a well-rounded complex character with a satisfying “arc.”

But I still would love to see a workshop or a blog where someone says, you know what, it’s ok sometimes to write an observer character. Let’s study what makes them great.

You’d think there’d be room enough in the fiction zoo for characters like that.