In rewatching some 1990's movies, I saw quite a few of these Protagonists show up - they're these disaffected types, usually quite intelligent or at least verbose, who are wrapped up in their emotions and sort of spinning their wheels in life as they analyze their problems and face the end of their teens, or maybe the end of their 20's.
There's a lot of navel gazing, and debating and philosophizing - these characters might take actions, but if those actions don't amount to much, or particularly move the plot forward, you might be dealing with this kind of passive hero.
Granted, the disaffected main character showed up before and after the 1990's, but the 90's characters have a particular flavor to them, with their wit and verbosity and how seriously they take pop culture, in the pre-Internet days. They tend to work service jobs or office jobs.
The two-or-three-shot, straight on at characters behind a bar can be a sign of a story about a passive character.
This is very much a 90's style, and I enjoyed these kinds of characters. They were very relatable, struggling with their lot in life and usually having really entertaining conversations with their friends or co-workers along the way. It can feel more like “real life” in a sense, because in real life it sometimes feels like nothing is happening.
These characters, in movies like High Fidelity, Clerks, and Beautiful Girls kind of break one of the “rules” of writing Protagonists: Main characters are not supposed to be passive. That's considered bad storytelling. It runs the risk of being annoying or frustrating to audiences. But what can I say? Sometimes it works.
I mentioned three of my old favorites. I think all of those examples are helped by their entertaining friends and cohorts. We can tolerate Dante's lameness because of his relationship with his buddy Randal, who is funny, rebellious and a contrast to Dante's normalcy. The same is true of Jack Black in High Fidelity and the more humorous buddies in Beautiful Girls. Some exaggerated personalities is a method that's used a LOT.
Movies like School of Rock (also with Jack Black) have a slacker hero who is more unusual himself (and in that movie, Jack is a slacker but he is not a passive Protagonist; he drives the story forward. Like in Office Space, these lead characters may start off passive, but they act to make things happen so are more traditional Protagonists.
Now that I think about it, maybe Dante, Rob from High Fidelity and so on DO take actions as well - but their stories are usually less plot driven and their actions lead to less obvious story progress? I also think of Sully in “Nobody's Fool” who's one of the oldest versions of these slacker heroes at about 60 years old. Of course, there's the Dude from the Big Lebowski, the legend himself. He's mostly being dragged and forced into the actions he takes. He has Walter at his side, too: the traditional pushier, more aggressive or assertive friend. The Dude was unemployed, unlike most of these types, but he did have a “job” through most of the movie, as the very reluctant detective. But he was dragged along through the story, not taking a whole lot of initiative himself.
It's not the standard approach to main characters. It's not the mainstream way. It can have less appeal to most audiences. These kinds of characters show up in independent, lower budget movies more often. This is why the 90's was such a breeding ground for them I guess, with the independent movie boom that happened then.
I think there's plenty of room for the passive lead character. There can be pitfalls, and it's considered a hallmark of amateurish writing - but it's not always. The passive whiny hero can give a voice to that part of us that feels that way sometimes. I will say that in all my examples, the main character still tends to grow up a little in the end - that's still important.
bye for now!
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Banes at 12:00AM, May 4, 2023
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