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The 1990's Whiny Slacker Protagonist

Banes at 12:00AM, May 4, 2023

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.

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Furwerk studio at 6:14AM, May 6, 2023

I want to say Rex is a slacker, I really do but something just holds him back from being a true 90's protag but I can't put my finger on it.

InkyMoondrop at 11:25PM, May 4, 2023

I like how some (a bit more serious) films portray slacker-like characters. Not necessarily passive, but without ambitions to change in order to conform and succeed. Frances Ha comes to mind with a great female example or Inherent Vice.

acricket at 2:20PM, May 4, 2023

@Banes I saw Fandango in my college film appreciation class. There's also a slacker vibe in Dazed and Confused and sort of a spirit of reluctance toward in Reality Bites, Kicking and Screaming. But I don't think they quite meet the criteria for slacker protagonist. But there's some similar thread I will enjoy meditating on for a while.

Banes at 1:58PM, May 4, 2023

@acricket - thank you! I can think of a few high school grad/coming of age movies but not a whole lot of college ones I’ve seen. Fandango is the main one that comes to mind, from the 80’s I believe.

acricket at 11:50AM, May 4, 2023

What a great post. There seem to be a few movies of the era too about the end of college and reluctance or uncertainty around entering the world of their parents. The movies in your post are maybe more heroic because the characters almost refuse to take part in the societal expectation to climb a corporate ladder and acquire house and car payments. These moves definitely prepared the following generation for the job market we would experience post graduation.

Banes at 9:59AM, May 4, 2023

@Andreas - xD - "yes, the Newspost made it're CALLING me at home!"

Andreas_Helixfinger at 8:53AM, May 4, 2023

The Dude abides to this article, man^^👍

Banes at 6:38AM, May 4, 2023

@PaulEberhardt - Well said! I fully agree. The emo part can be grating. Much prefer the slacker hero! Wondering what they're not going to do next - haha!

Banes at 6:36AM, May 4, 2023

@bravo - on second thought, Silent Bob is kind of emo haha.

PaulEberhardt at 6:33AM, May 4, 2023

That's indeed a great example of "Know the rules so you can break them good and hard." If they're done with style, like the Dude, you more often than not get a really cool and fun character, who produces tension by having everyone wonder what they're not going to do next. Maybe I'm saying this because I prefer those where the focus is more on the slacker part than on the whiny part. Whiny, angsty emo characters tend to get on my nerves very quickly - although they can be fun when this type of person is parodied.

Banes at 6:29AM, May 4, 2023

@bravo - That autocorrect is on the ball haha. Yeah, Jay and Bob, the legends themselves! I also thought of Wayne and Garth, and Bill and Ted - but I think the lack of frustration/whininess from those characters puts them in a slightly different box. They're slacker or outsider heroes, but not emo.

Banes at 6:27AM, May 4, 2023

@marcorossi - How did I get through this whole post without using the term "emo"?? That's exactly what it is, haha. Very insightful stuff as always, thanks. It's true that the choice of passivity is a choice - this definitely plays out in the High Fidelity movie: Rob's issues, and his whole story, largely come from his passive, noncommittal way of life. That's the thing he actually has to face up to in the end.

bravo1102 at 2:43AM, May 4, 2023

And then there's Jay and Silent Bob. You'd think they'd be slackers but Jay has that sense of righteousness that sends them off to fix the world. Funny my phone's autospell prompted "and Silent Bob " after I typed Jay. :D

marcorossi at 12:47AM, May 4, 2023

On the more specific "structural" point of the active hero, I think that stories have generally an implicit moral aspect, so what is important is that what happens is a consequence of the main character choices, not that s/he is actually active. For example if the Dude more or less refuses to play the game of life with all his energies, and the other around him instead behave like crazies, but what happens in the story is a result of Dude's choice of passivity, the "moral" part of the story still works so in this sense Dude is still structurally active, even if thematically passive.

marcorossi at 12:40AM, May 4, 2023

In the nineties in Italy there was this comic called Dylan Dog (some of it was translated in English as Daryl Darko), and it was quite a cult, it reached 500,000 copies sold monthly that is super high when you consider that Italy is smaller than the USA. The hero was a detective who was always melanchonic, suffered from sea sickness and air sickness, was a former alcoholic, never carried a gun, and generally was very emo. He was also a movie fan. The comic was largely slasher horror, but the monsters often turned out to be the real victim, whereas the true asshole was some apparently upright person. This was IMHO part of the rebellion about the traditional male gender role that we see today in full bloom, even if the gender part wasn't evident at the time.

marcorossi at 12:33AM, May 4, 2023

90s, the days of the emo! I think this sort of passive guys in reality are more of a inner rebellion thing than true passivity, they basically refuse to play the macho role of the traditional hero, and in these stories the macho guy turns out to be the jerk.

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