At a friend’s request, I once took part in a short dancing course. Whenever we did the waltz the teacher would shout, ‘Men! Lead!’ The thing was, I think, we just didn’t want to impose.
But in popular fiction that’s exactly what the hero is expected to do. Jack Reacher comes into town, he biffs some people, boffs some others, leaves town. He is the existential wanderer, the knight of old. And it’s not just in men’s fiction. Georgette Heyer, for all of her many novels, had two male leads: Mark I, ‘brusque savage sort with a foul temper’; and Mark II, ‘suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip’. Imposers both.
The trouble is that I tend to write the main male character as a version of myself. And although I’ve had my moments, I spend a lot of time watching telly. Try this: ‘I wonder if there’s enough Nutella left to put on my crackers,’ thought Bond. He took his Walther PPK off the TV guide and flicked through the evening’s viewing.’
So, what do you do, if your main character is essentially passive? A character like Bilbo Baggins would be much happier doing nothing. Holden Caulfield wanders around being disaffected and aimless; when he acts he often does the wrong thing. Catch-22 is full of cowards, nitwits, and the like. Yossarian refuses to fight, and the message of the book is, if anything, the benefit of running away.
But a couple of things occur. Firstly, passive characters are often put into situations in which they have to act. Bilbo and his dragon; Bertie Wooster and the threat of marriage. The situation brings out dormant qualities. Secondly, that action is often ethical or compassionate. This is true of both the traditional hero and anti-hero.
Bond, for all of his shagging and kicking people in the face, is trying to save the world. Holden Caulfield, despite his confusion, would like to save young people. To act like a ‘catcher in the rye’ before they fall off the cliff into adulthood. Yossarian’s refusal to fight is a defiance of the illogic of war. Jack Reacher is trying to protect the weak by stamping on the face of the strong (and sleeping with the weak).
It is said that the theme of all Greek tragedy is, what shall I do? In a way, the challenge to a passive character is more pronounced. Bond starts with sex and violence and carries on from there. What does it take to push someone from an accepting, fatalistic attitude to an active, defiant one? When does it occur? Why does it occur? Who or what prompts it? What does he consider ethical or fair? It’s a question I’m considering the current novel that I’m writing. A passive hero and an ethical challenge.
I should say that this little formula does not easily fit all leading men. The deeper you go into literary fiction, the more likely you are to meet conflicted, confused, even unethical leading men. Think Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, John Updike, Martin Amis. Characters trying to find identity or purpose in a meaningless universe – very twentieth century. If the character wants to be ethical there is a question of where they would start, or more often a deliberate attempt to kick against an accepted order of things.
But hey, maybe that’s for the next novel.