Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Podcast Episode 9: Positive Passivity!

Hi guys! After a loooong gap between six and seven, we’re back to a good schedule now, and it’s time for number nine. Does a protagonist have to be active? James says no! ...At least, not at first.

And hey, I guess if you have a podcast you’re supposed to ask people to rate you and review on iTunes, so please won’t you rate us and review us on iTunes?


James Kennedy said...

Good Lord, Bird! Sell it more! It's not enough that you cut out my political rant from the last third of this podcast -- you put up this weak, detail-free post to promote it? I quit!!!

Matt Bird said...

Feel free to write any promotional material and I will cut and paste it into the text. This is a good one! I'm proud of it. The rant will go in our "James's Deleted Rants" podcast!

Eric C said...

Interesting discussion!

This may be getting into differences in the way agency is viewed in different cultures (something I've commented on before) but I never felt that Chihiro was particularly passive in Spirited Away.

She doesn't exactly take the initiative with ideas that entirely her own, but well, the story should be about the person who is in the best position to do something, and she's definitely that person, and her decisions about what to do affect everyone around her, even if they are mostly in reaction to the people around her.

The movie starts with her being dragged along on a family trip she doesn't seem that interested in, and her dad taking a detour she doesn't seem too thrilled by, but she puts her foot down when he decides to just eat the food he finds and worry about paying for it later - and the fact that she makes a choice to reject the guidance of her parents is the very reason she ends up being the person who is best able to shape the course of the story.

Yes, most of what she does next is following Haku's instructions, but just as she chose to reject her dad's way of vacationing when it came to other people's food, the fact that she decides to put her trust in a person who she just met who advises her to sell herself as labor to the witch who just turned her parents into livestock is a pretty big step for someone to take, not at all something that just any character would do.

She spends quite a bit of the movie following the advice of those around her, but she doesn't just do that - much like she rejected her Dad's pilfering due to her own internal values, she ignores those that outrank her at the bathhouse to take pity on no-face because of her own internal values. Dealing with no-face is then shown to be something that can go horribly, horribly wrong, and does for most of the others around her, but the same unique perspective on him that made her willing to deal with him when no one else would gives her insight into how to resolve the threat he represents in a way no one else has.

Chihiro's personality and will are decisively important to the plot, they just don't manifest like an icebreaker ship bravely setting a course through an environment that is there to be conquered, but rather in when, why, and how much she will pull, rely on, and readjust the threads in the web of relationships she has with those around her. It's a natural and relateable sort of agency for someone living in a culture that emphasizes those relationships, I think, though it is admittedly not a sort that Hollywood tends to focus on.

James Kennedy said...

I think what you're saying is absolutely cirrewct, Eric. Chihiro's personality, choices, consequences, and journey are pretty subtly handled in "Spirited Away." Imagine the wreck a well-meaning but stupid notes-giver would make of it. They'd ruin all that subtlety with their insistence on the primacy of clear heroic agency. That's why I think we need to take all these rules with a big grain of salt, and not apply them mechanically.

James Kennedy said...

Ha! "Correct," not "cirrewct."

Harvey Jerkwater said...

All of the stories you mentioned - Harry Potter, Spirited Away, Twilight, Alien - they're about characters being thrown into radically strange worlds or having their regular world radically tipped by strangeness. I think that's critical to the idea of positive passivity.

Partially this allows the worldbuilding space to happen. We see this Bold New Circumstance through the eyes of someone taking it in. You can't start mucking with the world until we know what the world is.

Also, the protagonist suddenly taking action and making big choices when he or she has just been hurled into bizarre circumstances would make the hero look overconfident at best, and more likely a buffoon.

If the story is set in a world that's quickly understood by the reader - e.g., "it's a diner in rural New York State" or "it's a temp agency in Liverpool" - then passivity is a storytelling flaw, because we don't need to be shown that world in excruciating detail to understand its rules. We expect the protagonist also knows its rules and has no reason to be passive while he or she gets the lay of the land.

Passivity in a protagonist is fine if the story has other motors to keep the reader going. Protagonist action is a great engine, but it's not the only one. However, other motors burn out a lot faster and tend to be more fragile.

James Kennedy said...

Harvey, that's a great point. It should have jumped out at me the big thing all those stories have in common: they are all more or less fantasies!

Harvey Jerkwater said...

They don't have to be fantasy, either. I'm making my way through Bleak House, and the protagonist, Esther, is pretty passive. But she's our surrogate through the funhouse Victorian England that Dickens made for us, and thus the book makes for a great read. The world she moves through is weird enough and the characters extreme enough that we don't mind Esther quietly making her way along. She's not a gripping character, but it's a gripping novel.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

"Commenters riff on the story idea rather than respond to the topic of the episode!"

To use the argot of the modern youth, "it me."

I regret nothing.

For what it's worth, I don't have anything to add to the "Beowulf with High School Football Players" idea except that applying the Matt Bird Story Structure to it, just a little, could be fruitful. What if the hero killing Grendel's Mother is the midpoint disaster? He does what he sets out to do, he wins the accolades, and it's the worst thing that could have happened to him?

Could be as simple as Grendel and his Mom "owned" the town, from a monster perspective, and with them gone, other monsters roll into town to claim the turf? Like in Ciudad Juarez, which became a nightmare war zone for years after its primary drug cartel collapsed in the mid-aughts and the other cartels tried to claim it as their own. Beowulf, who thought he could now go on and live his life, has to become a cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and George Bailey, forever battling threats to the town. The climax could be something about Beowulf either confronting the Threat Behind the Threat. Maybe he decides he has to become the new threat himself, and the price of it is horrifying?

Also, as per my usual suggestions, the story would benefit from copious amounts of nudity, kung fu, and baked goods. Show me a story where the previous sentence isn't true.

Patrick said...

Hey! Great podcast.

You know, I think you are talking about the equivalent of what is called a straight man(or straight woman) in comedy. Jerry Seinfeld for instance.

So these characters are passive so that the other characters can act as foils or in roles that are important to tell the whole story.

This is great timing for me because my next story needs a more passive hero in order to showcase the rest of a huge cast of characters. If my main character acts too soon, it doesn't allow the others to try and fail ahead of him.

Matt, I was thinking about your time travel story...what's the scifi/ science component? I'm just finishing a parallel worlds story that sort of riffs on Shrodinger's cat. Oddly it's about a kid and the antagonist is a clone made from his and his best friend's DNA. Has that been done before?

Yes and...

Matt, I think you need to Yes and...James's political rants. Or work on some better responses.James your take on the rise of anti-heroes is right on.

Here's an idea. Maybe James can be the Guinea pig (James, I know you'll be all over this one) and James, you come up with a story idea on air using your latest story writing ideas.

Then Matt, you Yes and...James. I think you guys could get a masterpiece out of it.

One more thing, the sound level was a little low on this recording. Think you can tweak it?

James Kennedy said...

Patrick, you don't know the half of it! Matt usually edits out most of my political rants, and in this episode my soaring oratory was almost completely omitted!

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