Michaeline: Passive-Aggressive

The term "passive-aggressive" dates back to 1946, and has its roots in military psychology.

The term “passive-aggressive” dates back to 1946, and has its roots in military psychology.

For some reason, my Girls in the Basement have been circling around Passive Aggression lately. We’ve been gently prodding the idea with a stick, and so far the tiger hasn’t come bursting out of its cage, but a quote from Lifehacker definitely made *something* in the Basement sit up and notice.

When you finally make the commitment to attack your side hustle for real, you will suddenly find yourself deeply compelled to attend to all sorts of random things instead of your side hustle. This is the result of several factors: fear at failing if you begin, passive-aggressive resentment of all the work ahead of you, procrastinating because you’re not sure where to start. – Brazen Careerist.

“Passive-aggressive resentment of all the work ahead of you.” Well, that explains some of my procrastination habits. But the quote also got me to thinking about the uses of passive-aggressive conflict in story. Well, I had been thinking about it – some of you may remember that I mentioned in comments this week that I’d like to analyze “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a classic example of a passive-aggressive lifestyle.

And analyze it, we shall, next week when I’ve had a chance to take a good, hard look at the story. But first, this week, I’d like to take a closer look at the definition of passive-aggressive itself.

Wikipedia defines it here, and they reference Theodore Millon, who gives it four different flavors. Essentially, PA behavior seems to be anger that can’t be expressed assertively or aggressively, so it comes out sideways through catty remarks, sabotaging behaviors, or just being an obstacle to progress.

Is passive-aggressive behavior good for a hero or heroine (which is slightly different from a protagonist)? My gut feeling is no, not for romance, fantasy or science fiction. Maybe mystery heroes and heroines can get away with it. The literary genre seems to be loaded up with it up to the eyeballs. But people who read romance, science fiction and fantasy are looking for quests, and a better world. They seem to want someone who is assertive and takes steps to control his or her destiny. An arc where the heroine goes from being PA to healthily assertive might be OK, but we don’t want to see the heroine win her goals through being deceitful. We don’t want the hero to win because someone else did the hard work for him.

Or am I wrong? I would love to see the devil’s advocates come out and play in the comments. Have you got passive-aggressive characters in your own writing? Do you have a favorite passive-aggressive character in someone else’s writing?

And, stay tuned for next week when we dissect “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Passive-Aggressive

  1. I think there’s a place in romance fiction for a passive-aggressive character. I could imagine it being a sneaky antagonist, or the hero’s PA who’s secretly obsessed with him and putting a spoke in the wheel (bit obvious, I know). Maybe not impossible to make it the heroine. It’s not an attractive trait so you’d have to work to justify it, and I think she’d have to change by the end of the story. I don’t think it would do for a hero, sorry about the gender stereotyping.

    Hmm. Maybe …. let’s say ….. the heroine has always lived in some kind of desperate situation where any overt act of disagreement or resistance is punished (or better, resulted in bad consequences for other people). If she was a really strong person, then she’d find sneaky, subtle, hidden ways to fight back. Perhaps if that’s the world she’s always lived in, she wouldn’t know any other way to express her opinions, until she meets the hero who ……. pushes her and pushes her until she embraces the full force of her personality and fights openly for what she wants.

    Contemporary fiction – bullying, dominant father, heroine protecting the family. Historical fiction – easier, maybe – family again, heroine is the daughter of the house, or a governess fallen on hard times, or works in an orphanage or a factory run by a Bad Person. Romantic suspense – yes, could work. Paranormal – maybe best of all – say inter-species romance, like Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series. The heroine’s species are all passive-aggressive and the hero’s species are direct. That could be a blast as they try to figure one another out.

    What do you think? Would any of this work? It might be quite fun, if you can make the heroine sympathetic and we enjoy her clever, sneaky tactics.

  2. I like your suggestion: “inter-species romance, like Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series. The heroine’s species are all passive-aggressive and the hero’s species are direct.” Except I’d switch it around. Back in class, we kicked around an idea I had for a novel about a woman who sells sex toys on the party plan (we decided to title it Babe in Toyland). I’m thinking if she were very direct about things sexual (which she’d have to be, given her profession) and he was very uncomfortable with the topic, resulting in PA behavior, that might work in a straight-up comedy. (Yeah, not sure if this could work. I’m casting it with Katie Hepburn and Cary Grant.)

    • I like that a lot, Jeanne. MUCH more interesting the other way around. You’d need a Hepburn/Grant style combo to make it work, but it could be a lot of fun. I’d pay to watch that.

  3. The more I think about the concept of passive-aggressive, the more elusive it becomes to me. I was thinking that some of my antagonists are master saboteurs and great big obstacles to progress, but they are also assertive and taking overt actions, so does the PA definition apply to them?

    I am definitely in the camp of wanting to read about protagonists who control their own destinies. Even if they don’t do so in the beginning of the book (and really, they almost never do at that point), I want to know pretty quickly that I can trust them to start taking control, even if it’s just in baby steps.

    This post really made me think about a book I’m trying to read right now. I’m having a hell of a time connecting with the character who is finally emerging as the protagonist (which was problem number one – who the hell am I rooting for, here?). The bad guys have the real goals, and her goal is to protect/hide a child from them. While that’s not a negative goal per se, it’s definitely a reactionary one. And hiding someone is more in line with sabotaging or being an obstacle to a plan, so not feeling the proactivity with this character. Now I have convinced myself to put down that book and move onto another. That’s not to say this kind of protagonist doesn’t work for some people because it obviously does. This particular book has sold reasonably well worldwide, so it has found its reader base. I’m just not part of it.

    • One thing about the McDaniel program, we learned to spot troubled plots. I’m already yawning about that “hiding the kid” plot, which I do think sounds like a negative goal. As for passive-aggressive in general, I agree that it’s a hard characteristic to like. I always think of it as a situation in which somebody is angry or doesn’t like something, and instead of speaking up, just undermines everything. I can see this kind of behavior in a character at the beginning of the book, but they would need to get on that character arc pretty darn quick—like by page 2—for me to want to stick with them.

  4. (-: It seems so noble in a synopsis: hide the kid, protect him/her from danger! But basically, it turns the kid into some sort of object — I want to say MacGuffin, but I’m not sure if I’m using the term correctly.

    It’s deeper and richer if the heroine has a great reason (larger goal) for hiding the kid — redeeming herself if she ever let a child fall through the cracks before, or maybe saving her childhood self who was abandoned, or . . . .

    I have a problem turning negative goals into positive goals, because on the surface, negative goals seem so GOOD. So reasonable. Who wouldn’t hide a kid from the bad guys? (Well, someone who is really thinking might take the kid to child protective services, or ask the police to help.) Who wouldn’t want to stay away from a toxic mother or sister or other relative? (If you want to stay away so bad, what’s stopping you? Maybe that’s the real goal.) I wish it were easier to do, because negative goals really are only half the story.

    It takes time and thought and effort for these things to float to the surface . . . .

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