A Passive Character That Works

I watched About a Boy recently and it struck me that Will, played by Hugh Grant, is a passive character for most of the movie. In writing books we’re told that passive characters aren’t acceptable. A character has to be active for a story to be interesting. In this movie, though, it works because Marcus, the boy and other main character, is active. He makes things happen.

At the beginning of the movie a friend sets Will up on a blind date. She’s a single mother but she’s not interested in a long term relationship. Will thinks single mothers are the way to go. They offer sex without wanting the messy love stuff and commitment. He invents a kid and joins a support group for single parents in order to get a date. That’s the only action he takes for most of the movie. But that action does set the story in motion. He goes on his date and meets Marcus. Hugh’s date has brought Marcus along as a favor so her friend (Marcus’ mom) can have a break. Afterwards, when they return Marcus home, they discover his mother has attempted suicide. At the hospital Marcus decides one person in your life isn’t enough. You need backup. So he decides to involve Will in his life. Through his relentless pursuit, Marcus makes Will his confident.

Will and Marcus both meet girls. For Marcus it’s an older girl at school. For Will it’s a single mother. When she mistakes Marcus for his son, Will doesn’t correct her. He wants to get to know her and he knows connecting through their sons is the only way she’ll give him the time of day. He enlists Marcus’ help. But Marcus counsels honesty. Eventually he convinces Will, who now wants love and commitment. Up until this point, Will has pretty much let life, and Marcus, pull him in whatever direction they chose. Now Will has decided to take action. He wants the type of relationship Marcus has taught him about so he confesses the misunderstanding. It backfires and he loses the girl. Will is now in a funk and he slips back into being a passive character. Clearly being active isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The moment he tried to get what he wanted it blew up in his face. During this time Marcus’ mother has slipped back into a depressive state. Marcus is frantic. He doesn’t know how to help her. He turns to Will, but Will blows him off. Marcus yells at him and leaves determined to find some way to cheer his mother up.

Will does some soul searching and he realizes he does care for Marcus. And since the person Marcus cares about is his mother, he has to do something. He goes to see her and asks her not to kill herself, in the most embarrassing way, of course. This is a romantic comedy. But the important thing is that Will becomes active at this point. He talks to the mother. From her he finds out that Marcus is going to perform at the school concert. He’s going to sing because he thinks it will help his mother feel better. Will, though, understands Marcus is about to commit social suicide. They race to the concert. There Will runs into the woman he loves. Her son is also performing. He excuses himself to her and goes backstage to talk Marcus out of performing. He tells him you can’t make other people happy. You have to look out for yourself. Marcus tells him he’s tried looking out for himself, and it doesn’t work. You need other people to make you happy. He steps out onto the stage and begins to sing. Will grabs a guitar and joins him. Because they both risk everything, Marcus to save his mother, Will to save Marcus, they earn their happiness at the end. Will’s action convinces the woman he loves that Will’s a good guy. Marcus and his mother have a better understanding, plus he now has backup in Will.

I think Will’s passivity works because it’s balanced by Marcus’ action. Plus they are dual main characters. It wouldn’t work if the main character was passive and a secondary character was the active one. Then people would wonder why the secondary character wasn’t the main one. Having one character force another character into action can work. Just make sure the balance is right between the characters and that the passive character becomes active at some point.

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