I can be passive aggressive with the best of them. I can mope, make snide comments, and indirectly be an ass to someone without ever addressing the real issue. If I’m mad at you, you might not even know it, unless you’re tuned into my subtle, ninja-like passive aggressive behavior.
I grew up in a very loving, but very passive aggressive household. In a short story I recently finished, two kids are talking about their parents. Here’s a clip:
“All my parents do is scream at each other,” Collin says.
“You think that’s messed up,” I tell him, “my parents never fight.”
“What do they do when they’re mad?”
“Nothing. They’re just silent.”
“That is messed up,” Collin says.
My younger brother and I both admit that our significant others had to teach us how to properly fight and debate in a relationship. Early on in my marriage, Anna and I would be arguing about whatever, and I’d say, “Fine,” and walk out of the room.
She’d respond, “Where are you going?”
I’d say, “Isn’t this how couples fight?”
I’m getting better at staying in the conflict, but we all know healthy assertive behavior, like Rome, can’t be built in a day.
Passive aggression is the slow relationship killer. It’s like huffing cigarettes: the first few won’t kill you, but do it long enough, and you’re a dead man.
The only place more dangerous for passive aggressive behavior than a marriage is in fiction. Yeah, it’s that dangerous.
Yesterday I was giving a reading to a short story about a married couple who need to kill a tyrannous rooster named Joseph Stalin. I know, ridiculous, but stick with me. I wrote the story, aptly named, “Killing Joseph Stalin,” a year and a half ago, and it wasn’t until yesterday that it dawned on me: these characters are so damn passive aggressive. The entire drama of their relationship takes place in the subtext of what they’re saying.
It’s only at the end when the wife takes the gun, walks to the backyard, and shoots the rooster that someone acts assertively.
The biggest problem here: I didn’t know they were being passive aggressive until yesterday. That’s how deeply ingrained my passive aggression is. I’ve read this story thirty times in editing, and I didn’t clearly recognize this behavior in my first twenty-nine readings.
So why is it so dangerous to have passive aggressive characters? Good fiction is about characters having desires (however deranged they may be) and going out and actively pursuing that desire.
Imagine if Captain Ahab passive aggressively pursued Moby Dick. What if instead of yelling for the crew to drive the boat towards the beast, he made snide comments until Ishmael finally had to say, “Do you want us to go get the whale? Is that what you want, you mopy bitch?”
Or, what if Gatsby took the passive aggressive approach to getting Daisy Buchanan? I can assert with confidence that the book would be much longer than 180 pages. It would take an eternity to get to the novel’s climax if the characters passive aggressively pursued their desires.
As we’ve clearly seen here today, kids, passive aggression is a killer–both in your marriage and in your fiction. Avoid it at all costs!