When a key character in a novel is passive and/or modest, that spells trouble for the book -- right? Not necessarily.
A seemingly boring protagonist might have emotional and intellectual depth beyond what first meets a reader's eye. And we often feel empathy for a shy character, who usually has a good reason for being bashful. Even if a low-key protagonist doesn't have much dimension, more charismatic cast members can pick up the slack in a Seinfeld sort of way: Jerry wasn't always interesting on that sitcom, but his eccentric buddies Kramer, Elaine and George certainly were.
Among the novels starring an uncharismatic character is Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. We understand why Fanny Price is timid -- she's a "poor cousin" treated in a subservient way after moving into the affluent home of her uncle and aunt. Fanny also has to bear the constant gibes of another aunt -- the ultra-annoying Mrs. Norris (who later inspired the name of an unlikable cat in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series!). And Fanny is devoid of the wit Austen gave many of her characters.
But she is kind and ethical, and, as the excellent novel goes on, we realize Fanny is also intelligent and wise. Indeed, at least one edition of Mansfield Park (which I recently read after it was recommended by commenters "Kat Lib" and "henriette and hube") has back-cover copy that says Fanny "was Austen's own favorite among her heroines."
Lena Grove of William Faulkner's Light in August is a different story. She shows some gumption by traveling alone to find the man who got her pregnant, but she's mostly clueless -- thinking Lucas Burch will welcome her arrival when in fact he fled because he wanted no part of fatherhood. Lena dully and placidly lets events unfold, and the guy (Byron Bunch) who falls in love with her is semi-comatose as well.
Much of the novel's excitement is provided by livelier characters such as Joe Christmas, a mill worker/bootlegger troubled by his probable African-American ancestry in a racist South and by his surreptitious affair with an eccentric older woman (Joanna Burden).
Another thing that makes Light in August and Mansfield Park so compelling, despite some uncharismatic main characters, is that Faulkner and Austen are such amazing writers. As the cliche goes, they could make a grocery list sound interesting.
Then there's Jerzy Kosinski's Being There, which may be better known as a movie than novel. Chance the gardener in that book is a simple man who somehow gains the ill-deserved reputation as a sage of great wisdom. Chance may be boring, but the premise of the novel is not!
Another short novel, Billy Budd, features a title character who's almost spookily passive -- except for the one fateful instant when the goaded sailor lashes out. But the almost-biblical drama of the book, and Herman Melville's superb writing, carry the reader along.
The much more recent Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver includes the nice, indecisive Cub, who's way too accommodating to his bossy parents despite being an adult. He's married to the livelier, brainy Dellarobia, who wishes Cub would think for himself. Dellarobia's frustration with her husband's passivity is a key component of the book and its conclusion.
Then there are characters who, because of social norms, are passive in some situations but not in others. In The God of Small Things, the otherwise capable Mammachi docilely accepts physical abuse from her nasty husband Pappachi, but is later far from meek when going ballistic over her daughter Ammu's involvement with the kind and admirable "Untouchable" Velutha. Meanwhile, Velutha has to act meekly among the people "above" him in India's class structure, but is friendly and engaging with Ammu's twin children Rahel and Estha, who love him in Arundhati Roy's powerful novel (which I just read after it was recommended by commenter "gypsynomad").
There are few passive characters in Frank Bill's violent 2013 novel Donnybrook, which I reviewed for the May 1 edition of The Washington Post. Not the kind of book I usually read, but riveting.
Can you name some fictional works with protagonists who are docile, shy and/or boring?
Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) includes a preface by Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org.