Exploring the art of prose


Author: Natalie Teal McAllister

Author’s Note

There’s a war on against the passive character.

Plunge into an MFA workshop or an evening writers’ group and you will likely hear a participant suggest that the main character in a workshop story isn’t active enough. This comment will open a slew of follow-up comments, falling along a spectrum of accusations that the character in question tends to “react rather than act” or “speak only when spoken to.” Eventually, someone will suggest that the character seems to lack objective.

The fix to this workshop trope is to develop bombastic protagonists. These are people with clear visions for their futures. Oddballs with loud voices are popular, as are characters with obsessive but slightly unusual objectives. These types of characters are seemingly born of Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to have characters want something, even if it’s just to free a piece of floss from their teeth, and they are quite popular in a workshop discussion.

While it’s true that eccentric, “active” characters can carry a narrative, it is also true that in our daily lives, these people are in the distinct minority. How many of us know exactly what we want at this moment? How many of us could state our own primary purpose or objective?

Five A.M. Ravens” is a piece written for these quiet types, for the wanderers who want something, but not that thing, or the other thing either. I believe that the central conflict for many of us is our inability to control our outcomes (or to know what we want), and I believe we deserve to have our stories told, too.

With that said, I will admit that it is not easy to create propulsion in a narrative where the central conflict is the main character’s inability to act. Quiet stories like this sometimes benefit from the art of threes—in this case, the birds who are oblivious to the protagonist, the loss of the protagonist’s name (which is intentionally lost in the narrative as well), and the weight of responsibility. Braid these three components well enough, and they can add drive to a story when a character cannot.

The central idea I was working with here was how we can be swept up, or perhaps swept away, by forces beyond their control. In this story, that force is the first year of motherhood, when women are faced with so much change that it can be difficult to navigate identity, desire, exhaustion, and worth. To return to the working world after having a baby is to find the world has moved on without you—perhaps the world you believed you belonged to never needed you at all.


NATALIE TEAL MCALLISTER is a fiction writer by night, marketing director by day, based in Kansas City. Her short fiction appears in Glimmer Train, No Tokens, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pigeon Pages, Midwestern Gothic, and CHEAP POP, among others. Natalie is also a two-time Tin House Summer Workshop participant, where the ravens woke her every morning.