Passive Voice Hides Your Characters
by Jason Black
Ask anybody in this business whether you should use a lot of passive voice sentences in your writing, and they’ll say “No, of course not.” Ask them why, though, and you’re likely to hear only vague and useless answers, like “It’s awkward.” “It’s boring.” “It’s emotionally cold.” “It’s dry and academic.” That’s all true, but none of it helps you understand the real problem:
Passive voice hides your characters from view.
It’s really that simple. Novels are about characters doing things. Passive voice shifts the focus of the writing away from the characters and onto the things they’re doing or the tools they're using.
Don't believe me? Try the following exercise. Write a tiny scene, just a one or two paragraph description of a simple moment including two characters and a few simple actions. Force yourself to write it entirely in passive voice. Go ahead. I'll wait. Here's my example:
Bread was placed on the counter. Two slices, whole wheat. Peanut butter was spread on the left, jelly on the right. The halves were joined, and inserted together into a baggie. The sandwich, along with a shiny red apple and thermos of milk, was packed into the shiny, new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, with a folded paper towel for a napkin.
The lunchbox was handed to its intended recipient. A rosy smooth cheek was presented for an obligatory, if not entirely unwelcomed, kiss. The door was opened, and the new school year was begun.
That’s an extreme example, but I’ve seen people write like this. I’ve seen whole manuscripts written in this style. Here's the problem. Passive voice is great for saying what happened, but is absolutely lousy at saying who did it or how they did it. It hides the characters. And in doing so, it hides all the emotion. It undermines any sense of the relationships between people.
Now write it again, consciously changing the whole thing to active voice. As you write, pay attention to what's going on inside your own head.
I made my passive voice scene the best I could, adding colorful details here and there, but it's still awful. Where’s the mother’s love? Where’s the child’s mixture of anticipation and trepidation? Where are anyone’s feelings about anything? Oh, here they are, in the active voice version:
Sam watched as his mother made a PB&J sandwich. Use the grape, Sam thought. He smiled as she took the purple jar out of the fridge. She packed the sandwich into his new Lightning McQueen lunchbox, taking care that it wouldn’t get squished by the apple or the thermos of milk. She closed it with a tinny, metallic snap.
"Here you go, Sam,” she said, handing him his lunch. She bent down to kiss his cheek. Sam squirmed a little but smiled anyway. “Run and catch the bus now!” Sam held her eyes for a moment, then ran out the door to begin the new school year.
Notice, the active voice version is equally clear in portraying the actions. There is no confusion over who is doing what. But the active voice version includes warmth, life, and emotion. It is worlds better than the passive voice version.
What is most interesting to me is the source of that improvement. Did you feel it, when you wrote your active voice version? What you felt was active voice forcing your attention as a writer in a different and altogether better place: On your characters.
You probably started your active voice version like I did, attempting to edit the passive voice version sentence by sentence, changing nothing but the grammatical voice. And you probably discovered that it was impossible. As soon as I typed “Sam watched,” I stopped caring about the minutia of sandwich making, in favor of caring about what Sam was thinking, feeling, and hoping. The answer is obvious: He’s hoping his mom will choose his favorite kind of jelly.
Recognizing Sam's hope forces me to wonder about the mom’s state of mind. Because she’s his mom and knows him and loves him and wants his first day to be a good one, it was obvious to me that she’d pick the grape. Her love and concern shows in her choice, in her ability to read her son’s mind. We see Sam feel that love when he smiles about it.
With her in mind, I was also forced to consider how she packs the lunch. Again, love and concern makes her do it carefully. She doesn’t just cram it all in and slam the lid. Writing in active voice forces me to consider how—not just what—someone is doing, which in turn gives me an opportunity to show, rather than merely tell.
The simple decision to write in active voice forced me to focus on my characters. It forced me to focus on the people, rather than the objects. It’s the characters who are interesting. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t interesting except to the extent that it has anything to do with the characters.
In passive voice, the sandwich is just a sandwich. It's boring. In active voice, the sandwich shows the relationship between mother and child. That’s interesting.
People and their relationships are what we love to read and see. Passive voice writing withers on the vine precisely because it hides them from view, in favor of the entirely dull objects and events of the story.
Passive voice is lazy writing because it lets you skip the hard work of figuring out how characters feel and how those feelings shape their actions. Active voice forces writers to do that work. It forces us to focus on the interesting characters of our stories and the fascinating relationships driving them.
Jason Black is a book doctor who actively blogs about character development. He recently appeared at the 2009 PNWA Summer Writers Conference and was the featured speaker at the March 2010 PNWA members meeting. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.PlotToPunctuation.com.