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:
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.
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
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.
Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2010
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
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.
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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