Fiction Friday: Tips from an Editor – Active and Passive Voice in Character Viewpoint #writetips

Editor

In today’s Fiction Friday, I’m sharing some advice I got from my editor Rie Langdon, when she was working with me on my book, The Angel Killer. As a writer, I’m always looking for new ways to get deeper into the character’s point of view (sometimes called “Deep Voice”). Rie gave me some great tips on how to use active and passive voice to ensure it’s consistent with the character’s viewpoint. But first, I’m going to explain a little bit about…

Active vs. Passive Voice

In writing, sentences fall into two types of construction: active or passive. If the emphasis centers on the subject, the sentence is considered active. However, if the emphasis is on the object (that the action is being performed upon) then the sentence is passive.

Consider the following:

Active: Many people attended Friday night’s concert.

Passive: Friday night’s concert was attended by many people.

There are many sites out there explaining active and passive voice. As a writer, I’ve learned that active voice is stronger than passive voice, because it gives a greater sense of clarity of who is doing the action. But sometimes, the use of passive voice is helpful. For instance, passive voice can be a way to show a character’s viewpoint.

Passive Voice in Character Viewpoint

When using passive voice, consider the main character’s point of view.

When writing from the point of view of a main character, that main character would primarily use active voice to describe their own actions. They would then use passive voice to describe another person’s movements or actions being done to them. For example:

I ran my palm down the length of her arm as her fingers fiddled with the top button of my shirt.

See how, as the viewpoint character, the main character (the “I” voice) is active (“I ran my arms”) while at the same time the character speaking perceives *her* actions as happening to them, more passively (“her fingers fiddled”).

Generally speaking, the viewpoint character should be the active character within that scene.

In some cases, however, you might accidently include a phrase where the viewpoint character’s actions are described as happening to them, rather than as something they are actively doing. There are times where you want the viewpoint character to be passive in a scene… let’s say the viewpoint character is getting beaten up, for example, and then this is a great time to disembody that character’s actions:

My hands wouldn’t make fists as Karl pummeled me, and my eyes closed.

Now contrast with an active presentation:

I couldn’t make a fist to return Karl’s punches; all I could do was close my eyes.

Both are valid choices, and their difference is stylistic. Having body parts moving on their own only works in a scene where you want to emphasize the POV character’s lack of power in a situation, or if it’s an automatic response (my heartbeat raced in my chest).

Making these small adjustments, you can help convey, in a manner that is both sneaky and elegant, the deep point-of-view of a character within a scene.

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Thanks for reading! I’m always open to suggestions. If any of you know of some other uses for passive voice to convey character viewpoint, please comment below! Thanks!

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