In today’s post the use of passive voice will be discussed. Passive voice is used often by people, even though it is also quite criticized, especially when it is used in fiction. However, I find that many people have not been made aware of the construction of passive voice. So, passive voice will be discussed by me today.
Passive Voice vs. Active Voice: a Matter of Perspective
Often when we write, we focus on a single character and her actions. What is she doing? How is she reacting? We want to create an environment where readers can SEE the character in their own minds. We want them to empathize—to travel with the character and feel with the character.
Most of the time, this is accomplished through Point of View (something that has been discussed a lot on Magical Words). We write in First Person (I do something) or Very Close Third Person (She does something). This often leads us to begin our sentences with our protagonist. For example: (This excerpt opens “Fair Play,” by John G. Hartness, found in Big Bad: an Anthology of Evil, volume one, 179. As an aside, Big Bad II will be out on February 24, with stories from Magical Words bloggers Misty Massey and D.B. Jackson (David Coe), as well as stories from other MW alums!):
There she goes, Herman Walker Jones thought as he watched the girl’s ass sway under her plaid miniskirt. He could almost see the curve of her cheeks as she walked, the skirt was so short. She’s the one.
I’ve marked all the main verbs here. Notice how each of them is an action, and each action is being performed by the subject of the sentence or clause, which comes before the verb. (The one exception is the first sentence, which is called a “cleft” structure. Melissa or I will deal with “cleft” structures—starting a sentence with “there,” like this one, or “it,” like “It was a dark and stormy night.”) These are all Active Voice. The subject of the sentence is performing the verb. The verb is active.
Passive Voice allows us to express that the subject of the sentences is receiving action. Rather than doing, they are being done to. Passive voice is always expressed with a form of the verb to be: am, is, are, was, were, been. So, a passive verb will always have AT LEAST two parts.
We use passive voice when we want to focus on what is being done to the person, place or thing, and still keep the focus on that subject, rather than the person or thing doing the action. So, another example from John (182):
[Herman] was blindfolded, gagged, and tied to a chair. He couldn’t move his arms, and his legs were bound at the ankles.
Here, the sentences have two examples of passive: “was blindfolded, [was] gagged, and [was] tied.” (I’ve put the “was” in brackets because it carries over to every verb in that sentence.) The second passive example is “were bound.” In between the two is an example of active voice again. Notice how in both passive examples, we don’t know WHO did the action. We know that Herman got the action, but not who did it. Of course in the context of the story we know, but grammatically, the doer of the verb is missing. It can be supplied with a “by” phrase. “Herman was blindfolded by that crazy woman,” for example. But with passive voice, the interest is in the object of the verb: whatever is taking the action.
Another way of thinking about it: Passive Voice can take any sentence with a direct object and make that direct object the subject of the sentence. So, using the example above: “he watched the girl’s ass… We can covert this into “the girl’s ass was watched…” Now, of course we wouldn’t, because it sounds ridiculous and it doesn’t fit the voice of the story.
Passive voice can be used to great effect, especially when we want to put the focus on a subject at the hands of something else. For example if we want to show the focus of a character:
Julie saw the book on the table from across the room. She crept up to it, reaching out. Her fingers almost brushed the page. The book was snapped shut. Startled, Julie looked up into the face of her professor. “That’s for seniors only,” he said.
Not great writing, but hey, I made it up as I went along. The fourth sentence is passive. Julie is focused on the book, so, to her perception, the book closes. She doesn’t see the agent, noted in the following sentence, until after the action is complete. By using passive voice (the book is being done to), I can keep the focus on Julie’s attention. If I mention the professor before the book, then her attention has already been drawn away. You could render it in active, with “the book snapped shut,” but the problem there is that the book now reads like it has agency. Like it shut itself, which isn’t what happened in this case, and might be confusing.
Many folks will advise writers to stay away from the passive voice because of “show don’t tell” and for the sake of an active protagonist. If there is a lot of passive voice, you can create a whole event with no clear agent and with distance from the character. And, indeed, passive voice is not something that readily works in action scenes. It is much more dramatic, perhaps, to say “Bob threw a punch and hit her in the face,” rather than “A punch had been thrown and she was hit in the face.” If you know the agent, and the agent is present in the scene, doing the action, then active voice is often the correct choice. But every now and again, passive lets the author shift focus and express uncertainty (“the gem was stolen” works when no one knows who took it!), or convey information when no agent is needed (modern toothpaste was invented in the nineteenth century).
So: Active Voice: your subject is doing the action. Passive Voice: your subject is receiving the action.
Hey! I’m an English teacher! Let’s have a quiz! Mark the following as “active” or “passive.”
- The tea was brewed this morning by Faith.
- David Coe is rumored to be D.B. Jackson.
- After posting on MW, Gail relaxed with a beer.
- Misty Massy’s story, “Drawing Flame,” was written for The Big Bad II.
- Literate Liquors is filled with interviews by John Hartness
- Melissa posted her first grammar lesson this blog last week.
Answers: passive; active; active; passive, passive, active. (Fun fact: the verb “rumor” is only used in the passive in English. Nobody “rumors” something.
Passive Voice is quite maligned and doesn’t deserve to be! (See! Passive voice!) Verbs are crucial to pretty much all writing, and having more tools is better than having fewer, so put the passive in your arsenal and it will be there when you need it!
A little over two weeks until The Big Bad II launches into the world! What? You haven’t heard? The Big Bad II is the second volume of creepy, awesome stories in which the villains are the focus. Edited by John Hartness and Emily Leverett, The Big Bad II includes stories by some of the best in the business. And now you can preorder your very own copy – follow this link!
I gathered some of those very fine authors together for a little party talk here on Magical Words today. The question is:
Kazam! Suddenly you’ve been zapped into a book, as the villain! What sort of villain are you, and what’s your first order of business?
Eden Royce: I’d be the reclusive, mysterious villain. Once my plan went into action, heroes would wonder who did it. Best not to be flamboyant about your plans or strategy. You can get foiled that way.
First order of business? Bring back every discontinued flavor of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream in their graveyard. Muah hahahaha!
Edmund Schubert: My first order of business is to memorize the entire list of rules from the Evil Overlord List. Next, I hire a body-double. I’ll pay through the nose for it, but it will be totally worth it to have a stand-in when the heroes come looking for someone to beat up (they’re such violent brutes, those heroes). Lastly, we have weekly mandatory public screenings of the movie Mega-Mind. I want people to understand that just because I’m ruling them with an iron fist does not mean I’m not a nice guy!
Nicole Givens Kurtz: I’m a villain that believes she is doing the right thing for the betterment of her people, as such, I am an assassin! My first order of business is to murder those that stand in the way of what I want to happen. It matters little to me about their families, friends, or political alignments other than how it affects the outcome.
David B Coe: I’m the kind of villain you don’t want to screw around with. I’m cruel and calculating and the first thing I do (after killing off any of my enemies who might move against me) is find the magic I need to make myself immortal and unassailable. Because that’s what you do when you’re a kick-ass villain who no one wants to screw around with.
Gail Martin: I would want to be a villain with a good wardrobe and an address in the Cayman Islands. (Since that’s where all villains seem to have their incorporation.) So—go shopping and relocate!
Misty Massey: I’d prefer to be the villain nobody realizes is the bad guy. Until it’s too late. For example, I’d be the stylishly dressed woman in dark glasses who’s always seen at the shoulder of some banana republic dictator. No one would know my name or what I really looked like (glasses, big hat and all). Then when the people rose up and overthrew the dictator in a bloody coup, I’d disappear, al0ng with the treasury. Where would I go? I can’t tell you that, silly goose. I’m bad, after all.
Matthew Saunders: I’d probably be the kind of villain who’s just tired of following the rules. I think I’d go to some tropical location and figure out a way to relieve rich people of their valuables.
Selah Janel: See, I feel like first it would be good to get a hold of the world and figure out the best type of villain I could be. Then, I’d take on more ambitious projects. I feel like while I love writing vampires and really manipulative villains with issues, I’d prefer to be someone who’s a little more chaotic for chaotic’s state. I’ve always liked older faerie stories because of that sort of line of thinking, and I think they’re a little more all-type friendly than something like a vampire, that has a very specific type of popular image for females. I’d rather be something that didn’t have that kind of pressure or specific imagery where it could obviously be figured out if people looked closely enough. I wouldn’t mind being one of those pixies that hang out in the forest and mislead travelers for entertainment, seduce one or two, then shank them with a wand or a tree branch or something, steal their wallets, and go off to the nearest Dairy Queen or something for a sundae. I can always work my way up from there.
Sarah Adams: Can I be Maleficent? I want to turn into a dragon, lay waste around me with green fire, and taunt the perfectly coiffed hero. Wait, what do you mean she’s not a book character? I’m pretty sure I had a picture book of that movie as a kid. But seriously, if I were the villain I’d be the one who knows she’s right and everyone else needs to SHUT UP and DO AS THEY’RE TOLD because I know what is RIGHT. I wouldn’t torture anyone – goodness, no. That would be evil. But not to long after I got to power, other people who didn’t shut up and do as they were told would be getting run over with tanks. And when the rag tag band of heroes finally took me down, I’d be sure that I was the good guy and everyone else was just too stupid or evil to realize how much good I had done them.
John G. Hartness
Lucky number 13 is here, and it’s here first! I was running late this week, so this was just recorded this morning, and I’m putting it up on MW before it hits anywhere else. I talk about the new SFWA membership rules, and whether or not I’m planning on joining. Y’all enjoy!
Literate Liquors Episode 13.
I’ve always been a bit mistrustful of people who are in too much of a rush to be heroes. They’re a bit like Major Glory in Justice Friends, or Mighty Mouse, with his “Here I come to save the day!” When someone wants to be a hero too much, it makes me wonder if he’s the arsonist setting the fires so he can help put them out. Hey, I’m cynical.
Don’t get me wrong—I believe in heroes. Maybe more so than is currently fashionable. I think there are plenty of real heroes—first responders, military folks and their families, national guard, hospital personnel and plain-old-regular-Joes and Janes who see a bad situation and take responsibility to do what they can to fix it. They show us the best that humanity can be. And yes, by self-selecting those careers and training for them, they have “volunteered” to be heroes, in a certain sense. But real heroes don’t make sure they get their close-ups. They aren’t in it for the glory, and often, they’re the ones slipping away when the news crews show up.
We’ve seen the dark side of wanna-be heroes with trigger-happy cops and neighborhood watch patrols, cases of mistaken identity and bad assumptions, and the deadly effects of people who have watched a few too many Clint Eastwood movies. (“Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?”)
Which is why as an author, I tend to favor reluctant heroes. These are men and women who look around hoping there’s someone else to do what needs to be done, only to realize that it’s up to them. They have a hard choice to make, and they make it, stepping in to take action when they’d rather be anywhere else.
In my first novel, The Summoner, Tris Drayke was happy being the second son of the king. He had no desire to take the throne, and looked forward to escaping the politics of court for a country home. But when his father, the king, is murdered and his half-brother seizes the throne, Tris comes to realize that he’s in a unique position to save the kingdom. He doesn’t yet possess the skills, or the allies, but he makes the choice to do what he can.
Jonmarc Vahanian, a smuggler with a shadowy history, is doubtful. “I’ve known a lot of heroes,” he says. “Buried them myself.” He’s learned the hard way that heroism has a cost, and it’s going to take a lot to get him to stick his neck out again.
In Ice Forged, the first book in my Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, Blaine McFadden didn’t plan to become a hero when he kills the man who dishonored his sister, their father. Blaine expects to die for his crime, until the king commutes his sentence to exile in a harsh arctic prison colony. He survives the brutal prison and makes a life for himself as a colonist, only to discover, when war and magic-gone-wrong destroy his homeland, that he might be the only one who can put things right. He’s got a hard choice to make.
I find ambivalence a logical response in situations like these. Tris, Jonmarc and Blaine have all carved out a little place for themselves where they can exist in peace. They’re not looking for the spotlight. For each of them, playing a hero once before got them badly burned. They know it’s going to cost them more than they want to pay. That’s what makes it mean so much more when they choose to serve.
I feel a bit like the new kid in class, the one everyone shoots sideways glances at until the teacher finally says, “Class, we have a new student!” Then you get the full-on stares and the whispers start. Been there, done that, doing it again. Wait a minute…where’s my t-shirt?
Hello, my name is Melissa. I’m an English teacher, a freelance editor, a mom, and just a generally goofy girl. I’ve visited these parts before, once as a guest talking about story arcs, but mostly hanging around reading and chatting in the comments. I’ll be here regularly for a while talking about the nuts and bolts of writing, punctuation, grammar, and that sort of thing. I get really excited about punctuation. Really excited.
I’ll save those beautiful semicolons for another day because right now I’m going to talk about the words which and that.
I was talking to a friend not too long ago about writerly stuff, and she said something like, “One grammar topic I have never understood is when to use which and that.” I started waving my arms around in the air…in public…because that’s one of my favorites, and I really wanted to explain it. It’s actually pretty simple. I’m going to start with the technical stuff—some info from Strunk and White and the Chicago Manual, but I’ll break it down for you, in crayon as my students sometimes say, as we go along.
Let’s start with two sentences.
Sentence 1: My coffee mug, which I used this morning, is in the sink.
Sentence 2: My coffee mug that has the chipped handle is in the sink.
Now for some definitions from the big guys.
Strunk and White tell us in The Elements of Style:
That is the defining, or restrictive, pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive. (p. 59)
The Chicago Manual of Style is a little more specific:
In polished American prose, that is used restrictively to narrow a category or identify a particular item being talked about; which is used non-restrictively—not to narrow a class or identify a particular item but to add something about an item already identified. Which should be used restrictively only when it is preceded by a preposition. Otherwise, it is almost always preceded by a comma, a parenthesis, or a dash. (p. 298)
OK, let’s take a look at our two sentences.
In the first one, which I used this morning doesn’t tell us which mug. It just gives us some extra (nondefining) information. That information is not essential to the sentence. You could just as easily say, “My coffee mug is in the sink,” and not really jeopardize the meaning of the statement. Since that’s the case, you should use which.
We’ll get to the punctuation in a minute.
The second example, however, does something different. By including that has the chipped handle, we are telling the reader which mug in particular we are talking about. It’s not just any old mug anymore. It’s a very specific one. We can’t take that information out because the sentence wouldn’t be the same without it. You would no longer know precisely which mug was in the sink. Thus, you should use that.
Now let’s take a look at how the punctuation works with that and which.
Generally, when you have extra (non-restrictive) information in a sentence, you should put commas (or another punctuation mark like a dash) around the information. I like to think of the commas as building a fence around the information so that it is separate from the essential information in the sentence.
In our first example sentence above, the commas surround the information that could be taken out, but in the second example sentence, we don’t need the commas because we need the information.
This is similar to if you are speaking to someone and use their name.
Example: Oh my golly gee, Sarah, I just dropped my cell phone in the lake!
If I am talking to Sarah, I am just adding her name for emphasis. It doesn’t have to be there, so I added commas around it to fence it in.
However, if I were talking about Sarah instead of to her, I would not use the commas.
Example: Oh my golly gee, Sarah just dropped her cell phone in the lake!
Isn’t that neat?
So here’s your easy to remember rule!
If it can be taken out of the sentence, use which and a comma. If not, use that.
Now, as you go out into the world using that and which correctly, don’t forget to close the comma fence. Otherwise the cows might get out, which could get messy.
Hey y’all, I have some exciting news…there’s a new book coming out soon, and you’re going to love it! It’s called The Big Bad II, and it’ll be released February 24. Edited by John Hartness and Emily Lavin Leverett, it’s chockful of great stories by some of the best in the business, and every single story is from the point-of-view of the villain. As soon as we have a preorder link, I’ll share it here on MW for you! In the meantime, I’ve invited the writers from The Big Bad II to come to Magical Words for a session of Party Talk. Today’s question is:
Who’s the best bad guy you’ve ever read? What made that character so enthralling?
Gail Martin: It’s a tie for me between Voldemort from Harry Potter and Denethor from Lord of the Rings. I really loved the parallels between Tom Riddle and Harry, with choice being the deciding factor. Denethor was so believably bat-shit crazy and dysfunctional. The villain that I hated the most was Dolores Umbridge, because she reminds me so much of people I worked with (and for) back in my corporate days.
David B Coe: I think my favorite villain of all time is Brandin of Ygrath from Guy Gavriel Kay’s TIGANA. And the reason I found him so compelling was that he wasn’t evil, he wasn’t unrepentantly bad. He was ruthless, at times violent, but he was also tender, gentle, even kind. We see him mostly through the eyes of his lover, who originally came to Ygrath to kill him, but fell in love with him and so cannot fulfill her desire to avenge her homeland and her family. It’s heartrending and bittersweet and beautifully done, like so much of Kay’s work.
Misty Massey: One of my very favorite villains is also one that scared the living bedoodles out of me – Horrabin the Clown from Tim Powers’ The Anubis Gates. Horrabin runs a crew of beggars in Georgian London, but they’re not ordinary beggars. He’s used unspeakable surgical techniques to make his beggars truly disabled in horrific ways, in order to make more profit, a skill he learned at the knee of his cruel father years before. He’s terribly smart, and if life had taken him in a different direction, he might have been able to use his intellect for the greater good. Inside, he is emotionally still the little boy abused by a powerful father, taking his pain out on all the people around him. Instead of feeling pity for his situation, we (the readers) are terrified by him and the horrors he commits. And, you know, HE’S A CLOWN.
Selah Janel: Hands down, Skinner Sweet in the American Vampire graphic novels. Not only is his story not an average vampire transformation, but he was fairly unlikable before becoming a vampire. As a vampire, he’s just not afraid to do anything. You see brief glimmers of empathy, like when he transforms wronged actress Pearl but then those moments quickly disappear. With Pearl, you hang onto that moment where he actually does some good right up until volume 5, when he suddenly destroys all of that, it’s incredible. He plays whatever side he feels like playing, for however long it takes. Not only is he pretty vile, but he has a distinct sense of humor that just adds to how wrong his actions are. It’s really jarring, at times, to find yourself laughing when he’s doing some horrific things. Plus, three pages later you’ll stumble on something truly almost likable and attractive about him, then have that wrecked after another three pages. He’s definitely a villain’s villain. It’s fun to try to keep up with him, and half the time you just can’t believe what he’s actually daring to do.
Matthew Saunders: I love (to hate) the Man with the Thistledown Hair from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Suzanna Clarke. He’s completely amoral, and doesn’t care or even realize how he’s harming everyone else. He just sees everyone as there for his own amusement, but he’s also very attractive and charming.
Sarah Adams: Dolores Umbridge. Every one else is going to say Umbridge though, right? Okay then I pick Vorbis from Terry Pratchett’s Small Gods. Making an inquisitor a bad guy isn’t exactly hard – they’ve got villain stamped on their forehead as a character type. What I appreciate about Vorbis though is his total self absorption. He literally meets his own god in the desert and doesn’t care, because for him the only god he’s ever really listened to is the sound of his own voice inside his head telling him he’s right. I’ve met people like that. That kind of impenetrability is hard to write well, and it’s maddening when you have to deal with them, terrifying when you’re in their power
Edmund Schubert: No question: R’as al Ghul from the Batman mythos (the comic book version, not the recent movie version). Yes, he’s taking things too far, but he’s trying to put things right in a world that’s so overpopulated and polluted that it can’t help but collapse on itself at some point. How can you not almost sort of admire that? Oh, and the fact that he can keep coming back from the dead and his daughter is a total babe doesn’t hurt either. Of course, if I were R’as and Talia was my daughter, thinking that she was a babe would be pretty creepy. On the other hand, he is a bad guy…
Nicole Givens Kurtz: The best bad guy I have ever read is Roland Deschain of the The Dark Tower series by Stephen King. Roland’s purpose is to set right his world by going to the tower and demanding it. However, his journey to the Dark Tower and his quest is fraught with challenges and death. His ka-tet (his version of a fellowship), suffer in ways that only King can produce. Roland will sacrifice everything for the tower and he does. It is Roland’s development as an anti-hero that is both enthralling and repulsive all wrapped together in a gripping story that expands through eight books, numerous comics, and Internet lore, to solidify in my heart as the best bad guy, ever.
Eden Royce: I love villains like Hannibal Lecter. They’re the ones that have class and elegance wrapped into everything they do, whether the action is evil or not. It may be strange, but it makes me think of my grandmother, a very together lady. She always said, “When you have to hurt somebody, no need to be nasty about it.”
John G. Hartness
Wednesday night I got together with a bunch of my favorite people, including Misty, Faith, Jay, Darin, Nicole, Matthew, Robyne and a bunch of other writerly types, and we had a drink or two, had a meal and hung out. Joining us all the way from the hinterlands of North Carolina was horror/comedy writer Tonia Brown! Since Tonia doesn’t make it to Charlotte all that often (or if she does, the terms of my restraining order prevent me from being within 100 yards of her), I kidnapped her for a little while and whisked her away to my portable recording studio and we put another episode of Literate Liquors in the can.
Translation – I put the laptop on my lap, put the mic on the console between us, and we sat in the cab of my truck for an hour telling hilarious stories and talking about writing. Tonia has a couple of new releases that you need to check out, as well as the hilarity that ensued as we got a mild case of carbon monoxide poisoning and succumbed to lack of oxygen. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Otherwise, we’re just silly.
As always, the Explicit tag is applied for a reason, and don’t listen to this crap at work unless you have headphones.
Click my pretty face for Literate Liquors!
Tonia’s newest release is Hauling Ash from Post Hill Press – Here’s a link to Amazon!
And Permuted Press has recently re-released her book Skin Trade – check it out, too!