Active vs. Passive

Some of the most common advice fledgling writers receive is: use active voice not passive voice. By using active voice, sentences become clearer, verbs become more powerful, and the overall writing style gains energy and forward momentum. It’s excellent advice, and something I constantly work on while writing. It is not, however, the advice I’m about to share in this post. Seriously, if your 5th grade creative writing teacher didn’t teach you about active vs. passive voice, then creative writing is not for you.

The best advice I’ve ever received regarding writing fiction is related to active versus passive voice. The scope of the advice is just a bit…broader. One very astute reviewer of one of my rough drafts noted, “You never let your protagonist make her own decisions.”

This probably sounds obvious to many people. But for me, it was not. Or rather, I didn’t realize that I was not letting my main character make her own decisions until I received this comment. I read back through my current manuscript, and then, dismayed, read some of my earlier manuscripts as well. Sure enough, my protagonists were not decision-makers.

That doesn’t mean they were static, or that nothing interesting happened in my stories. Far from it! Lots of interesting things happened to them, around them, or were even caused by them. But it was never due to any particular decision they were making. My characters were passive and reactive, not proactive. As a consequence, readers felt very little sympathy for my protagonists. Why root for the guy that won’t do anything to help himself? Why root for the girl that just sits back and lets things steamroll over her?

Unfortunately, I still struggle to embrace this sage advice. Not because I disagree with it, because I do not. I think it’s spot-on. It’s just…challenging for me. I like writing science fiction because of all of the whiz-bang stuff that can happen in the near (or distant) future. An unfortunate side-effect of my technology obsession is that I focus so tightly on technology and ideas that I ignore my characters and their emotions. My best writing always occurs when I step back from the whiz-bang and focus on the soft sciences: what would my protagonist think about this scenario? How would it make him/her feel? What would they do in this situation?

So, best advice: relinquish some control, and let your main characters choose their own path. They just may surprise you. And your writing will be a lot more dynamic and believable as a result.

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