Dialog, Focus and Characterization
All of us know those gremlins who like to beat up writers who dare to use passive voice, and we all grit our teeth when those gremlins incorrectly identify passive voice by ruthlessly searching for the word “was”, but did you know that passive voice can be your best friend? Or, maybe not best friend, but at least a hanger-on, because it lets you manipulate the focus of the sentence.
First, I should clarify one thing: passive voice is the focus of the action. If the action happens to the subject of the sentence, it’s passive. If the subject performs the action, it’s active. Passive voice is often used when the writer wants to maintain focus on the subject, rather than the doer of the action. For example: she was hit by a bus. That’s passive, but it’s the best way to frame the sentence because you want to keep the focus on the woman. Who cares about the bus, except in the horrible context of it being the cause of her demise? If you change that to active voice: the bus hit her, then the bus is more important than the woman because it’s the subject and focus of the sentence.
But beyond that, how could passive be good? Lots of ways. But one of the more interesting ways is deflection of responsibility because active/passive voice selections change the focus of the sentence.
How does this impact characterization and dialog…that’s where this really gets fascinating. The use of passive voice is a terrific tool to craft a character’s dialog to show either consciousness of guilt, or simply indicate lying. Let’s look at two examples.
A Good Character Feels Guilty
Let’s say you have a basically good character, but she’s done something she’s not proud of. In fact, let’s say she got involved in something really terrible that she feels guilty about. We’ll call her Clarissa. Now Clarissa is a taxi driver in your story, and she picked up a passenger who was late for a plane. Clarissa wants to get that passenger to the airport, so she’s speeding when she rounds a corner and…runs over a little old man.
When she’s questioned about this, she might say, “We turned the corner and this man came out of nowhere. He stepped right out into the street in front of the taxi and got clipped by the fender.”
If pushed, she might even say, “He got hit by the taxi.” Or possibly, “The taxi hit him.”
The most important points to recognize in that dialog is that, whether its stated in passive voice, e.g. he was hit by the taxi; or active voice, e.g. the taxi hit him; nowhere does she flat out state, “I hit him.” The taxi hit him, as if the taxi was acting under its own volition. She is using both active and passive voice to shift the focus away from herself—to make her seem less responsible.
A good person will do this when the truth is painful and difficult to accept—she’ll try to shift responsibility to either the man (he stepped out of nowhere) or the taxi—so she doesn’t have to admit to herself that she did something so terrible.
A Bad Character is Lying
In a very similar way, law enforcement staff will watch for shifts in focus—and passive voice is a good clue to this—when questioning a suspect. Keep in mind that bad people almost never believe they are bad. If they do bad things, it’s because they were forced to do so by external forces. This means, they will frequently use passive voice, because that reflects their feeling that they were forced to do something—the action happened to them and—not the reverse.
Let’s take the classic: a man who beats his wife. Fred has been dragged to jail because he killed his wife and now the cops are questioning him.
“What happened, Fred? How did she die?”
“I didn’t do nothing.”
“Your wife’s dead from a blow to the head. There were witnesses.”
“You were seen arguing with her. A neighbor called the police. When they arrived, they saw you through the kitchen window.”
“What’d they see? Nothing!”
“They saw you hit her. Now why don’t you tell us the whole story?”
“Nothing to tell. She got hit by that dang skillet, that’s what happened.”
“How’d she get hit by a skillet?”
“Well, she asked for it.”
“Well, I’d just got home and was drinking a beer when she started yelling at me for being late and burning the dinner. The skillet was right there on the stove, full of burnt potatoes, and she’s yelling and screaming about it. I was just trying to drink my beer in peace, but she wouldn’t stop. She kept yelling about them burnt potatoes. She got herself in such as tizzy that something had to be done and the skillet was right there. So she got one upside the head. With that damn skillet.”
“You mean you picked up the skillet and hit her with it?”
“I mean she was hit by that damn skillet to make her stop yakking about those burnt potatoes.”
“You hit her with the skillet.”
“The skillet hit her. She asked for it! It weren’t my fault and those cops know it! It was the only way to shut her up.”
“I guess you shut her up, all right. For good, this time.”
You’ll note both active and passive peppered through this dialog. The important thing to notice is how Fred keeps shifting the blame to his poor wife and the skillet. As if the skillet could leap up from the stove and bash her without any action on his part.
Passive and active voice are all about focus, and interestingly, so is characterization!