Thursday, March 3, 2011

Is He Lying?

Passive Voice: Is he lying?

Some of you may remember my blog about passive voice and how it might actually be useful to you when developing a character’s dialog. How?  Folks engaged in denial or lying, often use passive voice as a way of deflecting attention away from themselves or their responsibility for the events in question. No one, not even the most terrible serial killer, believes they are bad people or responsible for terrible actions against another human. That’s where passive voice becomes a writer’s most useful tool when portraying that bad guy or gal. Because she'll rarely say, "I killed him." Instead, she'll say, "He was killed by a gun." Yeah, like the gun acted under it's own volition and she had nothing to do with it.

Most folks who do terrible things almost always blame the victim or the weapon itself, or the circumstances. I would never do something like that—she made me do it. Or the weapon just up and did it on its own.

Expert law enforcement personnel and psychologists know to listen for these tell-tale signs of shifting responsibility and use of passive voice to deflect attention. Here’s a good example and a refresher on what passive voice is.

Passive voice is when the action is not performed by the subject of the sentence. The subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action. For example, instead of saying, he hammered the nail into the wood, you could use passive and say: the nail was hammered into the wood. The passive version is ambiguous because you don’t know who hammered the nail. And it’s that ambiguity that attracts liars to passive voice.

I should note that folks who either can't face responsibility for their actions, either because they're just irresponsible people, or in the case of a true tragedy, where someone honestly didn't mean to do something.

Let’s say the police have arrested a woman who may have smothered her child in his crib. The woman, unable to admit her terrible action, uses passive voice to avoid admitting her responsibility.

“Who smothered your baby?”

She shrugged and twisted her wedding ring around her finger, unable to meet the gaze of the policeman.

“You were there, weren’t you?”

She nodded.

“He was crying, wasn’t he?”

“He kept crying—he just wouldn’t stop!”

“So what happened?”

“I tried to comfort him, but he just wouldn’t stop. I didn’t know what to do! I just wanted him to quiet down, so I held him for a while.”

“And what happened when you held him?”

“He was smothered by the pillow, I guess. I don’t really know. He turned his face into the pillow and after a while he quieted.”

“Did you press his face into the pillow?”

“I—I didn’t realize—he must have been smothered by the pillow—that’s all I can say.”

You’ll often hear these types of statements from folks who can’t quite accept their part in a tragedy. For example, a bus driver inadvertently involved in an accident may use passive voice to minimize his role, “She was hit by the bus.” He doesn’t say he hit her or ran over her when he was driving the bus. He phrases it as if the bus had acted on its own when it hit her.

Passive voice isn’t the sole tool, however. That bus driver may really shift blame by using active voice, e.g “The bus hit her.” As if the bus drove itself and independently made the decision to run over a pedestrian all on its own.

Those kinds of shifts in focus are extremely useful in characterization and they can be applied either to an innocent person who just can’t accept or absorb his role in a tragedy, such as the bus driver, or it could be a more conscious effort by a liar/bad guy to shift the blame to the victim.

To me, these little nuances in characterization and the underlying psychology of developing realistic characters are intrinsic to the foundations of a fascinating story.

I’d love to hear any habits of speech or actions you’ve noted that make characters come alive.

Amy Corwin is the author of over half a dozen historical romantic mysteries, paranormals and cozy mysteries. She can be found on the web at and Her latest book, The Vital Principle, is now available from Amazon.

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