For Fiction Writers: Using an Active Voice

Writers are artists, in the truest sense of the word. Painters have the benefit of their audience being drawn in by the most immediate sense: sight. Regardless of whether or not the viewer understands the piece, they can see the colors, the intent and mood the artist is attempting to display.

Other artists use charcoals, clay, paints, and carvings, while writers have only our words to express ourselves, to drive an idea or a mood across. We have to use our language to seduce a reader’s mind; we create art and paint pictures with our words.

It is the details of a scene, the description of our character’s that draws a reader in, wraps them in our fantasy world. And as an author, it’s very difficult at times to know when you are giving too much, or not enough description to satisfy the reader. You want to give enough so that the reader can see your vision of the character, but not so much that the reader can’t personalize the picture. The goal is to leave clues about the character’s looks, personality, etc; not to just tell the reader “this is who this person is.”

For example, if I were writing a story about a man who is insecure about his looks, I could say:
Trevor is a heavyweight boxer. His last fight had broken his nose and left a huge bump on it. The fight before that had cracked his front teeth. To top it off, he also had bushy eyebrows. He had a shaved head and a muscular body. Trevor liked his neighbor Geraldine and was trying to hook up with her, but he was self consciousness about his looks.

Now, this section gets the point across, but it’s not exactly interesting. These sentences don’t pull a reader into the story, or make them want to continue. I’ve laid it all out, and left nothing to the imagination. In this example, I am simply telling the reader what I want them to know.

Now, let’s try the same thought, but in an active voice:
Trevor ran his hand over his face, wishing the bump of his nose was slightly smaller. He brushed down his eyebrows as he ran his tongue over his teeth, wondering if the dentist would be able to correct them as promised. He was sick of not being able to smile at Geraldine when he passed her in the hallway. Not that it matters, he thought. After last night, the only thing that can help my face is surgery.

See the difference? In the first example, the author uses a passive voice, and tells the reader everything they need to know about the character. In the second example, the author uses an active voice ie, showing the character in action. The author doesn’t give all the information about Trevor, but leaves subtle clues to his personality and looks, as well as the plot of the story. Now the reader is wondering: “What happened to him last night?” “Who is Geraldine?”

The author has used words and language to create a picture, to draw the reader in. Now the audience wants to continue the story, to find out more about Trevor and Geraldine.

One of the biggest issues I have faced in writing fiction is learning how to use an active voice in the description of my characters. I’ve learned how to let the information slide into the story and plot without the big neon signs (HEY! THIS IS WHAT HE LOOKS LIKE!! HE’S CUTE, RIGHT?) I’ve also studied how to make my fantasy/pagan deity characters more personable – as odd as it sounds, I had a habit of making them too Godly, which then made them completely distant from other characters, as well as my readers. What helped me clean up my character writing was completing weekly assignments. I’ve included the one that served me best, in hopes that it helps some of you out there!

The assignment:
Choose one of the following pagan characters/deities: Isis, Odin, Merlin, Aphrodite, Medusa, Shiva . Write a paragraph describing this character, using active language and imagery. Your goal is to make this fantasy character seem real and alive; with real life, real problems. It doesn’t matter if you usually write fantasy/paranormal or not – the purpose is to create a true to life character. And if you can do that with one of these suggestions, you can do it with any character you create.

Good Luck!

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