What is Passive Voice?

Passive voice is a grammatical construction in which the subject of a sentence receives the action of the verb, rather than performing the action itself. We can recognize it by the use of “to be” verbs (e.g., is, am, are, was, were, been) and past participles (e.g., -ed, -en endings). While passive voice has its uses in specific contexts, it is weaker and less engaging than active voice.

Both the following sentences are Passive:

  • I was informed by the guard. (The AI assistant can easily pick up on this one because I used the verb to be and the preposition ‘by’.)
  • The guard informed me. (An editor will tell you this still lacks agency despite being in a grammatically active voice.) It is important to remember this because every one of your character’s decision should have consequences.


Sophia sent him a letter.

Pedro made dinner.

Someone mugged his house over the weekend.*


A letter was sent to him by Sophia.

Dinner was made by Pedro.

His house got mugged over the weekend.

In passive voice, the focus is on the receiver of the action rather than the doer. This lack of subject leads to a sense of detachment and reduced clarity. This can make the writing feel less dynamic and lessen the impact of important events or character actions. It can also create ambiguity in attributing responsibility for actions, which may confuse readers and weaken the narrative’s flow.

Active voice

Active voice, on the other hand, places the subject at the forefront of the sentence, making characters the doers of actions. It strengthens character agency, enabling them to take charge of their decisions and shape the story’s direction. By utilizing active voice, writers can create more vivid and engaging prose. One that captivates readers and immerses them in the characters’ experiences.

While it is essential for writers to recognize passive voice in their writing, it is not necessary to eliminate it entirely. Passive voice can serve a purpose when emphasizing the object of an action or creating a specific tone.

The key is to strike a balance between active and passive voice, using each where appropriate to enhance the narrative’s impact.

Nonetheless, to improve the writing’s clarity and character agency, writers should focus on using strong, action-oriented verbs, providing clear attribution for character actions, and utilizing direct speech to showcase characters’ thoughts and emotions.

*Less used because the speaker doesn’t know who mugged the house only that it didn’t mug itself. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t mugged by a group of people, so they would both be used in different context.

cheerful young woman screaming into megaphone. Passive Voice

How do you determine active or passive voice?

When the actor (and the actor can be a person or subject) comes before the action in a sentence, you have active voice. When the actor comes after the action or when the actor is completely absent from the sentence, you have passive voice.

Empowering Character Agency

Character agency is a fundamental element of compelling storytelling, enabling characters to drive the plot and make meaningful decisions. Avoiding the passive voice in literature is crucial for maintaining strong character agency, as it empowers characters to take charge of their actions and shapes a more engaging narrative. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the importance of active voice in enhancing character agency and provide practical strategies for writers to master this essential writing skill.

Action verbs

Action verbs (or action-oriented verbs) are a fundamental component of writing, as they add vitality and specificity to the sentence, making the writing more vivid and descriptive. They help show what characters are doing, which is essential in portraying their actions, emotions, and motivations. By using action verbs, writers can create a sense of immediacy and excitement, drawing readers into the narrative and bringing the story to life.

Here are ten action verbs used in literary examples:
  1. Conquer: Literary Example: “He conquered kingdoms and defeated his enemies to become the greatest warrior in the land.”
  2. Venture: Literary Example: “She ventured into the dark forest, determined to unravel the mystery behind the ancient legend.”
  3. Defeat: Literary Example: “Despite the odds, the hero defeated the villain, saving the town from destruction.”
  4. Challenge: Literary Example: “The protagonist faced a series of challenges and overcame them with courage and determination.”
  5. Explore: Literary Example: “The young explorer embarked on a thrilling journey to discover uncharted lands and hidden treasures.”
  6. Confront: Literary Example: “In a moment of truth, the protagonist confronted their fears and embraced their destiny.”
  7. Pursue: Literary Example: “Driven by ambition, she pursued her dreams relentlessly, refusing to be held back by obstacles.”
  8. Overcome: Literary Example: “Through sheer willpower, the character overcame adversity, emerging stronger than ever before.”
  9. Resurrect: Literary Example: “The magical potion resurrected the fallen hero, granting them a second chance to fulfill their destiny.”
  10. Transform: Literary Example: “The journey of self-discovery transformed the protagonist from a timid individual into a fearless leader.”

These action-oriented verbs infuse the literary examples with vigor and intensity, creating powerful and evocative imagery that resonates with readers. They are essential tools for writers to engage their audience and convey the dynamic nature of their characters and narratives.

Related: Writing Techniques

Understanding Passive Voice and Its Impact on Character Agency

Passive voice occurs when the subject of a sentence is acted upon rather than performing the action. It weakens character agency by removing responsibility from the characters and making them appear as recipients of events rather than active participants. Passive voice can lead to a lack of clarity and diminish the emotional impact of crucial scenes, resulting in a less immersive reading experience.

Identifying Passive Voice

To avoid passive voice, writers must recognize its presence in their writing. Look for sentences where the subject seems to receive the action rather than initiating it. Passive voice is often signaled by the use of “to be” verbs (e.g., is, was, were, are, be, been) and past participles (e.g., -ed, -en endings).

Empowering Characters through Active Voice

Active voice places the subject at the forefront of the sentence, making characters the doers of actions. This creates a sense of agency, enabling characters to impact the story and engage readers emotionally. For example:

Passive Voice: The treasure was found by the protagonist. Active Voice: The protagonist found the treasure.

Striving for Clear Attribution

When describing actions and reactions, provide clear attribution to the character responsible for each action. This clarity reinforces character agency and minimizes ambiguity for the reader.

Eliminating “To Be” Verbs

“To be” verbs can lead to passive voice constructions. Instead, strive to use strong, action-oriented verbs to convey character agency and create dynamic scenes. Replace weak phrases like “is going,” “was doing” with more vibrant alternatives.

Focusing on Active Participation

Ensure that characters actively participate in significant events, decisions, and conflicts. Avoid portraying them as passive observers or victims of circumstances. By allowing characters to drive the plot and make choices, readers will form stronger connections with them.

Utilizing Direct Speech

Incorporate direct speech to portray characters engaging in meaningful conversations and asserting their desires, thoughts, and emotions. Dialogue serves as a powerful tool for showcasing character agency and deepening their development.

Show, Don’t Tell

Showcasing character actions and reactions through vivid descriptions and sensory details reinforces character agency. Avoid relying solely on narrative summary to depict important events; immerse readers in the characters’ experiences to heighten engagement.

Here are five famous literary examples that showcase the active voice

  1. “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet
  2. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.”. Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream speech
  3. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”. George Orwell, Animal Farm

These examples illustrate how active voice places the subject at the forefront of the sentence, making the characters the doers of actions and creating engaging and impactful prose.

Here are the same five famous literary examples rewritten in the passive voice:
  1. “To be, or not to be: that question is one that is asked.”
  2. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and the true meaning of its creed will be lived out.”
  3. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
In each example, the passive voice weakens the impact and the clarity of the original active voice sentences. Here’s why:
  1. In the first example, the passive voice introduces unnecessary words and reduces the immediacy of the question. Shakespeare’s original “To be, or not to be: that is the question” creates a powerful emphasizes on the profound existential dilemma faced by Hamlet.
  2. The passive voice in the third example complicates the message and obscures the urgency of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. The active voice in the original “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” sheds light on King’s vision and determination to see his dream realized.
  3. In the fourth example, the passive voice weakens the statement’s impact and fails to highlight the hypocrisy depicted in Animal Farm. Orwell’s original active voice highlights the irony and social commentary within the novel.

In conclusion, the active voice is essential in literature as it creates a direct and powerful connection with readers. As well as emphasize character agency, and ensure clear and engaging storytelling. The passive voice, when used excessively or inappropriately, can diminish the impact and clarity of the narrative.

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