Maybe you’re too young to know who Caspar Milquetoast was–and I would be too except that my mother used to bring him up to me when I was not being direct with her, or when I wanted something but danced around without asking for it outright, or when I wasn’t standing up for myself at school, or when I was, in some other way, not asserting myself as she thought I should. Caspar Milquetoast was a character developed by H.T. Webster for his cartoon series The Timid Soul, debuting way back in New York World, 1924. That was a LOOOONG time before I was born, and a long time before the Internet could show me what he looked like! But the way my mother described him made me understand exactly why she referred to him when remarking on peoples’ unneccessary timidity. Caspar was a noncommittal, wishy-washy fellow, a wimp, the kind of man (as his Creator H.T. Webster described him) who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick!”
Being a Caspar Milquetoast while writing is the same thing as “using a passive voice.” It’s writing in a wishy-washy way that doesn’t move your story along, which saps your story of energy and drive. You don’t want to be mousy and passive when you write–you want to grab your readers and drag them into your story with purpose and confidence—even if they don’t see all the ways you’re doing it. In fact, they don’t have to see all the ways you’re doing it, they shouldn’t see all the ways you’re doing it—your job is just to see that it’s done.
Caveat: Passivity in writing drains your story of immediacy and force, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t times when you will use the passive voice, and quite successfully, to add to your story. We cannot, as writers, follow all the “rules” by every dot and tittle. Strunk’s The Elements of Style should be required reading for every high school composition student, but all writing cannot be expected to embrace that level of preciseness, that level of exactness, that direct and active voice, because then all novels would read like text books. So while we cannot declare that we must never, ever, ever use the passive voice, we can say that we need to use it carefully when we write, because, in general, passivity slows the story and steals impact.
Consider these sentences:
Sirens were screaming in the distance. (passive)
Sirens screamed in the distance. (active)
Cam’s eyes were beginning to widen. (passive)
Cam’s eyes widened. (active)
He took their bowls and went to to the sink. (passive)
He took their bowls to the sink. (active)
Her eyes were encircled by dark rings. (passive)
Dark circles framed her eyes. (active)
A scream exited her mouth. (both passive and obvious)
She screamed, and her lips contorted in a rictus of pain. (active and much more descriptive)
You can see how active the second sentences are in each of the examples above. While you’re writing, watch for passivity. If you feel it is necessary, by all means keep it in. But if it isn’t necessary (and it so often isn’t) route it out with courage and resolve! Don’t be a Caspar Milquetoast!
Jean Foster Akin