don’t be nice to your characters

I couldn’t figure out why the climax of my novel didn’t have a lot of tension. After many re-readings, I realized I was being too nice to my characters. I can’t help it. I was taught not to hurt people.

Think about our society. We live in a rational world, or at least we like to think we do, and in the twenty-first century, we believe in talking about our issues, seeking shades of gray to better understand our fellow man.

We don’t derive pleasure from someone else’s pain, and in spite of the literature available to us, it’s nigh impossible to understand the mentality of a psychopath unless you’ve experienced these feelings or lack of feelings. Add in the fact that we love our protagonist and don’t want to see him or her hurt too badly, and we end up with pleasant, rational scenes where everybody clearly states their feelings.

That is so NOT real life.

I got mean this weekend. It all started when my antagonist’s voice began to ring clear. My antagonist has not been the most cooperative character I’ve ever written. She has been contentious, evasive, and downright hostile and that’s just with me. Imagine the trauma she could put the rest of my characters through if I let her be herself.

This weekend, I turned her loose, and she is nasty. I’m much more pleased with the chapter and feel it has the necessary tension. I’m going back through my earlier chapters with my antagonist, and with her voice clearly in my head, I’m tweaking her scenes and a few scenes with my protagonist since their relationship is so close. It’s coming along beautifully now that I’m no longer being nice.

So how about you? Have you ever found yourself writing scenes that are too restrained because you didn’t want to hurt your protagonist?

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8 Responses to don’t be nice to your characters

  1. Jason Black says:

    You’re so right. I did an article on this very subject on my blog some while back:

    My take on it is slightly different. You’re 100% right that being too nice saps all the drama out of your novels. But it also undermines the reader’s perception of your characters, almost invariably in negative ways.

    • Teresa says:

      I probably could have saved myself some grief if I’d read your article back in September! 😉

      I believe my problem was that I thought I was being mean, but I really wasn’t. One of my critique partners constantly called me down, telling me there wasn’t enough tension in some scenes. He made wonderful suggestions, but I was still timid until just recently. I allowed myself to be (oh, shall I say it?) offensive. It was freeing!

      I liked what you had to say in your comment on your September post: “Either way—never being mean, or being mean only to take it all back later—isn’t helpful to the novel or the story.” You’re absolutely right.

      I really enjoy your blog, Jason, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you dropping by!

  2. Absolutely! Whenever I read a book in which the characters are experiencing something terrible I think, I could never do that to my characters! It’s hard to be mean to them. But I get over it because no matter how much I want it to be so, book characters aren’t real!

  3. lawrenceez says:

    Hi, I really struggle with this. Instead of placing my central characters in real life situations and working through the problems, I tend to resort to cliches and stuff. Really difficult.

    Glad you’re making new discoveries.

    • Teresa says:

      I think sometimes, Lawrence, we like to think about how mature adults would handle a given situation and we forget that nobody wants to read about mature adults in fiction! We crave those train wrecks of humanity who are struggling. 😉

  4. tikiman1962 says:

    I work in customer service. I talk to countless people in a call center. I hear the scope of human existence from people of varied races, religions, socio-economic groups, etc. I filter their “stories” into pieces that I write. Two things happen: first, I get characters who have a more realistic sense to them; second, I sublimate my own anger. A win-win situation.

    • Teresa says:

      HB, nothing like customer service to provide for your characters’ traits. At least you turned it into a good situation! 😉

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