The Problem with Nice

Today we’re going to talk about another frequent writing issue, usually appearing in early drafts. I think it’s more common in newer writers, but it’s easy for this problem to sneak up on even experienced writers.

So what’s the problem?

Everyone is too nice.

In the story, I mean. Secondary characters provide unflinching moral support to the protagonist. Mentors dispense gentle wisdom and only the softest of rebukes. Love interests are charming, or sometimes they may be a bit roguishly obnoxious, but not too much, of course. If the main character makes a mistake, it’s forgiven quickly.

Sometimes, the only person who isn’t friendly and helpful is the villain. And that’s a problem.

Don’t get me wrong, having characters that support your main character is important. They add complexity and humanity to your world. But sometimes even allies don’t get along, and that can make for juicy story fodder. It also provides a good opportunity for relationship arcs that change over the course of the plot. Just think about the rivals-to-friends relationship of Legolas and Gimli, and how satisfying it was to watch that develop out of their original distrust and antagonism.

Even people who are lifelong or fast friends argue sometimes. A great example is the friction between Amy and Molly in the movie Booksmart. Their deep friendship isn’t always sunny, but is richer for that.

In tense moments, people snap and say awful things they don’t really mean. And the closer you are to someone, the more you can hit them right where it hurts when you lash out. To this day, I’m still gutted by a vicious fight between two close characters in Robin Hobb’s Tawny Man trilogy. (Anyone who’s read the book will instantly know which chapter).

The point is…

Conflict drives a reader through a story.

It might not be the only way to keep people turning pages, but conflict is a tried-and-true method to build tension in your book. Conflict exists because something yet remains unresolved. A brewing argument, or maybe an unrevealed secret that could throw the protagonist’s life into chaos, known only by someone whose allegiance is tenuous.

Conflict is potential energy, a coiled spring that leaves your readers on their toes. Is that bully going to get their comeuppance? Will the bickering lovers reconcile? What backhanded scheme will that frenemy try next?

If the only point of contention in the plot is the villain, the story can feel flat and two-dimensional. Those layers of conflict with allies add complexity that makes your cast of characters feel real.

And conflict doesn’t have to be direct opposition or antagonism. In tabletop gaming, there’s a common trope of the chaotic character. You know the type. The one who jumps into the weird, glowing portal headfirst without a second thought. Or tries to seduce the owlbear just because.

And there’s often at least one other player groaning and gritting their teeth at these choices. That’s conflict. These two characters may have the same overall goal (get the treasure, save the damsel, defeat the dragon, etc). But their personal methods are like oil and water.

And even if your characters generally get along, you can put outside pressure on them to generate those delicious sparks of conflict.

Try this exercise:

Take two characters from one of your stories, ones that usually get along well. Place them in a method of transportation on a long journey (car, carriage, horses). Then something breaks. Maybe they get a flat tire. Maybe a horse throws a shoe, or a carriage wheel gets caught in a rut.

Version 1: Spirits are high at the beginning of the journey, and both characters pleasantly work together to fix the issue and get back on the road. Teamwork makes it go smoothly. Write a paragraph or two about how they repair the problem and continue onward.

Now reread it. Not really the most fascinating story, is it? Because there are no sparks, no conflict. No tension.

Version 2: They’re already running behind schedule. The weather is awful. Their lunches aren’t sitting well. Now tempers are short. Maybe this time when catastrophe strikes, they argue about how to resolve the problem. What if one wants to flag down help, while the other doggedly tries to fix the issue on their own? Both think the other is going about this all wrong. How does that spice up the story even when they’re working toward the same goal? Write another couple of paragraphs with this scenario.

Read over both versions, and see which one you find most compelling. Then try to see where you can layer in this sort of tension and conflict throughout the rest of your work.

Your stories will feel richer with a little less nice, I promise.

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