Monday, December 13, 2010

Are You Afflicted With Nice Writer Syndrome?

Hi, I'm Johne, and I have Nice Writer Syndrome. Perhaps you're familiar with this infirmity.

Janice Hardy paints the picture like this:

This is a common malady. We spend hours and hours creating our characters, interviewing them, filling out complicated character sheets, determining which personality they are on the Myers-Briggs Scale. They become like family, and we can't bear the thought of doing anything bad to them.

But as Dory from Finding Nemo said: "If nothing ever happens to him, then nothing will ever happen to him."

Who wants to read about someone nothing ever happens to?

Stories are fun when readers get to watch the struggle. They want to see someone overcome a terrible problem and win. To do that, you have to put your characters in terrible situations. You have to be mean, be evil, be cruel. If it breaks you heart to do it to them, then you're on the right track.
I come from the Space Opera genre, where Lois McMaster Bujold is an absolute genius at afflicting the characters she cares most about. This creates empathy from we readers and also takes her stories in entirely unexpected directions. This has been a successful tactic, earning her four Hugo awards for Science Fiction and two Nebula awards for Fantasy. In The Warrior's Apprentice, her hero is Miles Vorkosigan, whose parents are both noble and regal but Miles himself was poisoned as an infant in an assassination attempt. As a result, he grew to a height of only four foot nine and had a slight hunch back and very frail bones. Despite his physical condition, he had a lively intellect and intended to overcome any adversity. Lois gives him plenty of opportunity to practice. When he was competing in the obstacle course he needed to complete in order to be accepted in the Barrayaran Service Academy, seventeen-year-old Miles breaks both legs during the beginning of the course, effectively ending his dreams of being a heroic warrior like both his parents. The pain is exquisite, racking both his body and mind. But then Miles becomes Miles if you follow my meaning, and the story tracks a course unlike any I've ever read.

It takes a bold, determined author to own up to NWS. Let's see if you suffer from this, as well. Borrowing the concept from Janice, let's take a quiz.

1. Jill goes to her garage to start the car. The garage door is open when she specifically closed it the night before. She looks nervously around but sees no other obvious clue as to what's going on. She presses the wireless button on her key fob to unlock the door.
A. She opens the door, a little unsettled, but the car starts right up. She wonders what it all means on her way to work. She stops for a latte' to settle her nerves and meets a charming single man. It's love at first sight.
B. After a moment, the door locks itself again. Mystified, she unlocks the door again. Again, it relocks itself. She sees movement outside the garage window and sees somebody looking right at her. He has a device in his hands. She realizes he's hijacked her wireless signal and now has the unlock code to her car. She turns and runs inside and calls the police. There will be no latte' for Jill today.
C. The car explodes in a ball of fire and Jill's body slams against the garage wall. She crumples to the ground bleeding and unconscious while her garage burns around her.

2. Felix has a charming girlfriend. He takes her out to a fancy restaurant to ask her to marry him.
A. She hesitates before she says yes.
B. She hesitates before she says no, she's not yet ready to marry.
C. She hesitates and confesses she used to be a man and asks if that's a problem.
3. Stella needs a break before she inherits the family business passed down from one Studebaker to the next. She's in the attic cleaning out an old wood chest when something sounds weird at the bottom of the chest. She removes everything and discovers a false bottom. She holds her breath in expectation and opens the compartment.
A. She finds the Rehnhold Diamond, worth over $12.2 million. She screams in excitement.
B. She finds a metal box. She opens the box and finds a dusty note crumbling with age. "Smile," it says, "You're on Candid Camera!" She looks around her suspiciously. She thinks she sees something in the corner. She pulls back an old curtain and shrieks. It is the bones of a human and fifty year old film camera.
C. She finds a birth certificate and discovers she's not really a Studebaker and won't be inheriting anything. Also, her parents lied to her about her heritage and now she doesn't know who she is.
4. Ving the Vicious is circling planet Earth.
A. He sends a delegation to the surface but changes his nefarious plans when a Goldilocks girl gives his emissary a yellow dandelion in a gesture of faith and good will. Instead, he builds her a new Orphanage.
B. Ving holds the little girl ransom until the U.N. submits to his demands.
C. Ving blows up the U.N., spirits the girl away, and creates an army of Goldilocked little robot killers bent on destroying the world, bwahahaha!

5. The captain falls asleep in a cave and awakes in a distant land in need of a hero.
A. He wears no clothes, but neither does the princess he's apparently there to save. And she's ok with that because that's the norm for Barsoom. And it's love at first sight. Beats sleeping in a dank cave, right?
B. He meets a giant, green, six-armed monster with huge fangs. The monster has a club the size of a small tree. The captain has, well, his wits. Maybe caves aren't so bad after all.
C. The monster clubs the captain into unconsciousness, kidnaps the princess, and disappears into a world so hostile it would earn an R-rating to adequately describe. Where's a good cave when you need one?
How'd you do? Borrowing again from Janice Hardy, here's the key to the quiz:
Mostly A: You suffer from NWS. The thought of doing anything really mean to your characters is painful to you, so your stories often lack real stakes to compel readers to keep reading.

Mostly B: You have a good sense of author cruelty, but you could go further. Readers often find your stories interesting, but they have no trouble setting them down if something cool is on TV.

Mostly C: You know how to make your characters suffer. Readers stay up late at night to finish your books and can't stop talking about them the next day.
I have struggled with NWS. But I'm getting better. By which I mean, for my precious protags, it's getting worse.
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  1. Great article! Loved the quiz. I think I can claim mostly Cs. Sometimes I worry about being *too* mean to my characters!

  2. When I read the first paragraph here, I thought, "Oh, yeah, authors good at making their characters suffer are Lois McMaster Bujold, David Feintuch, and Robin Hobb." Then I read on and lo and behold...Miles! :)

    I got mostly B's, but I don't know if I agree with the accuracy of the Mostly B key. Most of the C answers would have made me put down the book for lack of subtlety. Cs are good, but only when they have a chain of Bs to support the weight that they'll carry, and I don't think Cs are good to use every time an incident occurs or they'll just get monotonous and carry no weight at all. A good chain of Bs that build and mesh and weave themselves into a lowest-low/highest-high ironic ending are my ticket...

  3. The quiz had me chuckling.

    I think it is important to note that a writer must KNOW the genre they want to write in. In some genres the readers will tolerate "C" results. In other genres resorting to "C" will make the readers put the book down. Once you figure out what the strongest measure of torture the readers of your genre will tolerate is, then you have found the ground that will keep them glued to your stories. The finding of it is the tricky part.

  4. Okay, I'm a C girl. I never realized it. Number 4 definitely pushed me from B to C, and 5 sealed the deal.

    Reminds me of James Scott Bell's advice (paraphrased): imagine the worst thing you can do to your character and do it.

  5. I've been accused of indulging in character torture so my challenge is to give my characters a break...or else the sorrow/grief/emotional abuse gets kinda unrelenting. -C

  6. I agree with Holly & Lynnette (though I'd admit to being a 'C' girl myself, though one of the 'B' answers seemed more vicious than the 'C'.

    Good article. And, from a mystery/political thriller angle, I'm liking Vince Flynn who just keeps piling things on his character, Mitch Rapp. I can't remember which book, but one has one thing after the other happening to Mitch (not that they all don't, but this one was more personal than the others.) Made me so mad, I actually think I stopped reading the book for a while until I could deal with it.

  7. Man, great info, a mention of LMB (and Miles!), and a photo of a Cyberman. Good stuff all the way around.

    Hm, not sure how much I fall between B and C. Gotta think about it...

  8. Fantastic, Johne. :) Thanks for posting this reminder, as I discovered in the last week or two that I have slid into Nice Writer Syndrome. What happened to the person who would torture her characters with bad situations simply so they could have a better happy ending?? I have no idea....

  9. When in doubt, make trouble for your character! It can be a good source of humor as well!

  10. Given that I write adventures, I think it's only to be expected that I go for the Cs. I'm definitely not suffering from this syndrome. When I made a comment to a friend (a former writing group contact) about the fact I was wondering about whether to kill a character, she was astonished that I was even hesitating. She was surprised I hadn't already plotted the gristly demise of half the characters in the book.

    Another writing group friend once told me off for the fact I always killed his favourite characters in my stories.

    I'm trying to become less brutal in how I abuse my main characters.