Friday, June 5

Do You Suffer From NWS?: Living With Nice Writer Syndrome

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This week's Refresher Friday pulls out one of my favorites, and I try to share this one every year or so. It's a fun reminder that what doesn't kill our characters makes them more interesting. 

Do you love your characters?

Do you wish nothing bad would ever happen to them?

Then you might suffer from Nice Writer Syndrome.

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 into terrible situations (squeals with glee). 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.

Take this quiz to determine if you suffer from NWS

1. Your protagonist has been called to the boss's office at 4:45pm on a Friday. She knows layoffs are in the works. What happens at that meeting?

a. The boss tells her he's letting go of everyone in her department but her, so she'll have to work overtime to cover.
b. The boss tells her he has to let her go.
c. The boss tells her she's fired, and as she gets up to leave, the door bursts open and a disgruntled employee jumps in with a gun, spraying bullets.

2. Your protagonist just lost power to his sub-light engines and is falling toward the spacial anomaly. He has one shot to re-route the power. When he he hits the re-start button:

a. The engines kick in and he rockets away.
b. The engines sputter and give one burst of thrust, and he skirts around the edge of the anomaly and is flung off into space.
c. The engines explode, creating hull breaches in six decks and pushes the burning ship into the anomaly.

3. Your protagonist has found a box covered in funky runes while playing in her grandma's attic. When she opens it, she finds:

a. Antique jewelry.
b. Cursed Aztec gold.
c. X'iltiplix the demon god of suffering.

4. Your protagonists stop at a deserted beach while vacationing in The Bahamas. How is their day ruined?

a. Nasty sunburns.
b. An unfortunate encounter with a school of jellyfish.
c. Colombian drug runners.

5. Your antagonist has just caught the hero. He:

a. Locks her in a room, threatening her life if she tries to escape.
b. Ties her to a table set up underneath the booster rockets of a missile.
c. Chains her to the wall and forces her to watch while he pushes her husband into a pit of razor-sharp spikes, then dangles her children over it until she tells him the codes to the nuclear weapon buried under Manhattan.

If you answered:

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 find your stories interesting, but they can also set 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.

There's a reason "what's the worst that can happen?" is a writer's mantra. Embrace it and your stories will be better for it.

Do you suffer from NWS?

60 comments:

  1. I'm mostly Cs. Although I think most of your option C situations were a bit easy on the protag!:)

    I've never wanted to be nice to my heroes, at least not until the very end of the story. My big problem at the moment is an errant case of Big Scene Avoidanceitis.

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  2. I suffer from a bad case of NWS. I have a hard time pushing the stakes. But it's not just a desire to keep my characters safe, but also trying to come up with appropriate bad things to do to my characters.

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  3. I don't even have to do the quiz to know I suffer from this. It's caused a lot of revisions because there's no character growth if the characters are too perfect and have no problems.

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  4. We've had this conversation. The worst thing to happen to my writing was when I lost my stressful job. All my anger went with it.

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  5. I have to say that you've just written off a huge swath of mainstream fiction and literature as unreadable because the writers are 'too nice' to their characters. What characters have to go through to make a viable story depends very much on the genre and the skill of the writer. The expectations of SF/F are very different--and far more extreme--than the expectations in literature.

    A sufficiently talented writer could make a very good story out of a character who is the sole employee remaining after layoffs and then breaks down completely and loses everything she cared about due to overwork. That's not viable in an SF world, but it might be viable in crossover SF-lit and would certainly be viable in literature.

    Finding some antique jewelry in the attic can be a big deal if it turns out to have been taken from a concentration camp victim, serves as the first hint that someone in the family was a Nazi and eventually reveals that the family's wealth was stolen from his victims.

    Getting locked in a room and threatened with death would be more than enough to tip most people into critical incident stress or full blown PTSD. No rocket motors required. That's a good mainstream story right there.

    How bad a writer has to be to their characters depends on how easily they can be hurt, the writer's skill level, and the expectations of the genre. There are absolutely no hard and fast rules here.

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  6. Lee: No one's ever accused me of being easy on protags, cool! I suffer from Big Scene Avoidanceitis as well, but only for the ending. It always takes me days to work up to sitting down and writing that.

    Jaleh: When I try to write stories in the real world that happens to me. But not in the genre stuff. I eventually figured out that I was trying to play by real world rules too much and not allowing myself to go over the top. Not sure if that applies to your stories or not, but it's a thought ;)

    Natalie: I know lot of writers with the same problem, so you're not alone.

    Anon: I remember that conversation! (if this is who I think it is)

    Curmudgeon: I never said being nice to your characters made the story unreadable. I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post intended to make you think about how you develop your plots, and to suggest a few reason why you might be getting certain common feedback. No stakes is a big reason a lot of stories fail, regardless of genre.

    Your suggestions are also all things I'd consider "being mean to your characters." You just took my general A and B situation and ran with them, which is exactly what a great writer does to make a story better. In fact, you've nicely made my point (so thanks!) that taking something and pushing it can lead to better stories. You gave great examples of how someone could take A and B and turn them into C.

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  7. Ha ha, this is fantastic! I've personally never suffered from NWS (or Nice Reader Syndrome); I love seeing characters suffer. Even when I'm reading a book and thinking, No, no, you can't do that to them, it's too awful!, I'm also inwardly delighted and interested to see where it goes. My favorite example is from (unsurprisingly) one of my favorite series. Megan Whalen Turner basically took her beloved protagonist from The Thief, thought, "What's the absolute worst thing that could happen to him?" and then made it happen in the opening chapters of the second book, The Queen of Attolia. Some fans still say they've never forgiven her for that, even though they eagerly continue with the series. :)

    Part of the appeal, I think, is summed up in the philosophy of the fictional warrior poet Shan Yu: "Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano's edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man." Fiction allows us that sadistic curiosity without actually harming people.

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  8. I'm an A, but trying to move myself towards B >:)

    Cold As Heaven

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  9. Oh, I'm generally in trouble with NWS and Big Scene Avoidanceitis, but occasionally I manage to do evil things to my characters. Mainly when I'm tired and cranky and it's 17 days into NaNoWriMo and I'm just over it. I take my frustration out on my book, and it's actually better for it.

    Amy B- You watch Firefly! I love Firefly!

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  10. What does it say about me that I cheered at every C?

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  11. Oh, I suffer from this, indeed. I've been getting better, but it's tough ;)

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  12. Mostly B's with just a few C's. Must become more cruel!!!

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  13. Mostly Bs... but I think you have to switch up when bad and good things happen to your protag. If no matter where the character turns, they're facing disaster, the story gets kind of exhausting.

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  14. I'm new to novel writing and have been surprised by the discovery that I'm having substantial trouble killing off my favorite characters. One of my characters is based on a good friend and even she has said, "Kill me off already, forgodsake!" Glad to learn that others suffer from this syndrome, too. Who knew I was this nice?

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  15. Great post! I guess it's part of the writer's journey, to learn how to give our characters these "growth opportunities". :) It took me a while to realize I'm not doing a home movie of their wonderful moments in life, or writing a holiday newsletter of how great their life is. LOL I'm testing them, so they can show what they're made of, all while entertaining the reader.

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  16. Amy: I know that's a big appeal for me as a writer. The best way to really get to know my characters is to put them in impossible situations and see how they react.


    Cold As Heaven: Good for you! It's a process just like any other.

    Sara: Taking bad days out on the characters is certainly fun :) I have computer games for that as well. Major Firefly fan here myself. Neska knows his philosophers.

    BJ: That we'd get along :)

    Amanda: It can be, specially for characters we really like. I'm lucky that my dark side shows up in my writing, LOL.

    gbostic5: Or devise evil things to do with those Bs like Curmudgeon did. :)

    Gracie: Oh definitely. Raising the stakes can be a quiet thing as well as a big disaster. Mixing both types (and all the type in between) makes for the best stories. Keeps things unpredictable. (and this just gave me a post idea, thanks!)

    Writer At The Ranch: You're not alone. I know a lot of writers who feel the same way. There is a flip side, though. It could be your writer's instinct saying the story is better with that character in it. Only you can figure that out. Do you not want to kill them because you like them, or because your subconscious is telling you something?

    Donna: Love the home movie analogy! That's perfect.

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  17. I went to my writing group the other night with this post in mind and found out that yes, I suffer from a serious case of NWS. It's going to be hard work but I'm committed to torturing my characters a little more this next time around. Thanks for the post!

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  18. I think the nicest thing you can do to your favorite character is kill them off in a horrible way. I'm talking brutal. Even if they're your lead. Certainly makes things more interesting for both you and them. If you know that at the end Mister Hero is getting an axe to the head it gives you a lot of room to play with foreshadowing and tragedy.

    If you suffer from NWS, look at your beloved character and in each scene think "What would be the best thing that could happen to Mister Hero?" Write that down and then cross it out. Then write down what is the worst thing that could happen to them and run with it. It keeps the story fresh and exciting and keeps your Mister Hero on their toes.

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  19. During NaNoWriMo 2010 I reliased that I was suffering from a mutated version of NWS. I am writing a historical mystery, set in Victorian period. But whilst describing my crime scenes I managed to avoid any form of gore, and little in the way of how someone was actually killed - just that they were dead.
    I was writing for the audience back then instead of now.

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  22. Now, quickly--Take all your answers and spin them into a coherent story!

    "...And so Jenny walked back to her lonely office in the the engineering deck of The Bellirephon and wondered what she was going to do with all the Aztec gold. Suddenly, an alarm sounded."

    (Sorry, my computer is spazzing.)

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  23. Is it bad, that I answered C without hesitation every time? Do I need therapy?

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  24. Is it bad, that I answered C without hesitation every time? Do I need therapy?

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  25. In my NaNoWriMo draft last month, I had to delete a chapter because in my effort to ramp up to the final tipping point/dark moment, I resolved all the character's issues by having them deal with each other rationally and logically. I had no room for an ending! Ah, too nice. I now know where I need to plant seeds along the way to make the characters not say the right thing, I need more misunderstandings etc. Funny how as you write the story ends up in different directions (at least for us non-plotters). I consider this all part of the draft process. It's not going to be ready to go when the draft is done.

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    1. -Gasp- not rationality and logic! It's the same for us plotters, too. Even when I plan things the characters act in unexpected ways. Lots of fun, though.

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  26. "Do you suffer from NWS?" NOPE. Hahah, I'm actually a little embarrassed to tell my friends about certain plot points: this meek little blonde Christian thought *that* up?!

    I picked a couple B's, but mostly C's. "Demon god of suffering" and "Colombian drug runners" were my favorites.

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    1. Thanks! I had a blast creating the quiz. And don't be embarrassed! Let your dark self out and revel in her.

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  27. I love your blog. I nominated you for an award http://jmcogdell.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/special-read-all-about-it/

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  28. Do I look like I got nice writer syndrome?

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    1. Nope. I see evil author in that smile. Exxxxcellent...

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  29. Love the quiz, Janice! I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday :)

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    1. Thanks! We did indeed. Hope yours was wonderful as well!

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  30. Good article, Janice (as always). Took a few years to kill my NSW, but thought I was writing MG. Then I read Yancy's Munstrumologist series. I'm cured.

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    1. Thanks! That'll do it. Us kidlit writers know how to bring out the inner mean twelve-year-old.

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  31. Oh, I'm so A I'm pathetic. Partly I think because I write fan fic and I think I just realized what other fan fic writers mean when they say "fluff". So I'm writing one now, and I think I'm going to do something truly nasty. Well, it may be a B more than a C, but I can't go complete 180 overnight, right? I can't even THINK of a C to do. But I can think of some Bs.

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    1. Well, fanfic does have its own set of rules, so being nice to those characters is probably a bit more normal. It's not about the conflicts, but the characters themselves.

      But go for it, and try being evil for a bit. You never know what you might unleash. Bwahaha.

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    2. I write a lot of fanfic too (mostly that at the moment); my fandom LOVES to make the hero suffer, because that's what he does in the show. I think with fanfic you can even take it further, especially if you're dealing with a TV show where they don't/can't always show the worst of the worst.

      Go for it!

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  32. 4. Your protagonists stop at a deserted beach while vacationing in The Bahamas. How is their day ruined?

    a. Nasty sunburns.
    b. An unfortunate encounter with a school of jellyfish.
    c. Colombian drug runners.

    What about all three? *Puddleglummish grin* (or would have been if grinned by a character expecting that from author).

    No, seriously, with my experience of sunburns, answer a is not quite the NWS answer in my book.

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    1. All three works, too :)

      I grew up in South Florida, so I've had my share of nasty sunburns.

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    2. I believe you - I had some at Newport Beach, except I am thankful, since it cured the psoriasis I had had.

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  33. Hi. I'm PJ and I'm a NW. *evil grin* But I'm on a recovery program.

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    1. Good for you :) Together, we can be evil to fictional people.

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  34. I'm Cs, though I can think of situations where Bs would be appropriate, depending on the actual goal/focus of the scenes.

    I've actually never had NWS and have had to learn to be nicer to characters. But as a kid, I was taught that negativity = loving and positivity = hateful (and praise is insincere politeness, at best). There's likely a connection.

    (Family insists I make up what I say. Make of that what you will.)

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    1. You can make any of these work (it IS a tongue and cheek quiz after all), depending on how you write the scene.

      Maybe I should do a mean writer's quiz? -grin-

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  35. Your imagination makes me laugh, Janice! Torture those characters! Torture them! Thanks for the reminder.

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  36. I've read the original posting of this topic before, and after giving it some thought decided to weigh in.

    I know many of my writer friends revel in putting their character through the ringer, but I don't, but that doesn't mean they don't suffer.

    I just don't have that "Kid in a candy store" glee other writers get. Or I get that "thrill" in other ways.

    I love when protagonists and antagonists have a witty verbal exchange, or when an antagonist sincerely compliments the protagonist, while also using it to his advantage, it's no different when the protagonist faces a black moment and sees where his antagonist is better than him or her at something.

    I have to push myself when a scene requires violence or certain subjects that tough a sore spot for me. It took a long time to write the sadder parts in my stories. I know a lot of comedy writers argue it's easier to make readers/viewers cry than laugh, but I don't agree.

    Just as humor's subjective (arguably more-so than a writer's general skill at craft) so is touching the heart in the dramatic fashion.

    While I'm an easier cry than most, not everyone softens into their vulnerability as readily, and I'm speaking solely in terms of a reader getting gravitate from our stories to keep my point focused.

    Because my debut middle grade novel "GABRIEL" deals with bullying, I had to in some sense relive my own experiences being bullied, or events that made me come off a bully (those of you with or know folks with short tempters such as myself know what I mean).

    While the bullying I dealt with was not especially physical, for many kids and teens bullying experience did get physically violent at some point, and while lots of it happens online now, we still hear of at least one beating or school shooting too many any given week, and both Gabriel and I had to face that.

    But at the same time, I wrote this story to invert common male stereotypes, and that required seeing my antagonist with compassion, while letting him do what he does to Gabriel, and himself.

    My antagonist, Rum, is also the best friend of Gabriel (the title character), and his grief of watching family die, and his hatred of those responsible, sends him down a spiral of darkness.

    But it wasn't until I saw him with the same compassion I did Gabriel, who is the primary target of Rum's bullying, that he became more than the caricature he started as.

    A video I made from Rum's POV (Early PR for "GABRIEL") shows what I mean.

    To Be Continued...

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    1. The funny thing about that is more beta-readers liked Rum better than Gabriel in early drafts, and part of that I think was because Gabriel seemed more passive by comparison, but a challenge for writing a more gentile character is not to make them an assertive dynamo if that's not .

      Just because a characters shy or more reserved than most, doesn't mean their cowardly wimps, either.

      An early version of the story had far more violence than the version my editor from the publisher that I sold "GABRIEL" to in 2012 first saw, and while we're still in process on the editing front, I think I've hit the right balance.

      I do my best to give my story and characters the conflict and stakes they need, but I think what I continue to struggle with is not leaning too far in being low/no stakes to ridiculously too frenetic.

      I tend to be better at internal conflict (my character's inner life and emotional barriers) than external conflict (surviving a war zone, for example).

      I probably have a harder time with external conflict than the writers I know. Especially because I'm not great at "writing about my story" in the way you have to for query letters or those blurbs in the "final" book. As Janice well knows, those are two different skills, but it's not much consolation when they both equally matter.

      Especially when you're indie publishing, blurbs and covers can carry even more weight.

      To Be Continued...

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    2. While I don't think I have NWS, I certainly struggle with putting my characters in peril, but not shortchange who they are just make a story exciting, if that makes any sense.

      Or to think of NWS another way, sometimes we don't push our characters hard enough because we respect them.

      Not that we want to stop them from living, and conflict to varying degrees is part of life, but there is such a thing as overdoing even necessary conflict.

      We don't have to traumatize our characters to the max at all times to keep readers engaged, and speaking solely as a reader for a moment, I appreciate when the author gives me an occasional moment of lighthearted fun so it's not unrelentingly sad.

      Every reader's tolerance for pain is as different as our tolerance for physical pain. The trick is to have it when you need to and use it as needed.

      After all, reading is as much for entertainment as it for knowledge or bringing a new dimension to real life, and while I love books that move me, I don't want every story I read to be a "Barbra Walters Special" if you know what I mean.

      Some of my favorite moments in HP are when the Hogwarts trio just got to hang out, and for just a moment, forget what they're struggling with and just be, and I think the more high stakes your story, the more you need moments like that, and while we kidlit writers make the point kids and teens need that hope (Even if things end sadly) adults need it, too.

      In some ways, I think they need a bit more, if their childhood was particularly hard, and even if it was overall positive, adults face a lot of frustrations, fears and setbacks kids don't, or aren't as equipped to handle (esp. if they don't have positive parent or parental figures to help them)

      To be Continued...

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    3. As writers, we always tell each other that unless you value your characters and story, no one else will, so while we sometimes may go too easy on our characters (subconsciously as much as intentionally) it shows we respect them.

      Especially in the early drafts, we need to empathize with them, after all, if we didn't care about them, how can we expect readers to?

      Just as readers know when we're being fake in our writing, they would also know if we value our characters to write them authentically, right?

      For some plot-driven writers, they can do whatever their story requires and have this cool remove from it, but while I sometimes envy writers who can do that, it's not my style.

      I not only have feel it on some tangible level, I just don't see my characters as toys. That doesn't mean I don't have fun with them, it's just not *Joker's sadistic idea of "fun."
      (*of Batman lore)

      For highly character-driven writers like me, we can have a harder time with putting our characters through the ringer, that doesn't mean we want to write fluff, either.

      I also feel while readers often don't expect the protagonist to die, sometimes they DO, and even if they don't, it doesn't mean high costs aren't paid in other ways.

      Anyone who's seen "The Legend of Korra" Book 3 finale will know what I mean. Season 3's finale are a recent (at the time I write this) and very solid example of how while no one dies in the season finale conflict, heavy costs were paid, and everyone involved had been shaken up in ways that carried over in the series final season.

      Without getting all "Aesop's Fables" about it, being too willing to put our characters in peril can point to issues in the story, like lack of seeing characters from more than one angle.

      This can be particularly true (and especially DANGEROUS) of antagonists.

      To Be Continued...

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    4. On top of coddling our protagonists, we can turn our antagonists (who are to supposed to challenge our protagonist in some way, whether through fair means or foul) into flat, cartoonish figures, and not cartoonish in a GOOD way.

      Just as our protagonists can be unrealistically "perfect", we know antagonists can be hopelessly evil, and that can be just as dull, but for different reasons.

      Sometimes I think how we frame our writing process can help or hinder things.

      I realize I personally have a mental block with "Shades of Gray" as it has personal negative connotations for me.

      Sometimes re-framing what we're doing makes it easier to push ourselves, and I find for me, reframing "Shades of Grey" and instead think of it as "Giving nuance to my characters" I can more easily push past the parental instincts to shortchange the dark times they have to go through.

      To use Janice's "The Shifter" as an example, if we didn't see Nya's internal conflict about her pain transferring abilities, she'd merely be a robot with human organs, and that's certainly not what you wanted, right Janice?

      For those who haven't read "The Shifter" yet, I assure you, while Nya does things she's not proud of (as we all do), it doesn't make her as bad as she might feel she is at the time.

      To Be Continued...

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    5. If you have free writing as part of your process, you can use that to work through facing the harder parts of your story. I find when I have to face something really painful for my characters, I like to free write or imagine the characters involved in a happier moment in their lives (Which may or may not be mentioned in the story proper) just to take edge off, better than alcohol for me, and no hangover, too! (LOL)

      Besides, I think many of us need "fluff" even if we never write it ourselves, and besides, if life was only about suffering, our lives would all play out like a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, and I'm pretty sure that's not what whatever god you believe in (if you believe) wants us to feel.

      I do think it's important to remember that while we write fiction, we have to see the characters and world as real, immersion as just as part of the reader experience as being factual about whatever facts we reference in the story. Even though I write about a toymaking rat, doesn't mean he doesn't eat and behave in similar ways to his naturalistic counterpart, and there is a middle ground between anthropomorphic in the Beatrix Potter tradition and naturalistic stories in the vein of "Shiloh" or "Bambi."

      After all, for those of us who write fiction, we're trying to lure readers into a world of our creation, especially when we're writing about places and characters that aren't in real life, versus a novel set in a real place and/or time.

      I believe we can love and respect our characters, but challenge them as needed, without treating them like playthings.

      I'm probably a hopeless romantic in that way, but that's my take on this. I may not be alone in that sentiment, but I don't meet many writers who share that view so it can be alienating sometimes.

      I think depending on the writer and story involved, you can reframe NWS as respecting your characters, and sometimes writers can betray their characters just to make something exciting, and that's just as hollow to me as being low stakes in the way Janice explains so well.

      Hope this helps gives others struggling here a new perspective and some solace as they work through it, as I still am.

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  37. The funny thing is, I suffer from something completly opposite of NWS. You can always tell which one of my character I favor by who gets hurt the most. Instead of telling myself I need to add more conflict and badness, I find that I'm constantly telling myself to quit giving all the issues to one character and let the others experience conflict and have them feel some sort of loss as well. However, those who suffer more tend to feel and read better at the end since they were forced through tougher actions. So I guess I do have NWS in a twisted sort of way.

    ~K.A.C.

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    1. That's so funny. Well, they do say we always hurt the ones we love!

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  38. I have never had this issue. My writing started in the world of roleplaying. Where it is quite common to find people go follow the 'I love them. Therefore I must hurt them. A lot.' Giving my character's everything they could ever want, and then ripping it out from them is such fun.

    Just had one of those happen in a current rp. My character is doing all fine, and then gets caught by the enemy. Bad things happen and he's back on the road to depression and ptsd. And he isn't telling his fiance about it. It makes me glee.

    Or another one. Again, my character was getting everything she wanted. Marrying a king and becoming a queen. Only to deal with the loneliness of being in another country and her husband is too busy trying to stop a civil war to notice her problems and she isn't going to cave and tell him.

    Such fun.

    Now to make the stakes even worse in my current WIP novel. Already plan for his sister to get caught, but need more.

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