Monday, December 23

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

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

This is the last post until New Year's Eve while I take a holiday break, so I thought I'd pull out one of my favorites from the archives. If you haven't taken the quiz yet, enjoy! 

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. 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. Chains 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?


  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

  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.

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

    Cold As Heaven

  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!

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

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

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

  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.

  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?

  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.

  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.

  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!

  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.

  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.)

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

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

  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.

    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.

  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.

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

  27. I love your blog. I nominated you for an award

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

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

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

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

  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.

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

  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.

    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.