So Nice…

By Linda Nagata
(cross-posted from Hahví.net)

Mostly, I’m a nice person. Odds are excellent that I won’t cheat you, sabotage you, or stab you in the back. I’m not very good at holding grudges either. Frankly, grudges, old hates, enemies, that sort of thing, just take up so much emotional energy, why bother? Unfortunately, this attitude sometimes gets in the way of my writing. While I find that it’s not all that hard to destroy worlds in the course of a story, allowing my characters to behave badly, or inflicting true tragedy on them — that takes work!

In one of my early novels I reached a point, maybe two-thirds through, when I just couldn’t write anymore. This went on for some time until I realized the problem: I was conflicted about the fate of a beloved character. The plot called for one ending, while my heart longed for another. Eventually, I skipped ahead and wrote the necessary ending. After fate was set, finishing the draft was easy.

My tendency toward “nice” also gets in the way of developing secondary characters — I do so like reasonable, thoughtful people! In the current work-in-progress I was developing a secondary character who was nice: logical, reasonable, considerate—but I wasn’t making any progress with the section and finally it occurred to me that maybe nice wasn’t what I needed. I can assure you the character isn’t nearly so nice now, and I’ve been able to move on to the next part of the story.

Probably my most intense conflict with “nice” came about in the writing of my just-released novel Hepen The Watcher, a sequel to The Dread Hammer. Both books follow the adventures and tribulations of an antihero protagonist named Smoke.

Like many of us, I love antiheroes. They don’t worry at all about “nice,” but deep down they’re decent respectable people. Sort of. At least occasionally. Well, anyway, in Hepen The Watcher I reached a point where I couldn’t go on. (Yes, we’ve got a theme going here. For me, lack of progress generally means I’m trying to progress in the wrong direction.) This time around, I knew exactly what the problem was: Smoke had to deal with the fate of a secondary character. He could (a) show some extreme character development and be nice; or he could (b) show a bit of character development by feeling a rare twinge of guilt for what he was doing.

My natural inclination was to go with (a). But as I thought about it, I reminded myself that it wasn’t a question of what I would do, it was a question of what Smoke would do…and in the end I opted for (b). Writing that scene was wrenching, for me, the nice writer. I still cringe a little when I think about it — but sometimes it takes a ruthless character to insist on the necessary ruthless course of action.

Hepen the Watcher by Linda NagataLinda Nagata is the Locus and Nebula award winning author of The Bohr Maker, Vast, and Memory, all available at Book View Cafe. Her latest book Hepen the Watcher, is the second in a fast-paced mythic fantasy series featuring the antihero demon, Smoke.

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So Nice… — 7 Comments

  1. You’re in good company: Tolkien seems to have suffered the same struggle, with mixed results, during and after Lord of the Rings.

    Descending abruptly from Parnassus to Box Hill, I’ve lost two novels over the years to their descent into places I could neither bear to follow, nor pretend they didn’t lead. On the other hand, one of the best things I ever wrote came about because I realized midway that the protagonist was heading for something terrible. Playing that through turned the whole from a bleak novella of spoiled and wasted love, to a tragicomic novel of valour, panache, and troth maintained by broken people under screwed-up stars. The yarn as a whole had other issues, but to take my character through the fires (or be led by her) was the best decision I could possibly have made – for both of us. I won’t say it was kinder, but I will say it was bigger-hearted than what I’d been planning. Seems the two aren’t always the same, at that.

    Which is not a way I’d explicitly thought about it before.

  2. I find writing characters who are loving and tender are very hard for me… and once I get into that mode, I can’t get out of it. Weird that.

    However, I’m also a person who – once I get going with the action – I can’t just stop writing in the middle of a scene. I must finish it first then walk away from the computer before editing it later on.

  3. Speaking of LOTR, I’ve always loved the character of Boromir, I think because he is so conflicted, wanting to do the correct and heroic thing and being led by temptation.

    Mozette, yes! If the writing is going well, I also loathe having to stop before it’s all out. Ride the wave while you can, I say.

  4. I only just learned how much I hate hurting my characters, having finished my first novel. I got to a point where I had to do something utterly horrible to my protagonist to get the story moving, and all through writing the scene I struggled. I felt like I had personally harmed the character.

    I try to fight growing attachments to my characters by giving them deep flaws and poking fun of them as much as I can, but I can’t help sympathizing with them.

    Now I know I can hurt my characters when I need to, and hope I can recognize when I need to, but I don’t think I’ll ever grow to like it.

  5. I think I need to be attached to my characters, or it’s hard for me to stay interested, but there’s definitely a compromise needed, if they’re going to be themselves and not me.

    Good luck with your first novel!

  6. Thank you! I just started revising.

    I think I need that attachment to my characters to stay interested as well. Even (or especially) their deep flaws make me like them more, even as they make mistakes that make me cringe.

    There seems to be at least two kinds of writer: those who consider their characters puppets, and those who have people living in their heads. I tend to prefer the latter kind of writer, because the sympathy radiates off the page.

  7. I am of the latter type. It was C.S. Lewis who said that reading allows you to live lives other than your own. If the writing works right, I know -everything- about my protagonist — his love life, his digestion, the state of his toenails.
    The only time I wrote about a historical character, Titus Oates, I actually had a dream about him. In the dream, Oates did nothing but glare at me. I knew it was a True Dream, a message from the historical man rather than my fictional construct. He didn’t like it, the shenanigans I was getting his fictional avatar up to in my novel — all those adventures. Girls. Getting run over not once nor twice but three times!
    I woke up and felt terrible about it. Oates has a legitimate complaint. But I couldn’t change the novel; ever single one of those calamities was necessary. I have a creepy feeling, that when I die and arrive at the Pearly Gates, the historical explorer will be there, waiting for me. Possibly with a riding crop in hand, and in no mood for discussions of plot logic. (My solution is Jane Eyre’s: I must stay very healthy and not die.)