On Writing: Letting Go of Too-Nice Writing

Today’s word count: 3031 words

NANTUCKET word count to date: 40,071 words

HARPER word count to date: 3,868 words

There’s something I’ve been working on, little by little: writing “too nicely”. By that I mean, not being able to really tell the truth of the story I’m working on, the truth of who my characters are.

It’s like I have this little brush, and a bucket of white paint, and I’ve been trained to whitewash everything. I want to make everything, and everyone, nice.

It probably wouldn’t be so bad if the stories that are in me to tell are romances. (Well, it probably still isn’t a good thing, but perhaps it wouldn’t be quite as bad.)

But the stories that I want to tell are very different. Mostly the stories that I want to tell are epic thrillers – lots of action, the ultimate fight between good and evil. Not quite that baldly, but it’s there. That type of novel requires a really good bad guy or you know, the thing falls flat on its face.

A while back I watched the pilot episode of a series on DVD, and it bored me to tears. It had a great premise, involving good guys with some really lovely superpowers. And it was beyond boring – because (and I knew this right away) the “bad guy” was really inadequate. Milquetoast. Not much of a challenge, although everyone treated the whole thing as quite the challenge.

I think it was then that I saw this same situation reflected in a lot of my own story scenarios. I come up with a lot of great ideas, but I don’t let my characters be who they are.

My good guys are way too nice. Way, way, way too nice. And my bad guys? Seriously, show them a picture of a kitten and they’re purring right along with the cute little thing.

These stories I’m telling deserve more than whitewashing. They deserve my total honesty as a writer. So that’s another thing I’m working on. Taking the “too nice” out of my writing.

What about you? If you write thrillers or epic fantasies or murder mysteries – if you write anything that requires that you show the clash between good and evil – how do you handle the bad guy? Do you ever find yourself making him/her be nicer than he/she really is?

8 thoughts on “On Writing: Letting Go of Too-Nice Writing

  1. Molly

    What great insight you have to your own writing’s strengths and weaknesses. Are your bad guys too good because you are a good person? I don’t mean to be funny, but rather serious. You have me thinking: could I write about a bad guy? Do I know enough about being “bad” to make her/him believable or would I develop a stereotype character?

    Fascinating observation and I am anxious to see how you infuse “badness” into your “good” antagonists.

    Molly’s last blog post..451 Fridays

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  2. Memory

    I have the opposite problem with my villains; they tend to be stereotypes. I find that I need to really dig down deep to find their good qualities and make them well-rounded individuals.

    Memory’s last blog post..Oh, Pronunciation

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  3. Belle Post author

    Molly, that’s my worry, too – will my villains be too stereotypical? I know what you mean, about how being a good person can make it harder to make the bad guy really a bad guy. I find myself not wanting them to be really that bad, to be capable of being “rescued” and turned onto a life of good. I think that works in some types of fiction, but it’s more difficult to have in an epic type, good vs. evil thriller.

    Memory, it’s interesting and very true what you say – whether one goes all bad or all good, the stereotype is the danger.

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  4. Margot

    This post and the comments make for very interesting thinking. I’ve been staring at my laptop for ten minutes now trying to think this through. This is a tough one. I’m going to start paying attention to the attributes of evil people or people I consider bad. Then the hard part will be how to show those bad attributes in actions that are convincing enough for readers.

    Margot’s last blog post..Two Summer Salads

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  5. Cathryn

    I also have the opposite problem – characters that are too one-dimensional. It’s mostly a question of what parts of their lives I’m showing; focusing on strong conflict scenes has tended to bring out the worst in them.

    Cathryn’s last blog post..Precision

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  6. Belle Post author

    Margot, you’ve got a great idea there – I don’t think I pay much attention to the antagonist in the books that I read.

    Cathryn, I think I have a strong mediator thing going on here – when my conflict scenes are intense, I have a tendency to insert myself into things and try to work out a resolution that benefits everyone all around. Doesn’t work well at all in an action-driven novel.

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  7. Mary D

    I think you’ve made an excellent point, because too often we are trying to stay within these social ‘perceived boundarires’! I’ve been working almost 9 years on a tale of Lucifer and his protegee, and I fall into the same trap, even when I can feel my characters insisting on being their own selves!

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