6 ways to keep nice characters alive

Writing the second draft of my WIP is starting to scare me. I’ve spent a week on chapter 1. One of my main challenges is dealing with two characters who are, well, nice people. I like them. They’re young, not sure who they are yet, generally good to other people. They are not soldiers or serial killers or intent on world domination. So, I’m struggling with making them interesting and not sappy.

Nice characters will not go quietly into the good grimdark! Rage, rage against  the fate of Eddard Stark!

Nice characters will not go quietly into the good grimdark! Rage, rage against
the fate of Eddard Stark!

Brutal and violent is so much easier to write than nice. Seriously, how hard is it to run for your life, shoot flamethrowers at plague victims, describe a madman’s gruesome murder of an unsuspecting victim? Granted writing psychological violence and manipulation are quite tricky arts, but we still let the violent and psychotic characters off the hook. They don’t have to think or reason or deal too much with complexities and consequences. You can (and should) put your nice characters into justified violent action mode, but they cannot stay there all the time. They’re rational. They think of others. Dammit!

This is where my writerly self gets that sick feeling. Oh boy, going to have to kill or warp the nice ones. Ned is dead! It’s a Ramsay Bolton world! There can be no comforting moments, no scent of a future where justice might still lurk! Hope must be squashed!

Ahem. I think you get the picture. What scares me even more than losing readers as a result of my characters being too nice and thoughtful, is losing readers because my nice characters are so stupid I want to choke them to death myself. Therefore, if these are my givens: a) my fictional world is not totally bleak and b) these protagonists are capable of rational thought, then how do I get them to the end of the story in an exciting and engaging way?

Here are six ways I’m trying to keep my characters alive:

1. Up the Action. This is speculative fiction, so action should be a significant part of the equation, and, as noted above, even though one cannot run or fight forever, running and fighting are required at times. Whatever happens, don’t allow yourself to write your nice character out of the action. Do not allow them to hide or be the object of a rescue.

2. Dramatize Personalities. No one is always nice. Nice characters also have their peeves, their prejudices and their moments of snark. Know them. Use them. Make them trip up your character.

3. Give Characters Responsibility. Give your nice character a kitten. Then take it away. Hold the kitten hostage. Kittens are known to produce amazing acts of valor and foolhardiness.

4. Apply Pressure. Forcing your nice character to the breaking point can help a) demonstrate the character’s amazing endurance, or b) force them into spontaneous responses that will actually reinforce interesting aspects of their personalities (See point 2).

5. Isolate Your Characters. This is a type of pressure, but I think it’s often overlooked. What would you do if you were in solitary confinement for a prolonged period? How did Eleanor of Aquitaine outlive most of her children and the ruthless husband who kept her imprisoned for 17 years? She had time to get all her ducks lined up so she could get some revenge and secure her interests when she got out.

6. Spying: the Refuge of the Clever. If your nice character is a planner and not a pantser, s/he can provide plenty of intrigue by screwing up other characters’ plans. This is a way to put your nice characters’ brains to good use.

That’s all I’ve got right now. If you’re a writer, what techniques do you use? If you’re a reader, send me your examples of believable nice characters who survive serious challenges and use their brains. I do not want to kill my nice characters, so wish me luck in ensuring their survival in this second draft. They will not go quietly into the good grimdark! Rage, rage against the fate of Eddard Stark!



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