If you can’t say something nice…

This week was devoted to Vacation Bible School, and I was in charge of the 3rd – 5th grade kids. Two of the boys (one of whom lives in my house) had a hard time getting along. No surprise there. Aggression is part of being a boy, and tension is a sure thing when you get two or more boys together in the same place. Since one of the feuders belonged to me, I took it upon myself to have a private chat with both of them early this morning. My words of wisdom: “Work on being kind to one another. It will take effort, but you must do it.” It was received, because they didn’t fight today, but it made me think about my newest work-in-progress (WIP).

In any work of fiction, you’re going to have some characters who are usually kind and some who are not so kind. The kind ones are going to be realistic (because kind people do exist in the real world)–no worries there. Unfortunately, there’s the potential they’ll be boring. In fiction, being “nice” or “kind” doesn’t usually lead to tension. It could, if you’ve got someone who’s terminally nice being kind to someone who’s really grumpy, but for the most part, you don’t want a bunch of niceness in your story. You want arguments, disagreements, tactlessness, not-nice words flung about, that sort of thing.
The hard part is that you want the reader to LIKE your protagonist, and readers want kind, nice characters to cheer for. So how do you keep the kind/nice in your WIP and still plug in the tension?
First, remember that even the kindest people on the planet (think Mother Teresa) are human and therefore prone to moments of impatience or anger or tactlessness. They are perfectly capable of saying something cruel, or lashing out verbally, or picking up a blunt object for unkind purposes. But think about the guilt they’ll feel afterward! Think of the mental angst your hero will feel after he’s smashed his grandma’s vase in a fit of anger, or the gut-wrenching turmoil when momma sees the look of hurt on her child’s face after she’s screamed at him (or spanked him, or sent him outside to play in the rain because she needs some quiet time), or the prospect of mending a friendship after harsh words are spoken in jealousy. Your nice character can still have plenty of physical and emotional conflict.
Second, even if your protagonist never loses her temper (not very believable, but you could try it….), she will undoubtedly run into other people who are not as saint-like. She’s standing in the express check-out lane at Safeway and someone with 35 things starts unloading. If your hero is dedicated to “being nice,” she won’t say anything to the perpetrator, but she’ll most definitely THINK of a few choice words she’d like to say, were she not such a nice person. Or your hero has kids. That introduces tension immediately, because there is no child on the planet at this time who behaves perfectly and always pleases the parental units. (Jesus doesn’t count in this example.) Or maybe your hero is married. Again, there’s instant tension, because you’ve put two imperfect people in close proximity. Once the honeymoon stage wears off, and they are no longer actively seeking ways to please the other, stuff starts to stand out. What the wife once thought was adorable (“He misses the laundry basket with his socks every night, isn’t that cute?”) is now an irritant (“How can he possibly miss the basket EVERY SINGLE NIGHT? And why can’t he pick them up afterward?”).
The possibilities for tension are nearly endless. Even if your nice, kind hero is living like a monk in solitude on top the mountain, he’ll still have to live with himself. It’s okay to have characters who behave nicely. Just don’t forget to introduce conflict in every scene. Any comments about niceness? Any examples you’d like to share with the rest of the class? Don’t be shy. We all like reading the comments section.
-Sonja
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2 thoughts on “If you can’t say something nice…

  1. Nice people with strong personalities are a lot of fun. They go out of their way to be nice to others, but if someone steps out of line, they have no qualms giving that person the what-for. Nice people with less strong personalities can be equally fun. Those people tend to hate confrontation and avoid conflict. So the best way to introduce tension is to have someone confront your passive, nice character. Or have two other characters arguing in front of your PNC, who might even want to step in and try to be a peacemaker, but his/her passive approach will ultimately only make things worse. Excellent good fun for the writer all around! 🙂

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