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Writing Nice Characters

Anonymous asked: “I have a short story for my creative writing class that I’m turning into a full story. My teacher said that my main character is ‘too nice’ and ‘no one is that nice’ I have reasons for her nice and sweet, but I still want her to be realistic. Are there any tips you could give me to make her more real, but not lose her niceness/sweetness?”

Sometimes it’s hard to be nice. Being nice is not always easy, but also being nice is not the same as being “good.”  Let’s delve into that one a bit.

Niceness is kind of a strange thing. It’s not quite optimism, but it’s often about pointing out the good. I think Professor Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter is a good example. She’s “nice” or at least she tends to sugar-coat things and she’s polite but she’s also evil. Nice is not synonymous with good. Additionally, you can have characters who say horrible things and are just nasty, but turn out to be pretty good people. Niceness – I think, at least to me – is more about what someone says, while goodness has to do with action, what someone does. There is a difference. 

Now, back to the question. Sometimes it’s hard to be nice, but also, it’s fine for a character to be nice all the time, but it’s realistic for a character to sometimes struggle to find the right thing to say or not always know what to do. It’s realistic for a well-intended character to mess up completely. It’s not that they’re not kind, but don’t always know the perfect thing to do or say. They might bake muffins for a someone who’s spouse died, but not realize that that person has a gluten allergy. No one’s perfect. They can try to be kind and have it just not work out all the time. 

Another potential issue could be that your “too nice” character is getting involved in situations they have no business being in. Sure, they want to help, but why do they have to help. Why does it matter to them? The answer doesn’t need to be wicked or selfish, but just more personal. It’s not just about doing the right thing always, what do they feel they could gain in this situation? It could be a closer relationship with someone who is directly involved or it might be that it is like another situation they themselves had been in and still struggle with or haven’t gotten over. 

One more thing that could be an issue is what I’ve seen called “perfect protagonist syndrome” or really any variant of that phrase. The character does not feel real, because they are beautiful and perfect and successful in everything they do. They might have one or two small flaws, but generally they aren’t anything that majorly is impacting the plot. This is a pretty common problem actually for new writers – usually there’s too much torment or too little. Both ends of the spectrum usually lead to characters that don’t feel realistic. I am not going to talk too much more about it this though because it’s not really something that I preach. I’ve read books about characters that don’t have many real-life flaws and am not really bothered by that so long as they’re involved in the plot and the conflict is present and real and exciting. 

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