"Your Characters are Too Nice"

angelwingless.jpgI usually let John read outlines of my stories while I’m working on them, and he always has the same comment: “Your characters are too nice.” And I always smile sweetly and respond, “Yup. That’s the way I like ’em.”

I don’t believe people are inherently good or evil. Some people are sociopaths. Some have, through their life experiences, become greedy, vindictive or just plain mean-spirited.

But I do believe most of us are nice. Think of how the vast majority of people reacted last week when that US Airways plane ditched in the Hudson River with no fatalities or life-threatening injuries. Whose heart didn’t fill with joy at that news? We could empathize with those passengers, and that empathy makes us human. We assumed people on that plane were just like us–nice people–and so we rooted for them.

That’s why I like writing about nice people, even if that niceness is sometimes buried deep down inside. I want you to be able to empathize with them. I want you to feel their pain and their joy and put yourself in there miserably uncomfortable shoes when they find themselves in an impossible dilemma. If they’re not nice, why should you care?



  1. Julie on January 19, 2009 at 1:13 am

    I’ve had some critique recently on my manuscript by a person who sees everything as very black and white. I was asked if I was trying to generate sympathy for the antagonist because of things I’ve included about her. I said, no, but I don’t think people are “evil” just because, and I wanted to open a small window on my antagonist’s pain.
    Something has happened along the way (whether it’s sociological or biological) to hurt or warp them and make them strike out at the people around them. It doesn’t excuse their behavior or mean they shouldn’t face the consequences where appropriate, but it helps us to at least understand what took them there. And sometimes I pity them or even feel sorry for them.
    Of course, we don’t all make bad decisions, even if we come from the same circumstances, but there’s no telling where the turning point is for each individual — or for ourselves.

  2. Margo on January 19, 2009 at 8:23 am

    Exactly Diane…I wouldn’t care about your characters unless they were nice. I’m sure we’ve all come across people who are mean-spirited…I know I have…yet I try to think that something in their life has made them this way and I try not to judge. I’ve also seen a complete turn around…a woman in her 40’s who always wore a frown on her face, never had anything good to say and was basically negative. She had a bad childhood and in her adult life had one bad experience after another. Finally, the main thing she wanted most out of life happened to her at age 41 and she is completely opposite from what she was. Now, she ALWAYS has a smile on her face and speaks in a positive tone. I always knew it was in her and it makes ME happy just to see HER happy.
    Your characters make me feel every kind of emotion Diane…pain, heartache, darkness…and passion, joy and brightness…and more than anything, ‘hope’.
    I bet you worked on your outline all weekend…plz keep your characters nice. (-O:

  3. Denise on January 19, 2009 at 11:21 am

    I don’t believe anyone is born a ‘bad seed.’ Rather, medical or mental health issues aside, I think we are mostly a product of our environment. Some of us grow up to be compassionate nice human beings–I like to think these kinds of people are the majority–while others grow up to be killers, molesters, liars, manipulators or just plain unhappy and/or angry. When I read about negative characters, I always want to know what makes them tick.

  4. Diane Chamberlain on January 19, 2009 at 12:42 pm

    Julie, that’s interesting that your “critiquer” asked if you were trying to generate sympathy for your antagonist. I often try to give my less-than-nice characters either someone they care deeply about or else an explanation for why they are the way they are, not to garner sympathy for them but rather to make them less one-dimensional and therefore more human. Keith in BEFORE THE STORM is a good example of that. He just seems like a mean kid until you come to understand why he is the way he is.
    Margo, that woman’s a good example of external forces impacting her mood. The test will be if she loses that positive external “thing.” Has the joy she feels now become part of her core? I hope so, and I hope she never needs to find out!
    Denise, you reminded me of that ancient movie, The Bad Seed with Patty McCormick (I think). I recall watching it while babysitting as a teenager and being freaked out for weeks!

  5. Margo on January 19, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    Yes, I believe her joy has become her core Diane. I firmly believe it will never leave her.

  6. Denise on January 19, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Lol Diane! Loved that movie. I actually re-read the book last year. I’d forgotten that the movie didn’t end like the book.

  7. brenda on January 19, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    I love your characters…they are not static…now as to NICE…not so sure one central character in KEEPER OF THE LIGHT was always nice… And what about in Cee Cee and the kidnapping???
    What about Maggie-she wasn’t always nice in Before the Storm…the good thing about your characters…they are HUMAN…they change…they make mistakes…they try to right those mistakes…that makes you unique from so many other authors who don’t make the characters HUMAN…they are just people in books…
    Just as Margo has commented, we remember the people in your books…

  8. Denise on January 20, 2009 at 10:30 am

    I am so thrilled to watch all of the events unfold today!!!

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