Jun 15 2009

Please Do Not Make Generically Nice Characters

Published by at 11:49 pm under Character Development,Writing Articles

Generic niceness is a dangerous trait to give a character–particularly the protagonist. First, it’s probably not very interesting if the character is always agreeable and only does things that the audience is meant to sympathize with. That reduces the potential for conflict.  In practice, a character that’s 100% nice is usually boring and/or a Mary Sue.  Here are some traits that suggest that the character may have issues with generic niceness.

  • Polite
  • Compassionate
  • Agreeable
  • Kind
  • Personable
  • Friendly
  • Social
  • Helpful
  • Pleasant
  • Nice, of course.
  • A complete lack of flaws besides ones that nobody would hold against him (e.g. “he tries too hard,” unless that leads him to make decisions that most readers will disagree with)

 

If your protagonist has traits like these, I’d recommend taking them in a direction that they might create some problems for the characters.  For example, perhaps the character is so social that he tries to negotiate even when the audience knows that action is necessary.  A character that is too polite might be stiff or reluctant to speak her mind. A character that is too helpful might try to help even when it’s unwise for her to do so.  Alternately, perhaps the character’s traits lead him into conflict with non-antagonists*.  For example, being agreeable and trusting is generally desirable, but if you were a prison guard, your coworkers would be on your case all the time.

 

*I think non-antagonists would probably work better here because an antagonist conflicting with a hero for being too nice would probably be one-dimensionally unsympathetic.  A conflict with a relatively sympathetic character would probably develop the protagonist more and be more emotionally interesting.  For further details here, please see #5 in How to Fix Mary Sues.

9 responses so far

9 Responses to “Please Do Not Make Generically Nice Characters”

  1. Tomon 16 Jun 2009 at 2:02 am

    Of course, you can have characters with these traits, as long as they have other , less generically nice traits, such as selfish, lazy, immature, stuck-up etc. etc.

    Right?

  2. Luna Jamniaon 16 Jun 2009 at 12:12 pm

    What if their whole race is like that? Polite? And helpful in some cases to certain people … but like they were all brought up that way?

    Well, they have tempers but they’re also very cultured so they hide it that way …

  3. B. Macon 16 Jun 2009 at 1:01 pm

    So what’s the avenue for conflict? One thing you might consider is that they’re often very helpful, but are predisposed negatively towards the hero(es) for whatever reason. Preferably because of something he did (rather than something beyond his control).

  4. Luna Jamniaon 16 Jun 2009 at 1:17 pm

    hmmm … I guess. I’ll have to figure that one out–what he could have done, I mean. The realm already dislikes his kind in general; and that’s because of humans influence. They dislike other races as well but humans really hate his kind; the wolves, and dragons … those types.

    Maybe because of his temper he got in trouble … ? But they also try to stay away from his kind because they know what he does; just like what the dragons will do.

  5. Patrickon 18 Jun 2009 at 12:47 am

    >>
    What if their whole race is like that? Polite? And helpful in some cases to certain people … but like they were all brought up that way?
    Well, they have tempers but they’re also very cultured so they hide it that way …
    >>

    There is a cost to everything. If they’re perfectly polite like Vulcans are perfectly in control of their emotions, then they should quite literally die smiling over matters of etiquette. (Vulcans might be a bad example because in practice Vulcans are perfectly in control of emotions until the storyline requires them to lose it in a we-totally-did-not-see-that-coming fashion, but that is neither here nor there.)

    Perfectly Polite + Volatile Temper + Rigid Culture Controls Temper = recipe for a warrior caste society that will gut you like a fish if you touch their topknot. See, e.g., contemporary representations of feudal Europe or feudal Japan. (If their rigid culture controls their volatile temper 100% of the time, *they do not have a volatile temper*.)

    If they’re inhumanly polite, then politeness should occasionally require them to do things that are recognizably inhuman. Otherwise they’re just Better than Human, which is a trope that I think has been mentioned negatively a few times here before.

  6. B. Macon 18 Jun 2009 at 3:36 am

    “If they’re inhumanly polite, then politeness should occasionally require them to do things that are recognizably inhuman.” I like that. Also, if the characters are protagonists, it should also require them to do things that make their lives more difficult/dangerous. For example, if the villain has invited them to dinner, it would be terribly uncouth to say no. Incidentally, it is also very hard to say no IN JAPAN!

  7. Luna Jamniaon 18 Jun 2009 at 10:26 am

    … they’re very polite/stand-off-ish/emotionless, to be true, but it’s all to keep a curb on their tempers and try to make themselves more likeable (since most don’t like them at all except for the dragons and faeries). Which doesn’t always work; which doesn’t help them much.
    I have somewhat of a cost, now, but not much–they do almost literally smother themselves because they bend over backward to be polite (and they don’t use contractions, ever) and be in control. Which does cause some to actually leave their Veimpr village and their politeness/emotionlessness actually does the opposite and pushes people away more because who wants to be friends with someone who never laughs, grins, rarely gives the hint of a smile, and is constantly polite? Not very exciting, except the rare occasion they may lose their temper because other equals badger them to death and they can’t take it anymore.

    It is quite a pickle, though.

  8. Grenacon 03 Aug 2011 at 4:13 pm

    “In practice, a character that’s 100% nice is usually boring and/or a Mary Sue.”
    ^This. So much.

    I knew somebody who made every single fandom OC generically nice. They were boring Sue’s that were all the same. It’s like it was just one girl chara who changed clothes and wig to be plopped into another story. Chara development is awesome, I don’t see why she wouldn’t do it :<

  9. WritingNinjaon 29 Sep 2011 at 9:43 am

    I like this article. One thing I realize is to use all of these nice traits as building block and add depth to them. A compassionate person isn’t going to be compassionate all of the time. A polite person might know how to act around people but picks her nose when she is alone. Someone might be social, but have serious emotional problems where they have to be social and in the spot light or else heck breaks lose.

    I think about myself and the people I am around when I think of these traits. They needs reasons why they are that way. For instance, I am usually a kind and compassionate person. But if someone yells at me, picks on me, or chews me out, I bring my claws out.

    Or I had a roommate who was very social and nice to people, but behind the scenes, she constantly chewed me out. I also had another roommate who avoided contention at all costs. While it might have been nice being around her. She couldn’t make up her mind about anything. She had no preference towards anything. It was frustrating for me when it we had to work because I hate always making decisions. Everyone had hangups. That’s the cool thing about writing is that you get to look into those hangups and have the readers go “Whoa. That’s *me*.”

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply