Do novels need to be nice?

And speaking of character development – the question came up at my seminar in Florida about whether characters should be nice. It’s not a simple answer because there are degrees of niceness. I, for instance, am very unlikable because I lack a heart or soul. On the other hand, many find the beagle very likable, but it’s only because they mistake cuteness for niceness and she always has a full blender of margaritas. These are mutually exclusive characteristics. She only has booze so she can rifle your wallet after you’ve had your fill and are singing at the top of your lungs wearing a pasta colander on your head. And cute does not equal nice. Trust me.

Social Implications of Nice

Many writers look at the social implications of niceness vs. gritty. It’s true that literature has evolved over the years and writers are exploring our own social evolution (or devolution, as the case may be in some instances) in order to investigate plots and characters that color outside the lines. As one who specializes in books that center on how people are influenced and changed by their experiences, and how they deal with those repercussions, I love the introspective look at nice vs. gritty.

So I have no problem with a not-so-nice book/characters. Anything that mirrors real life is bound to have plenty of grit and grime. HOWEVER, I do believe that the protagonist(s) needs to have enough characteristics that make us care. I look at some of our own books – some that are quite controversial in nature. As unsympathetic as some of the characters may appear, there are endearing qualities that make it possible for the reader to sympathize and empathize.

Why Are They Scuzbags?

I believe it’s important to explain why a character has certain foibles that are less than exemplar. It’s not enough to simply have a character who lies to his family and co-workers – you need to develop that storyline to explain why. I think of Dexter (lordy, but I love that show). He’s a mass murderer, and he kills his victims in very dramatic, cathartic ways. BUT there is a backstory as to why he kills. And in the words of Ahhnold Schwarzenegger, “Yah, but they were all bad.” He’s a compelling character because even though he’s inhuman to a large degree, he has a raw, almost childlike concern for people. Killing badies cleanses his soul and protects the victims. A very deftly-written character.

And that’s where I believe books must fall. I am of the opinion that few want to read about a scuzball who has no redeeming qualities. Heck, that’s why the Great Cosmic Muffin invented politicians. So while we may want to read about real life, we have to remember that our characters are the vehicles who move the plot along. Without well-developed characters, there is no plot. Without something likable about them, no matter how small, there’s no book.

15 Responses to Do novels need to be nice?

  1. Marisa Birns says:

    Yes, amen! The hero can’t be all good, nor the villain all bad. In order for reader to care about what happens, they each have to be interesting blend of good/bad.

    Just like life. But told in a way that makes it a better story. 🙂

  2. It’s OK for some to be nice but they must all be conflicted.

    Dr. B

  3. The niceness factor also changes by genre. The hero or heroine in a romance should be much nicer than the hero or heroine in a mystery. A cozy mystery’s hero or heroine must be considerably nicer than in a hardboiled mystery, etc.

    I also insist in the interesting factor. No matter how nice or disgusting a character is he or she should be interesting.

  4. Dan Holloway says:

    This is a real hot topic in the UK after Daisy Goodwin criticised the books longlisted for this year’s Orange Prize for being too miserable. There has been a mass collective sneeze in British literary circles since.

    It’s REALLY important to distinguish nice protagonists from nice novels. Take Villette, for example – peopled by lovely characters, possibly one of the “nasty”est books ever written depending on how you take that ending. A novel’s niceness depends upon its world view and its treatment of its protagonists. Some novels inflict suffering at random upon their protagonists and this can sometimes work very well – just think, for example, of the treatment of Pangloss in Candide.

  5. “Collective sneeze…” LOL.

    What is their definition of “too miserable”? I agree that it’s important to pinpoint the nice factor. And sometimes, people can over-think a topic into a coma – like literary critics. Nice has lots of faces, just as scuzzbags do. I want a book that has satisfying characters that are real and three dimensional, and whose story is filled with gritty issues that make me think and reflect. Lastly, I want a satisfactory ending that makes sense and finishes the story.

  6. kimkircher says:

    Well said, Lynn. I want real characters–ones that I care enough about to keep turning the page, but who aren’t people pleasers or fake in a June Cleaver sort of way. Now a June with a little flaw–like a tendency towards two martini lunches or a penchant for leather bodices–could be very interesting indeed.

  7. Gahhh! June Cleaver in lace bodices…unsee…unsee! Quick, beagle, get me the draino for my eyes.

  8. NinjaFingers says:

    Nah, Lynn, we just need margaritas all round.

  9. Dan Holloway says:

    here’s one of the original articles in The Guardian
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/mar/17/misery-orange-prize-judge-authors
    As you’ll see from the 99 comments, it provoked a reaction. There has been a flurry of “should novels be nice” articles since

  10. Wow, Dan, I see what you mean by “collective sneeze.” Thanks so much for sharing the link.

    That’s the thing with taste – it’s personal. Judges may be better read than the average bear, but they are still tainted by their personal preferences.

    My tastes run along having a sense of balance. I feel readers need a chance to catch their breath in a gritty book, even it’s a small break. Anything that leans too far south of that leaves me running for oxygen.

  11. Lauren says:

    Pasta colander?

    *blinks innocently*

    So that’s what that is …

  12. Geez, Roberts, if you ever COOKED, you’d know!

  13. Jc Danville says:

    Jonathan Littell has a main character that gives more than grit in “The Kindly Ones” as an SS officer doing all king of awful stuff and explaining it as if logical. Moreover Littell puts you in his shoes and it becomes almost “normal” as you read, quite a distressing experience when you shut the book. It sold very well, so maybe the idea readers only want clean stuff built within ready-made frames is not that true, well that might just be plain talent that goes beyond it all.

  14. As I’ve said before, there are always exceptions to the rule. That’s why I speak in generalities.

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