The Problem With Overly Nice Characters

E.A. Durden

This past spring, the literary world burst into debate when novelist Claire Messud was questioned by Publishers Weekly about the protagonist of her new novel. The interviewer asked, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you?” To which Messud responded, “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” (Read the full interview here.)

I was reminded of that exchange when reading E.A. Durden’s piece for Glimmer Train, “Against Decency: Leading Your Characters Astray.” She writes:

What’s wrong with overly nice characters? To begin with, they’re boring. They do to plot what Round-Up would to a tomato plant. This is because they can’t abide conflict, and smooth it over every chance they get. Compare that to Denis Johnson’s characters, say, or Flannery O’Connor’s, who can’t step off the front porch without pissing somebody off. Conflict, as we know, is oxygen to fiction. Yet somehow I forget as a writer what I love as a reader, and, if I’m careless, end up with characters who get along with everyone, who start to seem like someone I’d want to marry. Would you want to marry a Flannery O’Connor character?

Read the full piece at the Glimmer Train bulletin. Or, check out the following:

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration and tagged , .

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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My favorite books contain characters I want to marry / be best friends with. I think you can get away with it if bad things are happening to those characters. I don’t enjoy spending hours and hours with someone I don’t like, unless they’re the antagonist, and I can only take so much of that.

RJ Crayton

I think the distinction isn’t being nice, it’s being one note. We all know nice people, and the thing is, they’re not nice all the time. They will often tell you how they struggled with being nice in certain situations, how they had to dig deep to let something go. We admire that fortitude–at least those of us who don’t have it–and think, gee, it would be nice if I could’ve let that go. A character who is universally nice and never struggles with it is a one note, fake character. All people are multifaceted. Yes, because of the way… Read more »


Everything depends on context. Take for instance Edith Bunker. She is the nice, dense, placating, peace-making character who throws Archie into high relief. Compulsively nice characters, oblivious to or un-phased by what’s going on around them are crucial to many comic stories. It’s true that conflict is the mother’s milk of fiction, and in serious literature some of the best conflict develops when a character’s decency makes him or her blind to an indecent reality.

Lexa Cain

Just as listeners prefer different singers, readers prefer different main character types. Some like complex, realistic, flawed characters (like Glimmer Train) while some prefer likeable heroes (like PW and me). Neither is wrong.


I don’t think there is a right or wrong way to go as long as stuff is happening and it is interesting. It can be difficult to read about a character you hate but their story is nevertheless important and captivating. (I’m thinking of David Lurie in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace who is possibly my least favourite protagonist of all time).

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[…] What's wrong with overly nice characters? To begin with, they're boring. This is because they can't abide conflict, and smooth it over.  […]

[…] Friedman has an extremely short post, “The Problem With Overly Nice Characters“, that I think is intended to make us think and includes a couple of links to other […]