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:

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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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