Why Nice Characters Equal No Conflict

In life, we often think of likable people as nice people. But, in fiction, that’s not quite how it works. In fiction, nice characters are conflict-sucking vampires out to sap your story’s life’s blood and leave it pale and limp in your reader’s hands.

Ouch, huh?

Naturally, we’d like most of our characters to be likable, but how can we tell if we’re running the risk of making characters too nice?

An epic fantasy I read recently offered a good example of how overly nice characters can kill your book’s conflict and momentum. The book featured dozens of characters, almost all of whom were fighting on the same side—so, naturally, they were all nice to one another.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

Well, when you consider that every page of your story needs to contain conflict—either outright or foreshadowed—you realize the idea of all the characters getting along, waking up every morning with chipper attitudes, and just generally being super nice all over the place really doesn’t provide for a constant stream of conflict.

Since this particular book never characterized the alien bad guys and because the heroes rarely if ever exchanged dialogue with them, the author basically blocked off every door that might have led him to conflict.

Authors shouldn’t fear creating characters who spark against each other. Arguments should abound, even among friends. Conflict is the heart of fiction. Conflict is the reason we read—and write. Without it, we have no story—just an account of our characters’ daily lives, which, however fascinating they may be to us, will ultimately be about as interesting as someone else’s home videos to others.

Don’t fall into the no-conflict trap. Give your characters plenty of flaws, plenty of arguments, and plenty of antagonists.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever written a character who was too nice? What did you do about it? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I think from the beginning I had an innate understanding that conflict was necessary…but sometimes villains are way too over-the-top. One example I use from a movie is “The Rock.” The bad guy in it (Ed Harris) was fully fleshed out himself…he wasn’t just bad for the sake of being bad. You could almost identify with him in a way, which made the conflict even more compelling.

  2. So true!
    Dickens was a master of conflict. For example, not a page of A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations passes without him putting his character(s) through some form of stress, tension, conflict, etc. Even at their peaceful, happy moments they have some foreshadowing of coming distress looming over them.

  3. I think the challenge comes in making those “nice” characters real and compelling. It’s much easier to do “bad” or evil than it is to write a truly “good” character. In that character as long as the individual struggles with bad or evil, we can empathize–but that’s the conflict, right? CBA fiction can tend to make the “nice” character not struggle against being “bad” or else makes their “goodness” a product of their volition.

  4. I really like the idea that if your characters are too likable that your story basically becomes someone else’s home movies, interesting to the people who are in them, and maybe your grandmother but to any one else, really not that interesting.

  5. @Stephanie: I agree. Often the most compelling antagonists are those we can identify with the most.

    @Keaghan: I’m a big fan of Dickens. He was often over the top, but he was always entertaining. Modern authors can learn much from him.

    @Nicole: I adore conflicted characters. What’s the point of being good if you don’t have to overcome a little bad along the way, right? The struggle is the glory.

    @Jeff: Self-indulgence is a sin writers must shun with tenacity. As much as we write for ourselves, we have to keep in mind that, if we hope others will read and enjoy what we’ve written, we’ve got to be kind to them and cut the parts they’ll find boring.

  6. Great points! Even with friends, conflict can occur (minor or major). I have a very “nice” MC guy character, who’s always feeling a bit shameful of his bad thoughts. LOL The whole point of the novel is to shake him out of his complacency and jolt him out of that “niceness” though!

  7. Nice characters definitely have their place and serve their purpose (in fact, when comes right down it, many successful characters could be considered “nice”). Niceness only becomes a problem when it’s stagnant and done for no other purpose than because the author wants to make sure readers will like said character every step of the way.

  8. Love that – “Without it, we have no story—just an account of our characters’ daily lives, which, however fascinating they may be to us, will ultimately be about as interesting as someone else’s home videos to others.” 🙂
    And I think I just realized why the last 60 pages of one of my stories feels like it’s dragging to me. The villain is gone, and the characters are just trying to get back home. 😛 The two nicest characters do get in a fight with each other, but the level of conflict has dropped waaaaay down. Hmm….
    Anyway, thank you! 😀 Your posts are always so helpful! 🙂

  9. btw, I love your header. 😀

  10. Thanks! 🙂 It’s always more interesting to write conflict – just as it’s more interesting to read about it. Whenever I’m bored with a scene, I know it’s time to start an argument somewhere!

  11. Good points in the video. Never thought about it too much. My favorite part was the description of what nice characters do to your book at the beginning. 🙂

  12. Well, judging from the the current trend of vampire popularity, maybe nice characters are just the ticket!

  13. “Conflict fuels fiction and frustration fuels conflict.” Can’t remember who said it though.

  14. It’s true! Frustrated characters are usually ones we can’t stop reading about.

  15. Anonymous says

    I’ve been having trouble with my female MC and I think this is why. She agrees with the leader, the male MC, so there is no conflict now. You nailed it. She’s too nice. I’m hoping I can find a way to make conflict, or she might need to be turned into a secondary character in the next draft.

    Jessi

  16. The good news about conflict is that it’s a blast to create. Whenever I start injecting conflict, my word counts soar.

  17. It’s so much more fun to write an argument scene or a fight now and then rather than “I agree with you completely” characters all the time. I think it adds more to the characters too because you get to see different sides of their personalities. Great post!

    ~ Chy

  18. Conflict brings out character. We don’t find out who people – or characters – truly are until the pressure is on.

  19. Well, I wrote a scene where my character was too nice. She stayed behind a closed door, refusing to talk to the hero. What she needed to do was come out of hiding and have it out with him. (At least according to my agent.) So, that’s what I did. At it was a much better scene when I let the two of them go at it!

  20. Yep, sparks can’t fly if the flint and steel never meet!

  21. I was having this conversation with a member of my writing group. I told him that there should be tension (conflict) in every scene. He flatly disagreed with me. Perhaps I should email him this post. 😀

  22. Conflict comes in many shapes and sizes. Atomic bombs don’t have to be going off in every scene, but *something* has to be amiss, whether it’s G.I. Joe breaking down the door, or the MC turning green at the thought of her mother-in-law coming to visit.

  23. There is a great history of nice and likable characters existing within conflicts in literature (the BBC’s #1 book of modern times, Lord of the Rings, stars the ultra-likable Frodo and Sam). Unless you radically re-define what “conflict” means, every page of a book does not need it, and certainly does not need it measured and sewn back in. Every page of a book needs to be entertaining, and most conflicts actually fail to entertain thanks to being contrived for the sake of desiring more conflict. If you can make likable characters goofing around off-plot amusing, I’ll read it.

  24. Conflict is what drives fiction. Frodo and Sam’s adventures were fraught with conflict and tension, even in their more laid-back scenes. Had Tolkien given us a story in which Middle Earth was under no threat and the Shire’s Hobbits had no purpose in life other than loafing about, their lighter moments would have been dull from sheer lack of contrast. Light, low-conflict scenes work in stories because readers know something else is coming, even if the characters don’t.

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