Thursday, November 01, 2007

Nice Guys Can Win

I actually hit both my writing and exercise goals for the month in October. Go, me! I'm also getting really close to finishing this draft of the book. My aim is to finish by tomorrow, take the weekend off, and then do a good once-over starting Monday. I will then be going against the flow and NOT writing a book during National Novel Writing Month. There are a few projects I want to play with, including a short story or two, but this will mostly be a month for doing background reading and research, marketing brainstorming and generally relaxing. Maybe some office cleaning, I guess.

A few weeks ago, my agent did a post on her blog that got me started thinking. She wrote about how she's having a hard time selling commercial fiction with what she calls "prickly protagonists." These are the not-so-nice main characters who have a lot of room for growth. Now, it may come as no surprise to those who've read my books that this is not a problem for me. I like nice people, and I like writing nice people. My one attempt to write an edgy main character was a complete disaster. However, that post and the comments that came in response to it got me thinking (and, mind you, I'm not contradicting or disagreeing with my agent). There seems to be some confusion and mixing up of terms. "Nice" or "sympathetic" does not necessarily equal perfect, without flaws, no room for growth, or boring. I guess this is along the lines of the commonly held attitude that dark is automatically better artistically and deeper than light. If you do it right, nice people can be just as deep, interesting and flawed as more obnoxious characters. The opposite applies, that you can have "prickly" characters who can be very sympathetic, but as I can't seem to write truly prickly characters, I'll address how to make nice people interesting.

I think one of the tricks is to throw nice characters into situations where being nice is hard -- which basically amounts to real life. Based on my personal experiences, it can be really hard to be nice and still get what you want. To raise the stakes, put your nice person in a position where they have to do something that goes against their nature, and set up the situation so that readers not only believe the character would do such a thing, but might even admit that they'd do the same thing in similar circumstances. The example of a book my agent thought was commercially successful in spite of having a difficult protagonist was Something Borrowed by Emily Giffin, but I think that book actually proves my point because the main character of that book was a nice person who did some very bad things, and yet you still wanted her to win.

The book is about a woman who has an affair with her best friend's fiance in the months leading up to the wedding. Nasty, huh? Doesn't sound like a very nice person, does it? But this character is quite the Everywoman. She's someone you identify with and sympathize with. She's the smart, not-as-attractive girl who's always been overshadowed by her beautiful and popular best friend. Her friend actually isn't much of a friend. She's more of a "frenemy," and she has a history of going after any guy the heroine liked, getting him, then dumping him, leaving him too heartbroken to be interested in anyone else for a while, and then there was the "girl code" issue, so as an ex of her friend, he was off-limits to the heroine. It got to the point that the heroine didn't even bother hoping for things to work out with any guy she liked, and instead she just introduced him to her friend. Which was how the friend and the fiance ended up together -- he was the heroine's friend, someone she liked but didn't think she could have, and she introduced him to her friend. So it actually feels like something of a triumph when the fiance goes for the heroine (though I did wish he'd had the guts to end the previous relationship first -- for me, he was the problem character in the book). Meanwhile, as this affair is going on, the friend is up to her old tricks, and has her own affair with the guy the heroine brought to some of the pre-wedding events as a date. Between the backstory and the friend's behavior, the deck is totally stacked to allow the heroine to do some bad things and still be a sympathetic character. The real prickly protagonist was in the follow-up book, where the friend was the main character.

I don't think you have to take it that far, however. Just giving nice people flaws and room for growth keeps them from being boring. In my series, Katie is plucky and independent, but sometimes she's a bit too independent for her own good because she'd prefer to deal with things herself instead of asking for help, and that often gets her in trouble. Owen may be the ultimate nice guy dreamboat, but he's a bit too passive and has to be really forced to take action -- and we see with the power that he has that in most situations, it's probably good that action isn't the first thing he thinks of. Unfortunately, that caution spills over into his personal life, which is how a guy that hot has remained single. These characters have room to grow, as nice as they are.

There's a whole slew of nice-guy heroes on TV right now, and tomorrow I'll take a look at all these Best Friend types in unusual situations.

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