On NOT Playing it Safe

I have a tendency to (over)protect my characters. Call it a mother hen complex, or maybe a more modern term would be helicopter novelist. I hover over my characters’ every move and the moment I sense a bad choice coming on, I swoop in and rescue them. Close call, I think, that could’ve been really bad.

Oh wait, isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?

Make your characters miserable! You hear this often as a writer. Make them hurt, bleed, fall off trucks, out of windows, walk into traffic, stumble over vibrating train tracks.

Photo Credit: ahh phooey via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ahh phooey via Compfight cc
Only try this in fiction, please.

Often it’s metaphoric, but it can be literal (especially in the thriller and horror genre).

It makes sense because suffering adds interest, intrigue, and suspense. Playing too nice is boring, and the last thing you want is to make your reader fall asleep (the only time this is okay is if a reader conks out after staying up all night reading your book).

“Ask what the worst thing is that could happen to your protagonist and make it worse.” Classic writing advice.

Good? Yes. But be careful not to overdo it. If your character is miserable all the time, and for no good reason, it can turn your story into a different kind of (author) nightmare – predictable and annoying.

This, however, is not my problem.

My problem is playing it too safe. I rescue and avoid. I delete danger. I sense an oncoming train from miles away and I swoop in to save my character before the rails even begin to tingle.

I noticed this when I reread the first draft of my novel last year. Every time something bad was about to happen to my protagonist… it didn’t. She was always saved, either by me, or one of the other characters (um, also me). I didn’t do this consciously. I never set out to write a “safe” story, but apparently my instinct as a human being is to protect and defend. When I see danger lurking ahead I grab my characters and run for cover.

Maybe this stems from my actual mother hen instinct, which I believe can be a good thing despite the bad rap helicopter parenting gets these days.

Photo Credit: joannaro99 via Compfight cc Nobody messes with my chicks.

Photo Credit: joannaro99 via Compfight cc
Nobody messes with my chicks.

But in writing – and I’m talking fiction and creative nonfiction here (think about memoir, how tempting to write yourself in a more desirable light, to smooth out painful edges of your past) – it’s almost never a good thing.

Sometimes we must lead our most beloved characters in the path of a train or at least a fast moving cyclist.

Sometimes we must indulge their self-destructive habits, and perhaps even push them closer to temptation.

I’m keeping all this in mind as I head towards the final third of my (latest) novel draft. I have to make sure I’m not choosing the easy way out – for me or my characters.

As Miss Frizzle, the teacher and driver of The Magic School Bus, says…

“Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”

magic school bus

Pretty great advice for writing, and for living.

Are there times in your writing when you play it too safe? Or do you fall on the other side of the spectrum?

If you’re not sure, take this fun quiz by author and blogger Janice Hardy: “Do you Suffer From NWS (Nice Author Syndrome)?


I’m joining the lovely Maddy over at Writing Bubble for her weekly link up, What I’m Writing. There are some great posts this week on Setting and Story Structure, as well as one writing mama’s list of Editing Essentials (hint, coffee is high on the list, and I must concur).

28 thoughts on “On NOT Playing it Safe

  1. Interesting post lovely, got me thinking! I’m definitely on the other side of the pond here and always tend to veer towards the dark side. Not exactly rocket science given my deeply dysfunctional past I guess 😉 #whatimwriting


    • It’s funny because my novel itself – the backstory – is terribly dark, and I think/wonder if that is why I’m trying to shield my protagonist as she makes her way into her uncertain future. Writing certainly can be a tricky balancing act!


  2. Interesting! I’d not actually thought about this in this way before. Obviously with my picture books I have to be a mother hen – I’m writing about a boy who gets kidnapped by aliens at the moment but clearly I can’t let anything bad happen to him… in fact he’s going to save himself, humanity and make some new friends in the process – phew! With my novel it’s a bit different as my character has suffered the most awful grief (death of husband and son) but that’s all 15 years in the past. I have toyed with the idea of writing in two different time periods though as I think writing about it in the present tense could make it much more painful/powerful. It’s not nice to put our characters through horrible events though is it? Good luck with your edit! Thanks for linking to #WhatImWriting and for the lovely mention at the end xx


    • You know, Maddy, I just read this rather dark picture book to my son, and while I was appalled on the first read through (as was my very sensitive older daughter), my toddler son LOVED it. I think sometimes you can get away with darkness with kid’s stuff if it’s handled a certain way, but I imagine most of it is (understandably!) mother hen-ish.

      As I just wrote to Rene, my novel is actually quite dark (!) in the back story – which, similar to yours is 10 years in the past, but as my protagonist fumbles her way through the present, I think I’m trying to protect her just a bit too much. It’s less about not making life hard – it already is for her – but taking the boom out of any possible explosions she encounters along the way, if that makes any sense.


  3. Good post, I’m the opposite. I give my characters a hard time and my editor fed back to me on my current book she’s editing that maybe I need to let my main character enjoy herself a bit. So I wrote in some fun passages for her and it felt good being nice to her! It’s definitely a balance as you say. I think there needs to be peril and conflict to create drama but readers also need to relate to the characters too which is where the likability and nice stuff comes in.


    • It definitely is a fine line, isn’t it, between light and dark. My character has a terrible past to contend with, which I suppose is making me (too) cautious as I write about her present. Always good to be aware of our tendencies, that’s for sure.


  4. In my current novel my protagonist definitely makes some really, really bad choices… It’s tempting to rush in and save her, knowing what she’s getting herself into, but that’s certainly not how it happens in real life! So I’ve rather guiltily let her continue along her path – I think it should at least make for a good read, and hopefully she’ll live to tell the tale… x


  5. This is a fun post! Mainly because I don’t write fiction at all, so it’s so interesting to hear. Now I really need to know if I’m a Nice Author. I bet I am because when I watch TV, I get so mad when the writers make bad things happen to my favorite characters!


  6. When I’m writing this is constantly in my head, am I making my protagonist go through enough? Am I overdoing it? All this when I’m trying to write. I don’t know which side of the line I fall on at the moment, perhaps the dark side! I have a lot of bad stuff in my novel and maybe need to tone it down a little. I’m opposite to you Dana, I tend to banish my ‘mother hen’ side and let go. Good luck with adding in that tension. xx


    • It’s interesting to see what side we tend to fall on! I think in my short stories I gravitate to darker. But for this novel, the dark stuff happened in the past, so maybe that’s why I’m having trouble letting bad stuff happen to an already completely messed up person. Thanks for your comment!


  7. Okay, seriously, yes. YES, I do this. I wrote 2 novels (about 5 years ago) and really they were SO boring. I would never have thought of the term helicopter novelist at the time, but YES, that is exactly what I was. I worry I do the same in my essays actually.


    • Finally, another helicopter novelist! Everyone is on the dark side but us it seems 🙂 You don’t do that at all in your essays, by the way, not in any that I’ve read. Thanks so much for chiming in, Nina. I’m hoping I don’t let my protagonist off so easy this time around, but we’ll see…


  8. When writing fiction, I wonder if I make my characters go through too much. I am still trying to find a balance between the pendulum between the right amount of happiness and sadness. I hear you though, it is hard, sometimes, to subject our characters to trials – maybe because they are a part of us.


    • Finding a balance is key, and challenging it seems, no matter what side you err on. And yes, maybe it IS harder at times when our characters reflect shades of us. Thanks for your comment Rudri, I would love to read your fiction sometime.


  9. Oh, we used to love Miss Frizzle when my son was younger, Dana! Great quote! I, however, most definitely suffer from Nice Author Syndrome – ha ha. I love to beat my characters up! I do however suffer from many other syndrome’s to make up for this…like Procrastinate Syndrome and Waffle Syndrome and too many to list. 🙂 How exciting you are in the final stages of your book! Congrats on coming so far…many others have given up by now and you didnt!


    • Oh, The Magic School Bus is so great. It really beats out some of those awful sassy shows that my daughter watches. I love how smart it is, and how retro 🙂 I knew you wouldn’t have NAS, but I guess we all have something! Thanks so much for your comment Donna, and ALL your support.


  10. Dana as a writer with giant sized L plates I submitted a piece of my novel to a friend of a friend who was an editor……I learned so much from what she had to say. I think I had too many things happening to my character at once and so I am learning to pace it out. Im not safe at all and I need to understand the balance.


  11. Ah, this is a great insight and not something I’ve noticed myself doing in writing (although I do helicoper parent, so it’s definitely in the make-up somewhere.) In life, I have a tendancy to jump before I’m pushed, which can lead to all sorts of problems and dramatic twists and I think this comes out in my poor characters as they find themselves embroiled in messes through their own silly and sometimes unnecessary decisions.
    Apparently there is no NAS/NWS in my writing, says the quiz.
    Here’s to dangling your characters over sharkpits while the walls close in slowly…


  12. Pingback: Good Writers Take Risks - Beyond-the-Lamppost

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