Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Happy Character Syndrome

Confession: I once wrote an entire novel without a single bit of conflict. That's right. 50,000+ words. Zero conflict.

It was the first novel I ever attempted, and it was horrific. Sure, my main character had a goal. There were things she needed to do to reach said goal. And my naive, first-novel-writing-self thought that was all I needed to create this thing called plot.



When I finished writing and revising the manuscript, I searched for beta readers on the NaNoWriMo forums. A kind, gracious, more-experienced writer said, "I love this premise! I'll beta read for you."

So with high hopes and a gratitude-filled e-mail, I sent my first manuscript out into the world.

The response was honest and harsh. "Everyone is generally nice to your main character," my beta reader said. "There's nothing to stop her from reaching her goal. I never doubted that she would make it, so I had no reason to keep reading."

As I looked back over the manuscript I had poured my time, my energy, myself into, I realized she was right.

I suffered from Happy Character Syndrome.

I desperately wanted my characters to be happy and would stop at nothing to make it so, up to and including removing all obstacles that stood in their way.

Happy Character Syndrome is a problem for two huge reasons:

1. It's not realistic. Mean people exist. Bad things happen. Life is rough. Get a helmet.

2. Happy characters make for really boring reading. Check out your bookshelf. There's a lot of misery on those pages.

Fast forward to today, when the novel I'm working on is not my first (or second, or third, or...) novel. I still suffer from HCS. I'm putting a couple of characters through the ringer with this one, and I tear up a little just thinking about it.

There are mean people. There are obstacles. There are twists and turns. There's conflict.

And even when it's hard to write, it's a good thing.

I'm not saying that none of my novels are ever going to have a happy ending. I love happy endings. I love when a story is tied up with a neat little bow, and I'm smiling as I place the book back on my shelf.

But the payoff for that neat-little-bow ending is a lot greater when the characters had to go through something to get there. And if the edges of the bow are a little frayed as a result? That's life.

To the beta reader who helped diagnose my Happy Character Syndrome: I can't thank you enough.


  1. What a great post! I suffer from this too! Glad to know I'm not alone in this!

    1. Definitely not alone. =) Thanks for stopping by!