Featured Article: The Power of Kindness
Recently I had the privilege of reading Justine Musk’s article on niceness versus kindness. This was a subject that was close to my heart without me realizing that it was. See, about five years ago I went through a metamorphosis that left the former me in a shallow grave out in the woods somewhere. What happened, you ask. Well, simply put, I stopped caring what others thought because it was exhausting and disingenuous and a whole lot of other bad things I no longer wanted in my life. See I was a “nice” girl, but it wasn’t until I turned thirty-five that I figured out I’d rather be a “kind” woman. For a long time, I had confused niceness with kindness and in doing so, I had shortchanged myself terribly. Fortunately, I didn’t have to stay in the rut of niceness.
I had made the decision to live honestly—to think what I wanted, to say what I believe to be true, and to live life as I see fit no matter who it offended. Talk about liberating! It was almost as if my life had been on hold until that moment. And when I started to walk in a genuine way, amazing things happened in my life and in my soul. People began to say this about me: don’t ask her what she thinks because she’ll tell you!
Isn’t odd how an honest opinion can astonish others?
Then there was the whisperings that I was odd, overly blunt, and a “bitch.”
I didn’t fit in and oddly, I was happy about it. I’d spent most of my life trying (and failing) to conform, so this was a disconcerting experience. And it wasn’t until I embraced the power of being different that I felt like I was truly living.
It was then I began to realize that I had built and surrounded myself with a world of niceness rather than kindness. I decided I needed to fix this, and as I did, it not only changed my life and circle of friends (people who valued me for myself and not whom I pretended to be), but amazing things began to happen in my writing. It began to resonate in a way it never had before.
Up until this point I had been writing weak and cardboard characters without realizing it. After all, I was just writing a reflection of myself. Perhaps the problem wasn’t that my characters were nauseating Mary Sues; perhaps instead, I was. Not a heartwarming realization to have, let me assure you. But as I became stronger, so did my characters. As I became wiser, so did they. And as I became more genuine, it translated over. I found that I was no longer afraid to pen a character who was less than perfect, who made mistakes, who took risks, who was disliked by others. For a long time I hated these sorts of characters because they scared me. A character had to be flawless to be liked (or so I thought), but again that was just a reflection of me and my own insecurities. I also found myself owning the clichés I liked and not making excuses for them.
Kindness had not only hijacked my attitudes, but my pen! It was great. 🙂
Which brings me to the point of this article. Is your perception of kindness and niceness hampering your ability to write stories that resonate with readers? Are you writing characters who are kind or nice?
As Justine Musk described in her brilliant article, 7 Awesome Reasons to Kill Your Inner ‘Nice Girl’, nice is a behavior rather than a personality trait. And as an author when you realize this simple truth, it will do amazing things to your characters. Nice is a character flaw. Kindness is a virtue.
And as strange as it sounds, kindness rarely looks nice. Kindness is an equalizer. Kindness is genuine even with it’s offensive or painful. Kindness reveals both truth and lies. Kindness is inherently moral. Kindness is selfish. Kindness can feel like cruelty yet be the exact opposite.
And you can use this knowledge to create characters who read true.
Problems happen in our characters when we treat niceness as a positive instead of a negative. I am blessed to live in the South, and it is a place where we have made nice an art form. Think of the quintessential Southern woman who can cut you to ribbons while handing you a glass of tea just as syrupy as her “nice” words. And it is in the South that you learn from a very young age to look beyond the smile and spot the devil behind the façade. It’s something you sense. It’s something that makes you cautious of a seemingly “wonderful” person.
This distrust translates over to the characters we read about. Mary Sue looks wonderful on the surface. She’s perfect, loved, and everyone says of her: what a sweet girl. But you hate her. Your readers hate her, too. She feels fake and contrived. Why?
The simple answer is she’s too nice.
Nice manifests in several ways, but I think the primary ones are disingenuousness, surface perfection, and an unquenchable need to please others even at the expense of yourself. Nice is the sweetest form of abuse because it is full of the lies you desire most. It tells others what they want to hear. It strokes ego. It shortchanges your life. It makes you a servant to an ideal instead of a master of your destiny. Nice is manipulative. Nice is false. Nice is always seeking payment in one form or another.
People instinctively distrust nice even as they seek it out. Nice is socially acceptable but inwardly reviled. Kindness, on the other hand, is respectable, powerful. Nice is weak; kindness is strong.
Now put this knowledge to work in your story. Use the power of kindness to make your protagonist relatable or to foster conflict. Take your character on a journey. Perhaps they start out nice and end up kind. Perhaps this character finds the virtue in selfishness. Perhaps the antagonist is revealed to be the good guy and the protagonist transforms into the villain. If you want a strong female lead, kill her inner nice girl and make her kind.
Instead of making your antagonist cruel, make them nice. Use the power of niceness as a cover for their nefariousness. In that way you don’t have to have an overt action that screams “this is the bad guy.” Use this trait to wreck a character or to reveal who they truly are. Ever watched Breaking Bad? Walt is a nice character who has his veneer of niceness ripped away through life circumstances. And when it is all said and done, all that is left is a villain, and what’s more, he was a villain all along. You were just blind to it because he was nice, and therein lies the power of these traits.
Now back to writing. 🙂