Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Case of PNS (Perfectly Nice Syndrome)

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I realized, having written sixty unsatisfying pages of my new work in progress, that it was not going well, I took a radical step: I showed the incomplete first draft to one of my brilliant critique partners, blog sister and fellow mystery author Sharon Wildwind. Sharon is better than anyone else I know at deconstructing the writing process. “What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

On the surface, I could answer that question myself. It started out with my recovering alcoholic protagonist, Bruce Kohler, going to a therapist for the first time. The first chapter ended with a bang when he came for a session and found the therapist dead on her analytic couch. In the second chapter, the police arrived.

When I began the series, I chose an amateur sleuth as my protagonist because I knew nothing about police procedure or private investigation. I didn’t want to be bothered with the cops. But, as I found when I began to talk with other mystery writers, mysteries have changed since I last wrote one (three, in fact; I had a great agent, but they didn’t sell) in the 1970s. In spite of the egregious errors on TV fictional crime shows, mystery novelists are under enormous pressure to get the details right. And when a murder is committed in New York City—or, for that matter, in a clean and sober beach house in the Hamptons, where a completed but not yet published manuscript is set—the cops are going to be there. I couldn’t leave them out.

At this point in the series, I had already felt the need to introduce a police officer character to make Bruce’s repeated involvement in murders more plausible. So after several false starts with women, he’s gotten involved with a cop. She’s not a detective yet, but she wants to be. And that ambition of hers set up my problem. Bruce finds a body, the police arrive, and she is one of them. But if the guy who finds the body is her boyfriend, won’t they take her off the case? And if she’s off the case, how can she further the plot? So suppose she conceals her relationship with Bruce? But would she do that? One, would she compromise her professional ethics to that extent? And two, what if she got found out? The consequences might derail not only her career, but her role in keeping the series plausible. By trying to get police behavior right—by the standards of cops who might read the book—I had painted myself into a corner.

Sharon put an unerring finger on my dilemma when she told me I’d fallen prey to Perfectly Nice Syndrome, or PNS. If I took the girlfriend (name withheld to avoid a spoiler earlier in the series) off the case, I removed the conflict and tension—and made her useless as a character who could advance the plot. And if I let her tell her boss—the sergeant who heads the investigation—immediately that she’s slept with the guy who’s called 911, and there aren’t any consequences, well, that’s when I might get those irritated emails saying that would never happen in a competent, professional police force like NYPD. The solution? I have to make my character less than completely professional. She can’t tell her boss about her relationship with Bruce.

Sharon supplied the source of the concept of PNS: perhaps not surprisingly, a former president of the Romance Writers of America, Sherry Lewis.

“Avoid PNS: perfectly nice syndrome. Give your characters ambitions and not-so-nice qualities.”

Yes, that’s the way to go. A mystery needs tension and conflict, and PNS is the kiss of death to these qualities. I need to start over, slack off a little on the respectful accuracy of my characters, and make sure they behave badly enough for the enjoyment of my readers.

Shortly after reaching this conclusion, I was lucky enough to be present at the Edgars Week Symposium, when Sue Grafton was interviewed as a newly named Grand Master of Mystery Writers of America. Having written more than twenty books in a groundbreaking series, she was asked how she kept Kinsey Millhone fresh between A Is for Alibi and the as yet unwritten Z is for Zero. In response, she told about a point in the series, while she was writing J Is for Judgment, when she felt the writing had gone stale and had to figure out what the problem was. “I had cut myself off from my evil,” Grafton said, “where all the good creative energy is.”

So there it is. When threatened by PNS, the writer needs to get in touch with her inner evil, and all will be well.


Sandra Parshall said...

I think PNS afflicts a lot of unpublished manuscripts. Over the (many)years I struggled to get published, I was a critique partner with a number of other unpublished writers, and I saw this all the time. They would not allow their protagonists to do anything unethical. If a character was a lawyer, she did everything by the book and wouldn't dream of acting otherwise. If she was a cop, she was downright heroic in her professional integrity. If she was an amateur, she never did anything sneaky to get information. And of course these characters were beautiful, well-educated, and adored by all who knew them. In other words, BORING. No wonder those books were never published.

The best characters are flawed, often deeply so. They're real, and readers can identify with them because of, not in spite of, their flaws.

Sheila Connolly said...

An excellent point. If our characters are too nice (color inside the lines, are polite to their elders, finish all their vegetables), they are flat-out boring and we as readers lose sympathy for them. They need to make mistakes--that makes them human.

You make your cop figure sound interesting--she's caught in that classic squeeze between wanting to do the right thing and wanting to seize the opportunity to advance her career, even though that means risking it. Plenty of tension!

Edith Maxwell said...

Thanks for a great post, Liz. I'm going to roughen the edges of my protagonist tomorrow.


Anonymous said...

I'm blushing, Liz. Thanks for the compliment. I, too, have been guilty of PNS, but thanks to Sherry, I now revel in making life tough for my clients (grin)

Susan D said...

Thanks Liz and Sharon. This link gets filed under "Assorted Mystery Advice."

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

It's not only in unpublished novels that PNS crops up--a lot of mine has developed as a result of learning more about the craft of writing mysteries, rubbing up against real-life cops and PIs (some of them writers) in MWA and SinC and on DorothyL, and entering the world in which I get the occasional fan email--and would rather it's not a rocket. :) Both the problem and the solution are more high-stakes once you're published.

Jennifer Gates said...

Great entry !!!
This reminded me of a very funny term I came across in my blog reading: a Mary Sue. It's a term from fan fiction (or as Sharon would say, fen fiction) that means you've created a protagonist who is basically an idealized version of yourself.
Here's a link to a quiz. Is your MC a Mary Sue?

Anonymous said...

Jennifer, I hadn't run across the Mary Sue before. Thanks for that. Sharon

Anonymous said...

Great solution, Liz! In the Neel series, the detective is always struggling with various moral dilemmas.