Word of the Day


I was out with the family for our evening walk  when the conversation
turned to a popular young-adult book series about vampires.

It seems that, in said series, the vampires can walk in daylight without
ill effect, don’t have fangs, and try to avoid killing humans. In fact, they drink mostly animal blood. "Yeah," my
son said, "they really nerfed the curse."

"They what?" I asked.

"They nerfed the curse."

"Nerfing" as it turns out, is apparently an expression from video and
computer gaming where an antagonist,  weapon or artifact is dumbed down
or reduced in destructive power by the developers in later versions of
the game.  Sometimes, the idea behind nerfing is to better balance the
game, to avoid the phenomenon of "when you get the Sword of Kumquat,
it’s all over, everyone else might as well quit." But sometimes nerfing
takes all the challenge out to the point where the game is  a boring

So what does this have to do with crime fiction? Well, how many times
have we seen a message board post or amateur review in which someone
has said, "Well, I don’t like it if there’s too much violence." "I
won’t read anything where a child is put in danger." "I won’t read
anything where an animal is hurt." And god forbid you should kill off a
series character. Some of the things I’ve read from blogs after that’s happened make Stephen King’s character Annie Wilkes look like a poster child for mental health.

Ah, hello? This is CRIME FICTION. Crime is violent, at least if it’s
being done right. And villains, surprise surprise,  do villianous
things, including threatening women, children and small cute animals. And sometimes the good guys die.

But there’s also the question of balance. You want to make the antagonist powerful and deadly, but not so deadly he or she can’t be believably overcome. You want to make him or her nasty and evil, but not so much so that they’re cackling, hand-rubbing cartoons.

Likewise, you sometimes want your protagonist to be a bad-ass, but not so much that he lacks any vulnerability at all. For instance, I love Lee Child’s work beyond all reason, but there’s a bit in, I think, ECHO BURNING, where it says "Jack Reacher had never lost a fight." First thing that popped into my head when I read that  was "well, guess he’s not gonna lose this one, either, so much for suspense."  In later books Reacher did, from time to time, make mistakes, and even allow himself to think that,  maybe this time. he might not make it (or, more often, that the damsel du jour might not).  And that’s why Lee’s books get better every time.

But hey, I could be wrong. How about it? Writers, have you ever felt pressure, internal,  editorial, or
otherwise, to nerf? Have you ever read a book in which you felt that the
author nerfed the bad guy? And can you tell I just really like writing
the word "nerfed"?

13 thoughts on “Word of the Day

  1. Wilfred Bereswill

    Hey Dusty, good stuff.

    I think that’s what I like about the series 24; the unpredictability. They aren’t afraid of killing off the series characters, Jack Bauer has been captured, put in a Chinese prison, tortured, etc. They made a statement a long time ago that they were willing to do the unexpected.

    I always liked Jack Ryan in Clancy novels because he was very human. I’ve tried to stay true to that in my novel.

  2. Pari Noskin Taichert

    I LOVE that word, Dusty. Wow.

    Disney nerfs things all the time. Have you ever read the real PETER PAN?

    I do wonder if I’ll have pressure to “nerf” my new protagonist because she has such an inherent disdain for people — for humans– as being incredible drags on the planet. I’m not sure editors will buy a character that thinks a bee’s death is more tragic than a woman’s.

    I’ll resist nerfing her now that I have the word to do it.

  3. Tammy Cravit

    I like the word “nerfed”, though I must confess to being terribly unworthy because I have no idea which vampire series is being referred to. (Not that it sounds like that’s any great loss…)

    I’ve felt like several of Patricia Cornwell’s recent books…well, they didn’t nerf the bad guy, per se, but they “Sword of Kumquatted” the protagonist (IMHO), making the conflict far too easily and tidily resolved. As a result, Ms. Cornwell (whose work I used to adore) has fallen off my “willing to spend the money for a hardcover” list.

    I think the key for authors is that you can’t risk damaging your character’s credibility (and, by extension, yours) in the eyes of your readers. In real life, the “+5 Staff of Problem Eradication” doesn’t just fall out of the sky into your lap when you’re in a jam.

    In real life, problems don’t come all nicely wrapped up in foam rubber to protect you from the sharp corners. In real life, people’s motives are rarely simple, clear-cut and unequivocal. In real life, people commit evil with the best of intentions, and even evil people sometimes have moments of grace and redemption.

  4. R.J. Mangahas

    Loving the word nerfing. Nerf. Nerf. Nerf. Nerf. Anyway, I digress. It’s not just fiction that I’ve noticed this nerfing thing. Classic cartoons are notoriously nerfed. (I like writing NERF too. It’s just fun). Here’s a classic example from an old Bugs Bunny bit.

    Bugs and Daffy are performing magic. In an attempt to out do Bugs, Daffy (in a devil’s outfit) Mixes a concoction of nitro, gun powder and something else, then drinks it down. After he lights a match, swallows it then KABOOM!!! A very cartoon -like explosion. And off Daffy goes floating away as a ghost.

    NERFED VERSION: Pretty much the same except for one thing: You see Daffy drinking the mixture and then—straight to floating away. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe a whole segment was cut.

    Now I can hear some parents screaming, “They shouldn’t show things like that on T.V. anyway. It teaches our kids the wrong thing!!”

    To me, there’s something wrong if parents are counting on television to teach their kids common sense.

    Another example of nerfing (this one I only heard about, so I’m not sure how accurate it is) is on Sesame Street. Apparently, Cookie monster is trying to eat more vegetables since it’s healthy. Are you kidding me?!?!

  5. Catherine

    In a side note to nerfing. When my cousins got given Nerfs one Christmas we spent hours trying to work out ways to still use them to create destruction and havoc. Without some element of chaos and or strife, play was well, not play anymore.

  6. JT Ellison

    Love the nerfing term — hate the concept. WHY do we have to tiptoe around reality? Why do we have to shelter our readers, and in essence censure ourselves? I’m writing a new book that’s exceptionally dark, and I keep worrying that it’s going to turn people off. So I fall into the trap as well — but if Thomas Harris can get away with RED DRAGON and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, what are we worrying about?

    Hit a nerve, Dusty. Thanks!

    Oh, and are we talking about Stephanie Meyers? I LOVE those books. They’re a fun, easy escape. Sorry, Bill : )

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Well, but Thomas Harris is readable to me in a way that some other authors are not, because he doesn’t lovingly dwell on torture (he lost me at HANNIBAL, though).

    For example, he makes sure we understand right up front in Silence of the Lambs that Buffalo Bill’s victims are not raped and not tortured, and the skin is taken AFTER death. They’re going through hell, for sure, but Harris eliminates the most heinous possibilities. I am profoundly grateful to him for that.

    I prefer nerfing to lingering depictions of rape and torture, which I simply won’t read or watch.

  8. R.J. Mangahas

    Pari — Like I said, I’m not a reliable source on the Cookie Monster front, but I’m hoping that it was just an ugly rumor.

    JT — I sometimes worry about what people who are reading my stuff will think too. But then again, I learned it’s hard to please everyone.

    Alex — Yeah, I was lost around Hannibal too. Funny thing about the movie of Silence. I heard that Jonathan Demme was pretty squeamish, which would definitely explain the minimal use of blood and gore.

  9. toni mcgee causey

    I so love the terms “nerfed” and “Kumquatted” and plan to use them incessantly for the rest of the week.

    Some people think I made Bobbie Faye too talented at the shooting / knife thing and some people think I made her too insane with the risk-taking and I’m sitting here wondering how on earth anyone thinks I actually have any control over this character. She scares me. I do what she tells me to do.

  10. Chap O'Keefe

    Nerf, huh? So that’s what it is when my publisher asks me to tone down the violence and sex — in genre westerns, would you believe! But he has a point. Libraries in the UK, where they circulate, apparently worry about the books falling into the hands of children although they are intended for adults. Are we expected to act in loco parentis? More about this (and all about Plotting) in the very latest update at blackhorsewesterns.com


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