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"?