No More Mr. Nice Guy

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The other day, I was talking to someone about Captain America.  I said how much I admired Steve Rogers’s character.  “I’ve never really cared for him,” the other person said.  “He’s just too nice.”

It’s not a new sentiment – objecting to characters because they’re too good.  It’s an objection that I’ve heard many times, leveled at many different heroes/heroines.  In some cases, it’s a legitimate complaint.  But even though objecting to truly, deeply good characters is sort of a trendy thing right now, it’s not often something that we should be proud of.

(By the way, Hayden of Story Girl blog has an awesome post on this subject.  She has brilliant things to say about heroes, and hero-types; her post is partly what inspired this one.  Please do take the time to read her post – it’s well worth it! )

One of the most common hero-types that is often confused with “Nice Guy” heroes (or what I like to call “Quintessential heroes”) like Captain America is the People-Pleaser hero.  These are the guys that are gentle, kind souls, willing to compromise almost every moral for the sake of being “nice.”  This hero is usually very romantic and emotionally sensitive; he often lives to please the woman he loves.  Examples of this hero-type would be Romeo (from Romeo and Juliet) or Peeta (from The Hunger Games).  (I’ve also heard that Edward from Twilight fits in this category – not being familiar with the story, however, I’ll have to defer that question to others.)  The problem with these types of heroes is not their gentleness, their niceness or their romantic side (all of which are admirable traits).  The problem lies in their willingness to compromise.  Although they are great characters for the most part, People-Pleaser heroes’ moral judgments are wrapped up completely in one person, and therefore warped.  They seem like great examples of self-sacrifice – they pour themselves out body and soul for their lovers.  But when a person’s ultimate moral source rests in another human being, their moral judgments are going to be a little out-of-whack.  Hence Peeta being willing to, and Romeo actually succeeding in, committing suicide for the sake of their lovers.

Don’t get me wrong – I love both of these characters!  I can enjoy stories about People-Pleaser heroes while recognizing their faults.  My point is merely that characters who accept compromise in order to please others – in other words, to be “nice” – are not to be confused with Quintessential heroes.  Quintessential heroes (such as Steve Rogers, Dym from Enemy Brothers, or Charles Moody from the Little Britches series) share many things in common with the People-Pleaser types.  They are gentle, peace-loving, sensitive and kind.  They are willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others.  But here’s where the true difference lies: while People-Pleasers are willing to do something wrong for the sake of others, Quintessential heroes are committed to doing what is right no matter the cost.  They are so committed to doing what is right that they are willing (however much it hurts) to oppose, or even fight against, a loved one if it is necessary to pursuing what is right.

 

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Another popular hero not to be confused with a Quintessential hero is a Growing hero.  These are probably the most common type of hero out there: faulted, but trying to do better.  Tony Stark, Harry Potter, and Henry York from 100 Cupboards are the first ones that come to mind in this category.  These types of characters are wonderfully relatable, because we’re all flawed and (hopefully) growing.  We love to root for characters like these, because no matter how many times they fall, they’re going to get back up and try again.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch a Growing hero eventually reach “hero” status by the end of the story.  Quintessential heroes, on the other hand, have already reached the level of “true hero”.  They are still flawed, of course; and of course, they’re still going to be growing to some extent.  But Quintessential heroes, because they are two steps ahead of us viewers/readers when it comes to honor, courage and honesty, give us something to strive toward.

Quintessential heroes are also frequently compared to Edgy heroes.  A plain old good guy like Steve Rogers is set against an enigmatic, unpredictable hero (such as Mr. Rochester from Jane Eyre, Sherlock Holmes, or even Captain Jack Sparrow), and the “plain old” hero is found lacking.  After all, Steve is predictable, right?  (Side note: I’m harping on Captain America not because he’s the only Quintessential hero out there, but because he’s the most popular at the moment.  Everyone knows who he is and can understand what type of hero I’m talking about.  If I kept referring to a less-known Quintessential hero, like Dym from Enemy Brothers, I’m sure that I’d leave quite a few readers scratching their heads.)  There’s no question about what he’ll do in any given situation: he’ll always do what’s right.  He might fail, but you can always know that he’ll give it all he’s got.  There’s no mystery about a guy like that.

But does that mean that he’s somehow less of a hero?  If a hero is giving everything he has in the pursuit of good, if he’s dedicated to being honest, if he’s a peace-maker yet not afraid to fight if he must, what is there not to like about a character like that?  Modern society might tell us, like everyone is constantly telling Steve Rogers, that it’s impossible to be like that in this day and age.  That we’ll have to compromise at some point, so there’s no use in being “goody two shoes” about everything.  That always doing what is right is boring, predictable and weak.  Let’s mix things up a bit for a change.  How about some unpredictability?   Edginess?  No more Mr. Nice Guy, OK?

I, for one, would reply, like Steve did to Nick Fury when asked to stop being so “old-fashioned”: “Don’t hold your breath.”

I certainly love a good Edgy hero.  I love Growing heroes.  I even like a People-Pleaser hero every now and then.  But when it comes to what kind of heroes are the best for inspiring us to be consistently, truly, deeply good, no other hero can compare to the Quintessential hero.

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I’m not at all deprecating all of the other types of heroes by lauding the “Nice Guy” heroes in this post.  Stories are meant to reflect reality, and reality is made up of all sorts of characters – the edgy, the brooding, the people-pleasers, the flawed, the passionate, the passive, the growing.  But it seems to me that the more I hear in praise of these types of heroes, the more negative things I hear about Quintessential heroes.  I just want to remind you (and myself) that such characters are not outdated.  They are not unrealistic.  They are not boring, or predictable, or “just too nice.”  They are good.  We should be admiring honorable, courageous, righteous heroes like Steve Rogers, because we should be striving to become such people ourselves.

So as a reminder to all of my fellow writers: as you’re weaving stories, creating scenes and breathing life into characters of your own making, don’t be fooled into considering the Quintessential hero beneath your notice.  Write characters that are noble, self-sacrificing and kind.  Write characters that are strong, consistent and peace-loving.  Write characters like Steve Rogers.  Because for the record, the world could use more people like him.

 

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14 thoughts on “No More Mr. Nice Guy

  1. “Hear, hear!” *raises glass in salute* THANK YOU. This was a marvelous post (and thanks for linking up to my post, by the way:) It really annoys me when people complain about characters for having moral standards, as if morality itself is out of date. Jesus himself was perfect (though I’m certainly not lowering him to the status of our fictional heroes) and you can’t call him boring.

    But anyway…loved this post. A lot.

    • Ha ha ha! Thank you so much for the enthusiastic salute! It made me laugh because almost every single time I read one of your posts I feel the exact same way. 😀

      Exactly! It always makes me so upset to hear people speak badly about people for being “too good.” Like you said, Jesus was perfect! He most certainly wasn’t a pushover (you only have to read his speeches to the pharisees to see that) – much more of a Captain America type. Definitely not boring. 🙂

  2. (*claps until my hands hurt*) Yes yes yes YES!!!! Bless this post. I recently did a whole piece on my Tumblr-blog about Superman just like this one and have seen a lot of similar articles about Captain America as well. Basically my premise in my own article was that while we do need our anti-heroes (our Boromirs, our Tony Starks, our Han Solos, etc.), we also need our Aragorns, our Steve Rogers’, our Clark Kents, our Luke Skywalkers, etc. The anti-heroes encourage us our own slow-but-sure character growth but the Quintessential Heroes, as you call them, point us to higher ideals of nobility, selflessness and courage.

    Thank you thank you thank for this post, it made me very happy. And I CANNOT WAIT to see The Winter Soldier. We’re waiting for the DVD on pins and needles 😀

    • Thanks so much Maribeth! I couldn’t stop smiling when I saw your comment and Hayden’s comment. Heroes like Cap make me want to stand up and cheer, and I’m so glad that y’all feel the same way, too! Loved what you said about anti-heroes and heroes! Yes, I think you’ll really like The Winter Soldier. I did find the violence to be way over-the-top for a Marvel movie; it really took away from my enjoyment of the film. So I can’t wait for it to come out on DVD for skipping/forwarding purposes. SUCH good character development, though! It developed Fury, Cap and Natasha so much. A very well done sequel to the first film, although it could have done with about 50 or 60 less deaths. 😉

    • Thanks, Heidi! I’m so glad that I could encourage you in your writing! I’m also in the thick of writing (or editing, rather) a novel at the moment. It’s hard work but extremely rewarding. 🙂

      Yes, I did get your Chesterton comment – I’m sorry that I never responded to it! My life has been absolutely crazy lately. I have never read Manalive, but it sounds fabulous. I’ll have to look into it! I’m just now trying to get into Chesterton. I’ve only read Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday. I bought a small 1930’s hardback collection of his essays, short stories and poems in an Oxford bookshop. I keep trying to read it, but it’s quite musty – I have to hold it at a distance while I read! 😀

      By the way, your post on Faramir that you wrote for Hamlette’s blog was brilliant!

      • Oh good! And I was laughing about the Chesterton book. I’ve read (I think) five or six of his full length books and I really need to read some of his essays and short stories. Soon, hopefully. A hymn he wrote is one of my favorites (if that counts as poetry). 🙂

        And I agree. For me, I’ve found editing is quite a bit different than the writing process. How about you? I guess they’re exhilarating and exhausting in different ways. 🙂 Rewarding is an excellent way to describe it.

        And thank you re the Faramir post! I’m so glad you liked it! 🙂

  3. Captain Rogers is my favorite Superhero! Even in the Winter Solder when he is still the true solder I came to love in the first Captain America movie!! I really like the post because I talk to so many people who say they don’t like him very much for the exact reasons you mentioned.
    Loved the post. I like the “Nice guys” so much.

    • Hi Rachel! Thanks so much for letting me know that you enjoyed my post! I was really encouraged by your comment. Yes, Steve is just awesome. I can never decide which of the Avengers I like better, though – Cap or Stark! They’re both such good characters…but Cap is certainly the more thoroughly good out of the two. Such an inspiring character. Thank you again for taking the time to comment and share your loyalty to “Nice guys”! 🙂

  4. An excellent defense of the Quintessential Hero. I think it’s actually more difficult to write a character who is good and make them interesting. It’s so easy to slip into cliche and Mary Sue goody-goody-ness. They’ve accomplished that rather nicely with Steve Rogers. I’m actually working on a blog post which examines the change in the character of Holmes – he was originally a Quintessential Hero but he’s now much more introspective, has daddy issues, does some pretty questionable things…he’s now an anti-hero. I think this says a lot about modernity, and our lack of belief in absolutes.

    On the other hand, one shining example to the contrary is D.C.S. Foyle, the incorruptible, gracious policeman in Foyle’s War. (I’d use a different character so I wouldn’t constantly be referencing this guy, but I can’t really think of any.) Even David Suchet’s Catholic Poirot takes a darker, morally ambiguous turn later in the series. Oh, wait, thought of another…Joan Hickson’s magnificent Miss Marple. She’s a force of nature. I’m really attracted by confident goodness, but NOT Never-Makes-Tough-Decisions goodness (I’d put the heroes of Braveheart and Gladiator in this category – never refusing to seek revenge.)

    I’ll stop now. This subject really interests me, as you can see. 🙂

    • I agree! It’s sometimes difficult to keep a good character from becoming “goody goody”. I’m still learning how to walk that fine line in writing characters for my novels. But it is encouraging to know that there are so many good examples in literature to pull from – Quintessential heroes who are good as well as interesting. That’s a neat point that you brought out about Holmes’s character changing over the years. Moral ambiguity is definitely big right now, both in real life and in literature/films. It’s so refreshing to read/watch characters who have solid morals and stick to them like glue!

  5. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Sadly, people just don’t appreciate guys like Steve Rogers or Atticus Finch like they used to. They laugh at ideals like morality and honor and then wonder why people they observe in their daily lives are such jerks!

  6. Yes yes yes yes! This is why Captain America is, by far, my favorite superhero and one of my favorite movie characters, period. He’s funny and flawed but he stands out in his old-fashioned goodness, something the world needs more of. Love this post — thanks for sharing!

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