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.
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.
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.