Are you too nice to be a hero?

I just finished writing a short story, a western about a lawman looking for a criminal on the run. Formulaic, I suppose, but it was fun to write. From start to finish, it went tripping along from saloon to dusty street, from sheriff's office to whorehouse and back again. Good guys got shot up, bad guys got shot up worse.

6000 words, clicking out like I was just dancing across a stage.

The experience made me wonder why I could be so blithe about writing a western (a genre that I rarely dip into), and yet be so conflicted about writing a science fiction superhero novel, a genre which I know like the back of my titanium-alloy cyborg hand.

The difference, I think, is that my main character in my science fiction novel WIP is fundamentally a nice guy, while the main character in that western is fundamentally a heartless bastard. I wrote a 4K story for the Yang Book, one of my better pieces. The MC in that one was a rotten son of a bitch, too.

Nice guys do too much dithering.

You can't BE nice without dithering. When the shit has firmly hit the fan and decisions have to be made in an instant, heartless bastards just pull the trigger, knowing that they'll have the balls to deal with whatever consequences might come up. Nice guys take a moment to think, to discern the path forward that will minimize pain and suffering while maximizing preservation of individual personhood and socially valuable utility (or something squishy like that).

All that planning and introspection means a lot of time spent standing around and apparently doing nothing. Even while the bullets are flying, the nice guy is sitting making plans while the bastard is already halfway across the floor, guns blazing.

What was really interesting after I had this insight (unless it was a delusion, which can look a lot like an insight if you're not paying attention), I thought, "Well, why not rewrite my novel WIP to make the MC a bastard? He could be a charming, slick bastard or maybe more of a rotten, bitter bastard. Either one would be more interesting than the morally upright nice guy he is now."

"But... but...", I responded to myself, "I can't do that!"

"Why not?"

"Because! He doesn't deserve that kind of abuse."

"Why not?"

"Because he's a nice guy! He's a decent sort of fellow. There are plenty of bastards in the world, why add another one to the mix?"

"Why not?"

"I'd feel terrible if I rewrote him to make him a rotten, self-serving bastard."

"Why? He's a fictional character in your book. You can do anything you want to him. Would you feel better if he got cancer and died in an interesting, heartbreaking way?"

"That's different."


"Because he could die of cancer and still be a nice guy."

"What if a diagnosis of cancer turned him into a bitter bastard? That happens in real life all the time."

 "That might be OK."

"Tony, you're a nut. Why would it be OK for cancer to turn him into a bastard, a cancer that you gave him, but it's not OK for you to just make him a bastard from the get-go?"


"If you need causation, then assume it's part of his backstory. You don't explain why he's a nice guy, you wouldn't need to explain why he's a rotten bastard."


I should note that this is usually how conversations with myself go. I present such reasoned arguments that I can never think of a good way to rebut myself. Unfortunately, the course of action I inevitably want me to take is much more challenging than the way I've been doing it up to now. I'm a bit of a rotten bastard that way.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. That's very darned interesting. My alpha reader (meaning, of course: wife) doesn't like the main character in my latest, "Baxter's Gold."

    "But why?" I demand. "He's a nice guy."

    "He's boring."

    "Boring! He killed his wife! Of course, it was an accident. Because he's a nice guy."

    "I liked the bad guy better."

    She's saying all this with a straight face as of it's not ripping me apart inside. "But the bad guy is an insane asshole!"

    "But he's not boring."

    Sheesh. Maybe I'll flip the story and make it "Insane Asshole's Gold."

    Bit in my writer's heart I agree with her. Every time I write a villain, I enjoy it more.

    Maybe we should just stick to bad guys, Tony. The meek can inherit somebody else's earth.

  2. I find nice guys to be the most readily appealing protagonists. It takes the least effort to make me like them. However, a nice guy needs good use. A lot of nice guys have had to handle wars, floods, poverty, horrible diseases, and far nicer fates that still overwhelmed their ability to maintain control. When challenged, the nice guy remaining nice while also demonstrating some degree of capability against a thing larger than himself usually does the trick. It's little different from the usage of the unlikable main character, except you have to make more accommodations in the plot to get me to put up with someone I don't like.

  3. I really enjoyed the post, but I hold the opposite opinion. In order for the plot to grab me, I need to care about the character. I have to *want* Luke to resist the temptation of the dark side, even if he is a bit of a whiny brat. He's growing up. It's interesting to see how the good guy responds to the horrible things that happen to him and the challenge isn't whether or not he dies, it's whether or not he is able to stay true to himself. There's a lot worse things that can happen to an MC than dying. Or same example, (that Lucas didn't quite pull off) of a good guy (Anikan) falling from grace, perhaps (or not) in the end to be redeemed.

    The point is, I have a hard time caring about the heartless bastard if the MC starts off that way. If the plot is his redemption, that makes it more interesting, but I still have trouble initially sympathizing with a bad guy.

  4. Nothing wrong with writing Westerns :-p

    It can be difficult if your main character is not a paragon of virtue but at the same time, look at all the films where the main protagonist is a "good person" but utterly dull, while their more ambiguous compadres are a lot more fun. Han Solo and Jack Sparrow are the best examples I can think of right now.

  5. There is a world of difference between 'nice' and 'boring'. A bland character who is just 'a nice guy' in the way we describe folk who have nothing noteworthy about them is boring. I agree with Ganymeder that if they are too heartless I don't care about them. In fact I hope they fail.

  6. It isn't impossible to write a virtuous yet apparently cold-hearted character...doing the unsavoury jobs, taking instant decisions which harm the few to help the many...I would imagine it would make for a cold yet ultimately fair and caring character...

    Your next challenge :)

  7. Hey, nice guys can make those instantaneous decision, too, with a minimum of dithering. It's just that if they are wrong, they suffer more afterward.

    (But I need a main character I enjoy/like/root for to stay involved in the book.)

  8. Actually, now I think further, a truly fair *nice* guy would end up cold and unfeeling or go stark staring mad at the decisions he has taken in the past, and must take in the future. Being a hero really doesn't equate with being the nice guy...

  9. Hmm. What I see in these comments is that the problem is not with NICE guys, but it's with BORING guys. The problem with nice guys are that they are typically inoffensive, which scuppers the conflict which drives drama. However, standing in opposition to something not-nice forces the nice into conflict.

    So it's not that my nice guys are incapable of doing interesting things, but that I'm not giving them enough to do?

  10. I still think there's a confusion in definitions here. The Nice Guy isn't necessarily the good guy, and the cold-hearted guy isn't necessarily the bad guy. It takes a certain detachment to *do the right thing* which is going to exclude the nice guy immediately. The nice guy will get the cat our of the tree and miss Jimmy falling down the well, whereas the good guy will ignore kitty to get to Jimmy. Or ignore Jimmy to get to The Bomb that Blew Up Manhattan. If you give the nice guy too much to do he'll freeze because he won't be able to prioritise.

    1. Digression into terminology: I'm using "hero" here as equivalent to the protagonist, the main character of the novel. The antihero is an established trope, and it's this that I'm chewing over. Do disagreeable people make for more compelling main characters than agreeable people?


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