Fantasy universes are often unforgiving and dangerous. Between the wars and the quests, the dragons to slay and the magic to master, there seems to be little opportunity for nice characters to shine, thrive, or even simply survive. While it can be wildly entertaining to follow amoral characters in their path of (self-) destruction (I’m looking at you, Jorg Ancrath), my personal favourites are the sweet, quiet ones. Here is why:
The character growth can be more interesting:
Character development is an aspect that I very much care about. Like I said in the intro, fantasy worlds provide enough challenges to throw in the protagonists’ way. To go with a cliché expression, they are forged in the fires of adversity. How they emerge on the other side can be fascinating, even more so when it comes to nice characters. The expected arc for them is either to die or shed their principles like an ill-fitted garment, to better adapt to the harshness of the world. Survival of the fittest.
But every now and then, we see a different arc. It’s one that never fails to impress me: nice characters that stay decent even in those fires. They wield their niceness like a weapon instead of being dragged down by it. Character growth doesn’t kill their goodness; it gives it steel and purpose.
When sweet and pacifist Wintrow Vestrit (The Liveship Traders, Robin Hobb) is taken out of his monastery and thrown into the bleak world of slave trade, under the thumb of bullies and straight-up sociopaths, he does lose a bit of his fresh-faced idealism. It’s to be expected. What he doesn’t lose is his core of goodness, his willingness to do the right thing. When Maia (The Goblin Emperor, Katherine Addison) is thrust into the treacherous court of his late, hateful father and expected to rule, he learns to adapt by overcoming his self-doubt, without sacrificing his gentle nature. When Thomas Senlin (Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft) is drawn into the madness of the Tower of Babel, he parts with his naïveté but sticks to his values.
The experience gained by these characters imparts wisdom, not cynicism, and certainly not evil. For me, it’s always a sign of remarkable talent in character creation and development — treating goodness not as something to barter away in order to survive, but as a core quality to nurture and enrich with worldliness.
Good doesn’t have to be dumb, and kind doesn’t mean weak:
Being decent does not mean wearing a constant “kick me” sign. Niceness has its own type of quiet but unwavering strength, and it is best displayed by characters that assume an unexpected (and often unwanted) role of leadership. I’ve already mentioned The Goblin Emperor, it’s also the case in Inda (Sherwood Smith), where the titular character’s natural and subtle charisma attracts the loyalties of many. The bonds that these characters manage to secure make them a force to be reckoned with.
Niceness can also be mistaken for apathy or turning the other cheek, but sweet characters can fight back. It’s best shown with Adolin Kholin (The Stormlight Archive, Brandon Sanderson): indeed, the charmingly spoiled prince has a definite protective streak. Without going any further into spoiler territory, he has his priorities straight when it comes to defending the ones he loves. To quote Patrick Rothfuss, “There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man.”
And finally, nice can also be cunning. Princess Isabelle des Zephyrs (An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, Curtis Craddock) manages to navigate the dangers of a foreign court by keeping her prodigious wits about her. Carrot (The Discworld Series, Terry Pratchett) is a great asset among the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork; those who underestimate him aren’t likely to make that mistake twice.
The short of it is that “nice” can be complex too, and that complexity offers us an alternative take on what leadership and power can mean, as well as a different way to envision strength.
It sets the tone for the book:
Nice characters that take on roles other than “designated victims” are often encountered in optimistic books. I found myself seeking those types of stories more and more lately. I mostly read for the joy and respite escapism provides. Some days, cynicism and gritty “realism” are simply not something I can endure in a story. I know that it can be seen as cheesy, but sometimes, I need good to prevail untainted. I need gentleness to win without compromise. I need principles to be protected and championed, not stomped on and derided as weaknesses.
My hope is that we will see more of these characters in the future. I truly believe that fantasy needs them.