So a two weeks ago, Tricia talked about morally ambiguous characters and I thought I’d follow her trend and talk about a different character trope—The Nice Boy. I’ve kind of been obsessed with The Nice Boy in fiction for the last few years because I got sick of the edgy, brooding, bad boy with his tortured past and tight leather trousers and his guyliner. Because while those bad boys are certainly nice to read about or to watch on screen, I don’t think anyone ever wants to actually end up with a bad boy in real life (I mean, come on, talk about exhausting relationships) and I became obsessed with finding boys in my media who I think would be suitable boyfriends for my baby sisters.
Unfortunately, most people botch The Nice Boy. The Nice Boy tends to be boring. He tends to be a counter-point to the bad boy. He can offer his potential romantic partner a stable, fulfilling relationship, but he’s usually the foil in these love triangles. He’s the boy the heroine (or hero) isn’t supposed to end up with. He’s set dressing. He doesn’t have anything interesting going on. He’s static. He’s stiff. We’re not supposed to like him even though he’s usually pretty likeable.
But sometimes The Nice Boy can be done well, and in an effort for giving young people models of emotionally healthy relationships, let’s talk about a couple of Nice Boys who have been done right and what we can do to make them more than cardboard cut outs.
Nice Boy Number One: Steve Rogers
As far as Nice Boys go, Steve Rogers is practically our poster child. Upstanding citizen, strong internal moral compass, respectful, loyal, honest. Captain America is the sort of guy who’s going to help old ladies across the street and save kittens from tall trees. But let’s be real here—who doesn’t love Steve Rogers? He’s amazing. He’s complex. Tony Stark might think he’s a bit of stick in the mud, but at the end of the day, Tony will still follow his lead.
I think what makes Steve work so well are the internal conflicts he’s presented with. Let’s look at The Winter Soldier, which is essentially a movie about torn loyalty. That movie pits Steve—a soldier, used to trusting his superiors and following orders—against the very organization he’s supposed to be taking orders from. He’s supposed to trust SHIELD. They’re supposed to be the good guys, but SHIELD has also been compromised by an evil that Steve was willing to die to eradicate. And that conflict of loyalty is layered with his loyalty to Bucky. On the one hand, Bucky has been brainwashed and is now a huge threat to Steve and the people he cares about. Steve thinks that the Winter Solider is responsible for Nick Fury’s “death.” But on the other hand, Bucky is still his best friend, and he’ll be with him till the end of the line.
Steve’s job isn’t black-and-white the way it once was. It’s no longer Captain America against Hydra and the Nazis. It’s Captain America versus the people who have been giving him orders. It’s Captain America versus his best friend. The writers for that movie did an incredible job of taking an action movie and layering it with complex emotional conflicts. How does someone who believes in honesty handle discovering that the people he’s working for are keeping secrets from him and lying to him? How is someone who honors loyalty supposed to fight a friend who might as well be family? (And let’s not forget, Steve already lost Bucky once. He thought Bucky died back in the 1940s. He saw him fall off that train, for crying out loud! He failed Bucky once. Could he really let him die again?) Instead of making Captain America this perfect, invulnerable man who can take out evil with his awesome boomerang shield, The Winter Soldier strikes Steve Rogers where it’ll do the most damage—right in the heart of his loyalties.
Nice Boy Number Two: Remus Lupin
For those of you new to The Plotless, I am a shameless Harry Potter fangirl and I’ve been in love with Remus Lupin since I read Prisoner of Azkaban when I was 9. (Yeah, okay, that might be creepy, but I don’t care.) Lupin is the kind, compassionate teacher that we all wish we had. J.K.Rowling has even said that if Snape is supposed to represent the ilk of educators, than Lupin is supposed to be an example of the best education has to offer. He cares about his students. He’s patient with them. He doesn’t get irritated or snippy with Snape when Snape acts like a douche-canoe. In Goblet of Fire, when the fake Mad Eye Moody pulls Neville aside after the Unforgivable Curses lesson, Harry describes the action as the sort of thing Lupin would do. Lupin is a voice of reason. A mild-mannered man who bears adversity with dignity and courage.
Where Steve’s character depth comes from his torn loyalties, Lupin’s comes from his angst ridden past—which is something he shares in common with a lot of the bad boys we see. As a small child, he was infected with a curse that ostracized him from mainstream wizarding society. It’s only because of Dumbledore’s compassion that he was even able to obtain an education. As an adult, he struggled to find work and be accepted among his peers for the charming man that he is because of a condition that he could safely manage with something as simple as a potion. And all of that is on top of the traumatic loss of his entire support network when he was only twenty-one years old. In the space of about forty-eight hours, Lupin lost Lily, James, and (presumably) Peter to death and he lost Sirius to Azkaban (and, you know, that whole thing of thinking his best friend was a murderer). He had every excuse to become as hardened and bitter as Snape was.
But he didn’t—and that’s what makes him interesting. To me, at least. Lupin is the sort of person that crap has just happened to. All of his troubled past was entirely out of his control, but for the most part, he doesn’t let that define him. He doesn’t dwell on the factors of his life that he can’t control. Of course, we see times when his circumstances take their toll on him which is a natural and reasonable reaction, he doesn’t let those things define him the way Snape and Sirius let their pasts and their crummy circumstances define them. He chooses to rise above it. And even when he makes the wrong choice at first (need I remind you of his little meltdown at the beginning of book seven after he found out Tonks was pregnant?), he always gets his act together and does the right thing in the end.
Nice Boy Number Three: Peeta Mellark
In the beginning, Peeta comes across as the stereotypical nice-boy-foil to the bad boy love interest. Even though The Hunger Games aren’t really a story about love triangles (despite what every media outlet ever will try to tell you), Peeta still fills that nice-boy-foil role. He’s the boy next door. Kind, friendly, but mostly overlooked.
But Peeta is also powerful—and not just in a physical I-can-toss-around-hundred-pound-sacks-of-flour sort of way. Peeta’s strongest assets are his charm and his charisma, and I think part of Peeta’s appeal is that we too often see that sort of charm and charisma in sleeze-ball characters who are trying to manipulate us and not in good, neighborly sorts of characters. Peeta’s sort silver-tongued charm is something we usually associate with villains and lawyers (see Billy Flynn from Chicago). But over and over again, Peeta’s way with words is seen as something that he uses to benefit other people instead of himself. Katniss describes Peeta as being invaluable to the revolution because “he will be able to turn his pain into words that will transform people” (Catching Fire, p 17). He uses his way with words to try to protect Katniss instead of himself. (Let’s be honest here. Katniss kind of sucks with interpersonal interactions and she would have gotten approximately zero sponsors if Peeta didn’t relentlessly use his charm to benefit her.) And Peeta is selfless. As a sixteen-year-old boy, he’s willing to die to save a girl he has a crush on. And he’s willing to do it again the next year. As a young boy, he was willing to face his parents’ wrath to give burnt bread to a starving little girl. He doesn’t put himself first. Ever.
Peeta takes traits we typically associate with self-serving Slytherins (yes,yes, I know not all Slytherins are bad guys, but we should at least agree that they’re generally a self-serving lot) and applies that to the hard-working Hufflepuff. He’s cunning (siding with the Careers at the beginning of the 74th Hunger Games) and he’s silver-tongued (which usually means manipulative), but he is, at his core, a Nice Boy.
So there we have it, folks. Three ways to make your fictional Nice Boys into engaging and interesting characters. Don’t settle for cardboard cutouts anymore. We don’t need brooding bad boys and guyliner to make a compelling character