What do people mean by “nice?”

I was talking to a male friend the other day about the expression “nice guys finish last” and why niceness may be looked down on. “Is niceness bad?” was his main question.

And I think it really depends on what people mean by “nice.”

“Nice” doesn’t necessarily mean good, thoughtful, or genuinely kind. For both men and women, it generally refers to something more bland and superficial, like basic manners. So people may wonder if there’s more to you than niceness. What other qualities do you have?

For some individuals, niceness seems like a brittle shell barely covering a miasma of unpleasant or hostile feelings, such as peevishness, rage, self pity, cruel glee, and bitterness. It’s this barely concealed miasma, and not the niceness itself, that tends to push people away.

Another use for “nice” is a description of unassertiveness. (I don’t use “nice” to refer to unassertiveness, but some people do.) A “nice guy” may be someone who lets other people walk all over him. Maybe he doesn’t stand up for himself or show that he has boundaries and standards that help protect him against manipulation or predation. In this sense, “nice” is a softer word for doormat. And if someone behaves like a doormat, they usually don’t get ahead, and they may very well finish last. In any case, it’s possible to be assertive without acting like a jerk, though of course there are people who will step on anybody to get ahead.

Four Annoying Things People Do When Discussing Fictional Characters

I like talking to people about fictional characters, for two main reasons:
1) It’s interesting to explore psychology, relationship dynamics, and culture.
2) I enjoy thinking about how other writers have crafted characters.

Along with gaining insights from people, online and offline, about characters, I’ve run up against frustrating behaviors. Here are four examples of annoying things people do in these discussions:

1) Exaggerate the flaws of an unliked character

I won’t try to argue someone into liking or disliking a character. How people feel about a character isn’t always easily explainable. People have preferences that you can’t control.

What I do care about is a fair and well-intentioned interpretation. For some people, it’s not enough to dislike a character. They have to make that character the WORST EVER, blowing up all their faults while minimizing or erasing any good points. They exaggerate mistakes or poor behavior while pretending that the character has never done anything meaningfully good or interesting. Sometimes, they make stuff up.

(I’ve also seen the reverse situation, where someone favors a character to the point of exaggerating everything good about them and giving that character credit for things they never did.)

2) Reduce a character to one dimension

Oversimplification bothers me. When a multi-faceted character gets described – and dismissed – as “the muscle” or “the babe” or “the brat” or “the bitch,” we miss out on an opportunity to consider a complex figure with a mix of characteristics and motives. Maybe the character changed in important ways throughout a story, or maybe they stayed stuck as they are, also for important reasons.

3) “Well I wouldn’t have done that!”

It’s normal to wonder how you would have handled a situation similarly or differently from a character. It’s interesting to consider how the same situation can affect people in different ways.

But it gets annoying when people keep using themselves as the sole yardstick for determining whether a character is good, wise, kind, beautiful, worthy of sympathy, or written realistically.

On the question of whether a character is “realistic,” there are multiple issues to consider. A character may seem unrealistic because the author failed to portray them convincingly – maybe the character seems flat, written without care or consistency, or the author messed up major details about their job or religion. Or maybe the character is meant to come across as deceptive or unreliable. Or the story is set in an unsettling fantasy realm, and as a reader you haven’t yet figured out all the rules for the way things are. There are interesting discussions to be had about what it means for a character to be realistic.

In any case, your personal experience is important, but it isn’t the sum total of existence. People don’t all act/speak/think/feel the same way in similar situations.

4) Make unwarranted, uncharitable assumptions about the author and other readers

Authors do sometimes write themselves into a story as a character, or they seem to favor one character greatly (possibly at the expense of the other characters or the plot).

But I’ve also seen many cases where readers make unfair assumptions about an author based on the behavior of a character. One example – they assume that a character’s racism reflects the author’s beliefs. Or, if a villain didn’t receive a harsh punishment, it must mean that the author condones the villain’s behavior.

They may also make assumptions about other readers (or viewers) in a similar way. In some fan forums and social media subcultures, it’s imperative that you feel a certain way about a character, or else you’ll get viciously harassed or even doxxed. By liking a certain character, you become indistinguishable from them in values and worldview. Never mind that it’s possible to like a character for multiple reasons. For instance, you can be drawn to a character because they’re interesting and make the story more entertaining, even if you know they would hurt you in real life.

Implications Beyond Fiction

Everything I’ve mentioned here makes conversations about fictional characters unpleasant and unfulfilling. What also bothers me is that I see the same responses to actual people:

The need to demonize opponents, while downplaying the flaws (or dismissing the crimes) of those you support. A strong tendency to sum people up with a label or two before stuffing them into a mental compartment within easy reach. An inability to see beyond yourself and try to understand why another person (someone in the present day or perhaps a historical figure) acts, thinks, or feels a certain way. A desire to ascribe unwarranted perverse motives to people or leap to conclusions based on faulty judgments of collective guilt or guilt by association (“you agree with so-and-so about one political issue, which means you agree with them about every political issue, you bigot/communist/fascist/etc.”).

If we change the way we think about and discuss fictional characters, can we do the same for real humans?

What Affects the Quality of Your Thinking? (It’s Not Just Intelligence)

The quality of your thinking depends so much on your character. The company you keep is also important.

It’s not that intelligence doesn’t play a role. It’s just insufficient. Intelligent people don’t necessarily think with depth, either generally or in response to specific topics. There’s no guarantee that they’ll ever investigate their own opinions or question their own conclusions with any seriousness.

They may use their mental agility to deflect substantive pieces of evidence, anything that contradicts their view of “how things are.” These deflections can be harmful, shutting down important questions and preventing a much-needed discussion.

Intelligent people may be clever at crafting rationalizations or arguments that seem well-structured. Many times, they don’t question whether they’re behaving with integrity; it’s enough that other “right-minded” people are expressing the same thoughts. They may prioritize “owning” someone in an argument over learning anything. Or they use their intelligence mostly for snark and viciousness.

An intelligent mind may be a lazy mind. It may be narrow or given to exceptional dishonesty. (Context matters too. An individual can display in-depth thinking in one area of life while remaining superficial or dishonest in other areas – and either not recognizing the superficiality or not being troubled by it, because it doesn’t cost them social approval.)

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