Inspired by Piranesi by Susanna Clarke, of course! Let’s see if we can get to ten protagonists who are just nice people, though perhaps not as naïve and innocent as the narrator of Piranesi.
I’ll add, starting out, that obviously there are great heaping gobs of protagonists who
(a) are pretty decent people, like one zillion fantasy protagonists; or
(b) when push comes to shove, will grit their teeth and reluctantly do nice things, probably not very graciously; or
(c) are admirable, if not all that nice, like Nicholas Valiarde in Death of the Necromancer or, for that matter, his daughter Tremaine in the Fall of Ile-Rien trilogy.
I like all those types of protagonists, but this isn’t what I have in mind when I think of “just plain nice” protagonists. I think we all have some general idea of “nice” protagonists. These are people who go out of their way to be helpful and kind, not just sometimes, but nearly all the time. Not just to their friends, but to people who aren’t their friends. But not in a saccharine, super-sweet way that makes them victims, because ugh. Pulling off a protagonist who is not-saccharine-but-really-nice-yet-still-believable is no doubt a tricky balancing act for the author, though if it’s done well, the reader probably doesn’t notice the effort that may have gone into developing the character.
So, let me see if I can come up with ten protagonists like that. These entries aren’t in any particular order — just the order in which I thought of them.
1. The Narrator in Piranesi. Because I just read this one, it’s at the top. This character is actually just about too naïve to work for me … but he did work, because of the unique context. Kim nailed it in the comment to the previous post, when she said, “I loved that he ended up being right all along, despite also being completely naïve and mistaken.” Exactly! He was right and his view of the world was right, in a truly essential way.
2. Maia in The Goblin Emperor. As Irina suggested in a comment to the same post, and in fact Maia was the protagonist who leaped to mind for this list. Really, Katherine Addison/Sarah Monette pulled off a great character here, right at the far end of the probability curve for niceness, but not saccharine, and not particularly naïve or innocent either. I haven’t read the sequel yet. I mean … the protagonist isn’t Maia! I’m just not sure I care that much if Maia isn’t even going to be an important secondary character. If any of you have read the sequel, what did you think?
3. Marcus in The Thousand Names. This is such a broad, epic work, with lots of important pov protagonists and a very important non-pov protagonist. Of the lot, Marcus is the nicest. He makes such an interesting contrast with Winter, the one I still think of as the main protagonist. She’s nice enough, like a zillion other fantasy protagonists; she’s my favorite protagonist in this series. But she’s not in the same kindness ballpark as Marcus. He is the standout there.
4. Kit in From All False Doctrine. This is one reason this book worked so well for me. Not the only reason. Also the beautiful writing. Let me see, right, here’s what I said in my review of this book: Sort of like a cross between a Wodehouse novel and In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. But with demonology. There’s lots to love about this one, but without Kit, I don’t think the story would have appealed to me nearly as much. This is true even though the other characters are also very good, especially Elsa.
5. Cliopher in The Hands of the Emperor. Cliopher — another Kit, which is a little amusing; is there something about that name? — anyway, he is a really nice person. That is one reason it works so well when he takes down a corrupt institution or person or loses his temper in other contexts. Unlike most of the other truly nice characters on this list, Cliopher is also a genuine Great Man who reshapes the entire empire. liopher is a genuine Great Man, who re-shapes the world over the course of the book. In my review, I said, Unassailable integrity, diplomatic genius, vision, empathy, plus enough sheer nerve to invite the Sun-on-Earth to his home for a vacation. That pretty much sums up Cliopher.
6. Paksenarrion in The Deed of Paksenarrion. I’m a little surprised it took me so long to think of her, but you know, aiming a protagonist toward becoming an actual paladin is a neat way to justify making her really nice — on the edge of unbelievably nice — but not over the edge, imo.
7. Mirasol in Chalice. This is such a warm, fuzzy story. Very much a comfort read. I am just now realizing that books with really nice protagonists tend to fall into the comfort-read category for me. That’s not required, but it’s common. The main requirement is certainty that the plot will work out in nice ways, a different quality of “niceness.” Chalice has both qualities. It’s not free of tension, but I don’t think the reader has a lot of concern about the ending.
The new cover of Chalice really does not capture the warm feeling of the novel. Here’s the old cover:
Here’s the new cover:
Not a good change, imo. I don’t like anything about this new cover. The first one captures the feel of the story a whole lot better than the windswept, oddly positioned woman with the flowers on the new cover.
Kim said about Piranesi, “I kept being worried that the narrator’s innocence would be his downfall, and it would be yet another book about the horribleness of people and the meaninglessness of the universe.” I wasn’t actually very worried about that or I wouldn’t have enjoyed the story nearly as much, but I think it’s unlikely any reader would feel that kind of concern about Chalice. Part of the warmth of the story is the confidence that the story will end well.
8. Penric in the Penric/Desdemona novellas. You know, one of the things I enjoy about Penric is that the reader may forget he’s a priest of the white god, but Penric never forgets that. He’s a very nice person who likes to be helpful, but I particularly enjoy how he’s likely to sternly remind an opponent that it’s not nice to be mean to their demon, or whatever.
9. Fawn (and actually Dag too) in the Sharing Knife novels. Fawn is a bit naïve and innocent, but not nearly as much so as the narrator in Piranesi. Dag is a bit hardened by life, but not in the least cynical. Really, they are both just nice people. Again, this is a long-time comfort read for me.
10. Aras in Tuyo. I didn’t feel I could complete a list like this without adding Aras. I get that Ryo is the primary protagonist, and he’s pretty nice too. But Aras is the one who belongs in this list.
In poking at Google, looking for nice protagonists — much more difficult to find than “strong” protagonists”– I also saw references to Strange the Dreamer. I know some of you have read this. I really need to give it a try. I’m definitely in the mood for nice protagonists right now.
14 thoughts on “The Top Ten Fantasy Protagonists who are just plain nice”
Not a book, but Ted Lasso (the character and the tv show) definitely fits the bill.
I’ve read _The Witness for the Dead_ and liked it every bit as much as _The Goblin Emperor_. And yes, the protagonist is a genuinely good person surrounded by other genuinely good people (and also some bad people who get their just deserts).
Hallie Michaels? helpful to people she’s not friends with – like that elderly woman in #2 – but once she decides to be helpful, she follows through. Maybe she’s more like Valliarde, though.
Have you read the sequel to From All False Doctrine I thought she flopped rather badly with it. There is a Kit appearance, eventually, though.
C.J. Milbrandt’s Galleries of Stone trilogy features Freydolf and Tupper, an unlikely match in all ways who become fast friends. Both of them are charmingly kind to each other and all they meet, and are just all-around good people. And they continue to be that way, no matter what they go through. It’s refreshingly sweet, but not saccharine in the least.
I would also add Daniel from your own Death’s Lady trilogy, because he’s a good, kind man, and continues to find ways to be so despite considerable duress.
Thank you, E.C., I’ll check out the Galleries of Stone. And you’re right, that’s still so newly released I didn’t think of it, but Daniel is exactly that kind of character.
Elaine, I liked the sequel okay … but … as it happens, angels that turn into humans are a trope that does not work for me, as a rule. So this sequel was pushing uphill. I had to continually resist my dislike of this trope in order to like the story at all.
Irina, thank you! I’m a lot more likely to read this book given that comment.
I read Witness to the Dead, and while Thera is a nice, earnest person, I didn’t find it quite as satisfying as The Goblin Emperor because he has such low self-esteem. I find these days that I really want to read about people who are both nice and aware of the ways they are competent. Penric for example is both nice and nicely competent/confident. It’s been a while since I read it, but IIRC one of the things I liked about Keeper of the Mists is that Keri is a nice person and she has nice friends.
I’ve been hesitating about Ishmael Wong, from the “Golden age of the solar clippers” books by Nathan Lowell, since I’ve been listening to Quarter share and Half share. He’s nice, and helps those around him. The books are low-stress and low-key, written without emotional tension or much other tension; since being nice has an emotional component for me, the matter-of-fact, unemotional tone of the books make me a bit uncertain if Ishmael fits the “really nice person” label.
R Morgan, I agree! I’m halfway through Witness, and my constant thought is, “Thera, would you please STAND UP for yourself!”
So, I like the book, but definitely not as much as TGE.
Hanneke, I think he does count, but because it costs him nothing to be nice, it doesn’t hit me quite the same way. I mean, he’s nice, but it’s easy for him to be nice? That’s so different from Maia.
Belated thought of someone we should all have come up with; Captain Carrot of the Ankh-Morpok Watch.
He and Vimes are an interesting contrast in Lawful Good, too.
More of our hostess’ characters, such as the girls in HOUSE, and that runaway prince whose name is escaping me. It costs them but they are careful towards other people. Bertaud from Gryphon who many not be quite a protaganist, but so what, and that girl who was his ward in #3. (doing badly on names this morning, must need coffee.)
Rachel, (on the Degan book) I found enough craft level problems with it the use of that trope (I hate it, too) is only a small part of the book’s failure.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos
I haven’t finished it yet, but Fenra from the recently released The Godstone by Violette Malan is nice, practical, and not naive.
Captain Carrot is an ideal candidate for kind protagonists. So is Ethan of Athos. Both really good choices I ought to have thought of.
Oh, thanks — The Godstone sounds intriguing. I’ll get a sample and see how I like it.