The Nice Guy Trope: Caring, Courageous, or Cringeworthy?
The Nice Guy trope is probably one of the most familiar tropes in recent history.
A hopeless romantic only wants to be a force for good in the lives of those they love. They’re kind to their mother, protective of their sister, and eager to be the partner their crush needs.
And suppose their crush doesn’t need them? Not possible. Everyone needs a Nice Guy™, and the only one the love interest will ever find is this one right here, standing in the yard with a boombox.
Or so the story often goes.
This trope is a fascinating one because its execution evolves with our culture. The way we write this character today is usually different from the way authors tackled this character only a decade ago.
You can even see different versions of the Nice Guy trope within a single story.
Remus Lupin (Harry Potter) is kind, self-sacrificing, and puts those he loves above himself. Snape, by contrast, is the Nice Guy trope at its worst. He’s only nice to the woman he loves and uses his heartache as justification for being awful to her child.
Clearly, this is a complicated trope. But that’s what makes it so darn interesting.
You’re about to learn loads about this character. We’ll cover the evolution of the trope, common characteristics, the Nice Guy’s arc, and how to create this character for your novel.
But first, a disclaimer.
This is Gonna Get Gendered
The Nice Guy trope has deep roots in heteronormative assumptions and traditional gender roles.
You can absolutely apply this trope to a female, nonbinary, or gay male character. There are no restrictions here.
But some aspects of this trope are tough to discuss without using gendered and heteronormative language. So you’ll see a bit of that in this article. It’s not meant to be exclusionary.
A Brief History of the Nice Guy Trope
The 1930s movies Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee provide famous examples of the trope in early cinema. But that’s hardly where it begins.
Even Much Ado About Nothing’s Claudio fits this trope perfectly. He’s gentle, romantic, and naive, but his sweet declarations of love for Hero evaporate into resentment the moment his insecurities are triggered.
Historically, readers and audiences have mostly embraced the Nice Guy character as an admirable underdog. Often a foil for the hyper-masculine, insensitive love interest, the Nice Guy is supposedly the romantic hero we should be rooting for.
But more recently, our culture has cast a critical eye towards this particular trope. Readers and audiences now question whether a woman actually owes her heart to anyone who’s nice to her. (Turns out, she doesn’t.)
Many modern writers either soften the way the sweet dude pursues the girl or position Nice Guy characters as villains playing innocent.
So what are you supposed to do with all this information? What’s involved in this trope and how could you use this character in your novel?
Let’s start by identifying what a Nice Guy looks like in literature.
Characteristics of the Nice Guy Trope
They’re kind, romantic, and in touch with their feelings, even if they’re not emotionally expressive. They’re approachable, good listeners, and have a strong moral compass. And they’re so ready for a committed relationship.
All this niceness positions them as the underdog in a world where bullies regularly win.
For the most part, Nice Guys are psychologically well-adjusted. They might brood or throw a fit when they experience rejection. But if they carry the scars of past traumas, they tend to process these scars through quiet reflection and deep conversation. No wild mood swings or emotional walls here.
The Nice Guy is genuinely invested in the wellbeing of others. And no one’s wellbeing matters more to them than that of their crush.
Here’s where it gets complicated. The Nice Guy knows they’re the Nice Guy. They see themselves as “good” and fixate on everything that puts their rival in the “bad” category.
As a result, they tend to see their crush’s romantic rejection of them as a moral failing and grow resentful when they’re not rewarded for their niceness.
This reveals a sexist double standard. The Nice Guy pursues a woman who he knows is “out of his league,” believing his goodness should matter more to her than his social status. But you don’t see him casting a second glance at less attractive, deeper souled women.
The Goal of the Nice Guy/Person
This character could have any goal. They might be a Common Person who’s been launched into extraordinary circumstances and must now save the world. Or maybe they’re trying to get a leg up in their career but struggle to compete with a more vicious, less ethical antagonist.
Whatever the situation, the Nice Guy’s greatest frustration is that their niceness doesn’t seem to get them anywhere. No one else seems to value their virtue.
This can make for engaging conflict. But it also gets messy when it comes to the most common Nice Guy goal: love.
The Nice Guy’s Pursuit of Love
More than anything else, the Nice Person wants to escape the dreaded “friend zone.” For that is the cross the perpetual Nice Guy must bear: always a friend, never a lover.
Sometimes, this character is direct and considerate in their pursuit of love, like Ben Wyatt (Parks and Recreation).
More often, the “pursuit” involves a lot of daydreaming, doting, and sulking. They’ll totally tell their love interest about the day their dad left but can’t find it in themselves to be upfront about their romantic feelings.
Of course, this is part of what makes the Nice Guy trope relatable. It highlights the fear of making your heart available for someone else to potentially reject. That’s universally terrifying.
The problem is when the Nice Guy (or narrator) acts like it’s the crush’s job to hand over the goal this character isn’t even actively pursuing. The goal, of course, being the love interest’s heart, soul, and body. Kind of a big ask.
Sometimes the Nice Guy takes the opposite approach. They pursue their crush relentlessly. If their crush isn’t receptive to their gestures, they make bigger gestures.
The Nice Guy doesn’t take no for an answer, because they believe the power of their feelings indicates that those feelings are “right.” Virtuous. Worth fighting for. What constitutes stalker behavior in real life is romantic in the story of the Nice Guy hero.
In short, this character follows an over-simplified formula for establishing a romantic connection. They do every “nice” thing they can think of. They show up for the love interest in ways their macho rival won’t. And if the object of their affection doesn’t fall for them, they assume it’s because they’re nice.
So do they ever reach their goal? Let’s talk about that.
The Nice Guy’s Character Arc
The Nice Person often—but not always—wins in the end. They might succumb to the temptation to sink to their rival’s level, regret it, and ultimately achieve victory by realigning themselves with their noble values.
Or they might cling doggedly to their nice nature, suffer because of it, but ultimately succeed. Either way, virtue proves to be their secret superpower.
In romantic storylines, the Nice Guy trope offers great opportunities to play with themes of love, connection, vulnerability, and expectations. It all depends on the way we authors tackle this character’s arc.
There’s the Nice Person who gets rejected by the love interest, throws an absolute fit, but eventually learns to let go. They transform from theoretical Nice Guy to someone who’s actually nice, supporting a friend’s wishes instead of centering their own (and respecting their friend’s consent).
Duckie from Pretty in Pink is one of the most famous examples of this arc.
Or there’s the version where the Nice Guy faces rejection, throws a fit, and is pretty much the worst for the rest of their story. In this arc, the character shows themselves to be a villain. Their niceness is a manipulation tactic.
Then there’s the Nice Person whose goodness wins the heart of their love interest. This usually happens when the Nice Guy saves the day, often after their romantic rival has let the crush down.
Finally, there are instances of this trope where the character uses their rejection to grow as an individual. They’re still heartbroken and might not handle the situation perfectly. But they release the idea that their crush exists to save them and set out to find fulfillment on their own.
Usually, their love interest realizes what they’re missing in the Nice Guy’s absence. Jim Halpert (The Office) is a classic example of this.
So is There a Nice Girl?
Yeah, there are a few out there, like Felicity Porter (Felicity). But there aren’t many, and that’s due to those old-fashioned gender ideas I was talking about earlier.
Throughout history, men have been seen as active pursuers while women are viewed as the passive prizes men set out to win.
As a result, the most common female version of the Nice Guy trope is the Good Girl. This character is similarly dreamy, romantic, kind, and presented as the ideal mate. But she’s not usually a pursuer and doesn’t feel entitled to anyone’s love.
When female characters get the full Nice Guy treatment, they often appear threatening, pathetic, or unhinged.
In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rebecca’s obsessive pursuit of Josh proves to be motivated by mental illness, not love.
And Leslie Knope (Parks and Recreation) acts in blatant self-interest when she and Ben break-up. Ignoring his request for distance, she finds ways to get closer, and at no point does it feel romantic.
The beautiful thing about being a writer, however, is that you have all the freedom in the world to explore the underexplored. So if you want to write a Nice Girl, have at it.
And here’s how it’s done.
How to Write a Relatable Nice Guy/Girl
I won’t deny it. I’ve done a lot of complaining about the Nice Guy trope throughout this article. But let me tell you what I love about it.
The Nice Person gives us an opportunity to explore those questions that poke at our everyday vulnerabilities.
What if the best version of ourselves isn’t enough? Who will we choose to be when kindness doesn’t get us what we want? Are we strong enough to support the ones we love even when supporting them means letting go?
Want to dig into these questions with a character in your novel? Here are some suggestions for making this character relatable and memorable.
Let Them Be Vulnerable
This is central to the Nice Guy trope, even if you decide to write them as a villain. (Especially if you decide to write them as a villain, actually.)
They don’t have to make emotional speeches or cry at the drop of a hat. But let them be responsive to what’s happening around them. Are they irritated by the best friend who can’t take anything seriously? Thrown off by the brilliance of their crush’s smile? Show it. Then:
Punish Them for Their Vulnerability
Let them lose because they refused to play dirty. Have them put it all on the line only to be turned down. Force them to confront the fact that sometimes goodness kind of has to be its own reward and that sucks.
The Nice Guy trope embodies the reader’s greatest everyday fears. So freak your readers out.
Reward Them, Too
Fun thing about the Nice Guy trope: it also embodies the reader’s hopes. Specifically, their hopes that kindness and love will save the day.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean your character has to win their love interest’s heart, especially not if they've been a little stalkerish in their pursuit. There are other ways to reward them for their vulnerability. Maybe they grow closer to another character or discover something about themselves that opens up bright new possibilities.
Make Them More Than Just Nice
You can find a ton of great articles on character development at DabbleU. These will help you give your Nice Guy a lot of layers, engaging backstory, fascinating flaws, and more. (It’s also a good idea to read up on the Lover archetype.)
All of this is important, especially if you plan to give this character a romantic victory. One of the biggest problems with the classic Nice Guy trope is the assumption that a person should love whomever is nice to them.
When you write a complex Nice Person, you give your protagonist and love interest the opportunity to connect over things like shared interests, values, sense of humor, etc. That creates a more believable and satisfying happily ever after.
Let Them Grow
Your Nice Guy has been vulnerable. They’ve been punished and rewarded for it. Now who do they become? How does the experience change them?
If you want this character to be relatable, let them grow. It’s what people do.
Uncomplicate Things With Dabble
Clearly, there’s a lot to consider when working with the Nice Guy trope. But then, that’s the case when you’re writing any character. From building their backstory to determining their quirks, a lot of thought goes into writing a character that feels real.
Want to know a great tip for keeping all that complex character work organized?
Try Dabble. It’s a writing tool with features that make every part of the writing process easier, from brainstorming to polishing the final draft.
Use the Story Notes feature to create character sketches, conduct character interviews, and more. You can even upload your own images or search Unsplash for photos without even leaving Dabble.
Best of all, you can try every single feature for free for 14 days. All you have to do is click here and snag your free trial—no credit card required.
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