Nice Guys Finish Last? Depends on One’s Definition of “Nice”

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We have discussed Nice Girls, but what about Nice Guys? The standard response to that is: “Yeah, well, you know where Nice Guys finish – last.” Depending on the definition of “nice” in use, this can be quite true. But as with Nice Girls, Nice Guys do not all follow the perceived pattern of “nice” that led to this pithy piece of wisdom.

For a close example of the typical “nice guy” supposed by modern conventions to exist, let us look at Owen Wister’s The Virginian*. In the novel we have the titular hero, but his story is largely told from the first-person perspective of the Narrator. Nevertheless, the Virginian is a decisive leading man of great character who does not at all fit the conventions of either his or our time for “nice.” One of the side characters in his adventures, however, may qualify.

This would be Shorty, a man often described as looking and thinking like a lost dog in search of a master. Shorty will follow either the strongest person present or the person who can succeed in talking him into some particular point of view. In either case, he is not strong in and of himself. As the Virginian observes: “When a man ain’t got no ideas of his own, he’d ought to be kind o’ careful who he borrows ’em from.” Shorty’s agreeableness is his downfall, as he is led to outlawry by the book’s antagonist and is eventually killed by him when it appears they are being followed. In the end, Shorty would have been left for the wild animals were it not for the Virginian and the Narrator.

Another good example of the popularly perceived “nice guy” might be Richard Rich, from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons*. Richard is a social climber intent on being a man of prominence, but he has a weak character and constantly seeks the favors of stronger men to lift himself higher up the chain of public esteem. He attempts this with Sir (Saint) Thomas More, and in a particularly tragic scene, begs More for a position in his house. More refuses, causing Rich to back out the door. “I would be true!” Rich cries desperately even as he proves himself a liar.

With pity but firm resolve, Thomas More responds: “Richard, you could not answer for yourself within the last hour!”

Indeed, Richard cannot speak the truth if there is something he wants held forth to lure him forward to what he desires. Will Roper, the man who courts and eventually marries More’s daughter Margaret, is as bad in his own way. A rigid man adhering to his principles, he gives little thought as to whether or not the causes that he espouses would end in his betterment, the betterment of England, or utter disaster for all concerned. More debates with him on several points and comes out the victor in the final hour, having done his best with what he had to preserve his own soul in the entire fracas with Henry VIII.

Here is one memorable speech from More to Roper about this matter: “Will, I’d trust you with my life. But not your principles. You see, we speak of being anchored to our principles. But if the weather turns nasty you up with an anchor and let it down where there’s less wind, and the fishing’s better. And “Look,” we say, “look, I’m anchored! To my principles!” As More points out, anchors can be moved. If you, the sovereign individual, are “the captain of [your] soul,” however – then you have a chance at maintaining your principles no matter what storms arise.

This is where true Nice Guys demonstrate their real strength. Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy* is a Nice Guy. He determines to take Leia’s message to Obi-Wan Kenobi against his uncle’s express orders. When Obi-Wan reveals his heritage and tells him to come with him to Alderaan, Luke refuses out of loyalty to his uncle. This shows he is willing to disobey him in matters of life and death for others while remaining obedient with regard to himself and his duties.

His inherent goodness and strong command of himself becomes clearer the longer we watch him. From talking Han Solo into rescuing Leia to obeying Ben’s Force Ghost, from refusing the call of the Dark Side at every turn to the moment he decides to follow the Will of the Force, Luke is an inherently Good Guy. Far from being a sap and a simpering fool, he is decisive, strong, and firm in his adherence to the beliefs he was taught. The latter he accomplishes without falling into the tendency to put principle over good sense and the welfare of others.

I Painted Luke Skywalker : pics

Luke Skywalker is a Paladin. I mean this less in the Dungeons and Dragons sense and more in the manner of someone sworn to a strict code of beliefs that inform his will, mind, and actions. While he carries some traits of the Prince archetype, his Paladin roots are present as well. The White Knight and Good Guy, Luke always strives to do what is right in accordance with the principles he has been taught, using them to master himself. This is what enables him to become a Jedi who follows the Will of the Force.

Sir (Saint) Thomas More follows this pattern as well in A Man for All Seasons, albeit in a passive rather than an active manner. He never budges from his beliefs, using available legal loopholes to protect himself and his family as long as he can. It costs him the comforts he enjoyed as Chancellor and the understanding of his family, but in the end, it cannot be denied that he is the victor within the story. The fact that he manages to do this while cracking jokes and maintaining a cheerful attitude testifies to his essential Good Guy nature while showing his strength in holding to himself amidst enormous pressures to change.

Now we come to a sticking point that modern readers and writers tend to forget. As TVTropes has said, Good Is Not Nice. It is not overly violent or morally ambiguous, however; good is good. Evil is evil. The two do not mix and meet, though men like Will Roper are apt to confuse the two here and there, as are men like Shorty and Richard Rich.

People today often confuse a hard or difficult choice the hero makes with a “morally gray” action some protagonists favor. A compare and contrast between the MCU’s Steve Rogers and Peter Quill will explicate this, as the two are different heroic archetypes that diverge in how they approach a situation. This is because Steve Rogers is a Paladin while Peter Quill is a Rogue.

Rogue archetypes have elements of the Trickster in them. They are comfortable lying and can often lie, bluff, or con with ease. While Peter’s ability to sweet talk or distract people is comical it is also highly effective, as despite his status as a man-child of sorts, he uses his apparent stupidity to bamboozle and distract his opponents. This allows him to avoid killing in most situations and avoid fights in others – or at least give him a physical advantage in combat by making the enemies before him hesitate to try and understand why he is acting like an idiot.

Paladins are much more straightforward in their lines of attack, as Steve proves with his inability to lie casually. While this can be a weakness in certain circumstances, it can be a strength in others, as his honesty means he can bluff quite believably. The fact that he does not lie means that he can promise to blow up a doomsday weapon with himself aboard and be believed by the enemy. His dedication to truth, justice, and the American way leaves no room for doubt as to what lengths he is willing to go to see Good win, even if it means he personally loses.

Look at the scene in Guardians of the Galaxy* where, after the Collector’s servant Corina is destroyed by the Power Stone, Gamora states they have to bring the Orb to the Nova Corps for safe-keeping. Quill agrees with her at first, only to try and negotiate or “split the difference” in an effort to keep himself solvent as well as do the right thing. His attempt to placate both God and Mammon naturally goes over like a lead balloon with Gamora, who then risks her life to prevent the Orb from falling into the wrong hands. Only after she nearly dies doing this does Quill acquiesce to her plan, in part to save them both from the Ravagers, in part because he values her life above even money.

In The Winter Soldier*, however, Steve Rogers absolutely refuses to compromise on what he knows is right. Alexander Pierce feeds him a line about “tearing down the old world” to build a new one, stating his opinion that those who “call you dirty because you have the guts to stick your hands in the mud” are cowards and not worth the powder to blow them to Hell. Or, as we learn later, Pierce believes they are worth blowing to Hell – with lasers from on high rather than guns aimed directly at their faces.

Steve refuses to give Pierce what he wants. While he does not know precisely what is going on, he knows that something is wrong. He does not lie to Pierce yet he still manages to keep his secret nonetheless, stonewalling rather than bamboozling him. This costs him a great deal more than what Peter Quill’s fast talk did him, as Steve is branded a fugitive and forced to discern quickly between friend and foe, praying he has made the right choice and will be able to act in time to stop them if his instincts are proven wrong.

His confrontation with Bucky aboard the Helicarrier is perhaps the biggest price he pays, as he must apparently balance thousands of lives against that of his old friend. This leads us to another mark of Good Guys, true Nice Guys, Paladins, and White Knights: they will fight tooth and nail to remain masters of themselves when others put pressure on them to change. When circumstances seem to do the same, they push back against those, too. Steve does what is necessary to temporarily defeat Bucky so he can save those Project Insight would murder, ending up wounded in the process. He then goes back to rescue his friend, nearly getting killed for doing so, only to be rescued by the man who barely remembers him.

People today often think – somehow – that this makes such Nice Guys bland. They dismiss the fortitude, the sheer amount of moral and sometimes physical strength that goes into a Paladin’s quiet “no” as being insipid and costing him nothing. The above examples prove otherwise, as the trials Peter Quill endures are less morally, emotionally, and mentally demanding than those Captain Rogers survives.

Peter is saved from death via the Power Stone by the expedient of the other Guardians joining forces with him. There is absolutely no such guarantee for Steve in the finale of Winter Soldier. Either Bucky will remember him and decide to save him…or he will let him fall into the river and drown. Steve’s serum cannot prevent him from drowning, and the odds of any of his allies finding him before he expires are very, very slim. Yet he still makes the call to save both his friend and thousands of lives at the potential cost of his own.

Nice Guys who are, at heart, Good Guys do not finish last in the sense that most people think. Some years ago, I took part in a Bible Study group, and one of the items that came up was this passage: “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” A member of the group had military experience and offered an intriguing observation with regard to this admonition. I will do my best to replicate it here:

The Good Guy by Dean Koontz — Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists

This person explained that one of the things done when military personnel are clearing out of a building is that the first one to the door will open and then guard that portal until the rest of the men have exited the building. I no longer recall if this position has a name, but this is what the person discussing the Bible said “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last” brought to mind. The first person to the door holds it open until the last person is out, whereupon the door is shut. In essence, first to the door means last to leave, and last person out the door may well be first in line when evacuating the area.

Dean Koontz’ hero in the novel The Good Guy* is known as “Doorman” by his fellow former soldiers for a similar reason. Prior to the story’s beginning Tim Carrier – Doorman – held the door against enemy fire to protect his teammates, suffering multiple gunshot wounds in the process. By the time he beat off the attack and the door could be shut, it was a miracle he was still on his feet. He shrugs off the name “Doorman” because he does not appreciate the adulation, since it was no more and no less than his duty to hold the door against all comers to protect his people. “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

Do Nice Guys finish last because they are wimps, or do they finish last because they were protecting the passage so everyone else could escape? This is where I will discuss a somewhat overlooked Nice Guy in modern fiction. Peeta Mellark of The Hunger Games* is a “nice guy” who does not seem capable of much. He can wrestle and handle a knife, but he is a terrible hunter and would prefer not to kill if he can avoid it. Where Katniss Everdeen has many masculine traits acquired because it was the only means of survival for herself and her family, Peeta grows up with the security of a whole family and indulges in seemingly feminine pastimes – namely, baking and painting.

Yet when put to the test, Peeta shows more strength than even he realizes he possesses. Suffering from a fever, he manages to survive until Katniss finds him, then live again when undergoing surgery to remove his infected leg. At the end of Catching Fire* he is captured by the Capitol and subjected to torture in an effort to make him break down and talk. When that does not work, the Capitol does their best to turn him into an assassin via torture and “Tracker Jacker” venom.

Tracker Jackers are genetically modified wasps with venom that induces hallucinations. When Peeta is rescued and brought to District 13, he quickly becomes a danger to Katniss, almost strangling her when she rushes to see him. Despite extensive attempts to deprogram him in a short amount of time, he still struggles with his programming. At one point, he asks to be killed to protect her and the rest of their team, something she refuses to countenance. When Katniss tries to commit suicide herself toward the end of Mockingjay*, Peeta prevents her despite her protests, saying when she directly asks him to let go: “I can’t.”

At the trilogy’s finale it is Peeta, not Gale Hawthorne, whom Katniss eventually marries and with whom she has children. The man who held the door against the Capitol physically and then within the realm of his own confused mind is the man she chooses to wed. While being more passive than Katniss and Gale, this does not make him weaker than either of them. If anything, he proves to be one of the strongest characters in the books by refusing time and again to “become a piece in [the Capitol’s] Games.”

Peeta Mellark | Welcome, Welcome to a Hunger Games Halloween ...

Peeta Mellark

Nice Guys may finish last, but that might be because they were Good Guys who got there first and held the door open for others to pass through to safety. Be careful how and who you label a “nice guy,” future authors. You may accidentally have thrown your Paladin in with the weak and shiftless, and that will scare those poor fellas to death.

Your Good Guys will not appreciate the delay in getting where they need to go, either. Check your definition of “nice” prior to setting words on paper. You may find you need to move the tag somewhere else. 😉

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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15 thoughts on “Nice Guys Finish Last? Depends on One’s Definition of “Nice”

  1. “…And he’s a very nice man. It’s an awful phrase really, to call someone ‘nice’ because it implies a certain weakness. But what I mean is, he’s a very decent person.”
    -Christopher Lee on Ian McKellan

    Very good post!

    I’m curious: what would you say is the difference between Paladin and Prince archetypes?

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I need to do a post on the differences to do the matter complete justice, but here are some highlights: a Prince, by default, is to inherit and rule a kingdom. The Paladin archetype focuses on hunting down and destroying evil wherever it may lie, no matter the personal cost it takes on the Paladin physically, mentally, and emotionally.

      The Paladin archetype requires three things above all others: extreme combat prowess in one or more fields, sheer hatred for evil itself (not the people who do evil, but the evil they do, if that makes sense*), and a willingness to pay a personal cost that could result in the Paladin being maimed for life or killed outright. Paladins are people whose determination to hunt down evil is such that they train hard to fight it. Anyone who despises evil, can learn to fight well, and is willing to pay the cost with their own body and life can be a Paladin. This means that warriors, tribunes, Legionnaires, hereditary knights, wandering samurai, men-at-arms, yeomen, riflemen, gunhands, soldiers, sheriffs, et al are options for a storyteller to choose. As long as the particular character is scary, scary good at combat, hates evil with a passion, and is willing to die for his cause, he can be a Paladin.

      Princes need more excuses to bring them into a tale, too. By their status as heir to the throne, they can’t be as willing to throw their lives away for a cause – not unless they have sired an heir to take over after they have died. A prince gallivanting all over the world/galaxy, fighting evil and risking life and limb when he has duties to attend to and a kingdom to learn to run is harder to explain than “guy who is scary good at combat wanders around hunting evil and helping people instead of kicking back and tolerating it because ‘that’s how life is’.” So, storywise, you can get more mileage out of a straight or meshed Paladin archetype than the straight Prince archetype.

      The Prince has to either be fighting to restore his kingdom, to protect it, or to rescue his betrothed. The Paladin just has to show up when the world is at its darkest and shine a light on evil. Paladins always do this with force, volume, and an enthusiasm for goodness that is so strong it makes everyone around them go “you’re going to get yourself killed – but I’m coming with you, because you’re right, evil can’t be tolerated. It ends here and now, and I’ll help you end it.” So Paladins may be nice or decent guys, but they’re really, really *scary* nice guys. A mountain will move sooner than a Paladin – especially if the Paladin has any say in the matter! 😀

      *For an example to the rest of the audience: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from.” It’s the bullying he hates, not the person doing the bullying. Abuse of strength is evil no matter who does it; Steve Rogers’ hatred for that evil and his determination to fight it, no matter the cost to himself, is what makes him a Paladin.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Slightly off topic but thinking about the Prince being an heir and should have an heir himself before going into trouble.

        One Fantasy Novel had a young nobleman compelled to fight a dragon to reclaim his lands.

        Apparently, one of his ancestors stole something from a dragon and the dragon took over the lands demanding the return of the object (obviously the object wasn’t in the noble’s castle).

        There was a curse involved, the heirs of the first noble had to confront the dragon and/or return the object.

        But the dragon was also bound by the curse, he couldn’t kill the heir unless the heir had an heir of his own.

        It was somewhat annoying for the hero to be “beaten by the dragon but not killed”. 😉

        After that defeat, the hero got the great idea to find the missing object. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Good distinction, though the prince can also be off earning his spurs don’t forget: learning to fight, proving himself, etc. Like Aragorn in the years before the book.

        What about a prince archetype without him being literally a prince, like say a tycoon’s son or something?

        Liked by 1 person

      3. True, but after the Prince earns his spurs, he becomes King. The King has a separate set of duties from a Prince, as the Prince is practicing to be the King. Aragorn’s wanderings after (squints to the side) his time in Rohan and Gondor in Denethor’s youth (as Thorongil, if I remember right) would have been when he ceased the “practice” period and moved to the “king in hiding” role Alfred assumes in The Ballad of the White Horse. He moves from Prince to Hidden King Reclaiming His Kingdom, after which he becomes King in fact and rules his country, prosecuting wars to keep Gondor safe.

        The same applies to a tycoon’s son or similar type of character: he starts as a Prince, practices to earn his spurs, becomes King, and then takes up the duties of a King. It’s work that requires fighting but not in the near-permanent wandering phase of a Paladin, who isn’t required to rule anything. Even a Paladin that retires to a domestic life might do so in a manner very unlike a Prince/King archetype, whose life is taken up with ruling and protecting his kingdom until the heir comes of age to take his place. The duties of each archetype are separated by this division of labor; the Paladin or Knight can move across the chessboard, but the King must move sparingly and warily to avoid checkmate (death). After practicing to gain spurs or the conquering/establishing the kingdom phase is done, the matter of *ruling* the kingdom all the time comes up. If the King and everyone else is lucky, the neighboring powers aren’t restive and he doesn’t have to fight. If those powers have *Ideas*, though, then he’s in for external strife. That could be followed by internal problems, too, if the wars go on too long or enemy actors get inside the country to stir up trouble.

        For a tycoon’s son, the same Prince-to-King analogy applies. He can have adventures after he takes up his father’s business but those will focus more on protecting his family honor and holdings (or even expanding those, depending on the story), as a King must protect his subjects and country, perhaps engaging in wars of conquest if necessary. There’s no real “rest” from labor in that type of life. Paladins can marry and have families, whereupon they may retire to obscurity. They’ve fought the good fight and can leave the field to become farmers, blacksmiths, secretaries (it used to be a male position), mentors, or any number of “discreet” jobs. Cincinnatus would be a good example of this; he took power long enough to protect Rome, then turned down kingship to retire to his farm again.

        Prince/King characters do not have that option. They will be in the spotlight until their dying day, managing the reins of their kingdom or company until it is time to pass it along to the next generation. It is a lifelong job and retirement comes either when the King steps down so his heir can take his place or when the King dies on the throne (or the battlefield).

        Also, like a Prince ascending to the King’s throne, a tycoon’s son may still go on adventures after becoming a tycoon himself. But his primary responsibility will be his company or “kingdom” and employees or “subjects.” He’s not just taking care of himself, his family, and his neighbor when the neighbor needs it, but a large number of other people as well. He can’t afford to risk his life recklessly or pursue every quest himself. There’s a reason, much as it saddens me to say it, that Arthur’s prominence wanes in later cycles of Arthurian legend. One reason is that his kingdom is at peace, so he usually doesn’t have to fight to protect it. The second reason is that he can’t risk his person in minor adventures as regularly as his knights can risk theirs’. He is the King, the man they *cannot* afford to lose for a trivial adventure, grand gesture, or magnanimous act of chivalry. So he has to stay home while the Knights go out wandering and helping his people personally.

        Though since some of those knights in Arthurian legend are princes or kings themselves, they shouldn’t be so bold about risking their own necks the way they do, either! XD But there you have it – people just want to see their favorite characters fighting the good fight, even in Medieval literature. The further forward in the retellings that you go, the more Arthur being the High King of Camelot means he gets to risk his life and person only in extremis or if the adventure catches him unawares. Otherwise, he has to stay home in Camelot while the rest of the Round Table gets to go on a quest every other Sunday. The higher up the chain of command a man goes, the less fieldwork he can engage in and the more paperwork he has to do. Oof. Now I feel really sorry for Arthur!

        Liked by 1 person

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