Imagine a character whose defining feature is overwhelming niceness. He's polite, soft-spoken, never pushy. He makes an effort to get on well with others, even if he's tired or really hacked off at how his day has gone. He doesn't act cocky to cover up his insecurities or jump into a fistfight without trying to talk through the issues first. He always sees the other person's point of view. And in his spare time, he helps old ladies cross the street.
Want to read about this fine upstanding model of a man? I didn't think so.
See, as character traits go, niceness is probably the least prized. Because nice people are boring. They're bland. They're like semolina. We want our characters to come with a dash of arrogance and a sprinkling of bad temper. In fact, we want them to be more like our grumpy, sarky, prickly selves.
Or maybe that's just me.
Still, there's no denying that it's hard to relate to a person who's always nice. There's nothing to get a grip on, no handle to catch hold of. Part of this is our desire for realism, of course – few people can be nice all the time, and someone who is can feel uncomfortably like a saint rather than a real person. But it's more than that. We don't admire niceness. We admire the cutting retort and the clever one-liner. We admire people who break the rules and dare to do what we wouldn't. We want the characters we read about to be confident, witty, occasionally mean, sometimes selfish – and niceness doesn't come into it.
On the face of it, that seems a shame. After all, most of us appreciate it when someone is nice to us in real life. We wouldn't get very far if everyone we met went out of their way to be unpleasant. But the truth is that when we read, we're not thinking about how we'd like other people to behave towards us. We're thinking about how we'd like to behave ourselves. And I suspect that secretly, many of us would like to be a little more aggressive and a little less placatory than we really are. Hence the fascination of the antihero, the maverick, the rebel. In them we catch a glimpse of how we fondly imagine our own lives could be, if only we weren't so darn well-behaved.
And maybe there's a lesson to be learned here on a personal level. I've always worried about what other people think of me. Various experiences during my teenage years convinced me that being good at anything only gets you negative attention. And so, by the time I was an adult, I was stuck with the mindset that being pushy or showing others what I was capable of would somehow mean I wasn't a nice person.
But guess what? No-one likes nice.
So perhaps it's time for me to dust off my own trumpet and start blowing it again.