Characters and Courtesy

Ursula Vernon noted in a recent post that we have too few polite heroes in today’s stories. The post was only partly about that, so she didn’t really go into detail on why; since I agree, I’m going to take a stab at what’s so great about polite heroes—or, for that matter, polite primary characters in general.

First off, a clarification. Polite doesn’t necessarily mean nice, let alone good, just something approximating courteous. Observing the appropriate conventions. Recognizing that the rules of society apply as much to these encounters as the local metaphysics. (Needless to say, while these are not limited to fill-in-the-blanks of manners, they tend to be more common there.) Some of my favorite antagonists have been courteous, outwardly pleasant, and downright ruthless; my most exceptionally polite PC started out as amoral and downright vicious.

But what makes polite primary characters so cool?

Part of it is that it’s a limiter that doesn’t seem all that artificial. Even an omnipotent being is going to be slowed down a bit by declining to do things not covered by the local etiquette, or considering an obligation to do things that are required by said local etiquette. If it’s been established that being polite is Just That Important to them, it doesn’t seem weird when they’re being slowed down by the need to properly interact even with their enemies.

Obnoxious jerk protagonists can get old really fast, particularly when they aren’t interestingly obnoxious. I don’t know if it’s because, being in a service industry, I can’t get away with a lot of the things they say, or just because obnoxious dialogue is easy to write, and a lot of people don’t bother to make it witty obnoxious dialogue, just get as far as “This character is An Individual and That Is What Makes Him Awesome.” Or it could just be because being polite and insulting at the same time is more of a challenge: I have always been attached to my mother’s anecdote about the Quaker woman responding to a confrontational individual with “When thee gets home to thy kennel, I hope thy mother bites thee.”

And there’s also the fact that in the kinds of stories we often right, etiquette requires a certain amount of world-building. You don’t just have the question of what fork to use; you have sets of ritual greeting, you have the use (or occasional misuse) of honorifics, you have traditions based on the absence of water or the liver as the seat of emotion or the possibility that your new conversational partner’s robe is older than you are and thereby possessed of a small amount of intelligence.

For me, though, a good hefty chunk of it is that it tends to break the tendency towards protagonist-centered morality—or at least make it not quite so overwhelming. One of the things that’s made me a bit leery about my formerly beloved Young Adult section is the tendency of its main characters to feel like even the author treats them as the center of the universe, like right is right because they’re the one that’s doing it. A lot of the protagonists at the center of such stories have a tendency to treat minor characters as less worthy of consideration—at best—or sometimes even as living scenery. Being genuinely polite breaks that, though. In order to do it properly, the character needs to at least pretend to acknowledge that the other characters are on her level—or possibly even like they’re worthy of respect.

So I’m with her. Let’s see some more characters for whom etiquette and consideration are as important as being The One with the Destiny!

3 comments

  1. Kasper Allerslev says:

    Fairly good point here. The classic anti-hero is pretty boring when everyone plays him. In my rpg experience, I have met a lot of people claiming something is not amoral, simply because they think it was necessary. Like killing in self-defense.

    However, when a otherwise moral character kills someone, then the same scenario is actually interesting, since it is a break from the norm, INSTEAD of the norm.

  2. when i started reading this, my mind drifted to Harry Flashman straight away. Although a coward and a bully, he gets away with it because he knows hot to behave around people, and no one ever suspects him of having such deep character flaws because he is such a well spoken man…

    I’ve played characters like this in the past, and they’re great fun.


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