Well-behaved characters rarely make books (but here are some that do)

You know that irritating bumper sticker, “Well-behaved women rarely make history”? Well, poo. First, it’s not everyone’s job to make history. The world functions better for everyone when most people go to work, act decently, are thoughtful of others, and save the rebellion for emergencies.

Second, and more importantly, it depends what you mean by “well-behaved.” If you mean “The only possible way to change the world is to take your top off and scream at people,” then I’d have to demur (and so would the Virgin Mary).

It’s true, though, that well-behaved characters rarely carry books, and it’s hard to write a book full of people who are kind — by which I mean disposed toward helping and being generous toward others, preferably gently and good-naturedly. It’s possible to write such a book, but it’s rare.

Authors of children’s books, especially, tend to want to give their characters authenticity and appeal by making them sassy, prickly, bratty, rebellious, morose, or dysfunctional — or good at heart, but with a tremendous flaw to overcome. Kindness is often portrayed as weakness or naïveté, and not desirable as a dominant virtue.

Here are a few of my favorite characters who are not only basically virtuous, but who always, or almost always, show kindness to other people in the story.

First I’ll get the two wild cards out of the way: Dido Twite and Pippi Longstocking. You can argue with me if you like!

Dido just barely qualifies, because she learns kindness gradually — but it’s a trait that anchors her character. I’m rereading Joan Aiken’s Nightbirds On Nantucket and am just in love with Dido, who wants so badly to get back to London, but realizes that drippy old motherless Dutiful Penitence is more than just her ticket home.

Dido gradually takes responsibility for patiently teaching Pen to enjoy life, to become less fearful, to stand up for herself, and to practice loyalty. Dido and Pen’s characters both develop, and they ultimately escape their predicament, as Dido deliberately cultivates kindness and gentleness toward the fragile Pen.

(Joan Aiken is great at portraying kind but interesting, well-realized characters: see cheerful Nate in the stories with Dido, and also the resourceful and protective Simon (in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Black Hearts In Battersea). To a lesser extent, Arabel of the Arabel and Mortimer series is also a kind and responsible kid, although she’s also just naturally mellow.)

Pippi Longstocking is outrageously kind, a trait is just as much a part of her character as her outrageous recklessness.

She spends her time alone cooking and packing picnics for her friends, hiding treasures, and organizing all sorts of surprises and adventures. She’s enraged only by bullies who prey on the weak; and she uses her own incredible strength only for good (and some showing off). When her teasing and storytelling confuse or upset someone, she is usually contrite. Without her kindness, her outsized personality and habits would be monstrous.

The Pippi Longstocking books aren’t about character development, anyway — partly because they’re episodic, and partly because they’re sort of mythical, with Pippi as a preternatural figure whose inexplicable strength, cleverness, generosity, and radical independence are entirely self-sufficient. It’s impossible to imagine Pippi growing into adulthood or marrying, because she is already a complete person. She’s not depthless, though. She does weep, briefly, over a dead bird; and once, Tommy and Annika see her alone in her kitchen at night and it occurs to them, for the first time, that it’s possible for someone so strong and cheerful to be lonely. These glimpses into her private life make her kindness more believable.

Which other books portray characters who are thoroughly kind, without reducing them to dull foils for naughty kids with more spirit?

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett plays fairly close to the line, as Sara Crewe is almost overwhelmingly virtuous in every way.

But the scene where she struggles mightily with herself to turn her long-coveted bun over to an even hungrier child is very moving, and the book is saved from absolute melodrama by the strength and suspense of the plot and by the writing itself.

Burnett’s The Secret Garden, published six years after A Little Princess, is the better book and has more complex character development. The main character and her foil are both selfish, immature, and self-pitying early on, and their conversion and development are gradual and believable. But Dickon, the outdoorsman, is gloriously kind and open-hearted, as is his whole family.

Most people would include Charlotte of Charlotte’s Web in a list of kind protagonists, but I have always struggled with this book. It includes too many hard truths and not enough comfort for my tastes; and I always thought Charlotte was much too hard on little Wilbur emotionally, even though her actions saved him in practice. Of E.B. White’s books, my very favorite is The Trumpet of the Swan,

which includes the watchful, helpful, and loyal Sam Beaver.

She’s not in a chapter book, but I can’t neglect the lovely Nyasha, the good daughter in Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe.

The unforgettable illustrations go a long way to filling out her character, but her words and actions also demonstrate unflagging kindness, patience, and civility toward every single creature she meets, from her nasty, scheming sister, to the apparently needy folks she meets in the woods, even to the snake she encounters on the throne at the end.

(In the category of fairy tales, the 2015 live action movie of Cinderella explicitly praises kindness as a virtue to be pursued. Recommended!)

Mrs. Trotter of The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Peterson?

Oh, my heart. Her kindness is a little complex. She acknowledges that poor William Ernest Teague’s education need a harder edge than she can provide, and so her kindness perhaps shades into weakness; but in a throwaway line, she stands by her basic character, acknowledging dryly to the social worker that she’s well aware the world doesn’t consider her a real mother. Oh, Trotter. The truest portrayal of a good Christian I’ve ever seen in literature, period, for kids or for adults.

Strangely enough, the wild, anti-authority, sometimes brutal Roald Dahl books often have central characters who are very kind. Some of them are kind to most, but vengeful toward their parents and enemies, and this response is portrayed as delightful and just; but some wish even their enemies well, and are willing to risk their own safety for their friends. Charlie of Charlie in the Chocolate Factory is like this, and so is James of James and the Giant Peach;

and the vengeance is wrought by fate, rather than the protagonist. I haven’t read The BFG in many years, but I recall that the BFG’s main trait was kindness. In Danny the Champion of the World, the father is meant to be a kind man, but the reader of conscience can’t ignore than he is a criminal and a vengeful man.

Honorable mention goes to the very helpful Elmer Elevator of My Father’s Dragon,

who takes everyone he meets at face value, never uses more force than necessary, and even remembers to bring a birthday present home for his father.

Likewise Freddy the Pig throughout Walter R. Brooks’ extensive series of books,

who sometimes gets irritated or falls into self-pity, but is ultimately the friend everyone needs to have. The trio of cows, Mrs. Wiggins, Mrs. Wogus, and Mrs. Wurtzburger are also kind sorts, and tremendously appealing.

Finally, a recommendation from Rebecca Salazar: John Carter from A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

I haven’t read this series, but I trust Rebecca (although she warns that the series is 100 years old, and contains references to “red men” and savage Apaches and the like, and that the first three are the best).
She says: It is a cheesy pulp novel, but one of the overarching differences between John Carter and the martians is that he treats subordinates and defeated enemies with kindness, and he doesn’t just automatically kill someone because they’re an enemy.

One example of kindness in it is that the green Martian tribe Carter becomes a chieftain in have horse analogue animals that they basically subdue through force, and this they’re dangerous to their riders, but Carter treats his with kindness and tames them and the rest of the warriors are shocked by how superior his mounts are because of this.
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As you can see, my reading list needs some updating! I stand by all my recommendations, and hope that my kids will love these characters as much as I do; but I’d be happy to add to the list, especially to include newer books.
Who else in children’s literature is predominantly kind without being dull, two-dimensional, or drippy?

24 thoughts on “Well-behaved characters rarely make books (but here are some that do)”

  1. Lucy Pevensie. Even though Edmund sells her down the river, she forgives and insists on saving him from the White Witch.

    Milo in the Phantom Tollbooth. He’s a little hapless, and sometimes a little selfish, but kind and in the end, braver than he realizes.

    And I agree that Arabel (one of my favorite children’s lit characters) is naturally mellow for a four year old (the age she is supposed to be in the first book). But she is very kind, and I love how Aiken points out that “Arabel always did exactly as she was told. Aunt Effie had said, ‘I don’t want to hear a word out of you,’ so, as soon as it was dark, and Aunt Effie and Uncle Urk had gone to bed, Arabel put on her dressing gown and slippers and went very softly down the stairs and out through the front door, which she had to unlock. She did not make a single sound.”

    1. Got interrupted, didn’t get to give my rationale. Alice is an orphan who gets taken in by a shrewd, stingy midwife. During the course of the book, she shows kindness to the women giving birth…which leads many to prefer her over the more experienced midwife. She also finds a place for another street orphan and shows kindness to animals.

      My only caveat is that there is a chapter where she carves a goat hood out of driftwood and basically uses it to leave ‘devils footprints’ and expose several of the villagers skeletons in the closet (an adulterous affair, a fornicating couple…I forget the others). That’s the only bit where she’s less than kind.

  2. Roberta (“Bobby”) in The Railway Children by E. Nesbit is very kind. It’s a sweet book, although definitely dated.

    A more modern story would be The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. The main character (Mari, if I am remembering correctly) is kind AND strong and just lovely all around. This is a good book for girls ages 10+, in my opinion. There are more books in the series that are also great, but the heroine of the first one is most kind.

  3. Dr. Dolittle is always kind, and the narration continually mentions what a good man he is, although he lacks prudence and would hardly survive if he didn’t have his much shrewder animals to take care of him.

    I think part of what makes such characters work is that they’re seldom the viewpoint character, but rather a friend or person the viewpoint character admires – e.g., in Pippi Longstocking, we see her from the vantage point of Tommy and Annika, while in The Secret Garden, we see Dickon from Mary’s point of view. Actually, I think this is one big reason The Secret Garden is so much better than A Little Princess.

  4. Rebecca of Sunnybroom Farm. This is sort of the prototype of Anne of Green Gables which was written a few years later.

    1. I don’t know – to me, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm actually illustrates the potential literary problem such characters can pose – personally I found her quite tiresome and dull, rather like Pollyanna or Sara Crewe.

  5. Reynie of The Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy by Trenton Lee Stewart. Also, Mr. Benedict himself (and his youthful self in The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict).

    It’s an older book and the groovy seventies slang can be off-putting, but I love Andrew, the Big Deal by Barbara Brooks Wallace. Andrew is the “brain” in a family of outgoing athletes and his vivid imagination sometimes works for him but most often gets him into humiliating trouble. After finally confronting a bully, and to his own astonishment punching and defeating him, kind-hearted Andrew helps him up and asks him if he’ll be OK. He thought he’d be so proud of himself . . . but he never tells anyone, not wanting to humiliate the bully! Andrew also practically moves heaven and earth to make his little sister happy when a series of events leaves them unsupervised just before Christmas.

    Mole and Ratty from The Wind in the Willows.

    Mercy from The Witch of Blackbird Pond. She’s a great character because she appears weak, quiet and disabled (lamed from a childhood fever), and at least one person refers to her with pity, but the main character (Kit) clearly sees her strength of character and admires it. One of my favorite lines ever is when Kit is thinking about Mercy’s sister Judith and her proud nature and reflects “but it was something much stronger than pride that upheld Mercy.”

  6. The Baronet’s Song is a great book starring wee sir Gibbie, a vivid, memorable, saintly character. He was orphaned while very young when his alcoholic father died and his mother was already gone. It’s by George MacDonald.

  7. “The Blue Hill Meadows” by Cynthia Rylant is a favorite of mine; it’s just a lovely, gentle book, a few brief chapters about a loving family. Her Mr. Putter series is outstanding too; he and Mrs. Teaberry both are so diligently considerate toward each other, even when it doesn’t quite work out.
    Gregory in Rumer Godden’s “The Kitchen Madonna.”
    Second (or third or something) “The Railway Children.” Bobbie is kind, though I love the description of Phyllis best of nearly any character I’ve ever come across: “The youngest was Phyllis, who meant extremely well.”
    “A Walk Across America” by Peter Jenkins is a good one too. IIRC, he made his walk shortly after the Vietnam War ended and it’s mainly his account of the kindness of all the strangers along his way.
    Amen to Pippi. I think a big part of the genius of Pippi’s character is that Lindgren makes her outrageous – but there’s always that bit of Pippi that knows more than she lets on. She could have all her excellent tall-tale qualities but end up irritating by being such a moron; instead, she turns around and says or does something that shows she’s not as clueless as she sometimes acts (like when she name-drops Lisbon during her brief stint in school or zings the rude man who wants to buy Villa Villekula).

    1. Oh how could I have forgotten Rumer Godden? The Kitchen Madonna is brilliant and Gregory is so kind. And I also adore Selina in Mr McFadden’s Hallowe’en. She’s a sweet girl, a bit awkward and out of place like so many of Godden’s protagonists. She wins over everyone, even the sour Mr McFadden.

  8. This is tangential, but the line “well-behaved women seldom make history” comes from Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s introduction to The Midwife’s Tale, which is a work of history based largely on the diary on an early-19th c Maine midwife. Her original point wasn’t that women should misbehave more, but that historians should attempt to tell the stories of “well-behaved women”!

    1. Thanks, I’m glad to know that! I believe people generally use it to mean “I’m a STRONG WOMAN, so DON’T YOU SHUSH ME while I’m yelling at the dressing room attendant at JC Penney!” kind of thing, though.

        1. I think the line actually comes from a lesser-known essay by Ulrich, not from her famous book – but yes, otherwise you are correct. One of the all-time great taken-out-of-context-and-distorted quotations.

  9. Julian Singh in The View from Saturday (E.L. Konigsburg) is pretty kind even under pressure. His teammates Noah, Nadia, and Ethan (the other main characters), though I wouldn’t necessaily pick kindness as their primary traits, are also good kids and pretty three-dimensional.

  10. Most of Elizabeth Gouge’s books celebrate the values of kindness. I love the Little White Horse and the Dean’s Watch, among so many others. Also the City of Bells, where Jocelyn’s kindness saves the creative but weak Ferranti. Lovely books.

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