This is the first of a fascinating three-part investigation of the terms Right, Good and Nice as they apply to characters in the Discworld novels.

Right, Nice and Good are terms which crop up repeatedly in and alt.books.pratchett (the Internet newsgroups for Terry's readership), not least in Terry's own comments on his characters. Taken together, they form a rough system of ethical evaluation that applies to many of the non-evil central characters, and it is notable that the terms are not necessarily mutually inclusive. Of Carrot, for example, Terry has said that he is "Good, but not necessarily Right or Nice". An understanding of the semantic scope of these words, of where boundaries between Rightness, Goodness and Niceness lie, casts light on the function of the various characters within the moral scheme of the Discworld. It is a notable feature of Terry's strong "good" characters that they have the potential to be evil, whereas the evil characters have no such potential for good, and this to a large extent accounts for the much greater fascination that the good characters exert.

The baddies are rather one-dimensional in their evilness (Lord Hong is a prime example of this) but the goodies are wonderfully ambiguous, with Granny Weatherwax and the Patrician, in particular, walking a very fine line indeed between goodness and evil. One way of approaching this ambiguity is to use the terms Right, Good and Nice and to consider the good characters as embodying one, but only one, of these virtues. The perfectly good character would be right and good and nice (Brutha springs to mind), but the majority of good central characters embody only two virtues.

But what do the three terms actually mean? They appear to derive from Sondheim's Into the Woods (a musical much admired by Terry), where they are set up in opposition to each other in much the same way as Terry uses them. A giantess is destroying the country in revenge for the murder of her husband at the hands of Jack, and threatens to continue with the destruction unless Jack is handed over to her. The characters refuse to do this, but wrangle pointlessly over who is ultimately to blame for the situation. At this point, the witch accuses them all of being Nice - "You're not Good, you're just Nice" - and tries to hand Jack over to the giant, with the words "I'm not Nice, I'm not Good, I'm just Right". It is worth noting that right in this sentence is not an explicitly ethical term: it simply means that the witch correctly sees what the outcome of her action will be. The moral note enters by virtue of the fact that this action will result in minimal suffering. Yes, Jack will be killed, but no one else.

Right is thus clearly the category into which the Patrician falls. He is perfectly willing to sacrifice individuals for the good of the whole, but he does his best to ensure that the price is paid by the smallest number. I shall look at the terms Right and Good in subsequent editions, and at the characters to whom these terms apply, but for the moment I would like to consider Niceness.

Nice is the category which appears to have least to commend it. The nice characters in Into the Woods are weak: they don't want anyone to be hurt, and so they shrink from making the hard decisions, from assuming the burden of responsibility. Niceness here is a kind of wishful thinking, a refusal to face facts. The only major characters who seem to fall into this category in the Discworld are Magrat and Verence: rather soppy, mostly ineffectual, idealistic in a rather hopeless way. But there is a twist in the analytical tale - on, challenged to name a Nice character, Terry came up with Sam Vimes, a person who could scarcely be described as ineffectual or soppy.

But Into the Woods is deceptive here, too. The witch has only contempt for the Nice, and this is hardly surprising, for she herself has the strong will and willingness to pay the agonisingly high price that is characteristic of Right characters. But the Nice characters as a group manage to slay the giant (though acknowledging that in absolute terms the giant is no more evil than they are). They achieve an insight into the relative values that are necessary to a community. The insiders bond together to defeat the threat imposed on them; Jack, the guilty human, lives, and the giant dies. And in this sense, as a fully-fledged member of a community, Sam Vimes is undoubtedly Nice. He deals with his fallible fellow creatures on a personal level: he acknowledges their limitations, indeed hates them at times, but he knows them. Not in the manipulative, impersonal manner of the Patrician, nor in the idealising, impersonal manner of Carrot, but as a fellow-member of that community.

For Sam Vimes, instrument of justice, justice is about the community, the poor in Cockbill Street who have not benefited from Vetinari's economic and social reforms, the murdered Bjorn H. and Lettice Knibbs. Vimes has no time for abstractions - he cares about people. Vetinari and Carrot are both admirable, in their way: but they are unique, and a good thing too. But a community of Sam Vimeses - now that would be a place worth living in.

Two cheers for Niceness!

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December 1997