The character I describe is in fact reflective of somebody I know in real life--a kind of nihilist who finds all pursuits and goals "hollow and ridiculous", as the person says. This inevitably implies that the person in question live day by day on trivial concerns--the pursuit of food, shelter and idle comfort, as opposed to the long-term-goal-oriented efforts of most others. (e.g.: go to school to learn a skill; earn money with skill; use money to buy a house and live happily ever after etc.)

I wonder if it would be possible to re-create such a person in fiction; my intuition is that it will be difficult to see consistently comprehensible actions from such a character, in other words, such a character will not perform series of actions that are all constituent of the same goal. Instead, such a character would only react to the happenings of any plot, and would thus only be suitable as a secondary character whom the main characters observe externally.

However, my understanding of literature is limited, and there might be precedents of such characters being successfully portrayed in other roles.

This person whom I know in real-life developed their nihilistic attitude from religious/philosophical disillusionment, as they describe. Unlike the typical hedonistic stereotype of a nihilist, this person is in fact abstinent and holds many socially progressive views and principles. However, they said that there is no rational justification for these behaviours, and that they don't see these actions to be morally superior to "depravities" including violence and substance abuse on an intellectual level.

Beside these, this person also has talents in programming and art, and often create things in these media, but they said that while these exercises are interesting or beautiful, they are not meaningful in any way.

  • 2
    I live in a west coast USA beach community. Everyone whom I know lacks substantial motivation. Except for surfing. I'd tell you more, but surf's up.
    – user23046
    Apr 10, 2017 at 23:54
  • The overwhelming desire not to do anything at all is a powerful motivation not to do anything at all.
    – Lew
    Apr 11, 2017 at 16:52

4 Answers 4


What you describe is a person who denies the value of anything, and yet creates things. This is a contradiction. If nothing has value or meaning, there is no point in creating anything, and, for that matter, no point in trying to convince anybody of anything, including nihilism.

And yet this person creates software and art and formulates an expresses an nihilist philosophy. There is a conflict there, and conflict is the meat of story.

So, what drives this person to create the things they create and to say the things they say. All acts are motivated. This person denies motivation, and yet they act. Why is their expressed philosophy of life at odds with their actions? Is it a pose? Are they deceiving themselves or seeking to deceive others, or both?

What could challenge their actions or their philosophy? What event could force them to confront this contradiction, make them deny their words or change their actions?

The thing about stories is, they are about life as it is lived. They are not about the rightness or wrongness of the character's weltanschauung, they are about the nature of living with that weltanschauung and its consequences in the life lived day to day in the real world.

Lots of people express nihilism. No one lives the logic of nihilism. Your belly won't let you. Essays may leave out the belly, and its ambitions. Stories don't. this person has a story whether they like it or not.

  • "No one lives the logic of nihilism" is very well said. But I would like to challenge one thing: if there's no point to anything, then isn't it equally true that there's no point not to create things? Granted, that's probably a question better suited for the Philosophy SE.
    – Michael
    Apr 11, 2017 at 16:29
  • @Michael, interesting, and, as you say, philosophical question. But creating anything requires that you decide to create this and not that, and that implies a reason for the choice. Whether that choice is enough to satisfy a philosophical category or not, I think it is enough to satisfy the literary requirement of a character making a choice in pursuit of a goal.
    – user16226
    Apr 11, 2017 at 20:09
  • denying (greater) meaning is not denying (personal) value. The person described explicitly values things as personally interesting. So I don't see any contradiction here. Jun 25, 2019 at 16:39

The point of a story is to have a conflict on the road to a goal.

In your case, your goal is to have a nihilistic life, and therefore a conflict to this would be situations that clearly attempt to flip this upside down. Does he absolutely not want to be famous, so he somehow accidentally becomes famous? Does he get mixed up into something?

Otherwise, maybe there's an internal conflict that you want to develop, or a conflict with other characters. Refer to these conflict types. Of course however, you're not limited to just one type of conflict. There are stories that expand through all of them, or just a select few.

Generally, think around the lines of this: What is the main character's goal, and what stands in the way of their goal?


You can create any kind of character you wish–you are the author, and this is your story. As for the purpose, which that character serves, and how that character helps your story unfold–it is for you to decide as well.

A reluctant protagonist is, in fact, a rather common type of a character, often central to the story, whose goal might just be to do precisely nothing and preserve the status-quo.

However, regardless of what they say or think, the circumstances could force them to act–sometimes, even heroically–while all they would rather do is staying out of the thick of things and fish of binge-watch Stranger Things (take the sheriff from that show–his character arc starts from sceptic reactive reluctance and only after a few episodes he evolves into someone who is committed and involved proactively).

That, however, does not mean that your character has to have a life-changing arc. The genius detective Nero Wolfe from Rex Stout novels allegedly hates not only working as a PI (he would rather grow orchids–and he does) but even walking unless it is absolutely necessary (he is severely overweight). He is, however, the best around, and the money allows him to get back to his routine and yes, grow orchids (that is why he has to solve crimes, acting against his proclaimed principles); all the action is delegated to his hitter Archie Goodwin, who is a proactive protagonist and also a first-person narrator of the stories. Nero is always reactive, but he is very much a primary (or at least equally important in comparison to the narrator, Archie) character of all the stories in the series–and a title character.

An attempt to recreate a real person as a life-like character in a story is probably a task, better suited for a biography, but taking the traits of anyone you know, and using them as a basis for further development of fictional characters is what essentially all writers do.


There are two semi-nihilists that I am fond of: the Vicomte in Dangerous Liaisons, and Diogenes.

The former broke down civilised norms through amoral seduction (his motivation was destruction), whilst the latter is most famous for his juxtaposition to Alexander the Great.

They are best used as a foil, either to demonstrate the value of a pedestrian life or the vainglory of the most envied figures.

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