That post title took me forever to come up with. Yes it did!!! I actually gave up and just used the post outline instead. But I tried for a long time before that.
Some of you may remember that I generally prefer character driven narratives to plot driven ones. This means I can enjoy shows that are objectively boring or bad if I happen to like a character enough. It also means that I will be harsher than most on brilliant stories that use their characters in service to the plot. By the way this is very different from having bad or underdeveloped characters, but that’s not today’s topic.
What’s worse, is that I’m a sucker for relatability. I will self insert in a lot of my favourite stories so if I personally resonate with characters on some level, the show immediately gets extra points. Obviously this makes me the best possible candidate to review shows….
It also brings up some troubling questions when you consider my fondness for less than virtuous characters. This ultimately bought up an issue I’ve been wondering about ever since. Are we more drawn to characters we identify with (we honestly think are a lot like us) or characters we admire.
I’ve decided to set aside biases and illusions of grandeur from this little exercise. I’m talking about characters we think are like us, no matter how accurate that belief may be or what our friends say. or family members…
The few psych texts I remember reading in school would suggest that we naturally gravitate towards people who display qualities we want to emulate. (Unless you are so insecure you can’t bear to be close to anyone that makes you feel inferior in any way, or you’re such an egotist you think you’re the best at everything). This should hold true for fictional characters.
On the other hand, relationships are built on common ground. Close knit groups often resemble each other in many ways. We find the familiar comforting. If we consider this, we are more likely to gravitate towards characters we see ourselves in. So which is it?
Based on super unscientific anecdotal evidence, I think that it depends mostly on the viewer. Let me be clear, I’m making this up as I go along. First I believe that people who put more weight on plot tend to prefer characters who are important to said plot. Often you will see that the most popular characters in high action narratives (that don’t dwell too much on development) are often the protagonist. After all the story doesn’t exist without the hero, it stands to reason they should be awesome.
In a subset of this, romantics who particularly enjoy stories of love (and or deep friendship that could be more, cough), seem to often resonate more with the main love interest than the main character. This makes sense to me. When you get smitten by someone, everything becomes about that other person, not about you. If the protagonist is the audience surrogate, then the character you care about is the other person. That’s who you want to know every single detail about, and who will make or break the story for you. Maybe I’m just trying to explain away the trend of bland harem protagonists.
This is probably stretching this… what’s a less official word for theory? Nonsense? Whatever this thing is. I think we can also have a category for the ADD folks. The ones that love a fast paced narrative and have little patience for drawn out exposition or character building. These folks tend to go for the flashy types. The supporting characters that always make a big Bang and radiate their personalities all over the place. You know the ones you can figure out in their first minute on screen.
But what about those of us who like characters for who they are, regardless of their roles? Well that’s a bit trickier. This is where you have to wonder whether balanced realistic and relatable characters are better than exotic and unique. it’s a trick question, there’s no actual answer. A well written character will be appreciated no matter what.
A quick google search of “most popular anime characters” revealed a few things. The most frequent and usually highest rated caharacter is L from Death Note. A few other common contenders to round off the top 5 were Naruto, Kakashi, Goku, Light and Lelouche.
Other than telling me that Death Note and Naruto were both popular anime (shocker!) I do notice a few things. I guess Naruto and Goku could be counted as fairly relatable. They are both sort of derpy and dorky in their way. Ultimately though, they are also protagonists of action oriented series and unbelievably powerful in their own right.
The others though are specifically written to be outlandish. You are not supposed to relate to any of them. You’re not even supposed to know anyone like them really. The fact that they are “exceptional” is a defining trait. There’s another interesting element here, even though they are mostly protagonists (debatable about Light), half of them have openly shaky morality. So even though they possess desirable traits and skills, they’re not exactly admirable characters.
Or maybe the world is a much scarier place than I thought.
They are almost all leading characters though. Hmmmm. I’m not going to pretend to read people’s minds. I’m sure you all have personal standards for your favourites. But let me share mine.
A short forray through the favourite character section of my reviews shows that I almost never pick MCs. Even my beloved Natsume has not made the list. I’ve touched on the fact that supporting and minor characters that can easily be removed from a storyline benefit from a lot more freedom of conception. As such, they are more likely to be weird archetypes we rarely see. That’s the characters which writers can afford to get real creative with…
I’ve been vocal about both my horrendous tastes in anime characters and my love of trolls so I was sure to have a healthy amount of antagonists in these but turns out that only a handful of minor or secondary baddies made the cut. I guess I m not as much of a lost cause as I thought. I do tend towards characters that are less enmeshed with the plot and can not be clearly categorized as either *good* or *bad* from the story we get.
I can say that for the most part these characters are not much like me. Often stoic, they tend to be uncompromising and very true to their characters. I find I enjoy internal consistency in imaginary people. I myself am highly adaptable and tend to be flexible. I definitely don’t want anime full of people just like me. I would find that tragically boring. But I also don’t want anime full of perfect infallible heroes either.
If anything, I would say I like anime full of folks I would want to go out for a drink with. Not necessarily become friends, some of these guys sound exhausting, but that I could have a great conversation and an evening’s worth of fun. So do I prefer characters which are relatable or those that are remarkable? Neither I guess. Interesting trumps them all! What about you?