This week will be a slight departure from my usual character studies. We’re not only going to take a look at Bakugo but at his cofounding and frustrating character and the creative process behind it. I hope you enjoy the post!
What makes a good, engaging, character? It’s a riddle that’s kept authors guessing since we first invented stories. To a character lover such as myself, filling your story with interesting people can mean the difference between a boring unmemorable shamble and an all-time favourite. I feel like those two may be a bit too extreme, I need to find a better middle ground, guys.
I was recently discussing a show with a friend (I know I’m still in shock too) and described one of the leading characters as a Mary Sue (I think I actually used Manny Sue as it was a male character). Unfortunately, seeing as a lot of my friends are French, they were not familiar with the expression and me mangling it into unnecessary genderbent only made things worse. as such, having to actually explain “Mary Sue” to someone else for the first time, I decided to look it up.
This is how I found out that 1) I’ve been mistakenly combining Mary Sue and Pollyanna into a super land overacrhetype, and 2) a Mary Sue is a character of unlikely skill, talent and merits who is capable of such feats that the narrative doesn’t offer any true challenge. For instance, they tend to perform better than most with little experience or training and are so great that they can even upstage/save the main character.
I was pretty psyched to learn something new but it was short lived. My brain did that thing where it kicked me by casually throwing in a thought I didn’t want to have. Wasn’t that definition essentially Katsuki Bakugo of My Hero Academia? Not only is he more or less the best at everything naturally, it’s an in-universe character trait, he regularly outshines Midoriya, even with the latter’s overpowered quirk. Heck Baku overstates the other characters on a meta level too, regularly taking the top spot in popularity polls and being the prime subject of fan works. As you can clearly see…
Was my favourite Baku (what can I say, I’m basic. I also like super popular characters sometimes) really be nothing but a Mary Sue? Is his popularity due to him being a conveniently awesome vessel for the audience to insert themselves into? Surely that couldn’t be so? People hate Mary Sue characters, right? They wouldn’t consistently choose one as their favourite.
Besides, Bakugo isn’t really a Mary Sue character, he has faults. He has a horrible temper and is quick to anger **except when it’s actually important for him to keep his head, then he’s cool and composed as a cucumber..shut up inner voice, no one asked you! And what even is composed as a cucumber?** He does have actual downfalls. Charmingly he’s often the damsel in distress promoting Deku to save him not once but twice, both of which are very significant plot moments.
More importantly, he’s a literal bully. A ruthless one at that. It seems fairly obvious that none of us would like a Bakugo-like character in real life. Well, some might but not many and only as long as we ourselves aren’t Deku’s. And this is where things get really interesting. Why is Bakugo such a successful character? If he really is a mashup of a generally dull archetype with a plain unlikable veneer, how is it working so well both as an integral part of a large ensemble cast and in the eyes of viewers? I believe figuring this out is the key to crafting generally great characters.
In my opinion, the biggest factor here is: balance. Forget elaborate backstories and deviously complex motivations. Don’t try to hard to make a character people will relate to, like or dislike. Rather than crafting a person for the specific role of eliciting a specific reaction from the audience, make one that could create a greater variety of reactions because their traits are complementary.
Bakugo is confident to the point of arrogance however he’s also genuinely talented which makes the arrogance understandable and a disciplined and hard worker which makes the confidence feel earned. We don’t have to like his haughtiness but we do *get it*. His violent tendencies, as well as his history of picking on those weaker than him, are a bit Harder to explain away though.
Let me start with the bullying. I’ve called Bakugo a bully before. He certainly fits the mould, at least at first glance. But something’s a little off. Katsuki isn’t just a bully, he’s specifically Deku’s bully. We’ve never really seen him torment anyone else. He can be rather rude to just about everyone but those he considers weaker or beneath him, he tends to ignore. It’s only Deku that ignites his wrath. Narratively this is a common tool. A main cast character that can also serve as a rival or antagonist when needed to add some conflict is very useful. But if I were to think of him on a higher level, then it would seem that there’s a reason why Bakugo would single out Deku.
Maybe because they’ve known each other for so long and Bakugo is both frustrated that someone would take the job of hero so lightly that they would want to attempt it even without a quirk or seeing someone pursue such a futile dream for so long just annoyed him. In any case, he laid off a lot since Deku got his quirk, even showing occasional is extremely begrudging respect.
Balance again. None of this excuses Bakugo’s behaviour in the least, in fact, he is rather unrepentant about it, but it offers an explanation that is so much more interesting and compelling than simply having him be a jerk for contrast. It also keeps the viewer on their toes. This slow but marked change in the character’s disposition means we can’t take anything for granted. The character is evolving along with the story and therefore there’s still a lot of potentials there. Potential that would not be as present in a character that’s more or less ideal from the start.
Having the qualities of your character be at odds with their faults opens the door to have them react in a wide variety of ways without it becoming out of character. This, in turn, means your character is less likely to quickly become overly predictable and boring.
I chose Bakugo because he’s *big*. As in exaggerated. His gifts are many and flagrant. His failings are just as impossible to ignore. Like I said, someone like him would be extremely difficult to put up with in real life. Those huge reactions to could go either way and the power behind them would be frightening or at least exhausting. But that’s what makes him work as a fictional person in my opinion. And less extreme examples of this are present all over anime.
It often seems that anime (manga) authors are less interested in having heir characters be beloved or even popular than in other forms of media I’ve seen lately. This is why you don’t tend to end up as often with quippy smart arse rich playboys (or gods) who need to get over their hubris or tortured antiheroes. You have a bit more range. Let’s face it, a character like Bakugo who you’re still supposed to see as one of the protagonists wouldn’t be very easy to find outside of anime. And that makes him great.
What do you think? What makes a character great? Do you see different trends in character development in different forms of media?