Anime has taught me a lot about myself. Arguably some things I may not have wanted to know. My appreciation of certain genres above others shows me what I tend to resonate with and when asking myself why – it has revealed my own biases and pet peeves. Maybe it’s just me but this seems way more fun and way cheaper than therapy!
One of the slightly worrying side effects of this personal anime journey through the soul has been my questionable character preferences. I have long had a preference for morally grey (occasionally dark grey) characters. I prefer complex to righteous. That’s not the bad part though.
I do know that the two aren’t mutually exclusive but I also know that when writing a narrative that has to fit neatly in a set number of episodes, a lot of writers will simplify things by making characters either flatly “good, flatly “evil” or a slightly compromised version of either. That’s why in general, I tend to enjoy supporting characters who don’t really need to fit neatly in either categories because I find they have more flexibility.
However, I’ve also noticed something rather odd in the last year or so. For reasons I cannot quite explain, I’ve started to really enjoy “pettiness”. Childish and unreasonable characters who use to annoy me are now making their way into my favourites lists. They still need to be consistent (i.e. not just suddenly start overacting out of the blue) but it’s o.k. if they are unfair.
I’m not entirely sure when this shift happened but I think I may know why. We can argue a long time about classic anime versus modern and whether storytelling has evolved or devolved. I don’t actually know the answers to these questions, but I do know my particular experience with anime. And one of the changes I personally have noticed in anime and tend to appreciate, is that protagonists have slowly become less “perfect” or at least less “heroic”.
I have always loved Shinji (from Neon Genesis Evangelion – still wrong). I am one of the very very few people who liked the character as he is. I like Shinji because he’s whiny, ineffective and often weak. I like Shinji because he may be well intentioned but he’s too self-centred for proper empathy and ends up hurting the people around him then feeling sorry for himself. I like Shinji because up until that time, I had never seen a hero quite like that. A hero that was in many ways not suited to the role at all.
To me, a protagonist like that could grow with the story because he had a lot of growing to do. He was a deeply flawed character. One that could occasionally be unlikable to a lot of people. Not someone you necessarily wanted to be like or look up to but one that you could relate with on the parts of yourself you may be less proud of. It’s a gambit that had mixed results. A lot of fans hated it and still malign the character to this day. I thought it was a genuinely bold bit of character creation that made me think about the character and the nature of the story in much more detail than I would have had he been a generic hero type.
For a long time, Shinji was an exception. In my watching experience. Characters had quirks, they had personality traits that weren’t necessarily lovable but that were soften. They were scoundrels not would occasionally cheat to get their way, but they also had a heart of gold. Besides, it would work out in their favour, so it ended up looking cool. Maybe they were not that bright, but it was offset by how strong or beautiful they were. In the end, they would end up being someone you’d like to know or even someone you’d like to be. Even if a protagonist didn’t speak to you personally, you could understand why someone else would like to emulate them. Their faults were the type that could be easily accepted.
It’s a little like the “clumsy girl” trope in western media, especially romantic comedies. You need to give your beautiful female lead some type of flaw to make her relatable, but it can’t be anything that would make her any less desirable so, she trips sometimes. It’s cute. As a bonus it makes her seem a little more helpless which is another trope that supposedly makes female characters more desirable.
The laziest application is when a writer gives their protagonist some huge flaw that supposedly has been an important issue in their lives, and then just forgets about it when it’s inconvenient to the plot. I have to admit, there are some characters I love that fall into that category.
There’s nothing wrong with these types of characters. The ones that are fake flawed. However, Shinji aside, it meant that growing up I essentially saw variations of the same 2 or 3 protagonists in anime. Certainly, some iterations were much better than others, but they were all generally following a handful of templates. Strong, efficient, smart but with deep emotional trauma. Angelically kind almost too good for this world. Spunky underdog with everything to learn and prove, seemingly made entirely out of determination. Maybe you could add in the generic audience insert character that was just too underdeveloped to really fit anywhere.
But no one was petty. No one was just childish because they were childish. No one was a know it all who didn’t actually have the brains to back it up. No one was a mess of self-loathing who couldn’t pull it together even when everyone’s lives depended on it. No one, except Shinji.
Now Shinji may have over-corrected the perfect protagonist trend. I can understand why some fans would find him annoying for 26 episodes in a row. I would argue he had some pretty well-established reasons for his issues and that the original anime ending did a great job at wrapping up his character arc…but you’re not here for that…
In recent years, I see a certain evolution in secondary character traits for protagonists that I am enjoying. Beyond the classic anti-hero there are protagonists that are openly selfish, nitpicky in a way that’s more annoying than comical or justified. Protagonists that make little mistakes, unnecessary to the plot but that show us that they are far from perfect. If you don’t stick with Hunter x Hunter up to the chimera ant arc, you may not realize just how terrifying Gon is for instance, when you do, his character takes on a completely different persona and you can never look at him the same way. One of the more brilliant narrative subversions in the series.
The fact is, sometimes the people that accomplish great things are not so great themselves. Sometimes people that are great, never manage to pull through. By adding in these types of characters to our archetypes, it opens up so many possibilities for our stories. I love that about anime.
This is why, I love petty.
15 thoughts on “I Love Anime’s Flawed Protagonists (and talk a bit about NGE)”
I definitely relate to this because I love flawed characters, characters who make mistakes and sometimes act selfishly. I don’t think it makes them bad people, it makes them human. To me, a character with no flaws is hard to relate to, because no one is perfect in real life. I would much rather see a character who struggles with things and works hard to overcome these struggles.
To be honest, I never understood the hate towards Shinji (except for what he does in End of Eva, that shit was fucked up). He’s just a 14-year-old kid struggling with severe trauma and depression. He’s been given a job that he didn’t ask for, with an enormous amount of responsibility and life threatening consequences. He’s not even old enough to drive, but he’s expected to pilot a giant robot and fight terrifying alien monsters day after day, and if he fails even once he and everyone else on Earth will die. Even the few people who legitimately care about him, like Misato, still see him as a means to an end, to say nothing of his terrible abusive father (who is also his boss). Not to mention he’s going through puberty, a time when everything in life feels strange and terrifying. Is it any wonder that he wants to run away? Is it any wonder he can’t cope with the pressure? He’s been given a task that shouldn’t be expected of anyone, much less a teenager struggling with mental illness. The fact that he goes through everything he does and still chooses to fight, time and time again, is honestly way more inspiring to me than if he was just some perfect hero who never has any problems. But then again, I also stan Asuka so maybe I just love messed up protagonists 😛
Oh yes…Shinji defenders unite! It warms my heart!
A Greek tragedy always has a flawed MC. That flaw leads to their destruction.
And look at Shakespeare! My gosh, what a celebration of flaws.
The moment you said “pettiness” I thought of Konosuba, the show that raises pettiness to an artform.
Seriously, I’m much the same. I, too, liked Shinji as a protagonist, even though I’m usually more into side-characters. I’ve hung out on writer’s boards, and I find people don’t think passive people or reactive people make good protagonists. I’ve always disagreed with that, and Eva is a good example why. (I even liked the series ending, but did think that two episodes was overkill.)
Personally, though, I don’t think “flawed character” is the right way to think about this, especially when writing. A flaw suggests a purpose, and I’d rather not think of my characters as having a purpose. They need to be free to fulfill multiple purposes. And that means that they have traits that work together well one situation but might work against each other in another. Basically, a trait can be both a strength and flaw in different situation. One sword fighter simply doesn’t mind cutting and stabbing people; that’s not trait I’d want in, say, a kindergardener. Another sword fighter might be great at restraining his emotions, but if that carries over into all situations he might find himself in social troubles, because people can’t get a read on him, but he’s not cunning. And so on.
And it’s definitely ture that generally character who aren’t restricted by having to move the plot from A to B are often more free to be themselves – in any medium.
Finally, @AK: Boy, Welcome to the NHK was a hard watch. Far, far, far too relatable.
“I’ve also noticed something rather odd in the last year… I’ve started to really enjoy “pettiness”.”
Thanks, I’m grateful for all the views and likes I get because of that.
Very well done write up, I really enjoy your avatars it captures your abundance of personality well.
Pffth you’re gonna have to stop putting out the great and interesting content if you want me to notice the pettiness. I’ve been thinking of the old Uzumaki movie I saw years ago all day because of you
I can blame Punpun for making me fall in love with the flawed character drama anime I like so much. I just feel that bigger stakes or flaws with plot-related causes (*cough* Jinchuuriki *cough*) feel less intimate and human. Like you said, flaws that are mentioned, now shown, don’t have the same impact.
While not anime, this is half the reason I love Bojack Horseman. It’s main character is someone I’d never want to meet, but his story and personality is so darkly human. I love it when fiction can tackle real issues and not just fall into escapism.
I mean, not that I hate escapism, I watch 10 slice of lifes for every one season of BoJack I have to endure, but it’s good to remain grounded in reality.
NGE reflects the depression and dysfunction actually going on in the directors head. Everyone is broken because the director was broken. NGE is one long emotion dump.
I don’t like Shinji the person. He reflects many of my own childhood traits. I certainly hated myself at that age and few others saw anything redeeming in me.. But then I don’t like most of the adults around him either. To them he is just a means to an end. They are as lacking in empathy as he is. They are broken and that is why he is broken.
There are sympathetic characters too. Broken in ways that don’t make you hate them, but still broken. Broken in ways that don’t rub my nose in my own brokenness and instead elicit affection. Rei and Kaoru come to mind.
The fact I dislike certain characters them makes them rousing successes. The greatest failure of a character would be to not elicit a reaction at all..
That is absolutely true. If a character is complete and realustic enough to actually make you dislike them (for reasons other than they bore you to death) there’s something there
I definitely agree, but I think this kind of dynamic has more to do with the medium’s expansion. Because anime is getting bigger and bigger, more studios can take chances on shows that don’t fit a traditional mold.
I can see that. As hero tropes from the world over start to melt together we’re getting new archetypes which is awesome
I hated Shinji, but probably because I could relate to him too much and was just under his age when I saw NGE. Now I can really appreciate his character. Another great, realistically flawed protagonist I like is Satou from Welcome to the NHK! That show is full of broken people, in fact.
NHK was rough
I really like flawed characters as well, in fact in all of my D&D games all players have to pick a flaw to stick with and it has to be one that is relevant. So for example they can not pick.. “is clumsy with a sword” on their wizard. You see people enjoy the flawed characters a lot more.
In World of Warcraft I roleplayed a clumsy girl.. but she was also very autistic, she had massive trouble with analogies and metaphors as well, people kept pushing me to drop the flaw within a week or so.. trainng her to not be like that but I stuck with it. A lot of people disliked her OC because she wasnt easily romancable.. she did not understand the concept.. but in the end people remembered her a lot more, they knew how she would respond as she was consistant and people talked about her .
I think in anime I can say the same.. I barely remember anything of Kirito (SOA) as a character because he was always what the story needs. Rintaro Okabe for example could not help but be this socially oblivious weirdo, even if it complicates things. Good characters stand alone from the narrative and can even influence it, they should not just be part of it. Tomoko from Watamote is for me a great example. Prone to social anxiety myself at times.. this felt sometimes too on the nose and there was time I felt really bad watching this when the plot felt halted again by Tomoko but it also shows me a true character someone who can be real and thinks like a real person. It makes me feel good because I know I dont need to be without flaws to tell my own story!
In WoW I roleplayed a developmentally challenged human warrior for a while. He ended up as a sales clerk in Ironforge for about a month. Confused the hell out of other players who didn’t get why an NPC had a player tag and was acting so hyper…good times