Awful People Can Still Be Great Characters

I have made no secret of my soft spot for horrible deplorable morally challenged and occasionally despicable characters. This expands beyond anime by the way. It really goes for my tastes in fiction in general. And it seems instinctive. If I have an early liking on a minor character no one pays attention to, 9 times out of 10 they’ll pull a heel turn or at least turn out to have some pretty serious closet skeletons.
bookseller hon

serious skeletons make the best employees

I would really like to emphasize that this isn’t the case in real life though. Nice guys are best guys as far as I’m concerned and I grow more impatient with casual jerks with every passing day.

As you may know, I have a favourite character line at the end of all of my reviews. As a huge fan of characters this is information that really speaks to me and I love finding out who other people’s favourites are. This said, it’s not infrequent for one of my readers to be completely horrified by my very questionable taste in any people. How can you like so and so, they’re terrible is a question that comes up.

I usually explain my reasoning best I can but I often have to concede that those characters are in fact terrible people. Except here’s the thing, I personally believe that awful people can still make for wonderful characters. I can love a character an hate the person they are represented as.

Let me try to explain this. A character can completely clash with my admittedly liberal minded values. They can be a sexist, racist, aggressive predator and still be well written. None come to mind that embody all three but take any one of those and I have tons of examples.

sailor moon

don’t you hate it when this happens

I may dislike the person, wish for them to get their come comeuppance, be disgusted by most of what they do or say and still think they make the narrative of the story better. In fact if they are getting all those reactions from me, there’s a good chance they are complex and fascinating to me on some level. I’m pretty desensitized to shock value.

I want to point out that a show having an openly sexist character even if they are among the protagonists, doesn’t immediately make that show sexist. The overall narrative won’t necessarily frame that trait as a quality and just depicting something in fiction isn’t the same as endorsing it. Because I think a character was more interested and integral to the narrative than others, of I enjoyed watching them because of they way they were constructed, doesn’t mean I agree with that character’s point of view and morals.

I just happen to like good conflict in a story and sometimes that comes in the form of good but “bad” characters.

I’m not sure if any of this make much sense. Let me try to find an example. Hisoka is my favourite Hunter x Hunter character (despite not appearing in my favourite arc…) He’s a monster and the way he looks at children makes my stomach churn. I would never want to meet him, in fact I would pay money to avoid meeting him. But boy was he fun to watch. His every screen presence was entertaining and injected both fun and thrill into the series. He’s a complex character whose personality is a carefully balance and unusual array of subversion and exaggerations that kept me guessing but nevertheless fit together logically. And the show had the wisdom to use him sparingly for maximum impact. Hunter x Hunter has some fantastic characters all around and when you take a step back, you realize they are all not great people.

Bungou.Stray.Dogs dinner

I just wanted to post this amazing picture by Kiragera 

I can make similar statements of Durarara’s Izaya or Bungo Stray Dog’s Mori. Isabella from the Promised Neverland is one of the most interesting and effective characters I have seen in a very long time. Arguably though, all those examples are antagonists. It’s easier to accept morally flawed bad guys, they’re supposed to be that way. So how about we stick to the Promised Neverland and look at the heroes.
Out of those three kids, my favourite character is the antisocial, cowardly, selfish, willing to sacrifice all other children for a chance to help his own friends: Ray. I love Ray as a character and finding out his twisted past was just a cherry on top. He’s the most realistic, the most likely to betray and the most difficult of the three to deal with. His very existence injects extra conflict into an already very tense story. He is the perfect foil for the other two. I honestly believe the story would suffer drastically if he wasn’t there. Perhaps more so than if any of the other two were missing as they resemble each other more and could therefore fill the void a bit better. (This said they are great as a trio…)
Ray is my favourite character and when the narrative wanders away from him, I can’t help but want to know what he’s up to.
But Emma is my favourite person. If I could chose a bestie that’s who I would want it to be. I feel like this doesn’t need explaining for anyone who’s seen the show but for the rest of you out there, here’s the short of it: Emma is awesome! She’s a great friend, she’s inspiring, she’s always positive. Having someone like that in your life is the best. I would like to watch Ray in with her.
She’s a predictably good person. Those are the type of people I like. Kind, reliable, fairly calm… And can you imagine a show full of them? Just peacefully reading stuff or watching t.v. Not bothering anyone and being contempt with life… actually that sounds kind of great. Never mind, forget that last bit.
What I want to say is that the function of a character in a story is not always to make the audience fall in love with them. As such, I don’t think a good character necessarily has to be likeable. Of course a great person could make for a great character, but so could an awful person in my opinion. Or maybe I just have horrible horrible tastes in anime people and should just accept that already…
Are you like me? Are there terrible people you like as characters? If so, who?
Yakusoku.no.Neverland.Ray

wow – by Demizu Posuka 

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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31 Responses

  1. Elisabeth says:

    Guilty. I can’t help but love characters who are the most campy-slimy about their perverse ways. Grell will always be one of my baes, along with Hisoka for all the reasons you mentioned, plus hotness factor. Those two occurrences of bathing fanservice are all the better for there only being two of them 😜 He’s a despicable human being, but I miss him when he’s not around. And now I want to go back and watch HxH from the beginning again.

  2. Arif says:

    I kept thinking about Kazuma from KonoSuba while reading this. He is pretty much terrible as a person, and yet I will pay money for another season of that show just to see what him and the rest of those idiots have gotten up to.

  3. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    All that witty writing, and the thing that stays with me is that I now want hotpot!

  4. I’m so glad you mentioned Hunter x Hunter because I think that series does an amazing job at giving characters negative qualities while still making them likable, or at least interesting, as characters. Even the heroes of HxH can be bad people sometimes. Gon is impulsive and selfish, Killua is, well, a murderer, and Kurapika goes so far down his dark path of revenge that he could easily be written as a villain. But I love all these characters because they are complex and fascinating, much more so than if they were purely good or one-dimensional.

    And I totally get you on enjoying the villains the most, because my favorite HxH character is Neferpitou 🐱

  5. ManInBlack says:

    I’m sure you’re not watching it but Toucan from Africa no Salaryman is an absolute hoot of a character despite being a self-absorbed,thoughtless, tactless, amoral jerk! 😀

  6. Alan Rickman made about the most perfect villain. In every movie he did, he outshone the protagonist, sometimes greatly.

    But my favorite anime villain? Kaiki Deishu from the Monogatari franchise. Or is he really an antihero?

  7. Krystallina says:

    For me, the one example I always think of is Sho from Skip Beat. I may not like him or his attitude, but man, he livens up the story whenever he’s around. I often found it rather dull when it’s just Kyoko and Ren since they’re usually content with the way things are, but the story seems to push forward more when Sho’s around.

  8. wingking78 says:

    Oh yeah, absolutely. Dilandau from Escaflowne has been one of my favorite anime characters since forever, and the first example I always bring up of a great “awful” anime character. He’s an ax-crazy pyromaniac of very questionable sanity, and the only thing bigger than his vicious streak is his ego. He’s also one of the most compelling and in his own way one of the most tragic characters in the whole series.

    From more recent anime, I think a great example is Bakugo from MHA. Now I’m still picking my way through that series and far from caught up, but even as far as I’ve gone I can already tell that he’s a strong character and a strong foil for Midoriya. Even though he’s firmly on the good guys’ side he’s still a thoroughly unpleasant person, but always fascinating to watch when he’s on-screen. Ray was a great choice too.

  9. Dawnstorm says:

    Hisoka and Izaya a pretty good examples of a character type I love. By the nature of their natural curiosity and recklessness they just make stories more interesting. Slogans about friendship and justice? Let’s scratch at a surface little and see what oozes out from below. In a way, they’re writer surrogates, aren’t they?

  10. Karandi says:

    Yes, a lot of characters I enjoy would be horrible people to deal with in real life. They make for more interesting interactions and as you said of Ray in the Promised Neverland, they add needed tension and conflict just because of who they are so the story isn’t having to constantly pile in new obstacles but rather can focus on the cast interacting and overcoming the obstacle that already exists. They are also definitely more memorable than characters who are just super nice all the time.

    • Irina says:

      I mean the entire concept of Tsunderes is betting on the audiance loving a person who you would not want to deal with in real life

  11. Scott says:

    Oh yes, I kind of like them in anime because you don’t have to worry about them suddenly existing in real life which is good. Though I guess it’s possible to meet people like them…

    But anyway, they are always the most fascinating characters with the most interesting set of morals to see in motion.

  12. Oyasumi Punpun, Onani Master Kurosawa and Oregairu kinda prove that my favorite kind of protagonists are those who are kind of a piece of sh*t. Hell, I adore Bojack Horseman, and he has to be one of the most selfish people I’ve watched.

    I guess the caveat is that I like these characters and relate to them because they kinda just do all the bad thoughts you think, you know? Plus, one way or another, they find some “redemption”. I feel pity more than hate for these characters, and that in itself is proof of good writing.

    TL;DR I’m stealing this post to make a post about redemption arcs.

  13. skja277 says:

    I keep thinking about nothing but konosuba when reading this and more specifically Kazuma: he sexualy harasses others,he treatens to and sometimes DOES abandon his companions that care about him,and is in general a asshole that I will never want to met in real life,yet,at the same time I can’t help but to find him likable and somewhat fascinating.He tends to be the the most competent and reliable of the useless group(despite constantly fucking up and dying),his motivations and actions make sense in a very simple but nuanced way and despite constantly complaining and not being very honest about it he always supports his companions when it matter the most.It’s as megumin says in volume 9 of the novel: when he’s happy he’s kind,when he’s angry he is vicious,when he is poor he works,when he has money he is lazy,he is just a simple asshole but a good person at that cares about them at heart.Does that excuse all the horrible stuff he does?no,of course not,and I don’t think is mean to but it certainly makes him interesting and compelling,as a asshole with a good side tends to be a better fictional character that is a simple goody two shoes that makes the right think just because*cough*Rey from star wars*cough*.I like bad boys what can I say?

  14. Pete Davison says:

    Oh yeah, I love horrible characters. They’re fascinating to observe, because the very fact that they’re so horrible means that they come with interesting stories baked right into them — how they became the person they are, how far they’ll go, if there’s anything they’ll do to redeem themselves, how they treat the people “close” to them and so on. Like you, I have no desire to know anyone horrible in real life, but that’s the beauty of fiction — you can spend time exploring fascinating people without having to actually deal with the problems they’d cause in reality!

    I have two great examples that always stick in my mind.

    The first is Metallia from The Witch and the Hundred Knight. Metallia is obnoxious, rude, violent, selfish, offensive and sadistic. At one point, she turns her main rival into a mouse then releases a set of horny male mice right behind her, knowing that this will probably conclude with her getting raped and possibly killed. Throughout the course of the rest of the game, she continues to only look out for herself, but gradually comes to see the lay of the land thanks to her minion, the Hundred Knight. How her arc proceeds to one of three very different endings is absolutely fascinating.

    The second is Rance from his self-titled series. Rance is an irredeemable bastard and quite literally a frequent rapist, but in the context of the game as a whole it’s hard not to sort of end up liking him. Despite being an absolute shit, he does know when to do the right thing in the grand scheme of things — so long as it aligns with his own personal interests, in most cases — and he does clearly care for the people close to him.

    Even the way he approaches rape is a marked contrast to how the actual villains of the piece deal with sexual assault; in the former case, despite lacking consent, he still somehow displays consideration to his “partner” in the way he behaves during the act, because he obviously gets turned on by the person he’s with having a good time (or as good a time as possible under the circumstances, anyway). In the latter case, however, the villains’ sexual assault is nothing other than violent abuse to inflict pain and torture with no concern for the victim’s wellbeing; it’s sexual just because it’s humiliating, degrading and reducing someone to complete and total vulnerability, rather than out of any of the villains’ desires to get themselves off.

    Both are, of course, reprehensible ways to behave in a civilised society, but the contrast provides nuance and raises some interesting questions. Can one really be considered a “hero” if your main distinguishing feature is that you’re just “not quite as bad” as the villains? What does “good” or “moral” mean in a world whose overall level of morality is far, far beneath what we’re accustomed to in modern society? Can one empathise with or be sympathetic to someone we know to commit unequivocally awful acts on a regular basis?

    Re: neverarguewithafish’s comment above, Kazuma is often considered to be a “proto-Rance”; they even dress quite similarly. I’m pretty sure the resemblance in both appearance, mannerisms and attitude towards morality is deliberate!

  15. I think we all love a villain, or antagonist, the stories they’re in certainly wouldn’t be as entertaining without them as you pointed out.

    I kept thinking about Kazuma from KonoSuba while reading this. He is pretty much terrible as a person, and yet I will pay money for another season of that show just to see what him and the rest of those idiots have gotten up to.

  1. November 29, 2019

    […] Awful People Can Still Be Great Characters — A reminder from Irina that sometimes a character who is a terrible person is also perfect in the role they’re playing. […]

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