On the Necessity of Character Growth in Anime

That title is too fancy for me. It sounds like a research paper. This is not going to be anything close to a research paper. If you print it out I guess it could technically qualify as “paper”, that’s as close as we’re going to get. 

Some of my readers may know that I am a fan of “characters”. I generally tend to enjoy character-driven stories more than plot-driven ones (although a good plot will easily win me over). I will happily put up with a stupid or even boring premise of it comes with good characters. I generally enjoy when a narrative can use characters to make its point rather than exposition or events.

As such I will occasionally gush and praise character development or fault characters for lack thereof. It’s not an uncommon practice. Using how well a character is developed throughout a series of how established their character arcs are to review them is something most critics (and lowly reviewers) do at some point.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Seeing a character grow and learn before our eyes can be very rewarding and certainly encourages viewers to get attached. But I personally don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. What I mean is that you can have great characters that remain completely consistent, never-changing much at all throughout a series as long as they are properly established.

rui-gatchaman-crowds-04-1
Rui is a wonderful character

One of the mistakes I constantly make is to use the expression “a character is not developed enough” when I really mean that they are not “defined” or “established” clearly enough. I don’t actually mean they haven’t grown emotionally or intellectually enough, I simply mean that we either don’t know enough about them, or the information we get is too inconsistent for me to get a complete mental image of who the character is as a person. Which makes me less likely to sympathize with them.

That’s something I’m going to try to fix. I know I can be imprecise in my reviews but I am learning, slowly. Hah! Character development!

It took me a while to come up with a proper example of a good static character. I thought of Izaya from Durarara or Hisoka from Hunter x Hunter. These characters are sensibly the same at the *end* of their respective series as they were at the beginning. Both are fan favourites, both are well defined and unusual characters and both are antagonists with limited screen time so I felt that it may not illustrate my point as well.

We don’t expect the same things from casual antagonists since their plot role is so precise. Generally, as long as they serve their function well, the rest is easy to overlook.

black clovr ignore

 

overlook..willfully ignore…same thing

After some searching which consisted of me staring at my bookcases (my books and manga are all mixed together), I came up with a decent answer. L from Death Note.

I have researched popular opinion on anime characters before. L was consistently in the top 3 and usually at the top of “best” character lists. He and the franchise he belongs to is well-known enough to have spurred a variety of adaptations (I have only seen the Japanese movies) and the common measure of success is how well did the adaptation manages to capture L’s character. For the record, I’m also full of affection for the selfish weirdo.

However, L is in most ways a “static” character. He remains very true to who he is at the core and events around him have very little sway. It’s part of his character in fact. If you’ve ever sought out spin-offs that feature L’s adventures before Hyuk decided he needed a little more excitement in his life, you may have noticed that L is pretty much “L”. His is largely the exact same person with the same priorities, beliefs and reactions that he had in Death Note.

Death Note L

 

we can’t hold phones like this anymore

Basically, L doesn’t change but everything else changes around him. Rapidly and drastically, which forces our unchanging L to adjust and survive in new circumstances. The beauty of the character is not is seeing him come into his own or slowly become something else. It’s in getting to know a fully realized character, that happens to be very quirky and interesting, and seeing that character react in all sorts of circumstances while remaining perfectly realized.

I would have a very had time telling you which I like best. Learning and changing alongside a protagonist or discovering them thoroughly and seeing what they would do in all sorts of instances. From my highly unscientific looking at my shelves research, I would say characters with strong arcs seem more common but that can also be a factor of the types of stories I personally enjoy. I have a lot of hero’s journey narratives and they almost impose character evolution.

The only thing I know for sure is that I really enjoy it when a character has a satisfying arc but I don’t need one to enjoy the character. How about you?

Irina

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

20 Responses

  1. TheJolteonMaster says:

    This is why I like Mikoto from A Certain Scientistic Railgun. Sometimes we just want to watch badasses be badasses.

  2. dreager1 says:

    For me I enjoy a static character but only when they are someone who is meant to be a guidepost for others. Someone like Saitama (One Punch), Ryoma (PoT), or Conan (Detective Conan) as the show it less about them and more about how everyone is forced to improve in order to match them.

    Otherwise I’m definitely all for characters arcs in a character. For me the one thing for a writer to worry about is going too far in making a character unlikable before they go through the character arc. Like, I’d rather have a character start at a 5 and go up to an 8 as opposed to a 0-10

    • Irina says:

      So you’re a classic Hero’s journey type of person

      • dreager1 says:

        Definitely, it’s probably the Shounen Jump/Nintendo fan in me but I’ve always grown up around that kind of character arc and still tend to have a blast with it. Just something fun in watching someone go from being an average guy/gal into saving the world

  3. stillcircle says:

    I don’t mind if a character doesn’t “change” or “grow” over time so long as – as you say – they are properly established and three-dimensional and behave consistently over the course of the series. There are people like this in RL, afterall. Psychopaths, for example. So character development only works when the underlying realities of that character allow them to develop; but if they are essentially a static personality, they at base remain the same. This doesn’t mean they can’t adapt to changing circumstances; just that – again, as you note – those changes have no impact on their essential internal self. So these kinds of characters are quite okay in my book, and actually realistic as well.

    I think one of the best static characters I have encountered is Akane Tsunemori from the Psycho-Pass franchise. Despite everything that happens to her and everything she experiences, she remains essentially the same person: fundamentally optimistic about the world, and able to accept the reality by whish she is confronted without it disturbing her inner equilibrium. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t experience hurt or sorrow or unrequited love; just that none of these experiences alter her fundamental personality structure. So, in effect, she doesn’t change much, even if it can be said that she matures and becomes less naïve over time.

    I think a real problem in anime (and other narrative forms like novels) is that what is often presented as “character development” is, in fact, just a plot device to drive the story forward. In other words, we are presented with a “change” in the character’s behaviour or attitudes that isn’t really associated with either their role in the story or their experiences through the narrative, but is just a convenient mechanism to move from one plot point to the next. That’s not character development, in my view; it’s just sloppy writing.

    I think character development is important, especially for main protagonists and antagonists. This development, afterall, is supposed to reflect their reality as relatable human characters, which in turn is able to assist our suspension of disbelief. Afterall, I think there are very few of us who can say that we are the same people we were ten years ago, even if we can’t define the wheres and hows of our change as individuals. Which in turn points to the role of character development within the overall narrative: part of the “story”, afterall, is not just what happens (plot), but how events do – or don’t – impact upon people, and why the differences of outcome occur (character development/stasis). That, in turn, enables us to make sense of the narrative, the overall sequence of unfolding events and reactions to/consequences of those events.

    All of which is a verbose way of saying that presenting character development is really hard, because it has to be located in both the lived experience of the characters and their fundamental reality as individuals. In other words, that whole wacky mix of circumstance, psychology, biology, environment and the particularities of individuality that make us human. The best stories, of course, are the ones with great characterisation – because, regardless of what is and isn’t happening in terms of plot, characters who aren’t believable or relatable just don’t cut it with us as viewers, regardless of how cool the premise might be or how clever the chain of events is unfolded.

  4. RisefromAshes says:

    I think a lot about characters like you said, is about how they’re established first and any changes second. Characters who don’t change are just as interesting as those who do. Of all things, I remember Kuroiwa from Dairy of our days at breakwater. She didn’t change the entire story, and that wasn’t a bad thing. Her defining traits love of fishing, my-pace lifestyle, and work smarter not harder mentality balanced well against the younger girls who were still finding themselves and exploring stuff.

    I’m kinda on the fence about character development in general. Some stories work great when we get to see the characters grow and change. Other stories work better when we know who the characters are and just see them do cool stuff. I think I’m just over the type where all their progress is linear. You see it a lot in sports anime. A character struggles to overcome a difficulty once, and does the thing, and suddenly it’s never a problem again. Most of the time I suspend my disbelief for the sake of the story, but lately it’s gotten a bit boring.

    • Irina says:

      Personally, I find that when stories fail at development and end up creating very inconsistent characters, it’s more annoying than flat ones

  5. Dawnstorm says:

    I don’t need characters to change at all. A lot of it is genre, though. Characters tend not to change (much) in mysteries (outside of the noir kind) or slice of life, since the plot is elsewhere. A coming of age story, on the other hand, isn’t really a coming of age story without character change. And some ecchi shows *need* paper-thin characters or the ecchi jokes take on a sinister note (because you suddenly start bringing in those pesky real life implications you don’t really want to think about).

    Some comedies rest upon the fact that characters never change (imagine the Matsuno sixtuplets in Osomatsu-san suddenly becoming responsible adults and getting jobs…).

    Really, a show just needs to know what it wants to do, and if it does that well, then its okay.

    Back when I was still active on writing boards the term “character development” was used a lot, and there were three basic meanings of the term, though they weren’t always cleanly separated:

    1. The narrative techniques by which a character’s personality is revealed. That’d be when new facets are revealed. The character doesn’t change, but the reader/anime viewer now knows something about the character they didn’t before.

    2. The level of detail with which the author endows the character. That is how well-rounded a character feels. You have enough enough information to figure out how they’d act in different situations. (“flat characters” vs. “round characters”)

    3. The development a character goes through during the plot. (“static characters” vs. “dynamic characters”)

    (1) and (3) can interfere with each other. If you miss hints that foreshadow a reveal, for example, you might think an event changed a character, when that’s really just something the author didn’t reveal until now. Similarly, you might think a character hasn’t changed, but there are subtle hints you’ve missed – it’s just not immediately obvious. Now that’s not to say such things are clearly delinated, but it’s something to bear in mind.

    Finally, do subtle changes count? Barring time-resets, no character is exactly the same at the end of a story, as the beginning. They age, for example. They know things they didn’t; they met people they didn’t know. That’s obvious, but there’s a catch. How much change, what kind of change, counts as the character changing? I’ve personally never really worried about that, so when other people worry about it, I sometimes get confused.

    Generally, no, characters needn’t change.

    • Irina says:

      I agree, genre is a pretty big factor in how character arcs tend to evolve is at all. Some genres are too crowded to have heavy or complicated character arcs on top of it all.

  6. Pinkie says:

    I don’t think change in a character is needed, but it has to make sense, say L would lose the love of his life because a mistake he made, I would not like it if he did not grow.

    Goku for example in Dragon Ball Super’s manga recently fed a villain a Senzu Bean. While in Dragon Ball Z he had to give up his life to atone for that mistake and nearly saw earth destroyed, such an event should teach you a lesson!

    Growth , much like remaining the same should feel natural and not be used as a writing crutch. Bakugo is an example of that done badly in my eyes. Despite learning how Midoriya is, despite being humbled, he remains volatile to suit his power AND to derail certain situations for the sake of excitement.

    A character should feel like a person, not just a story element , and how they progress or fail to grow should be a result of the person not by the (lack of) storytelling

    • Irina says:

      Some people don’t really grow though. Arrested development is not uncommon in the real world and I think it can exist in fiction as well.

      • Pinkie says:

        It can be, but I dislike it personally if arrested development is used as cheap way to make story happen, then it stops feeling natural which I think happens with Bakugo

        • Irina says:

          Hmmm, in a lot of ways Kacchan has the most character evolution behind Todo but it is super uneven. On the other hand All-Might is super static. His unwavering beliefs and unchanging personality, even when it put his pupils at risk and caused him his own health, are a big part of who the character is. I would say he is the best example of a static character in MHA along with All for One.

          • Static characters are anchors, kind of like the one thing in life we can count on. In childhood, hopefully that’s our parents. For some people it is God.

            A good “static” character can still have an arc, it is just imperceptible and can take a long time. (That’s true of real people too.) If we look at All Might at the very beginning and All Might now, I think he has changed in ways other then simply losing his power.

            I think it is interesting to look at the character arcs of bloggers. We change over time as well, perhaps also imperceptibly.

          • Pinkie says:

            I haven’t watched all the way trough, I just think at least in the early season he is the type of character that either develops or doesn’t develop in a way I don’t really like because it feels forced to me.

            Where with Todo it feels nice and with Allmight is static in a way that feels natural to me.. perhaps it helps because he is mature so I can accept his persona being more “set”,,, anyway I stick to point that Arrested development is fine…as long as it is not just a narrative crutch

  7. AK says:

    That’s a good distinction to make, yeah. I really liked L’s character as well for the same reason — it’s clear that even if the guy lived for a thousand years, he’d be pretty much the same person throughout that time. His rivalry with Light was part of his appeal as well, and I think that had to do partly with how static he was and how despite the fact that they were rivals, that relationship was a weird and complicated one. (Also part of why Light’s other rivalries came off as flat and kind of boring to me, but that’s another issue maybe.) In general, I agree that a character doesn’t have to change at all to be interesting, as long as they’re interesting from the beginning and that staticity works in the context of the story.

    • Irina says:

      Exactly! And there are a lot of great characters that don,t change much. When the plot and world building are very complex, it’s good that have a steady character to anchor it all.

  1. April 18, 2021

    […] She really is talking about whether characters should be dynamic or static, but I’m more interested in the characters versus plot […]

  2. May 1, 2021

    […] On the Necessity of Character Growth in Anime (I drink and watch anime) — As usual, Irina brings a lot of insight to an issue in anime and other media that gets argued about all the damn time — how much does a character need to grow in a story to be interesting? Her argument might go against the grain a bit, but I find it interesting (and I pretty much agree as well anyway.) […]

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