There are trends in fiction and narratives that come and go just like fashion trends do. In fact, almost exactly like fashion trends do. These narrative trends also have cycles, go in and out of style then back in again and tend to be very influenced by the social-political climate of the time.
One of the more recent narrative trends I can remember is the grim trend that really dominated US media for a while. A lot of movies and shows that came out were realTM and gritty! Heroes were complex and tortured. It became almost a bit of a joke. And so we moved on.
However, moving on from the grim trend means an aesthetic makeover. Colours came back, yay! And a bit of a tonal change but no so much of an attitude adjustment. What I mean is that our heroes and main characters graduated from tortured souls to morally compromised smarta*ses and also a few tortured souls.
In an ensemble cast, you might have a classic good guy but they are rarely the main character and pretty much never the fan favourites. Heck, villains are usually more popular with crowds than a straight-up goody two shoes.
These trends are a reflection of a society that is a bit cynical and unfulfilled but also that has gone through enough cr*p lately that they want to be able to have a laugh once in a while. Throw a joke in!
But just because that’s what is popular now, doesn’t mean the characters crafted for this place and time are specifically better than the previous over serious grim ones, or the naive optimists of the past.
I say all this because I see a lot of debate of this character is trash or that character was always bad. And one of the underlying trends I am noticing is that often the criticism is aimed at characters that embody the good guy archetype even though they seem popular in other parts of the world.
Regardless of trends and social climate, I’m sure most of you have character types you personally prefer. We all do. There’s nothing wrong with that. And I know that a few of the people attacking characters for being vanilla or something like that do mean that they personally don’t like them but it’s easier and more sensational to just say, they are the worse character ever.
I’m not writing this post to talk about how we chose our words or exaggerate stances online. It’s fine.
I’m just here because I want to represent the people of my demographic who like the idealistic dorks. I haven’t seen that many of us. I’ll give you a simple example that tends to be really popular so I won’t have to argue about it too much in the comments.
Luke Skywalker is a good guy. In the first movie, he was exactly what the audience wanted in their hero but as time passed and it was a particularly active social period, that changed. Luke’s popularity suddenly dropped and for a long time, he was not a particularly popular character all things considered. In fact, both Leah and Han were consistently more popular with the general public and hardcore fans were all about Boba Fett or Vader or some obscure character I can’t name. But the Luke character himself hadn’t really changed, He hadn’t become an objectively worse character. He simply no longer fit the trend and it became more about Han.
I’m not sure how popular Luke Skywalker the character actually is now. But I know that Mark Hamill is beloved by many, myself included, and that goodwill has certainly leaked onto our feelings and views about Luke as well. So I’m thinking he’s probably a bit more popular again. And of course, the character has not changed.
Luke Skywalker is a simple good. He represents optimism and altruism. He is framed as a consistent and unwavering moral center in the fiction he inhabits which is a stark contrast against the more morally grey characters that surround him. In a way, he’s Superman or TPN’s Emma or Deku.
These types of characters often get lambasted for lacking complexity or being unrealistic. I do see where that comes from. But I am here to say that I like the archetype and I don’t think it makes for a bad character by default.
Any character of any type can be good or bad of course. Just like any anime in any genre. The archetype is simply a general mould, a set of tropes and characteristics that are recognizable to most viewers as they get used over and over in fiction.
And I think the naive optimism and unwavering one-track morality actually have some strengths as they create specific conflicts that can only be explored through these characters. The first and most frequent one is the clash between an internalized perfection and a wish for utopia with a very imperfect reality.
The simple good guy is the character that has to realize that the world is not always a great place. That bad things happen to good people and sometimes you can’t do anything about it. I understand that a lot of people will go, well duh. It is one of the reasons the characters are often considered too simplistic. But to me, dealing with that issue is sort of fundamental. How one reacts and internalizes the basic fact that existence is unfair and there is nothing you can do to change that, shapes what type of person they are.
That’s what the simple good guy explores. Will they fall from grâce only able to accept such a reality by becoming part of that unfairness. Will they ignore it slowly eroding at their own pride and sense of self as they swim against the current of reality. Will they flat out refuse it deluding themselves to the end. Or will they try to change the actual fabric of reality? Will they find something rewarding in trying to bring justice to an unjust universe even if it’s futile. Because the value is in the effort itself?
I kind of love all these outcomes. I love them for one specific reason. Because the good guys tend to care. Like a lot. Arguably way too much it gets a bit exhausting there, guys…
When I follow the evolution of a character that is so deeply invested in exploring these questions, I get invested in it too. Generally, good guys aren’t “cool”. They don’t just take things in stride or make a joke out of everything. Things matter to them and that is one aspect that I just really love in a character.
Maybe it’s because I tend to be a bit nihilistic and unconcerned. I find that for me it’s not the most rewarding attitude to have but I can’t quite help it. Everything’s fine, no worries nothing to get worked up about. That’s my default personality and it means I rarely get super passionate about anything. I like characters that do. It allows me to share a bit of that passion and I find it cathartic and interesting. I also like authors who can create that type of empathy.
Of course, you can have a villain that cares a whole lot. In fact, there are more than a few. But guys, I want to root for the hero. For all my laissez-faire attitude, I’m also a big optimist. I believe people are essentially good and I want to believe we are getting better. The simple good guy feeds that hope for me. Even when they fail. Even when they become evil. I still like that there was something inherent in the first place that drove them to it. Didn’t work out this time but it did exist and that’s already a win.
I’m getting carried away, aren’t I? I started this pretending I know stuff about littérature and ended up just silly fangirling over a general archetype. Well, That’s o.k. It’s a bit of a sloppy post so I’ll resume the point I was trying to make.
I know it’s not very fashionable at the moment but I like simple good guys. I’m happy that they seem to be more fashionable in anime than other forms of media because I enjoy the archetype. I hope the trend comes back in the West as well.