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.

tortured!

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.

awww, so murdery, adorable!

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.

these thinga happen

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.

goody goodies are great

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…

I’m too delicate…

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.

29 thoughts

  1. I agree with you! Nice guy archetypes are underrated. I really do like stories where the protagonists are the good-natured people because it opens up so much possibilities. As a writer, I want to think about multiple ways I can write a character and not how this character was created for this purpose and this purpose only and see where that character goes onwards.

    I like games, so I was reminded of a game franchise that I like. If you heard of the Tales series, the protagonists are usually good-natured guys and some are popular within the fandom. However, some of them are not favored by the Western fandom, but beloved in the Asian fandom.

    I think it’s a matter of preferences because a complex, nihilistic character can be poorly written as much as the typical good guy yet people will call the poor writing “complex” just because the character is cynical or has a sad backstory.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to share this with my friends on Twitter. I think this is a good, engaging essay that some will enjoy.

  2. Maybe it’s trite and silly, but I’m a sucker for any good boy Shonen hero. Of course I like more moody protagonists like Shinji, or suave antiheroes like Spike, but I actually see myself more in the more idealistic archetypes. I’ve always been a passionate and optimistic person, although that’s been really hard these days with how cold and cynical the world has become. Watching these characters helps me reconnect to that sense of youthful idealism and remind myself that people/the world aren’t all as terrible as what you see on the news every day.

    All the examples listed so far have been male, so I want to fix that and bring up Hibiki Tachibana from Symphogear. Hibiki is as hotheaded as any Shonen boy and dumb as a sack of rocks, but every episode she is inspirational AF. She constantly tries to win the bad guys over, which works surprisingly well (if not right away). She supports the other Symphogirls through their emotional baggage and even tries to patch things up with her deadbeat dad. Her catch phrase is “don’t give up on life” and she genuinely lives by those ideals. Maybe she’s a bit unrealistic, but this is also a series where magical girls fight in mech armor, which are all actually ancient Norse/Japanese/Mesopotamian relics powered by J-pop. Why do so many people care about realism in a cartoon in the first place?

    1. I have not seen Symphogear but it sounds interesting. A lot of readerslisted Tohru as well from Fruits Basket which fits the bill.

  3. Yes, yes, absolutely yes! I may be intrigued by how complex some characters can be, but they don’t have to be dull in order to simply be good people. Or bad people, as I think about it.

  4. I think people often levy this criticism at characters like Deku for being overly optimistic and one note. Whether or not this is true I honestly don’t know, but I agree that having someone there who is almost completely good is nice sometimes.

  5. I tend to like good-guy characters if it comes across as just their character, but I tend to get iffy if there’s a sense of… ideology? of a fixed idea? It’s hard to explain. Often it’s about how the show treats them.

    I don’t much like Deku from MHA, for example, and it’s not really the character alone I dislike, but the entire bundly. For example, in the show, I actually like All Might the character, but I strongly dislike All Might the Hero. And what gets in my way is Deku’s hero worship, here. There are many ways the story could have gone from the very initial set-up: a quirkless hero, part of the support team (my favourite), etc. But they gave Deku the power to punch and kick really hard… It’s that context that transforms Deku’s fools-rush-in attitude from an endearing flaw to something off-putting.

    I actually like Bell from Danmachi, but there are hints of the same problem with trying to look cool. I was uncomfortable, for example, with the minotaur fight in season one. It felt like Dark Bell, but the story seemed to try to sell it as a triumph of determination (which in my mind got reprised with the ending of the most recent season. Three? I can’t remember.)

    I haven’t seen enough of Demon Slayer, but in episode one Tanjiro struck me the wrong kind of stubborn (see the scene where he insisted on paying for the basket as the only example I can remember), so it’s unlikely I’d have liked him much. (I dropped the show because of queasy-making camera movement, not for content).

    My favourite characters who are basically goody two-shoes are Okumura Rin from Blue Exorcist, Kusakabe Shinra from Fire Force, or Asakura Yoh from Shaman King (though I like him better than his show, and so far I’d recommend the first series over the current one).

    I’ve always been surprised how much I like Tsukishima Jinbei from Mushibugyou. Jinbei is basically the son of an overpowered duo of Samurai, has trained from childhood on, and has absorbed the ethos so throughly that he basically is that. It’s a character-type that nine times out of ten goes wrong for me. But he’s just so… cheerful about it. There’s really no other way to put it. The senpai whom he admires takes him along because he’s the most expandable of the troop. He then fights a giant flee queen, and when Senpai goes to save him (should it not be too late), he finds him run-through, but pinning the queen to the wall that way. In his usual cheerful voice and polite diction he apologises for not being able to defeat the beast. Or he gets knocked out in a fight, wakes up later and rejoins it with a hearty “Ohayo Gozaimasu!” He feels like such a caricature, but also really genuine. I guess it’s that difference that makes him work?

    There are also a lot good-guy best friend characters I like. They don’t have to be the protagonists. But that’s probably a topic for later. Too long already, the post.

    1. Your favourite goody two-shoes characters are all demons… I really like that. It suits you.

      I also like the good guy supporter and find that they are often better written than when the archetype is cast as the protagonist. Maybe it’s an issue of balance and ratio.

      1. *****Your favourite goody two-shoes characters are all demons… I really like that. It suits you.*******

        Heh. I didn’t even notice.

  6. I like this consideration of yours!
    I personally I tend to root for the less popular one (I don’t know, maybe is the fact that I’m supporting them that actually bring them down? 🤔😂), so it depends on the situation. It depends on how well the characters are written. 💓 and I also have a weakness for those who particularly care. The make me want to believe it myself!😄🌼💕

  7. Huh………….I never thought of it like that. I tend to be more of a nihilist myself- but I can end up becoming very passionate about things in a story that may not even matter or mean what I think they do. I remember working on a post about “My Hero Academia,” and taking so long to breakdown and talk about the dialogue that it took me longer than I thought to post. Only to look back on it and realize that I was just looking too far into it.
    In my mind; the phrase “We’re just little flecks of cosmic dust in a massive Universe- a blip in cosmic scheme of things” isn’t a bad thing. It means that all the problems that seem like they’re big really mean nothing. And the value of anything completely depends on you- that relationship or love of a series only matters as much as you WANT IT to. So I adopted that philosophy and…….well; here I am today.
    I don’t THINK I hate the altruistic optimist; I just think the idea of someone as “pure” as them is……a bit “unrealistic.” Like; they kill your loved ones and you still choose to save them? i see stuff like that and just kind of think “……..Why?” It’s what I like about the League Of Villains and the tropes applied to them during the My Villain Academia arc. They took the “Power Of Friendship” and used it to make themselves more powerful Villains- NOT change their ways because someone finally “reached out to them.”
    I may have been the only person in the world that would have preferred it(Attack On Titan SPOILERS Ahead- Sorry about that) if Eren destroyed the rest of the World at the end of the series. It may have been a bad ending for the rest of the World, but at least the Eldians would be free from all the prejudice of it. It’s a “Personal Happiness” that came at a cost.
    Whereas a character like Deku or Emma would sacrifice their own happiness and their own LIVES for the “Greater Good-” only to turn around and tell everyone else not to do that very same thing. It’s gets really hypocritical sometimes.
    I myself, though, never really had a problem with Luke. I liked him, but he certainly wasn’t my favorite. To me; he was like the “Genesis” of that archetype(sense the movie came out so long ago)- the first in a long line “Hero” types. He was “The Hero.” Meanwhile; I really liked Vader and his own struggles through the films. Between being this intimidating Sith Lord and Luke’s father. Meanwhile; Luke saw the flaws in the way the Jedi were vs how the Sith rolled, and looked for the “Balance.” It’s because he rejected the preachings of the “Good Guys” without going Full Sith that really compelled me to him at the end of the Original Trilogy.
    This comment has gone on for a while- even for me. So I’ll end it with This Last Bit: I think that people prefer the Cynical World view because……..I guess people are just kind of “tired?” Or; maybe media trying to portray Villains as morally grey and having sad backstories to sympathize with has made us think we want them to win? Because some of them- Like Tomura Shigaraki or Himiko Toga- DO have legitimate points as to why that society sucks. And I think we want them to win because it’ll mark some kind of “change” to prevent their circumstances repeating themselves in others. Or maybe it’s just me that thinks like this………………

  8. I’m with you. I guess I do prefer a good guy who comes from a difficult situation maybe (hello Natsume) – because that is what (I hope) I am or want to be at least. I’m infamous for making the best of a situation – no matter how bad the situation itself may be. I would like to pass that ability on to everyone! It acknowledges that yes, bad things happen (to good, bad, and everyone people) but what defines you is how you respond to it. I can’t roll with a Mary Jane sort because I’ve seen complete innocents really get *uck*d through their inability to see or accept the evil in others. It’s awful to watch and not be able to stop it. So sometimes I get a little impatient with the really good guys who simply can’t imagine that anyone is really bad (I’m looking at you Tohru Honda – but I love you just the same and wish I could be more like you). I hate to bring this up, but there are actually bad people in the world who revel in creating misery, and maybe even worse, less bad but simply self centered people who don’t care about anyone else at all as long as they get what they want. With that said, I’m tired of this tortured morally compromised hero. If you can’t get your own life together – you sure as hell can’t save anyone else – not for more than a temporary “hey, I took that bullet for you” sort of thing. In RL you may not completely be perfect or have your shit together, but you’ve got to be in a place of being mindful and thoughtful and working on it at least, and aware of your flaws. A hero needs optimism and hope or why fight? A hero needs to SEE that sunbeam even if right now s/he can’t reach it. And, well, we do need our nice fantasy diversions that show us the world as we wish it was. Because it feeds that tiny little morsel of hope we have deep inside that WANTS everything to be that simple, and that beautiful.

    I ramble… sorry.

    1. Well good doesn’t need to be guillible, although for some reason they are often written that way…

      1. IRL sadly the good are often gullible because they simply assume everyone else is as good as they are. Sigh. Which amounts to painting a big V for victim on your forehead to users and less “good” people! Which is another good reason to retreat to anime…

        1. I’m not sure I agree with that, most of the fiercly intelligent and insightful people I know also happen to be very kind and good in my opinion. I like to think that the smarter you are the more likely you are to find and appreciate value in spreading hapiness?

  9. This is something I truly liked about Demon Slayer and Tanjiro’s character. Refreshing to see a non-bratty non-naive Good Boy protagonist.

    1. I was going to mention Tanjiro. One of the few modern characters that is completely good in every situation, to the point that he sympathizes with demons.

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