I think there’s a big difference between bad characters and BAD characters. You know what I mean. Sometimes characters end up really unlikeable or even boring even though they aren’t antagonists. A lot of the time, you could say that these are badly written characters. The author had a really cool idea, and it just didn’t work out on the page.
Sometimes it’s lack of development that leaves you scratching your head as to why anyone would like a particular character. Other times the pacing of the development is so off that the character comes off as unhinged when they are clearly not supposed to. Inconsistent personalities or ever-changing motivations make it difficult to really gauge who the character is meant to be and connect with them. Of course, performance can also make or break a character.
OK, so writing is hard. That’s not big news. But the thing is sometimes, characters are less than ideal by design. And I think that when a character is not likeable because they are written that way but still have a protagonist role in a story, well that’s amazing! It’s also super hard to pull off.
I have noticed certain reviewers and fans that simply dismiss characters with overly negative traits or that just aren’t generally appealing. These characters usually get labelled as failed or bad without much discussion. But are they simply bad characters or are they BAD? Are they characters that fail to bring anything to the plot, are they badly written or acted, or are they characters that the audience simply doesn’t like? I think that is a question that often goes unanswered.
Of course, even when people do ask that question, you’re going to have different answers. There is a matter of personal interpretation and tastes. And the opposite is sometimes true. I have often seen people praise characters I thought were conceived so poorly they barely held together or were laughably shallow. But general audiences adore them. Maybe I missed something.
Or maybe they have great character designs. I mean, I know people who adore characters they have never seen in the context of a story, only as random images or marketing mascots. You can’t overestimate the power of a good design. Heck, I love plenty of really pretty anime people who are sort of one-note and not that deep or complete clichés. And I think that’s great. It’s not like there’s too much joy in the world. If something makes you happy and you like it just ‘cause, that’s a reason to celebrate!
I’m more curious about why some characters get panned. Especially in cases where the anime is not generally believed to be badly written or conceived and audiences enjoy the rest of the cast. But some poor fellow gets singled out as the fictional failure. To me that’s odd. And it’s also a little odd that we don’t often try to figure out why.
To be sure, there are reviewers and critics that make the distinction between a character that fails on a technical level, one that fails on an emotional level and one they simply personally disliked. But not that many in my experience.
We are navigating an odd time right now. There are a lot of newish social concepts that are slowly integrating cultures and people, in general, are trying to find the sweet spot between being sensitive and empathic to others while not completely breaking down communication. And I do think that has created a harsher backlash towards characters displaying what would be considered morally reprehensible traits.
Bigoted characters, sexist, racist and the like, will often get labelled as bad characters right off the bat. It might get a pass if they are villains and get their comeuppance. But even if those characters don’t align with the audience’s values, that does not mean they are badly constructed.
There’s a lot of variables that go into it of course. For instance, if that morally reprehensible trait is framed as such. That is if the narrative and the other characters make it clear that this character’s sexism or whatever isn’t a positive trait and is something that should be looked down on or fixed. Most audiences will be satisfied that the story in general aligns with their point of view and spare the character although they are unlikely to become a fan favourite. Unless they have a redemption arc and suddenly become a paragon of acceptance. Still, there are people that simply write off the character forever.
It tends to be worse when it’s presented as value-neutral. Like the character is obviously quite racist but the story doesn’t really acknowledge it in any way and just treats it as a general character trait. The same way they treat another character not liking natto or something. That’s a great way to make sure people don’t like your character and potentially to have them talk about it a lot and get some free publicity.
The last way characters are usually presented is with an unabashed embrace of their reprehensible traits. The character treats the opposite gender as less than human and has said they see them that way. Yet they are presented as super cool, admired by all and a love magnet. Their behaviour and beliefs seem to be rewarded by the text. You might think that this would get characters hated but I find that it’s actually the opposite.
When characters are unambiguously written, viewers that don’t enjoy watching that type of story or messaging will probably drop the show right away or not even start in the first place. As such, those characters are more likely to get an audience cherry-picked to love them and in fact be more forgiven of badly crafted characters just because they represent unpopular values that are not likely to be found in most cases.
But regardless of how the character may be presented in the context of the story, it doesn’t really change how the character itself is crafted. Maybe the author is super racist against people from Seychelles but they can still create a heck of a character. And maybe a viewer doesn’t enjoy taking in all that rhetoric but that doesn’t mean the character is bad. The character is just BAD, you know?
I’m picking some pretty obvious examples. It actually gets a lot trickier than that. For instance, I remember a little while ago a minor Twitter kerfuffle because of a character in a moe slice of life that was a teenage girl preoccupied with social media. Shocker! How outlandish! Anyway, this girl spend a lot of time on her phone and occasionally used internet slang in her speech.
A portion of the audience immediately wrote off the character. First, they accused the character of having been localized to the point of distortion. Believing that this sort of over preoccupation with someone’s online personality was clearly a Western concern or something. Therefore the character was bad. And when it was pointed out that the character was pretty much the exact same in the Japanese version, they called it either pandering or unwelcomed commentary. In any case, the character was still declared bad.
Not once in this conversation did I hear anything about the character’s personality, motivations, state of mind, development, narrative use and so on. You know, the stuff that makes a character, a character. Those elements were simply not considered. And that’s what I find odd.
What do you guys think? Is it possible to separate a character’s messaging from the rest? Should reviewers and critics make more of an effort to examine what is a personal reaction from what is technical appreciation? And do you enjoy bad characters?