You know what? I really love fictional characters.
So this post is more of a fun analysis of fictional characters in all works than any sort of an analysis of moral or Christian themes in a particular show. Why? Because if we get to a point where we only judge the value of a story by how good its themes are, I think we will become just another variation of the sort of stuffy legalist that would call anime sinful. Before we get there, we should remember what it is about fiction that we love at the basic human level. And one reason we as humans love fiction is because we love fictional characters. They make us laugh, they make us cry, they make us cheer for them as they take on the Big Bad, and they make us drop hundreds of dollars on a mobile game for the chance to get that ultra-rare card with them on it. Clearly, something about fictional characters resonates with us, even though they have no entry in any actual census report.
The really fun thing is, while we might love a whole bunch of different fictional characters, we don’t necessarily love each one the same way. For example, I love Aoba from New Game in a different way than I love Aoba from Cross Game. Complicating things are those “favorite villains”, the characters we “love to hate”, because we can probably all name at least one villain who made the story they were in much better, even if we wanted to see said villain’s living daylights knocked out of him/her. How does one make sense of all the different ways to love a fictional character?
Well, I do not claim to have found some kind of “magic answer” to this question, but I have found a little schematic that works for me in characterizing what I love about a fictional character. To me, a fictional character I love can be likable, interesting, or relatable. They may be two of the three, or they may even be all three, but they just need to be at least one of the three for me to love them. More notably, I think of these three aspects as scales, with a given character I like scoring high on one of those scales and varying in the others. And probably most importantly, which of those three aspects a character scores high on, and critically, which they do not score high on, will affect how I see them as a character and the role they fill in the story and in my heart.
But first, some definitions.
A likable character is defined as quite simply: would this character be the sort of person I want as my friend in real life? This is a judgment of a character’s personality, favoring those whose virtues I consider virtuous in a real-life person, and whose vices… are at least the sort I can work with. (And yes, “waifus” would fit right in here.) Of course, if a character is not likable, in the sense that I would not want him as a friend, but I like him as a character for other reasons, that could be worth noting in its own way.
An interesting character is one that is, to put it simply, entertaining. They may be really funny, or they may have really cool fighting styles, or maybe they just have a certain personality that is so unique or engaging that you can’t keep your eyes off them. In some cases it’s their interactions with other characters that sticks out; if you ever see a review that praises a character for how they “bounce off” other characters, that’s a good sign of an interesting character. That said, not every character is “interesting” in this way… and not every character has to be.
A relatable character is one that embodies some vulnerability of the human condition. These are the characters with struggles that mirror those people go through in real life, whether it be the suffering of the fallen world or the wrestling with their own shortcomings. These characters invite us to empathize with them; we do not have to have actually experienced what these characters are going through in our own lives, as long as we recognize their struggles as something that some actual human may go through. It’s important not to confuse this with “interesting” because while we may be “interested” in these characters, it’s more for what they say about the nature of humanity than for any particular entertainment value. And, like the others, not every character has to be relatable.
So with all that said, let’s take a look at how these three aspects can combine to form our favorite characters.
Likable, but Not Interesting or Relatable
So you’re watching a show, and you see this character, and you fall in love with her immediately. Something about her personality just clicks with you; she’s exactly the type of character you’d want as a friend in real life, or maybe even as a wife. (Feel free to flip the genders if you want.) So out of your overflowing love for this character you go online to gush about how much you love her… and then the hateful comments start coming.
“Meh, she’s boring.”
“She’s so one-dimensional.”
“She doesn’t do anything interesting.”
“She’s a lazily-written character.”
So either you leave dejected that your beloved character is apparently “bad character writing”, or you go on an angry tirade over how no one appreciates the charms of that character. Congratulations; you’ve found a character that is likable, but not interesting or relatable. They don’t have any particular explorations of the human condition tied to them or personalities designed to bounce off well with others, which often gets interpreted as a “one-dimensional” or “flat” personality. The thing about likability is, what any given person wants in a friend differs from person to person, and a given character simply might not strike that same chord with different people. On top of that, some people go into a show looking specifically for entertainment or for an involving story that explores humanity, so even if they might otherwise like a character’s personality, if she isn’t interesting or relatable, she’s just taking up space. But for those who are fine with just liking a character for the sake of liking her, if her personality is one they like, they can ignore the lack of in-depth writing for them.
And you know what I say? Embrace your love for these characters. Not every character needs to be particularly interesting or well-written. Sometimes, we just need a character that brings a smile to our face when we see him/her. That the very presence of a fictional character can fill us with warm feelings is one of the reasons why fiction is so special.
As you can imagine, these characters fit well in slice-of-life shows. In a genre where part of the appeal is creating a feel that you’re living life alongside the characters on screen, such a character can contribute to that feel without needing anything complex like character depth or interesting personality quirks, though they usually need at least a few quirkier or deeper characters around them to keep the show from going too far from “relaxing” to “boring”. They can also fit in well in more serious shows, where their presence helps balance out more serious elements of the show… or, more cynically, to provide the necessary reactions when that character is kidnapped, or worse, killed off.
Oh, and this is the default setting for all those self-insert harem/isekai male leads, but that’s probably the worst use of this character type because when I’m looking for a character I’d want to be friends with, I’m not really looking for a copy of myself…
Interesting, but Not Likable or Relatable
The easiest example of this are villains. Not villains with troubled backstories; just villains who do evil things and do them in such an interesting way that you can’t help but get caught up in them. They are the characters you “love to hate”, and whatever else you might say about them, they most certainly make the story they are in better.
Of course they’re not limited to villains. Protagonists can fall into this category, too. In the group discussion for Walking My Second Path in Life, I brought up how, while certain things main character Fie does might make her less “likable”, in that they aren’t really things I want to see a friend of mine doing, they do make her more interesting. Fie isn’t really the best example, though, as overall I still consider her quite likable as well as interesting (again, these aspects are sliding scales, not a binary “they are” or “they aren’t” qualities). For a better example, there’s Kazuma, the protagonist of Konosuba, who’s pretty much an insufferable jerk, but that’s what makes the show so entertaining.
Comic relief characters may fall under here, or they may be in the “likable and interesting” category. Personally if a character just goofs off all the time, he/she isn’t really someone I’d seek out as a friend, which would put them here as someone who can bring much-needed levity to a story without a need for a complex backstory or a totally “friendly” personality.
Relatable, but Not Likable or Interesting
Some characters are written primarily to be a window into the ugliest parts of humanity. They represent the worst of our vices and weaknesses. Their actions constantly hurt others, whether because of how they act out intentionally as a “villain”, or unintentionally as a well-meaning protagonist whose flaws make a mess of things. They hold no “entertainment” value as they primarily exist to show how a certain human flaw causes grief, and their hurtful actions make them characters you would rather not have as a friend. Yet… you feel for them. You can understand why they got to the point they are, and might even admit you could have just as easily ended up the same way. In a way, contrary to the characters you “love to hate”, these characters are ones you “hate to love”.
That said, remember that “likable”, “interesting”, and “relatable” are sliding scales, so this category can also refer to characters that are somewhat likable or interesting, but for which their main characteristic is their relatability. (This applies to the above two categories as well, of course.) In this case, these characters do not need to reflect the worst aspects of human nature, and can more simply represent human aspirations or simpler personal issues.
Now, we can move on to the combinations…
Likable and Interesting, but Not Relatable
The bread-and-butter of comedies (at least not of the black sort), likable and interesting characters are friendly and fun. They may not be particularly deep characters, but again, not every fictional work needs deep characters, and even ones that do may benefit from side characters that exist just to make things fun. There’s not much else to say about these characters; they’re great and they make pretty much any work they’re in better.
Likable and Relatable, but Not Interesting
For this category, I’ll refer to protagonists who are inherently likable, and who have some kind of struggle to overcome. That struggle might be a personal flaw that they must overcome, or an external struggle they must deal with. The result of these combining is a protagonist whom we cheer on. They might not be particularly interesting, but their inherent likability allows us to sympathize with their struggles and follow along with them in the hopes they succeed.
These are the standard protagonists for many stories with some form of dramatic plot. The combination of likability and relatability creates a character the audience naturally wants to support. The interestingness of that character will vary but is ultimately not the focus, with the focus being on following the character’s struggles, hopefully to their victory over them. This can also apply to side characters and their storylines as well.
Interesting and Relatable, but Not Likable
So, in one hand I have a villain or anti-hero who is wholly entertaining, but not very likable.
In another hand I have a villain or anti-hero whose actions are driven by some personal flaw or struggle.
I put them together, and I have this kind of character: one who is not likable, but one whose story-driven actions we can sympathize with to some extent, while at the same time we enjoy their entertaining antics when they’re not driving the storyline. It’s a fun, albeit somewhat delicate balance, and one that practically requires strong character writing. If any kind of character needs to be “three-dimensional”, it’s this character. But because these characters are so naturally full of depth, when done well they tend to be appreciated greatly by critics and fans alike.
Likable, Interesting, and Relatable: The Perfect Character?
So if we have these three aspects of a character, you might assume that there exists an “ideal” character who is all three: likable, interesting, *and* relatable. Such a character must truly be the best type of character of all, and if that character is a girl, that character would be one deserving of the title of “best girl”, right? Well, as I have been saying, different characters serve different roles in different stories, and the intentional lack of one or two aspects or the focus on one or two aspects may ultimately make that character serve the story better. A character that is written to be likable, interesting, and relatable can certainly become a fan favorite if done well, but they run the risk of trying too hard to be all three of these equally, which can make them not stand out very well.
That said, since I do have a “best girl”, allow me to introduce her. This is Momoko Suou, from The iDOLM@STER: Million Live.
Million Live is an extension of the “main” branch of The iDOLM@STER, taking the 13 girls from the original series and adding in another 39 girls for a final 52-person group; the four-fold increase in girls puts this “branch” between the relatively low numbers of the original series and the massive catalogue that is Cinderella Girls. And among those 52 girls, Momoko has stood out to me as not just my favorite girl in the branch, but in the entire iDOLM@STER franchise.
Is she likable? I’d say so. This one is definitely a matter of personal preference, as her personality would fit very nicely in the “tsundere” category, a category that is not readily associated with “likability” as people generally consider the “tsun” part to be not very “friendly”. That said, I personally tend to find more balanced tsunderes rather likable; someone who’s willing to tell me when I’m doing something wrong is very valuable as a friend, and it also makes their “dere” moments that much more meaningful. In the end, tsunderes are hit-or-miss for me, but I can definitely say Momoko is on the “hit” side. Her rough attitude comes from her past (more on that later) and also from her strong sense of professionalism as a former child actor; the latter in particular is something I’d want as a theoretical idol producer in an idol. Beyond that, though, when she does mellow out, she displays a more childlike innocence to her that is genuinely sweet; this especially comes out when she hangs out with her fellow child idols, or when she’s with the older girls who welcome her like family.
Is she interesting? Again, this one will fall to some extent to personal preference, but she’s got some fun quirks to her. Despite being the second-youngest girl, she takes a position of “senpai” to other girls with her knowledge of the entertainment industry. Not only that, but she even carries around a wooden box that she stands on when talking to others, so people don’t “look down” on her. Overall, she is an example of the use of “gaps” in characters: the contrast with her young age and her high sense of professionalism, or the contrast between her serious work towards being an idol and her more childlike side that just wants to play, collect stickers, and eat pancakes.
Is she relatable? Very much so. This is the aspect that stands out strongest for her, thanks to her backstory. As a child actress, while she enjoyed acting, she also got to see the ugly sides of the entertainment industry, and started to see the adults around her as selfish people who just use her and others for their own ends. To make matters worse, her home life is not pleasant either, as her parents are fighting all the time. (The hints that they only started fighting after Momoko debuted as an actress really do not help things.) As such, her story becomes one where she starts off distrustful of you, the Producer, as well as others, but she as she starts to trust people, she starts to open up and enjoy life as an idol and a child. It’s one of the most in-depth backstories to a character in the iDOLM@STER franchise and provides such a strong source of relatability that, combined with her overall likability and interestingness, made for a character that would quickly become my “best girl.”
This example shows how a character that is likable, interesting, and relatable can become a favorite character not by making a character who is equally strong in all three aspects, but by focusing on one aspect and letting the other two aspects support it. Perhaps your “best girl” or “best boy” is one you primarily like for how interesting she/he is, with likability and relatability supporting that. Or maybe you do know of that one perfect character that is equally strong in likability, interestingness, and relatability…
So Many Great Characters
The great thing about fictional characters is that there’s so many ways to write one, and by writing them in different ways, they can fulfill different roles and appeal to different people. I wrote this post to celebrate the many ways we love fictional characters, as well as to show how, while likability, interestingness, and relatability are different ways we can appreciate a character, the lack of one of those aspects can be just as important in determining a character’s role.
But let’s not kid ourselves here; the real reason I wrote this post was to talk about Momoko and why she’s my best girl.
What are your favorite characters in Japanese media, or in fiction in general? What do you love about those characters? And do you prefer your characters to be likable, interesting, or relatable? Share your thoughts and best girls/boys in the comments!