What Makes a Good Fictional Character?

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I often see people on different forums explaining why they like a certain character, and I actually find that to be a really interesting topic, as different people like different characters for different reasons. So in the article that follows, I will attempt to explain what makes a good fictional character for me, and I will give some examples for each variable I mention. Take into account that I will NOT mention every single aspect that can improve a character, only the ones I deem to be the most important ones.

The first and most important factor for me to think a character is good is actually their personality. One might claim that personality isn’t the most important aspect of a character, as there are several other aspects that are more important to evaluate the writing of the character. While that is completely true, everything builds up from the character’s personality. When attempting to explain why a character did this or that, you need to have a decent grasp on their personality traits, because after all different characters would react differently in the same scenarios. By being aware of how a character’s personality is, you can start to understand them, which is a requirement for any character to be good. If the character’s actions seem random and poorly explained, without anything to back them up, it will feel like you’re just watching a robot move around. An example of this done wrong would be pretty much any character from School Days but Makoto in specific. Some may claim that Makoto “acts realistically and follows his lust like any other teenage boy, and thus he is a good character” but that’s not true at all; being realistic and being a well written character do not necessarily go hand-in-hand together. The problem with Makoto is that he has no personality at all and instead is mostly used as someone the audience is supposed to hate, as there is nothing to understand about his character before his lust takes over and he starts having sex with every female of the show. In the first episode he was a timid guy and all of a sudden he’s a player?! And there’s absolutely nothing to back up that change in his character.As for an example where the personality of the character does excuse their actions, just look at Shinji from Evangelion. He’s shown to think very little of himself and he’s also a bit of a coward, a ‘beta male’ as people describe his archetype, so even if you hate seeing him running away from a battle or from the conflict at hand, the fact that we have that insight on his personality so early on most definitely is able to excuse his actions. He might not be a likable character but he does have a personality that can back up the way he acts throughout the show. Knowing a character’s personality well can also make you grow closer to them, and thus see them as more likable characters, and it’s a great way of getting the audience interested in the character cast as different people will relate to different characters. Granted this last bit is extremely subjective and depends on each person but the point is: showing more of a character’s personality will always add something to them because you’re able to describe them with more than a one-liner.

Now to be able to create a good character, personality is obviously not the only requirement. Another thing that’s extremely important when building up a character is their role in the story. After all, if you feel like the character had a low impact on the overall story/conflict, they will feel inconsequential and thus less interesting. This is why protagonists and antagonists get much more attention than side characters even if those are sometimes the characters with better personalities and the most developed ones. If we think back to the so-called “big three”, you’ll see how the main protagonists of all three anime have the most favorites, and yet many side characters are much better explored in terms of their personalities and backgrounds, and they even tend to have more development. However the simple fact that they are the protagonists makes people like them more. That’s also explained by thinking that these characters are the ones with the most screen time, and thus it makes the character more likable for the people watching those shows, however it doesn’t make them better from a writing point of view because you can just show them fighting different opponents all the time and not learning much from each fight at all. And no, learning a new move or getting a new ability is NOT necessarily good for the character’s writing, I’m talking about a change in their mindsets. And that’s the next important aspect of a character: their development. Development in a character comes from them interacting with the people or environment around them, which causes certain changes in their mindsets/ways of acting/etc. A character that doesn’t change at all throughout the course of the work is simply uninteresting and lazily written. Just look at Kirito from Sword Art Online for instance, can you really see any change between him at the beginning of the anime and at the end? Sure that in Season 2 the author ass pulled an inner conflict but that was only after at least 30 episodes and something that wasn’t even foreshadowed. Up until then there’s nothing more to his character, and you can describe him by just saying: “He’s a so-called anti-social OP gamer who goes around stealing girls’ hearts” as there’s nothing else to add to his character. Even his relationship with Asuna doesn’t really change his character in any meaningful way, which was a wasted opportunity. If you take a character like Kazuki from HakoMari, he’s the total opposite. he starts out as this generic guy who just wants to protect his everyday life and by the end he’s this insane individual who has an unhealthy obsession for Maria, who completely changed his way of looking at reality, and you get to see the change in his character in every volume. Sure that Kazuki had much more time to shine but Kirito in 25 episodes didn’t show any progress whatsoever, and that’s just sad.

Next is the background. Nowadays people complain about a character having a flashback of their past, showing what they went through that made them become who they are in the present, they call it a “waste of time”. However that “waste of time” is exactly what produces a great character. If we don’t know why the character is, say, anti-social, it will just feel like a random personality trait and while in real life that IS how it works, writing-wise it feels really cheap to leave it at that. A good character has to have some sort of background, with the exception being when they cannot have a background due to their nature/identity. If they’re a robot or an A.I that was built recently obviously they can’t have a good background because there is none. Now the character that I present as evidence for how much the lack of a backstory ruins them is Yagami Light. While I love the core concept behind Light’s character, as I agree with him on some aspects of society and most definitely think it makes him a really interesting character, that interest fades away when I see he has no reason to hate the world so much. We are never shown how or why he became like that, and justifying it as “he’s a genius so he got bored of the world” doesn’t cut it because it wasn’t mentioned once in the anime and even if it was, it still feels incomplete. That makes him a character that can only be described by his ideals, which is no better than those Sword Art Online heroines who can only be described by their archetype or the thousands of characters in comedies that are described by their quirks alone. Just look at Daiya from, once again, HakoMari. His core character is very similar to Light’s and yet we get a full backstory about where his hatred for the world came from, and it involves someone else, it involves a personal relationship of his. That won’t necessarily justify the sins he committed but it shows the author wasn’t lazy when writing Daiya, and instead took his time to show how and why he became completely twisted. Granted, and this is the same with development, subtlety does play a part in all of this. If you just randomly insert a flashback in the middle of the episode, it feels extremely artificial. If on the other hand you start the episode with those flashbacks, or if you make the character find, say, something that reminds them of their past first before going into the flashback, it feels way smoother and doesn’t break the immersion as much, if at all.

The last aspect of a character that is crucial when it comes to their writing is their interactions with other characters. I’ve talked about how a character interacting with another or with their environment helps develop their mindsets, but other than that, there’s also the fact that having good interactions creates good character dynamics and relationships, which is extremely important for a character cast. Take White Album 2 for example. In that anime, the three main characters have tons of interactions between themselves before the actual drama kicks off, in which their friendship and the seeds that will eventually become romantic feelings, and it does properly explain why each girl likes the main character (in Setsuna’s case it’s because he was the only one who treated her as a normal girl and in Kazusa’s it was because he was the one person who seemed to care about her at all despite her anti-social personality). So when you think of the main conflict that eventually unfolds, why/how it happened, you can always explain it through what you saw of the character interactions between them in the earlier episodes, so it won’t feel like the author brought the conflict from nowhere, and you do feel like they learned something with each other, specifically Setsuna and Kazusa who became each other’s first best friends. Now think back to Sword Art Online for a moment, when do any of Kirito’s interactions with the random heroines or even with Asuna result in a positive change when it comes to how you look at their relationships? Literally, all their interactions have is the girl basically realizing she likes Kirito and that’s it, it never adds anything positive to their characters or to the conflict nor does it change the way Kirito faces the fact that he’s stuck in a game (unless you consider settling down with Asuna in a wooden house to be a positive change, which I don’t because there was no time to even feel that change). And the heroines barely interact between themselves too which makes it even shallower. I love it when I think that the relationship between two characters, whether it’s rivalry (Kougami and Makishima from Psycho-Pass), love (Takayuki and Mitsuki from KimiNozu) or friendship (Albert and Franz from Gankutsuou), is really good and I feel I would be able to write paragraphs about them if I so wished to, it adds a lot to the overall experience of watching or reading an fictional work. When they inspire each other, when they react to the death of a dear friend, when they help each other grow, that’s when I know I’m in love with the characters of a work. And just like humans, characters should grow from interacting with each other, and watching their relationships bloom is part of what makes fiction so interesting to me.

Now, after all is said and done, a character can be extremely well written but not likable at all. Such is the case with Shinji from Evangelion: he basically aces every single category I described before and yet it’s really difficult for me to like him because of his poor decision making (which is very much justified) and just the way he acts. And that’s why I want to add one last thing that although is not entirely related to good writing, it IS important to have: likability. A character who is likable but has nothing else going for them is usually pretty boring (just think of every earnest childhood friend character in most romcoms that have nothing else going for them other than acting nice) so it’s important that the author is capable of creating a balance. With Evangelion it’s impossible to do that because the characters are the object of the exploration of the themes, which are very dark to begin with and most people don’t even want to admit to certain things it has to say, due to the sugar coating that we like to cover our real nature with. However when it comes to an anime without such a limitation, there really is no excuse not to make a character likable at all for the sake of being well written because there are many examples of characters that are both well written and likable, the main one being Yang Wenli from Legend of the Galactic Heroes. Yang not only has a really likable personality, mindset and methods of dealing with different situations, he always cracks some jokes here and there (recall his alcohol is humanity’s best friend speech) and yet he can have great serious dialogues with other characters and even inspire them thanks to his charisma. His characters feels really nice and easy to “fall in love with”, and yet he’s also an example of one of, if not the single best written character there is in anime. I simply refuse to add a character to my favorites list if I don’t consider them likable, no matter how good their writing is, because if I don’t feel a connection with them, I just can’t think of them as favorites of mine.

At the end of the day, the character part of a fictional work is, to me, the most important aspect of that work. Sure that some anime like Shinsekai Yori work really well despite not having a good character cast (instead they’re just used to explore the twisted world they live in) because they get carried by the amazing thematic exploration and world building they usually have, however they will never feel as “good” to me as I tend to favor character studies over philosophical anime. A good drama that cares about its own characters will most likely be higher in my list than a psychological thriller that focuses more on other aspects, despite me loving that genre all the same. The character cast usually makes or breaks a work for me, and that is why I consider them to ultimately be paramount when analyzing a work. Granted, people prioritize different things when watching fiction, some prefer pure action, others prefer having their dose of plot twists… when it comes down to it, it depends on the individual watching it. To me, however, there’s nothing like watching characters I like and deem to be good interacting with each other, which is a big reason of why I like works like HakoMari so much:because their main focus is those characters and their relationships with each other. Long live authors who care about their characters, and may ruin come to those who disrespect their own character cast… yes, I’m looking at you Akame ga Kill’s author!

Thanks for reading!

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