It’s a bit of a joke in my friend group that if there is a troublesome character in a series that I probably will love them. Characters like Klaus von Wolfstat and Jean Baptiste Hevens are not great guys; they’re awful characters but they hold a special terrible place in my heart. I will shun main characters to join the tea party of evil and remain blissfully in the darkness until a better, more compelling character saunters in. So today I wanted to talk about what makes a character compelling, why the good side isn’t always the fun side and the two main ways I can like a character and when that fails spectacularly.
While I have your attention, I mentioned “troublesome” characters earlier. Here’s what I mean by that. There are characters that are just garbage human beings and you cannot and should not like them but dammit, they can be fun. Let’s take a mainstream example: Light Yamagi of Death Note. He’s an egotistical sociopath who wants to take over the world and remake it in his image. He may speak of justice but to use a literal murder book, you’re probably already at least a little bit of a sociopath. Lelouch of Code Geass is another great example. This charismatic manipulator has used and abused everyone around him all for some goal. He’s not a good person but it certainly is fun to watch. It’s easy to recognize a character as terrible, denounce their actions in real life and in the series while also thinking they’re quite fun.And it’s even better when characters get what they deserve…(another blog post, perhaps?).
There are two major ways that I like characters in popular media: we’re gonna use a lot of anime examples today and also some comic book ones because this is my blog and ergo my rules. The main was is a character I actually like because they are like me (and I say like me based on tons of factors: we’ve talked representation before, haven’t we?). These characters like Sasuke Uchiha, Uryu Ishida and Yuki Eiri (notice a trend? We did talk representation, right?) have traits more like me. They bring with them family drama, a desire to be their own person, charm that masks pain and a grounded realism that just nearly borders as nihilistic pessimism. Then there are aspirational characters. These characters are special: they are who I want to be. And this hasn’t changed much even though I’m now an on paper adult. These are characters that have something in them that I want to be like selflessly charming or cool under pressure or unyielding optimism and while easy answers include Sebastian Michaelis, Tohma Seguchi and strangely enough Orihime Inoe. Now, before the bulk of you complain about my noted anime misogyny…let’s talk about why Orihime is on this list.
When I started watching Bleach I was 17 years old. I had lost my dad 5 years before that, I was a high school upperclassman and was running a successful but stressful anime club. I was a charming and affable host-type with a winning personality but that hid the fact that my home life was less than ideal and that I was exhausted by what it meant to be a student and even just to be a functioning human person. While Bleach mostly centers around Ichigo Kurosaki, a 15 year old who lost his mother and his magical adventures hunting Hollows and navigating the Soul Society and the world of Soul Reapers, his counterpart for most of the series is a girl named Orihime. She’s not the brightest crayon in the box but she has a lot of heart. She similarly faced loss but instead of being bitter and cynical like Ichigo (cough and me) she was kind, loving and generous. I envied her ability to still see light in a world made so dark by personal loss. Which may explain why I was (still am) so disappointed with how she was treated by the series. The series took her light and humor and caring and turned her into a Arthurian quest object and not in a way that I like. The same could be said Naruto Uzumaki in so many and slightly more tolerable ways. He also faced isolation, loneliness and dealt with being misunderstood for years (Yeah, I was angsty kid…am still an angsty adult. Don’t judge me.). But instead of becoming a monster like Gaara did or a non-committal forest dweller like Sasuke, Naruto decided to be as kind as possible: he wanted to treat everyone in a way that he never was treated and dammit that was inspirational as a teenager.
But it may be all of the reasons listed above that I tend to love villains and antagonists so much. I’ve mentioned before that most of the development and tension goes to the antagonist, leaving some rather bland female characters in its wake. It’s Vegeta in Dragon Ball Z who gets the character arc and has to change his views the most. It’s Sasuke in Naruto who gets the arc of redemption and then the very quick ignoring of that redemption to continue to be a forest jerk. It’s the antagonist that has to learn a lesson and there’s something that set up that is very appealing to me. What lesson does Luffy learn in One Piece? No lesson. Not a damn one. But you bet your ass that the rest of the cast learned plenty of lessons like not trusting Luffy to do anything. I find a story of learning, accepting and/or rebellion far more compelling than a Jerry Stu main character learning no lessons and getting to continue through a series with little to no meaning consequences or tension.
But you’re not here to listen to me talk about compelling characters and storylines. You’re here to listen to me rant about villains and why I chose the dark side. I’ve had a predilection for villains and villainy since I was a little. My dad famously learned Jesse’s side of the Team Rocket motto for me so I could be James. I fawned over Prince Vegeta when he was first show in Dragon Ball Z as a villain (a sign my family should have probably taken note of) and really if you think about it the roots of modern fangirl me as linked to my obsession of Lord Sesshomaru and Master Naraku from InuYasha. Why do I love villains so much? Am I just an edgelord? Well, maybe. But rude of you to assume that. Yes, it doesn’t help that I’m a bit of an angsty human creature but the real reason I love villains goes back to a point I made earlier. The villain also gets to learn a lesson. For some reason, villains are just better written. Let’s go to a series I could probably talk about forever Cowboy Bebop for an example. Vicious (literally his name) is one of the most compelling villains in anime ever and his motivations while shoestring thin are enough for you to understand his goal, reasoning and methodology. He is the perfect foil to the main protagonist, Spike, and his design, voice acting and overall manner in the show make him one of the most interesting characters in the entire series. Vicious also gets to live such a full life in the series but one of so many questions and mysteries. Why did he sleep with Julia? What is his relationship if at all to Gren? Why does he have a mythical dragon raven? Those questions are never resolved and never will be thus creating one of the best anime villains in my opinion ever.
The villains get the long-con plans. The villains get the cool dramatic music but the villains most importantly get to let their emotions show. Naraku’s plan is literally to ruin one relationship because Kikyo wouldn’t date him that one time. Aizen’s plan is to become a god because reasons. The villains get to be irrational, angry, melodramatic and sad. Villains get to throw over tables, lash out when angry and break things when plans go awry. Who else gets to be that emotional? And sure, some villains are stoic. Aizen almost never lets that same smug smile leave his face. Vicious is a great marble statue of angst and anger. But so many other fantastic anime and even movie and comic book villains get to have so much fun. When I first started my jaunt as an in character cosplayer I had so much more fun playing antagonists and villains because of how emotional and outrageous they could be. Oh the photo-shoots.
Only Yuki Kitazawa could make 10 U.S. dollars a terrifying object. Only Frieza could demand so much physically from Goku and his group of mostly useless friends. Only Envy and the rest of the Homunculi could make Edward question his morals in such a way. And while we’re talking about Fullmetal Alchemist, let’s think of Shou Tucker. Dr. Tucker is a madman but what’s terrifying is when he starts to make sense. He makes obvious comparisons to himself and Edward despite still being an objectively awful human being was a perfect counterpoint for the main characters and the main plot. And even though he really only appears for like…2 episodes, think of how much of an impact he leaves on the series. He is then a constant reminder or what not to be as an alchemist, as a creator or as a man. And that may be the best thing about villains: they show you what not to be. Ever want to learn a strong lesson? Look at a villain and say “Probably shouldn’t do that.” Don’t try and be an Aizen, be an Urahara. Don’t be a Naraku, be Miroku (Scratch that, just go for Koga. Aspire for that.).
That was a lot, wasn’t it? Next time, we’ll talk about cinnamon rolls, earned romance and when a character gets exactly what they deserve.