When Character Development Pisses Me Off…

Sometimes a great story pisses me off because of one little thing. The fly in the ointment.

L stands for Lame

When we’re talking about a movie or a TV show, there is more room, more possibilities to annoy. With a written piece, at the very most, the pensmanship can get in the way. In an anime it can go from terrible music to voice acting to an odd character design.

But there is something worse than all of that. Something much more fundamental. In fact, nothing pisses me off more than a strawman that is not only not disguised, but obviously elevated, highlighted, and having neon lights pointing at it, saying “LOL WATCH MY CARTHARTIC MOMENT 20 EPISODES LATER!” that is typical of the mainstream, serious genre of action and drama. It’s like the show first kicks me in the groin and then reassures me I’ll feel better after I finish the show. Right.

What do I mean by that? Like Ed from FMA; or Light from the recent favorite Death Note. I’m going to use these two as examples, but there are many more out there. I’m also going to contrast it with an example to the contrary, like Yoko from Twelve Kingdoms.

Let’s look at Light first. He is passionate about his notion of justice and his notion of idealism, but obviously out of boredom he takes those ideas way too far. As the main character, his drama will drive the story as well as the various themes to the show. These motivations are fine and all, but I think every time when he mentions anything about crime, punishment, or justice, a little bit of me died inside BECAUSE IT IS SO DUMB.

To dwell on this point a little more, when I said strawman a few paragraphs up there, I mean it exactly that. The writer to the story sets up a character or a symbolic concept within the story that mirrors a position on a grey, moral issue. However when it’s established in a “round” character, this character has to grapple with this position and over the course of the story, change his opinion on this moral position and gain a better understanding behind the overall topic. The writer, knowing that there will be this change, will often set up the main character on a basis that is outright wrong, or overly idealistic or emotional, because this position is just a strawman for the story to attack and abandon later on.

Likewise in FMA, as the story progresses, Ed learns more about what his world is all about, and uncovers things that changes his understanding. Yep. OHNOES SCIENCE > J00? Give me a break.

On the other hand, Yoko Nakajima, as we all know, is kind of this sheltered girl with the same problems similar to Light’s problems. The differences in their abilities may give them different reasons to respond to the same, commonly critiqued Japanese school life experience, but both are annoying characters at first. I think Light goes as far as to embrace from one bad stereotype (the phony, perfect good-doer) to a worse one (a remorseless criminal), while Yoko goes from one common stereotype (whiny, irresponsible girl) to something that’s much more “well rounded”–a person who knows her place and has her moment of carthasis.

Of course, it’s expected that Light will run into the same, and Death Note is just building it up; but when the bulk of the story is about Macbeth fighting off his eventual fate rather than his spiraling down into corruption, to draw a parallel example, it acts as if the story is walking away from resolution and into the void. There is nothing that holds me to be sympathetic to Light. Yoko, on the other hand, is a mostly-helpless girl in a strange land and has to fight to survive, and she wises up accordingly.

To sum it up:

1. Hubris is to be realized over time, not explained from the onset.

2. Sympathy is important if you want the audience to care.

Of course, the fact that both Death Note and Full Metal Alchemist are very popular shows would suggest that my view is wrong, or a minority view. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, of course, since both shows boast large marketing efforts, high production value, as well as interesting plots, set-up, and secondary characters. But I just can’t get past the highly artificial, semi-predictable, kick in the groin. It’s sooooo 3rd rate. It’s what you expect from crappy Hollywood summer blockbuster-wannabes.


8 Responses to “When Character Development Pisses Me Off…”

  • tiggerosx

    You probably should google these things before ranting about them.

  • TheBigN

    I guess it could be said that many writers don’t know how to make a character start out “in the middle” on everything without making them seem charismatic or enjoyable in some way. A exagerrated belief/reaction/action that the main character has at the beginning is a selling point, perhaps? It reminds me how also disliked Ed’s over the top reaction to short jokes… :3

  • tj han

    I’m no DN fanboy who’ll surely attack you, but Light is no round character. I place him under the psycho category.

  • reslez

    Give me a break — you’re comparing apples and elephants. Twelve Kingdoms is your typical yawn-inducing “high school girl becomes queen of a fantasy kingdom” nonsense. Any alleged character growth Yoko undergoes consists of the most cursory, cliche steps imaginable. Yoko is your average shounen hero, albeit she happens to be a girl. I’m not saying it’s a bad series, I’m saying the character progression is very cliche. To compare Twelve Kingdoms to Death Note is highly questionable. Death Note is the story of an anti-hero. Or, if you prefer, it’s a story told from the antagonist’s point of view. The real protagonist of Death Note is L, and the dilemma he grapples with is whether Kira’s actions are in any way redeemable. This has nothing to do with Light’s eventual fate; he’s doomed from the moment he kills Lind L. Tailor in episode 2 (or chapter 2 or whatever you prefer). There is no moral ambiguity possible after this step, and since it happens so early in the series I don’t see where you have cause for complaint. Death Note never promised anything else — it tells you right from the start that it’s a tale of cat vs mouse. You’re not supposed to be rooting for Light, but you are supposed to occasionally wonder, like L, if you would go as far if you had your own Death Note. Essentially, Death Note is a detective story told from the kiler’s point of view. (Are you rooting for the killer? Bad kitty.) As for FMA — I don’t really want to get into it since I’ve written so much here already, but if you didn’t enjoy the series out of some mere dislike of the science vs alchemy allegory, I guess it’s your loss.

  • omo

    >> You probably should google these things before ranting about them.

    I think the points I raise are nonetheless valid. A grammar check probably also goes with that, though.

    >> you’re comparing apples and elephants

    I guess I should’ve used Monster or something? The exact the same point I raised with Yoko apply between the all three characters, Light, Johan, and Yoko. And I guess that’s why I threw Macbeth in there, for safe measures? Oh wait, comparing Shakespearean characters with third-rate anime weeaboo favorites is like comparing apple and elephants.

    I’ll just say now that my opinion are as well founded as someone who’s only seen the first handful/read the first handful of episodes/chapters of both FMA and Death Note, so take it as you like it.

  • wontaek

    @ reslez

    >> Any alleged character growth Yoko undergoes consists of the most cursory, cliche steps imaginable.

    If it is all cliche, would you care to list them and the similar example from other novel/manga/anime/movie/etc.? Have you consider the fact that you have described Yoko as average shounen hero and the probelm of gender inequity and prejudice in Far East Asia?

  • omo

    I think what reslez meant was that Yoko was developed in a way that is consistent with a lot of the “shounen hero” characters as far as her progression is concerned. It’s a very different thing if you want to compare the specifics, as you imply.

    I’m not sure just how cliche Twelve Kingdoms is when you compare it not with other high-fantasy pieces with the same ancient China motif, though. Off the bat I can’t name an anime with a “shounen hero” like Yoko, but there may be one or two.

  • wontaek

    >>> Off the bat I can’t name an anime with a “shounen hero” like Yoko, but there may be one or two.

    Maybe Devil Hunter Yohko (OAV)? [:)]

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