So since last time I talked about some of my favourite villains, I thought I’d dedicate this post to some of my other favourite characters who aren’t total assholes. Looking through my list, however, I discovered that not one person on there was without flaw or shade of darkness in any form, and I decided that perhaps devoting a post simply to “good” characters would be too blasé.
I mean, where’s the depth and intrigue? I would rather talk about something I noticed while reviewing my favourite fictional persons, which is that a lot of them seem to change a lot over the course of their respective stories. So maybe I’m interested less in their characters and more in their character development.
This is something that is so very, very good when done well and so very, very sad when… not. Some writers are just flat-out afraid to change the mould of their characters, maybe, I don’t know, in fear of an audience’s negative reaction to the “new” them? But that’s what people do, they grow and change, especially when faced with epic adventures and other, you know, life-changing stuff that fiction often throws unceremoniously into the faces of its patrons. And it’s always a gradual process; change of character cannot simply happen overnight and be chucked to the audience.
So this is a post dedicated to some of my favourite characters, not necessarily all good but all interesting, and all the product of well-done character development.
Katara (Avatar: The Last Airbender): Took a Level in Leadership
The writing in this show makes me weep rainbows but I’m going to zero in on one particular little gem in its crown of awesome. Katara first appears to us as innocent and hopeful, placing her faith in forgotten powers and myths. She’s attempting to learn the art of waterbending, the manipulation of water as a martial art (and healing process, but more on that later), despite being the last one with those powers and that belief in her clan.
Is she merely a docile, wide-eyed hopeful who shows the viewer the fantasy world they have stumbled into through her naïve eyes? No. Even before she took a level in badass she had personality; she was hot-tempered and keen to stick up for what was right, even if her judgement was somewhat clouded, she was compassionate and caring, but not because it was the only thing she had going for her.
Something I do like about the handling of Katara is that she is shown to have some typical girly tastes, such as liking jewellery, being obsessed with her future and wanting to know who she’s going to marry, and blushing over suave freedom fighters with cool names, but this doesn’t plant her as the damsel of the group, even though for the first season she’s the only recurring female on board the good guys’ team.
She grows from being very unsure of herself to being not only a master waterbender but a motherly figure to the Avatar’s gang and in many ways the one that holds a lot of them together. She confronts her inner demons, making mistakes along the way, but always staying true to herself, once she figures out what that really means and matures into a young woman rather than just the helpless little girl stuck at the South Pole. And, over the course of three seasons, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
Homura Akemi (Puella Magi Madoka Magica): Took a Level in Badass
Madoka Magica has some very good main characters, and to be honest it’s a tie between Homura and Sayaka as my favourite, but I figure Homu-Homu has more to talk about here, even if it does contain MASSIVE SPOILERS EVERYBODY RUN AWAY NOW.
Homura is an excellent example of the “see how we got here” kind of storytelling. Re-watching this series is endless fun because suddenly everything makes sense omigawd and also you can, having discovered the backstory of one particular reoccurring, mysterious character, view and appreciate them in new ways with their added depth.
We meet Homura as a mysterious, stoic badass who seems cold and distant and set on a hidden goal. Late in the series, in flashbacks, we are introduced to a stranger who is meek and uncertain, fragile and down on herself. Surely these two girls can’t be the same?
As we discover, with the help of a self-esteem boost from a friend that she makes, the strangely cute and emotive alternate Homura comes to see more in herself, and in return for that, decides to essentially sell her soul in exchange for the chance to turn back time and stop that friend from dying.
Intense crap already, right? It’s a noble thing, but the immediate question is, if she could have wished for anything, why didn’t she simply wish to bring said friend back to life? Well, nobody’s perfect, and no one thinks clearly when their best friend is lying lifeless in front of them, and Homura makes what is ultimately a foolish decision, which is fundamentally the point of the show. But the interesting part is what happens in the wake of this wish.
Homura travels back in time, creating an alternate universe (or something??) and redeeming her chance to save her friend’s life. However, things go notably pear-shaped, so she turns back time again… and again… and again…
Suddenly, the stoic badass we recognise from the start of the series makes a lot of sense, considering the events that she has lived through. Like a punch in the heart, the viewer falls in love with the complexity hidden away beneath her stony exterior.
Dorian Gray (that book named after him, duh): Took a Level in Corrupt
Faustian stories interest me, okay?
When you first meet Dorian Gray, as he’s having the titular picture painted of him, he’s the most adorable little critter you ever laid eyes on. He’s wide-eyed and naïve and rather sweet, full of the bloom of youth.
Like these other two, he grows up fairly rapidly. But it doesn’t take too good a turn.
The reader observes his descent into decadence and corruption, as his once-cute vanity becomes all-consuming and his pride becomes the thing that is propelling him through his now-everlasting life. This is, of course, demonstrated in the portrait, which first smirks maliciously, then has blood on its hands, then degrades into full on deformed, decrepit monster mode.
It drives the reader to ask… what twists a man’s personality this way? Can the flames of pride, fanned by flattery, really engulf a person so much as to lead to, in essence, their degradation as a human being and into a psychopath who cares not for anyone, not even the friends that put him on the pedestal in the first place?
See what I mean about this not being a list of “good” characters? Dorian’s a regimented evil asshole. But he wasn’t always. And that is what makes him interesting.
Good characters are not always good people, nor are they always clean and clear: they are flawed, messed up, broken, and how they deal with that and the other things they face in their own universes is what defines them.
I could go on forever, of course (don’t get me started on any of the brilliant messes F. Scott Fitzgerald conjures up, or the Firefly crew, or the other characters of Black Butler, because we will be here until the collapse of the internet) but this has gone on for sufficiently long and my feels have leaked into cyberspace enough for one week.