Backpedaling on Characterization

First impressions count for a lot, even in fictional media. The way a character is first introduced to us is going to play a big role in how we perceive that person, how we feel about them. Especially when that character intrudes on an existing dynamic that we enjoy, like a new romantic rival complicating a destined love. However, even more frustrating than a bad first impression is when writers introduce a character, only to then later backpedal from that introduction.

PHOTO: Mikan taunts Asahi with copies of an article she has written about him.

This came to mind while watching My Monster Secret due to Mikan Akemi. She is first introduced as the ruthless rumormonger that runs the school’s newspaper. She is a self-crowned Queen of Evil, who is willing to shatter any moral barrier to get her stories. She’ll bully and humiliate people by way of interrogation and actively revels in the emotional response she gets from those whose secrets she exposes.

That’s a pretty wild personality and I actually quite like it. I think eccentric characters like this are a field in which anime truly outclasses other media. Except, something weird happens in the episodes that follow Mikan’s introduction.

The Queen of Evil is brought down. In just a few episodes, Mikan goes from being a heartless journalist to being just another meek anime girl for the bog-standard harem. She mellows out, immediately stops caring about rumors and other people’s secrets, and becomes self-conscious about how people perceive her. The transformation is complete and the end result is… generic anime girl #86813.

PHOTO: A flustered Mikan speaking to Asahi and Youko.

Don’t mistake this as me lamenting the existence of character development, by the way. Of course it’s a good thing when characters go through an arc, even if that arc drastically changes their original appeal. Villains turning into good guys has been a favorite trope of mine for a long time. But there is a difference between following a character’s arc and just seeing elements of a character’s personality being packed up and shipped away. The latter is a whole lot less engaging.

Similar backpedaling can be observed in other series as well. Kaere Kimura from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei was first established as having a “bilingual” personality disorder, causing her to switch between two identities. This happens a few times in her introductory episode and then never comes back up again. Another example close to my heart would be Tokyo Mew Mew, where love interest Masaya Aoyama is quick to drop his hardline environmentalist stance after episode 1.

Or just think of all the barebones tsundere archetypes that dropped any pretenses of hostility as early as possible.

PHOTO: Ichigo arriving on a date with Oayama while it's raining in the background.

My theory is that this happens for two main reasons. Firstly, most stories aren’t yet set in stone at the start. Especially in a medium as serialized as anime and manga, details about the story and characters within it are going to change as a work picks up steam. The initial ideas that an author started out with might not work out as expected. You can either stubbornly stick with your mistakes or correct course so you end up where you wanted to be, even if through a different route.

The second reason is that treading on toes is just kind of scary. It’s a weird experience to write a character knowing that audiences will resent them, especially when you plan to later redeem them or explain their reasoning. In the face of the audience’s scorn, it may be comfortable to retreat to the safe confines of well-known stereotypes. Why not skip all that tough characterization stuff so you can get to the good part early?

PHOTO: Officers pulling Bittenfeld off of Oberstein after an altercation in an office.

The answer is obvious: because it just isn’t as memorable. Legends aren’t forged through easy solutions. So while an inoffensive, basic character might be serviceable, anyone looking to write the next Zuko or Oberstein shouldn’t be cowed when audiences don’t immediately embrace the character.

3 thoughts on “Backpedaling on Characterization

  1. I totally agree, characters that have really strong personalities, unfortunately, often get toned down pretty quickly. Yes it makes the character easier to work with as a writer, but it makes them a lot less interesting!

  2. The tengu character “Jiro” from Kamisama Kiss. He starts out as an uncompromising, violent leader, but he mellows out pretty quick! This change happened fast enough that it doesn’t really feel like true character development.

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