What Makes a “Good” Character?

GTO_manga
Great Teacher Onizuka is a Japanese shōnen manga written and illustrated by Tooru Fujisawa.

This is a revision of an article I initially published on my previous blog several years ago, in which I questioned what we mean when we say a character is “good”.

In that article, I introduced everyone to the main character of Great Teacher Onizuka. If you are familiar with Japanese pop culture in any way, you might already be well acquainted. My introduction to this series (which was originally published as manga, but later adapted to anime, TV live-action, and film due to its enormous popularity) was in Sapporo during Yuki Matsuri. We had already seen everything there was to see of the ice sculptures and shows during the day, and we needed to warm up again before hitting the night festivities. While lounging in the hotel room, I was flipping channels to see what Hokkaido TV had to offer, when I found the TV series. I had heard of the manga and anime, but I missed the original airing of the live action TV show, so I was delighted to run into reruns like this.

If you’re not familiar, let me briefly explain this is a high school drama/comedy. Imagine, if you will, a former member of the Japanese mafia (yakuza) wanting to become a teacher. He was a trouble maker in school, has a police record, and took 7 years to complete his education at a not so reputable university. He didn’t pass the teacher’s exam, but a private school is looking to hire. So he goes for the interview and is rejected by the head teacher, but then is hired by the school director after she witnesses how he handles an unexpected disciplinary incident while he’s there. She hires him on one condition: he is to carry his resignation in his coat pocket at all times and be ready to hand it over if he ever hurts one of the students. Then, unknown to him, she gives him the worst class in the school to see if he can straighten them out.

This disciplinary crisis that occurred while he was present involved two expelled students chasing the head teacher with a baseball bat and threats. But he ended up siding with the students after the head teacher called them trash and gave Onizuka permission to rough them up because they would only continue to cause trouble if they were let go. Needless to say, using karate on the head teacher stunned the students, the director, and everyone else witnessing the incident, but his point was clear. It’s because of adults like that, that kids fail. And if that’s the way this school was going to be, he didn’t want any part of it.

Onizuka often resorts to violence like that to solve his problems. He is a pervert, too, always watching adult videos, always trying to get a peek at the girls’ panties beneath their school skirts. He’s a slob. He’s a slacker. He’s reckless and takes unnecessary risks with other people’s lives and his own. To say he is an unconventional teacher is an understatement. At a glance, and even after watching the series, one might come away from this character thinking, “How in the world is this guy regarded as such a hero?”
Many times, people expect characters, protagonists in particular, to be good role models. The thing is, often good role models are not good characters. I forget who said it, but a quote comes to mind. To paraphrase: “A man’s flaws are often the most interesting thing about him.” When we read stories, we expect them to be interesting, not necessarily realistic. Onizuka might be a truly horrible concept for a teacher in real life. But in fiction, he is one hell of an interesting character. Why else would we find ourselves cheering for someone like this while also cringing at his actions?

Here are some thoughts on the matter.

 

1. It’s fiction.
All of fiction is fantasy, even the “slice of life” type, literary genre dramas. Romance is fantasy. Cop shows are fantasy. Even horror and tragedy are fantasy; they just don’t end with happily ever afters. But ALL of fiction has the potential to offer us something that’s unlikely to happen in real life. Moralization is not the point of fiction. Fiction can teach us, but its primary purpose is simply to entertain us while reflecting the best and worst attributes among humanity. Fiction is the study of the human condition, good and bad. So before anyone starts wagging fingers at Onizuka-sensei for being a horrible role model who unrealistically inspires everyone around him to greatness, step back and get a grip on reality. Remember, we’re talking about a fictional fantasy here. For better or worse, the impossible becoming possible touches something in our souls. In fiction, anything is possible … and that is usually why we enjoy reading it.

2. Not all protagonists are meant to save the world.
Think about it. Most protagonists actually do end up as heroes. It’s very stereotypical when you realize just how many times in fiction our world has been saved by good-looking people with positive attitudes, strong morals, and the blessings of the gods. Ironically, many readers relate better with characters who have flaws because perfect people are unrealistic. The reluctant hero, the clutzy hero, and the anti-hero have their stereotypes, too, but sometimes it’s refreshing change of pace to watch the cursed ones struggle with their flaws to find unconventional ways of solving problems. Raising a lowly character to an “I did it in spite of myself!” status usually forces at least some dynamic character growth, but even that isn’t always good. Real humans don’t always have the right answers, either. We disappoint each other quite frequently. But somehow we muddle through, learning from both positive and negative experiences, and life goes on. Fiction is not about creating role models, unless that is the intent of the author. Fiction is about pulling the reader into the lives of the characters so they can tell their tales about what happened to them. Readers may disagree vehemently with the decisions some characters make, but the characters must be allowed to make their own decisions because it’s their story. Readers are not reading about themselves in the protagonist’s role … unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure novel. So, readers and viewers of fiction should not expect fictional characters to reflect their own personal morality. Onizuka often chooses the wrong methods to solve his problems, and they only create more problems. But presenting himself as the perfect role model is not his goal. Helping his students realize “there is no practice for real life” is what motivates him, and he will do whatever he thinks it takes to save each and every one of his homeroom delinquents, even if that means hanging them from rooftops, forcing them to quit school, and allowing bullies to beat the crap out of them.

3. Redemption is a powerful thing.
For a “bad” character to be redeemed in the eyes of the reader, he has to do something right. He has to want to be good, even if he repeatedly fails. He has to have some likable qualities to make us think he’s worth fighting for. For Onizuka-sensei, he has a big heart. He is friendly, funny, often childish, and in many ways childishly naive. He realizes he screwed up when he was younger, so he sincerely wants to prevent other kids from making the same mistakes he did. Now he wants more than anything to be a teacher. He doesn’t hold grudges or pick on people he considers to be at a disadvantage, but he’s crude and firm in a manner that opens “respectable” people’s eyes to their own despicable behavior. He’s optimistic, even when things have gone horribly wrong for him. And as much as he dwells on sex, he’s still a virgin because he’s saving his first time for someone he loves. He even has a special condom marked for the occasion that he frets over when intrusive people get their hands on it and tease him about it. Though he struggles with exam scores, when pushed he studies hard. When all is said and done, he is literally willing to sacrifice his position, even his life, for his students. He not only ends up inspiring each of his students to greatness, but he ends up teaching their parents and his fellow teachers to value the opportunities they have to enlighten the lives of these kids.

 

As a reader I prefer tragic heroes. I find their stories more interesting. As a writer, I’ve discovered how extremely difficult it is to find the right balance when creating protagonists who are meant to be darker characters. Trizryn, the main male protagonist from my Elf Gate series, is definitely in the anti-hero camp, but I’m always looking for ways to inject a little of this into the other characters, as well. I don’t want to write strictly “good” characters, or strictly “bad” characters; I get bored with the predictability of those archetypes. So, Trizryn is the kind of person who will give his life for someone to protect them if he feels they are worth saving. But if you were to threaten whoever he is protecting, he won’t hesitate to destroy you. Is this kind of protagonist common? Yes, actually. But they are not what usually comes to mind when you think of attributes of a hero. The tragic monster, the sympathetic villain, the dark hero … self-contradictory archetypes are often bad role models, but often make the most interesting, “good” characters in fiction.

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2 thoughts on “What Makes a “Good” Character?

  1. This is one of the things I love most about fiction. Human beings often think they are flawless and it’s the other person who has issues, but fiction holds a mirror up to our flaws so we can see them better (hopefully) when we see them reflected in someone else. Flawed, complex, contradictory characters are essential to good stories, imo, because they most accurately reflect the reality of human nature. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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