On the Necessity of Character Development in Anime

That title is too fancy for me. It sounds like a research paper. This is not going to be anything close to a research paper. If you print it out I guess it could technically qualify as “paper”, that’s as close as we’re going to get.

Some of my readers may know that I am a fan of “characters”. I generally tend to enjoy character-driven stories more than plot-driven ones (although a good plot will easily win me over). I will happily put up with a stupid or even boring premise of it comes with good characters. I generally enjoy when a narrative can use characters to make its point rather than exposition or events.

As such I will occasionally gush and praise character development or fault characters for lack thereof. It’s not an uncommon practice. Using how well a character is developed throughout a series of how established their character arcs are to review them is something most critics (and lowly reviewers) do at some point.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Seeing a character grow and learn before our eyes can be very rewarding and certainly encourages viewers to get attached. But I personally don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. What I mean is that you can have great characters that remain completely consistent, never-changing much at all throughout a series as long as they are properly established.

rui-gatchaman-crowds-04-1
Rui is a wonderful character

One of the mistakes I constantly make is to use the expression “a character is not developed enough” when I really mean that they are not “defined” or “established” clearly enough. I don’t actually mean they haven’t grown emotionally or intellectually enough, I simply mean that we either don’t know enough about them, or the information we get is too inconsistent for me to get a complete mental image of who the character is as a person. Which makes me less likely to sympathize with them.

That’s something I’m going to try to fix. I know I can be imprecise in my reviews but I am learning, slowly. Hah! Character development!

It took me a while to come up with a proper example of a good static character. I thought of Izaya from Durarara or Hisoka from Hunter x Hunter. These characters are sensibly the same at the *end* of their respective series as they were at the beginning. Both are fan favourites, both are well defined and unusual characters and both are antagonists with limited screen time so I felt that it may not illustrate my point as well.

We don’t expect the same things from casual antagonists since their plot role is so precise. Generally, as long as they serve their function well, the rest is easy to overlook.

black clovr ignore
overlook..willfully ignore…same thing

After some searching which consisted of me staring at my bookcases (my books and manga are all mixed together), I came up with a decent answer. L from Death Note.

I have researched popular opinion on anime characters before. L was consistently in the top 3 and usually at the top of “best” character lists. He and the franchise he belongs to is well-known enough to have spurred a variety of adaptations (I have only seen the Japanese movies) and the common measure of success is how well did the adaptation manages to capture L’s character. For the record, I’m also full of affection for the selfish weirdo.

However, L is in most ways a “static” character. He remains very true to who he is at the core and events around him have very little sway. It’s part of his character in fact. If you’ve ever sought out spin-offs that feature L’s adventures before Hyuk decided he needed a little more excitement in his life, you may have noticed that L is pretty much “L”. His is largely the exact same person with the same priorities, beliefs and reactions that he had in Death Note.

Death Note L
we can’t hold phones like this anymore

Basically, L doesn’t change but everything else changes around him. Rapidly and drastically, which forces our unchanging L to adjust and survive in new circumstances. The beauty of the character is not is seeing him come into his own or slowly become something else. It’s in getting to know a fully realized character, that happens to be very quirky and interesting, and seeing that character react in all sorts of circumstances while remaining perfectly realized.

I would have a very had time telling you which I like best. Learning and changing alongside a protagonist or discovering them thoroughly and seeing what they would do in all sorts of instances. From my highly unscientific looking at my shelves research, I would say characters with strong arcs seem more common but that can also be a factor of the types of stories I personally enjoy. I have a lot of hero’s journey narratives and they almost impose character evolution.

The only thing I know for sure is that I really enjoy it when a character has a satisfying arc but I don’t need one to enjoy the character. How about you?

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Contributed by Irina
from I Drink And Watch Anime!

7 thoughts on “On the Necessity of Character Development in Anime

  1. I think plot and premise can do much of the heavy lifting if it is done extremely well, but solid character development, or at least characters who endear themselves to the viewer make a show even better.

    How NOT to Summon a Demon Lord doesn’t really have that much character development, but the cast is so lovable and fun that you don’t really notice it. On the flip side, Tohru from Fruits Basket so far seems to be the shows weak link, and I honestly feel she needs more development, despite the rest of the cast being superb.

    1. I think you can gave fantastic characters without them needing a specific development arc. A lot of character driven shows are centered on well crafted static characters. Development gets more important when you have hero journey arcs.

  2. So I’m not sure if I’m as much of a character person as you are. I do love a good character driven story (for some reason Honey and Clover immediately comes to mind here), but I’m OK with characters that are painted in fairly wide strokes (Kill la Kill, Gurren Lagan).

    That said, I think having a main character that doesn’t change at all is a sign of a fairly shallow story. If the main character is never morally challenged or even physically challenged, then there isn’t really much of a place for a show to go.

    I mean the protagonist’s decisions really need to move the show forward, otherwise the show is just happening to them. That’s what makes shows like Eva frustrating for people, is that the show is effectively happening to Shinji.

    Anyways those are some rambling thoughts.

  3. Being that my favorite anime genre is slice-of-life, I’m often watching shows in which there is much more character exposition than development–and that’s perfectly OK! To contrast just two of my very favorite shows, Usagi Drop is story-driven and heavy on character development, while Non Non Biyori is character-driven with very little character development (but lots of exposition). And both represent slice-of-life at its finest.

  4. I actually wrote about this phenomenon way back when (pardon my shill):
    https://carnivorouslreviews.wordpress.com/2018/12/14/do-characters-really-need-growth-to-be-good-characters/

    To summarize my thoughts, I don’t believe it’s necessary for EVERY character to develop. As you mentioned, static characters have a lot of value too.

    Imo, static characters work great as a measuring tool for the other characters. How they respond to the static character at the start of the series compared to the end can say a lot about the changes that they had to undergo.

    Also, static characters could simply be just characters that already HAD their character development. Lots of parents in anime don’t “get development”, but really, do they need to?

I'd love to know what you think.

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