Exploring my favorite aspect and part in the stories I read or watch.
We are surrounded by story after story from the moment we’re born until the moment we die. Whether it is a book, a movie, a painting, a poem, a play, or a show, each is filled with new settings, conflicts, and boundaries. But what beats at the heart of every story is a message that is the author’s reason for creating that form. The most prominent vehicle for such messages, though, is clear: humanity. Stories, plays, paintings, and shows all work to show the human experience through the various characters they introduce. We learn their backstory’s, personalities, dreams, and desires and we see how they view and interact with the world. As it happens in reality, in story, the various worlds of characters interact and often cause tension through this collision.
Hero against villain, brother against brother, friend against friend, parent against child; they are reflections of our own world situations that are repeated time and time again and so, due to this, we wish to see depth within the characters shown. A two-dimensional character, especially the main one, can leave a story feeling lackluster and worthless no matter how well done the world setting is. Sometimes, just a simple line or two can create that sense of depth in a character- this happens often in the real world when we meet someone new and immediately create a mental picture of who they are upon the way they act and what they say, deciding whether we like them or not. In terms of characterizations, the main character is essential for this character will be the audience’s eyes and ears in this new world. Unconsciously, the audience will view the world through the lens that they do, hating the characters they hate and loving the characters they love. This is a natural thing, but can often pose a problem when the main character is unreliable or has a very narrow view regarding the world around them. It’s a slippery slope that the audience must walk: to be dragged into the mindset of the main character or to consistently work to step beyond that border. It is not just the main character that matters, the others all have important roles to play.
While it is important that the main character has depth, if all the rest of the characters are flat and two-dimensional, the audience will lose interest sooner or later. The source of a story’s conflict is predicated on the depth of the character’s involved so if the main character is up against some two-bit, plastic character, they would care about the journey or the resolution because the ending is already decided based on the effort you put in. But, if both the main character and the main antagonist are well thought-out and complex characters, than the audience can’t help but be dragged in to it all, especially if you complicate the matter more by dragging other well-fashioned characters into the situation, weaving a elaborate web of connections.
Of course, the audience will, for the most part, still subconsciously root for the main character regardless of the depth you give the other character’s merely because that is the character they interact with and understand the most. You can use that to your advantage in order to get across the messages you wish to send or even use it to mess with the mindset of your audience, making them question their own beliefs and ideas of the world. A brilliant example of this is in the anime Death Note with the main character, Light Yagami. He is introduced as a normal teenage boy- smart, well-mannered, from a middle-class family, maybe slightly above average but seems to be content with the situation of his life…until he finds the Death Note. Now holding the ability to kill someone with just a scribble of his pen, Light begins to change. He is presented as so similar to us and so like us that we can’t help but like him and feel for him. We hold onto this connection as Light falls further and further into his alterego, Kira, who uses the Death Note to kill criminals who cannot be stopped or caught due to the limits of the law.
At first, we root for him as his actions rapidly reduce crime rate and get rid of men who have done so much harm the world with no true push back. But, a teenage boy holding the power of light and death in his hands? That is a slippery slope. Over time, Light slowly descends into a God Complex, becoming more and more radical and extreme, but justifying it each time. We see the build up and thought processes that go behind the decisions, see the good he is doing, and see why he has done what he has, but over time, we grow unsure and uncomfortable with what we are allowing him to do. It’s an absolutely stunning character degradation that the audience watches as they explore life and death, the limits of the law, the psychology of power, and the realm of morality. By the end of it all, we feel completely torn, our morals completely overturned as Light plunges into practical insanity, having gone to depths that he would have never thought himself possible of. It is masterfully done and is a battle that I always look forward and hope to see in other media- I want authors and illustrators to explore the depths of humanity, to explore right and wrong, to delve into tricky topics like death and crime: I want my world view and idea of humanity to be challenged.
But, this is not just meant to be limited to the main character. A story can grow even more incredible if such complex battles are ascribed to other characters. Take, for instance, the anime the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation. Set in China instead of Japan, we are introduced to a more feudalistic society of cultivators, spirits, and demons with clan politics, war, and deception weaved throughout. The author of the book for this anime, Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, is an absolutely phenomenal author, creating incredibly complex storylines and situations that drag you in to a world of conflict. The main characters arc, alone, is a stunning example of this type of character depth. A man from humble beginnings, Wei Wuxian was taken in by a powerful clan and raised there, learning cultivation. Through various events, war broke out and Wei Wuxian was forced to take drastic matters and became the founder of Demonic Cultivation.
Due to the fact that he was wielding it against the villain of the world, people held their protests and fears back, knowing their chances of winning were hopeless without his demonic powers. But, once that war was won and the common enemy was defeated, tensions rose. By the end of it all, Wei Wuxian was branded a villain, his reputation tarnished and good deeds all but forgotten upon his mysterious death. The series spend much of its time exploring this gap, showing an absolutely stunning breadth of complexity and intrigue. But, what is incredible about this series is that this effort isn’t only focused on Wei Wuxian, but that every character gets the same treatment. They are all so complex and real that it is breathtaking. Which leads me to why I brought this example up: the villains.
There are multiple different villains in this series, but each has clear goals and desires. Wen Ruohan is the head of the Wen Clan, the most powerful of all the clans in China. His goal is to become to leader of all the clans and he sets out to accomplish that through war. Though cruel in his actions, it fits his disposition. He is the perfect example of someone that follows Darwin’s ideas of the Survival of the Fittest. For him, the destruction is not personal(his children on the others hand seem to only focus on the personal…), just political and ‘necessary’. As for the main villain after him? I won’t give that name away as it would be a complete spoiler because the books really act as a ‘whodunit’ kind of thing. That villain does some truly, truly horrendous things in pursuit of their goals. But, as we learn their backstory and reasons for acting that way we begin to understand, not accept their actions as right, but we see how they could’ve been led down the path to do so much evil.
But, my favorite villain of the series is Xue Yang. This man, is a psychopath; a cold blooded killer that delights in murder and destruction on par with Batman’s Joker. He by no means follows the dictates of Hammurabi’s Code: if you take an eye from him, he will go and burn down your entire house and livelihood with a smile on his face and unhinged laughter…And yet, I couldn’t help but see his entire life and story as an absolute tragedy. By the end of his arc, it felt like no matter the outcome, there would be no winner. He is a convoluted mess of emotions, and yet, he is utterly human. He has a heart; the readers see it in the progression of his story, but it has been so buried under pain, hatred, and revenge that it is so weak, yet it is still there. The anime did a stunning job in showing this, but the book goes even farther into showing the depths of his life, psyche, and heart.
He is a psychopath, he has killed dozens of people brutally all for revenge, has taken pleasure in it all- we should be calling for his destruction, and yet…we aren’t…Because for all his darkness, he is still young and has had a pretty awful life with no one to depend on or to support him truly. And right when he gains that support, he starts to flourish and change. The anime gets into this less than the books does, but I think that was due more to a lack of time considering how long and detailed this arc was than true choice. The book shows how, over the years, he stops killing, he tells jokes and stories, he finds a family, he finds a purpose, and he does good. By all accounts, he is a reformed criminal. Yet, he cannot escape his past and Fate, the cruel mistress it is, drags that past over to meet him and he loses it all again in the most terrible way imaginable to the point that your heart aches.
His story is the epitome of a Tragedy because, for all his faults and darkness, we feel for him due to just how human he is. That is what makes a story worthwhile; creating characters that look, feel, think, and act as humans so completely that we fall for it deeply and find ourselves within them. Through their journey, we explore our own ideas and worldviews, see what we hold dear and what matters to us. That is, truly, my favorite thing of reading: exploring characters and finding the humanity within them no matter who they are and allowing that humanity to change us in new and radical ways. For that, in my mind, is the true purpose of stories: to create change those who deign to read and immerse themselves within; that truly makes a story a masterpiece.