I think if we talked about some of our favorite characters, and why we liked them, each of us would cite different reasons, but I also suspect that there may be an underlying principle or two that explain why we like specific characters, in general.
In one sense, we like characters that remind us of ourselves, but if that was the entire answer then specific characters wouldn’t enjoy such wide appeal. I think part of the answer lies in a quote, “We like people for their strengths, but we love them for their flaws.”
Within the context of this conversation I’m going to define strength as “any aspect of a person’s physical, mental, or emotional status that makes a task easier to accomplish.” In turn, weakness will be defined as “any aspect of a person’s physical, mental, or emotional status that makes a task more difficult to accomplish.”
Strength represents the realization of an ideal, the means to grow and achieve our goals. Through growth we prove that we can change and control our own fate. By accomplishing goals we’re able to extend what’s possible, reinforcing the idea that anything is possible.
Many performing arts, including professional sports, are rooted in showing us the incredible potential one person has. Watching someone else demonstrate their strength, it’s easy to marvel at what they can do, and maybe wonder “Could I do that?”
Stories allow us to indulge in the fantasy of being someone else. We can be as strong, intelligent, and skilled as we could ever want. When the character triumphs over obstacles and wins the day, we celebrate with them. (Some fans have been known to celebrate a team’s victory by saying “We won” instead of “They won”.)
Humans yearn to be strong, and admire those who are strong. Strength helps us achieve our goals, gives us a sense of purpose and value, and it helps us reaffirm beliefs that are central to our own identity.
Everyone has secret struggles, things they hide, sometimes even from themselves. Everyone has moments of weakness, but no one likes to admit to them. So we pretend. We act stronger than we feel, forcing a smile because we want to appear strong. But sometimes the mask falls away.
It’s a difficult thing, letting others see that you’re weak and vulnerable. You never know how they’ll respond. They might mock you, reaffirming the secret fear that “you should be stronger”, or they may simply turn away, invoking the fear of rejection. For many that’s the real fear, being rejected by those we care about. Revealing your weaknesses to someone can be very difficult, but choosing to do so can be its own feat of strength, just as receiving that knowledge can be both a burden and a gift.
Weakness is a burden, but it’s one we all carry. Sometimes the weight of it can wear us down, but sharing with others helps us to remember that we’re not alone in our struggles. However, knowing about someone else’s weaknesses often carries an implied obligation to help them in their struggles. In that regard stories have a unique advantage. When a character shares their weaknesses with the audience, we get to enjoy the same comforting reminder that we’re not alone, and experience the same feelings of empathy and connection, without any expectations or obligations to respond.
Combining Strength & Weakness
People sympathize with those who struggle with weakness, but weakness is a burden, and no one wants to carry that all the time. A good example would be Dobby from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. When he’s first introduced he is a miserable character, easily moved to tears and frequently hurting himself. Only the brevity of his appearances prevent him from weakening the story as a whole.
People look up to those who are strong, but strength can also make a character distant and difficult to connect with. Sherlock Holmes, for example, is a character with such intellectual prowess that it makes him almost inhuman, difficult to connect with.
The key to good storytelling is uncertainty. The belief that the protagonist can fail is what gives their victory its value. This is why I think the most potent characters alternate between both weakness and strength. For example, Kelsier and Vin, from Mistborn, one of my favorite stories.
At the beginning of the story Kelsier is a legend, a force of nature. At first I watched in awe as Kelsier performs amazing feats with apparent ease, but gradually I realized how much skill it took to do what Kelsier did, and I learned how much he struggled behind that smile.
Vin is the complete opposite. She starts off as a scrawny street urchin who struggles just to survive, but gradually she grows, becoming just as strong as Kelsier, and yet, in spite of all that strength, she’s still an insecure young woman, struggling with issues of identity and self-worth.
I admired them both for their strength, but I admired them even more because of how hard they worked to achieve it. I sympathized with their weakness, but also respected them because they refused to let weakness define them, while also accepting that it was a part of them. It’s through characters like Vin & Kelsier that I feel we’re reminded that “strength is not the absence of weakness,” and that we could become “like them”.
What do others think?
Why do you think you like some characters more than others?
Is there something you consciously look for in your characters?
Is there something subtle that they all have in common?
10 thoughts on “Discussing Why We Like Characters”
I like all sorts of characters but I find characters who are ridiculously self-confident really annoying very quickly, or characters who are very loud. The other things that bothers me are charactes who just behave in unbelieavably stupid ways and they aren’t consistent in their level of stupidity.
Mmm, arrogance is a tough pill to swallow, and I certainly cringe when I feel like a character is more puppet than person.
Out of curiosity, are you familiar with Trigun? If so, what did you make of Vash?
He could certainly act foolish from time to time, but in his case I found it more endearing than annoying.
Are there any examples of characters you really remember fondly?
I hated Vash in the early episodes because he came across as a buffoon. My opinion of the character drastically changed once his backstory was revealed. Sometimes it’s not the personality that makes you like a character, but experiencing their journey.
I absolutely love Vash. Admittedly, the first time I watched it through I kind of hated him for about five episodes, and then something happened and I realised he wasn’t as silly as he was pretending to be and by the end of the series I thought he was awesome. Rewatches just make him more fun.
I like way too many characters to even begin to list them.Though probably my favourite character (at least she’s the only one I’ve ever cosplayed as) is Maka from Soul Eater. She likes books, is a hardworker, and is still pretty strong in a fight but isn’t arrogant or loud. Gotta love her.
I can see why some might find Vash irritating at first. I think part of the reason it worked for me was because right from the get go I got the impression that his antics were, at least in part, a coping mechanism, and I can relate to that. Sometimes, once in a great while, I need to act a bit foolish, as a kind of pressure release valve, and I sensed it was the same for him, this sortof aggressive insistence on not letting the darker aspects pull him down. In some ways it reminds me of Kelsier from Mistborn, or Chichiri from Mysterious Play. I’ve always had a soft spot for characters who treat being cheerful like its own form of rebellion or resistance.
But that’s probably a prime example of how who we perceive a character to be has more to do with us than the characters themselves.
Adding Mistborn to my TBR. Looks like a long read, but a story I’m interested in. I tend to be interested in characters who start from nothing. The struggle gives so much motivation. Such as Vin.
If you like the first I’d keep going through Well of Ascension and Hero of the Ages.
Definitely going to check those two out. I haven’t read books that are as lengthy as these, but it’s good to try something new.
I really like characters that aren’t perfect, but with flaws and weaknesses that we can relate to. A character that isn’t wishy washy, but very well developed. I don’t have a habit of hating many characters, but one that does come to mind is Celaena from the Throne of Glass series. Her character, though many have said she gets better, is very annoying to me since she changes personalities multiple times throughout the book to be the “perfect” person. Characters like that, who try to be everything, end up being very disappointing.
Mmm. And at a certain point it makes one wonder who the real person is underneath all those masks. Of course sometimes a character like that can be engaging, if the story makes that question “Who are you when you’re not trying to please others” a central thread for that character.
It’s certainly an interesting challenge.
I’m reminded of how one of my instructors encouraged us to read really bad fiction, citing that many aspects of good storytelling are so dominant that they become invisible, but as storytellers we need to sensitize ourselves to those elements. It was interesting. Some of it seemed to go without saying, like consistent motives for characters, but others were more subtle, like how cutting to a later scene, with the same character, can sometimes feel like the character didn’t have enough time to cover that distance, even though a time skip can cover any length of time. It was very interesting.