Box vs Sphere: What is a Well-Developed Character?

What is a one-dimensional character? What is a well-developed character? And how is it that two people viewing the same exact anime can reach entirely different judgments on whether or not its characters feel “real” or not? Those are the questions that have most recently been on my mind.

It makes me ponder the differences in the way people perceive the world and the people around them, as well as how those perceptions are then translated into the world of fiction. What do some people prioritize in their concept and understanding of a “three-dimensional personality” that runs so counter to the opinions and values of others?

Personally speaking, I find characters to be particularly well-developed in personality when I can sense that there is something more to them than what they are saying. It’s not like I want characters who are saying one thing and thinking another, however. It’s more about showing or at least hinting at a thought process behind those words. Genshiken, Eureka Seven, and Toradora! for example are particularly good at this, in that you can see the transmission from personal desire to choice of words getting filtered through the characters’ own personalities and values. But then I know there are plenty of people out there who dislike these series while accusing the shows of the very opposite of why I praise them. So again, what causes this conflict?

Many times when a character is seen as “artificially deep,” the accusation leveled at them is that they are simply there to fulfill a checklist. This isn’t necessarily wrong or unwarranted, and even I’ve used the “checklist” criticism before and have no real regrets doing so, but the question then becomes, how did these checklists form and who is responsible for them? To what extent are those negative checklists generated by one’s own standards of realism and authenticity?

What is more important for a well-developed character, that they start off with an almost palpable personality that reveals a heart and mind in them, or that they grow their hearts and minds over the long term?

What is more important, what you let the audience see, or what you let the audience infer for themselves? If you keep on revealing more and more angles, is the purpose to imply a sphere, or simply a many-sided polygon?

And how much of it is tapping into the familiar vs the unfamiliar?

It’s food for thought I haven’t really digested myself yet.

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13 thoughts on “Box vs Sphere: What is a Well-Developed Character?

  1. Your use of the term “checklist” brings to mind another term: “database,” especially in the sense Hiroki Azuma uses it. Individual series don’t exist in a vacuum, and nowadays characterization is almost commodified. It might be because of how insular the industry is (by necessity).

    I like to say that good characters are more than the sum of their tropes. But it’s easy enough to superficially characterize by recycling tropes from older works. And these same debates you mentioned apply to even characters that popularized such tropes. I mean, a lot of prominent anime fans think Rei Ayanami had zero personality.

    I think characterization is best done through actions. If you define characters first and foremost by what they do and the decisions they make, you can’t go too long before “she did it because that’s what a tsundere does” becomes “she did it because she’s Ogiue.”

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    • “Individual series don’t exist in a vacuum, and nowadays characterization is almost commodified. It might be because of how insular the industry is (by necessity).”

      I don’t think this is specific to this time or industry. For example, there were periods when the character types were considered “stock”, and stories (dialogue and, to some extent plot) were essentially improvised. This was especially true of the Commedia dell’arte.

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  2. Maybe I am crazy, but isn’t the difference between 3d characters and 2d characters that 3d characters are dynamic so that they change through a story whereas 2d characters remain the same from the beginnning to the end. Of course the difference between one dimensional characters is that two dimensional characters have a personality and a background where are one dimensional characters don’t.

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  3. hey, someone else read azuma’s book. it’s bit early here, and I’m tired from a little anime con here in LA, but I’ll spill some of my brain goop here.

    nearly every story employs character tropes to varying degrees. And a character doesn’t necessarily have to change throughout the story to be believable. I think that a well-developed character just needs to be that, believable. Believable in his/her/its setting, acting how that character should act among other characters, and even making the “out of left field surprises” somehow fit this character and story.

    Pointing out character tropes is easier when you are analyzing this little 3D polygon of a character. However, if you take a zoom out a bit, and are capable of engrossing yourself in the whole story, a well-developed 3D polygon will look like a perfect sphere.

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    • “a character doesn’t necessarily have to change throughout the story to be believable.”

      I agree with this. Some characters are fascinating, and they never get a chance to change (at least not within the context of the story in question). I’m tempted to point out examples, certainly classical literature is full of them.

      You use the term “believable”, I think this has merit. To tie this to Yumeka’s comment, below, for me to be able to engage in speculation about a character (e.g., why did s/he do that?) I need to believe in the character enough that I can imagine the character acting in some consistent way (that is, consistent with values, past actions, or background). If the characterization isn’t rich and solid enough to cohere into something credible, it cannot support further speculation or analysis (or writing, as Yumeka put it).

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  4. Supremely interesting post.

    I think animation leaves so much for interpretation that we can easily project what we want to see onto the characters. We see what we want to see.

    We come up with possible personalities for a given character based on experience.

    I do wonder if in japan, the perceptions are more similar since the same character types exist in all society? In America, we have all kinds of backgrounds to see completely different personalities.

    Thanks for the post!

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  5. Very interesting point. I’ve often thought about how characters I think are well-developed are shallow by other people’s standards, and vice versa. I guess it just comes down to people’s view of the world, their ideas about character representation in media, taste, experiences, or some combination of all these.

    I’ve always thought that a good way for me to define a well-developed character is how much I could write about them. If I could write a lot about their personality, relationships with other characters, development throughout the series, etc., they must be pretty well-developed, whereas, if I can’t write much of anything about them besides what they are at face-value, they must be pretty shallow.

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    • @Yumeka, although I appreciate that your definition attempts to establish a measure based upon the richness that the character presents to the audience, I am worried that “how much I can write” measure is too subjective. Maybe one day you are just sleepy, or have low blood sugar, or otherwise are simply not motivated to write. Maybe you missed (or forgot) an important point. It seems to me that there are factors extrinsic to the character that could influence your measure.

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  6. To me, well-developed characters have motivations that change as events take place around them. They cause or influence those events, thus affecting the development of others around them.

    But they are not simply “event generators” (checklists) or “bystanders” (one-dimensional).. you can not only understand their motivations, they also feel capable of making their own decisions that could affect the story.

    They feel as though they contribute to the outcome of the story, from start to finish, and thus have an impact on the fates of themselves and others. Once established, they are irreplaceable (as far as the story is concerned).

    This has little to do with trope or cliche; those are just tools used to bring the character to life. You can still develop characters in hackneyed and contrived ways, but they’re still well developed.

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  7. Note that round vs. flat is not the same thing as dynamic vs. static.

    And polygons are 2D. The 3D equivalents are called “polyhedrons.” :)

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  8. In cases like this, where “well-rounded” or “shallow” become very shallow things, it’s good to explain where you’re coming from with the view you have, and agree to disagree in a lot of cases, since it comes down just a matter of personal preference. Which is why some actions or traits that characters undertake/have can be interpreted in completely different ways by other people.

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  9. > how did these checklists form and who is responsible for them?
    They seem to form naturally as you watch enough anime/etc to notice the tropes and cliches, and thus can more or less infer what will happen next in a story or to a given character.

    > To what extent are those negative checklists generated by one’s own standards of realism and authenticity?
    Assuming that you are watching a story for those things to begin with, probably a great deal. The harder an anime is trying to convince you of something.. realism, drama, etc.. then the more it will matter. If it’s just a glorified excuse for fanservice, though, you’d only be fooling yourself to hope for anything more than a checklist-worthy anime.

    > What is more important for a well-developed character, that they start off with an almost palpable personality that reveals a heart and mind in them, or that they grow their hearts and minds over the long term?
    To me it all depends on the length of the series. If it’s a movie or short OVA, you want to feel like you know the characters already, and aren’t usually expecting a ton of growth. If it’s a full-length TV series, though, you’ve got ample time to start off weakly and grow, and fully expect some character growth to justify having spent so much time on it.

    > What is more important, what you let the audience see, or what you let the audience infer for themselves?
    It’s guess it’s all up to your intended audience, and how mysterious a character’s motivations are intended to be? If you show the audience one thing hoping they will infer another, then it’s very important. However, if your story doesn’t require such depth or subtlety, then it’s just an added bonus at best, pretension at worst.

    > And how much of it is tapping into the familiar vs the unfamiliar?
    Again, I think it’s just down to how many times you’ve seen the tropes and cliches as a viewer. You can only see the same black-haired male lead in a Shinbo anime before the arm-flailing humor gets old and you feel like you’ve seen this anime before. You can only hear Shana/Taiga/Louise/etc shout “Urusai!” so many times before you wish you could strangle the people who typecast Kugimiya Rie.

    On a deeper level, though, the more you tap into a person’s familiarity with a given character archetype, the more novel you have to be in order for the viewer to not get bored quickly. The lazy writer will just use characters as situational crutches, never really turning them into something new or novel. Again, however, this isn’t going to be as problematic for first-time viewers or series that don’t require strong characterization to begin with.

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  10. I think the perception issue you raise is a good point. Sometimes the straight script isn’t everything to how we experience a character – a lot of little things can add up too – the way the voice actor performs the delivery, the character’s look or design, and the emotions that the animation physically conveys.

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