The “Character Development” Crutch

In response to recent shows such as Kill la Kill and even Dokidoki! Precure I’ve been seeing a particular criticism thrown around lately:

“These characters are bad because they have no character development.”

In a way, it’s pretty much the go-to question for a lot of things, because when we traditionally think of a character-driven narrative, a character starts off in one place and ends up in another. Sometimes it’s a physical displacement, sometimes it’s an emotional one, and often times the two go hand in hand. When it comes to basic storytelling, it’s about as reliable a structure as it gets.

Reliable, yes. The formula by which all characters should be judged, no.

I understand that character development can be a powerful thing, and seeing a character grow can be a tremendously satisfying experience, but when “character development” is bandied about as doctrine it comes across as a Beginner’s Guide to Criticism. People end up being so eager to establish the “right way” to construct a story that they effectively throw out the baby with the bath water. “Static” characters, or even static elements of characters, have their own place, and are capable of being part of great stories. However, the narrative arc need not be about them in particular.

There are many ways to portray characters, and not all of them need to have the hero go through the typical kind of character progression. Does anyone watch Akagi asking, “Where’s Akagi’s character development?” Is Kenshiro an issue because he doesn’t have “character progression” beyond getting angrier and sadder as the series goes along? Raoh’s “development” is more a retcon which turned him from just an Evil Guy to someone who wanted to bring order to chaos. Yet all their characters work for what they are and what they need to be. That’s not to say that character development shouldn’t ever matter at all (and both Kill la Kill and Dokidoki! Precure have more character development than either Akagi or Fist of the North Star), but it shouldn’t be held up as holy doctrine that a story can only succeed if its character progression is sufficient.

I think this is why people are so often eager to point out that some character is a “Mary Sue.” This character who is on some level larger than life or a product of wish fulfillment is assaulted by the big book of how narrative tropes are “supposed” to work, and the attackers don’t care about anything but the idea that stories should adhere to it.

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24 thoughts on “The “Character Development” Crutch

  1. character development is the least of Kill la Kill’s problems. the main problem with klk’s ‘static’ characters is they aren’t fun to watch in the least. noone would care about a lack of development if this wasn’t the case.

    though I do agree with the point that “character development” is a Procrustean tool for analyzing narrative structure.

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  2. I actually don’t quite get the Mary Sue point. Maybe it’s just I rarely read about this criticism levied at things I actually consume.

    Personally I call something a self-insert when it’s bandied precisely like one would write it. It’s when the larger-than-lifeness runs inconsistently with the theme or setting, or when it runs consistently with the kind of (power) fantasy that runs against “good taste.”

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    • I think the distinction is this: While Mary Sue is a term that has meaning, referring to a character who is so a product of an author’s personal wish fulfillment that it outshines every other aspect of the story, it ends up getting used on any and every character who has some idealized or wish fulfillment aspect. Like, imagine if someone called Hajime from Gatchaman Crowds a “Mary Sue.”

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  3. I think this is kind of an oversimplification about the complaint when it comes to Kill la Kill.

    In general, I completely agree – different shows have different priorities, and having a character develop a lot isn’t something that’s relevant to all priorities. But I feel that in Kill la Kill’s case, the show actually does want you to be invested in Ryuuko’s development as a person, and because the show isn’t portraying what it itself has chosen to prioritize in a meaningful way (at least in the minds of the people with this issue), the audience is disconnecting. Character development isn’t necessary for all characters, but when your show makes a character overcoming emotional obstacles one of its central focuses, whether it depicts that well or not becomes a very relevant question.

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    • I think the tricky thing with Ryuuko’s character is that while she is a very emotional character, the overcoming of “emotional obstacles” are not necessarily one of the show’s actual central focuses.

      She’s portrayed as a very intense and passionate person, but when you think about how she’s first used in Kill la Kill, it’s more as an outsider looking into this crazy world of Honnouji Academy. She develops a friendship with Mako, and she grows a bond with Senketsu, and even develops a kind of respect for Satsuki, but the ideas which come out of this go somewhat beyond “Ryuuko the character” and towards Ryuuko’s character-ness.

      When looking at the most recent episodes, we have Ryuuko being taken over by Junketsu, who has replaced her memories with ones where she’s been with Ragyou all along. It stands out, not because Ryuuko is having all of this progress undone by brainwashing, but that when you think about it, Ryuuko’s life has kind of sucked. The glimpses of her past that we’ve seen are full of strife and conflict (she was a delinquent for most of her life), and yet that background, that intensity of character, is what is at the core of Ryuuko. Seeing Junketsu try to wipe it out (and even not be entirely successful at it) emphasizes Ryuuko the emotional being and how she interacts with the other components of the overall story of Kill la Kill.

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      • I like how you frame the characters in general here – that they’re relevant based on how their identity informs their methods of action and role on the “board” of the story, more than that they’re actors with significant agency destined for meaningful development. I think that’s a useful way of looking at Kill la Kill – the story really does kind of set itself up as a series of collisions as the pieces bounce off each other. Looked at in that framework, “flipping the piece” of Ryuuko’s personality does both create some new collisions and emphasize her usual role in the story.

        I do think the show has leaned on Ryuuko as a character who needs to learn from her mistakes in the past, though. There was the “becoming confident in your appearance” turn of three, and in particular the “learning control your rage” arc from 12 through 15, which I feel her recent “downfall due to anger” made significantly less meaningful. Do you disagree with that character development being central to that arc? Along with that, there’s the fact that so much of Satsuki’s work in the show’s first two-thirds was designed to “sculpt” Ryuuko into a useful ally, which again seemed to be made meaningless by Ryuuko’s third-act turn. Do you think that doesn’t really matter because in the context of the show as you’ve framed it (and as I might very well agree the creators see it), Ryuuko’s trajectory wasn’t really important to the show’s own priorities?

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          • One thing I think I should make clear is that I think Ryuuko does have character development, and that it contributes to the overall story of Kill la Kill. However, I don’t think the recent arc is necessarily a step backwards for Ryuuko if only because her concern in the 12 through 15 arc was that she was scared that she became scared of her potential to harm those she cares about, especially Senketsu. In the recent episodes. The recent episodes are in a way a return to that, but the blow to her self-identity that came with the reveal that she isn’t quite “human” connects to the previous one because I feel like you can almost see her trying to distance herself from Senketsu for his sake, like when you try to free a pet who has become too attached. I think it’s especially telling that even as she calls herself a “life fiber monster” while still having enough awareness to still be effectively slicing open the COVERS and freeing the people trapped inside.

            I think the problem comes when one assumes that Ryuuko’s “arc” is supposed to be that she was once angry and directionless and now she’s found her purpose and is no longer vaguely enraged. It’s more that this is a core part of her character and that she (and we the audience) are learning what makes her really tick.

            As for Satsuki sculpting Ryuuko, I don’t think that’s quite what was going on, though she clearly had an intent to see if Ryuuko could be an erstwhile ally. She also used Ryuuko as a sharpening tool for her own forces, like diamond cutting diamond. In fact, I’ve had this feeling for a while that in certain ways Satsuki is the real protagonist of Kill la Kill, or at least the one whose story is being told in a more significant fashion. The fact that a lot of people find Satsuki more interesting and compelling is not just a fluke, I think.

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            • Ryuko is developing as a character only if we abstract her character traits outside their context; you say she’s emotional, but the way this manifests in the show is in angry hyperbolic yelling, crummy dialog, and a reactionary relationship to the narrative. I don’t want to single you out or anything, but it seems people who want to like something like KLK are too eager to write the show themselves. There isn’t really a single identifiable moment or scene in KLK where the character drama is satisfying and effective, and the way you’re describing Ryuko’s arc seems different (and better) than how it actually is in the show.

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              • Don’t you think you’re being a bit too harsh there? You’re basically saying that people who enjoys Kill la Kill doesn’t really enjoy Kill la Kill, they enjoy some imaginary show that they build in their minds and that is not Kill la Kill at all. While everyone has their own readings of things, if one’s enjoyment of a show was THIS far removed from, y’know, the actual show, why wouldn’t that same people enjoy also Sword Art Online and Seikon no Qwaser and Mars of Destruction? Clearly, who enjoys Kill la Kill SEES something in it that finds enjoyable – everything else is just rationalization, trying to analyse that enjoyment and give logical basis to it. But they (we) DO find it enjoyable. If you don’t that’s allright, but it’s not like you have anything to claim you understand a Kill la Kill fan better than he does understand himself.

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                • I’m not saying people who enjoy KLK actually don’t. I’m saying their reasons for enjoying it are weak and unconvincing. Part of that is coming up with interpretations that are tenuously connected to the show itself, like trying to tease a single coherent reading out of a narrative that is by every metric confused and slapdash. I think it’s a testament to how good a writer Nakashima is that all these vestigial plot tumors have inspired such grand readings, but it’s hard to watch the final product and not see it as schizophrenic.

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                  • It’s not much different. How can one enjoy something for “weak and unconvincing” reasons – at least in his own mind? Why would every Kill la Kill fan be bent upon concocting interpretations they don’t really believe in in a futile effort to lie to themselves and drag others to their cause? Maybe you just have to acknowledge that people DOES see these things and that, while you honestly don’t like the show, that doesn’t mean that everyone else’s reasons for liking it must be so moot they first don’t actually believe in them.

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                    • actually those are entirely different things. i have no doubt people who like klk like klk. the reasons they like it are usually poorly articulated and poorly thought out though. it’s called having low/vaguely-defined standards, a well documented phenomenon in the world of anime. thankfully there are people like me, with high standards to help spread anime enlightenment

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  4. That is a really long text just to say: Satsuki best girl.

    I kid, Ive also read this complaint a lot lately on forums and message boards so its nice to see someone address it well. Good job.

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  5. I think the scene that encapsulates the characters in DDPC best is when Mana seems like she has faced a huge setback and cries, and then gets over it instantly. That was a bit jarring, and it really seems to apply to all of the show’s writing. Combine such whiplash with larger-than-life characters and that probably gave rise to the Mana-Sue feeling that really loomed over the show’s boss gauntlet at the end.

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  6. You bring a great point, far too often do we assume that there is only “one true way” to tell a story. I think this is a wonderful post that assails one aspect of that.

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  7. That “one true way” to tell a story thing always bothered me and also the general point of these type arguments is that if it’s not objectively good then it’s not okay to like it which is just insincere.
    A pretty rich static character I like to point to is Satoshi from Hyouka.

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  10. shouldn’t we then also break down how to properly use a static character? perhaps it’s that character’s interaction with a changing environment and storyline that holds potential rather than a dynamic character developing with the environment and storyline as a catalyst. isn’t continued exploration of a static character a form of character development as the audience’s relationship with the character changes as more of its facets are revealed? it may be that phrase is more so the crutch than the actual concept as a result of a lack of understanding.

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