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.