Bland Characters vs Subtle Characters

I’ve always found this topic interesting…and since I haven’t felt like typing something more lengthy this week (and have been sick for much of the week), I figured to talk about this.

Think about a bland character.  Just your everyday generic character from your favourite anime, video game, what have you.  These characters are almost universally dumped on by their fans because of their lack of actual personality.  We can list trope after trope after trope about this.  Almost always, they will be used in a negative light when describing the character.  And, let’s be honest, it’s makes a bit of sense in that regard – nobody likes to listen to a generic crowd of people.  Immersion is something that generally takes shows to another level, but generic and boring characters make it difficult to immerse into.

But I think we throw around this “generic” label around too quickly.  Character mentality, especially on the level of anime and video games, are often exaggerated and we can easily lose when we see subtle characters.  Characters who, while well-defined, don’t act extremely to the point of parody on their character and aren’t shown with one easy to understand character quirk.  Because of this, they seem easy to mould, but really act on much more subtle characterizations.  This is a little hard to follow, so I’ll try to explain it in another way: in a case study.  I can think of no better choice to highlight this than with the character of Cordelia from Fire Emblem: Awakening.  A game, sure, but I think this one suits the argument fairly well.  Cordelia is a character sometimes accused of being bland and a Mary Sue cut out designed for male players to throw their lust and pity upon and for females players to mirror their own frustrations.

To recap for those unfamiliar with the game: Cordelia is a soldier in the game’s focused on army.  She’s effectively the an ace at everything: known as one of the best fighters and a tireless worker.  She heaps all compliments off herself and…well, that’s about it.  Aside from her massive unrequited (and by game mechanics, impossible to requite) love of the prince she serves under.  And, if you listen to the dissenting opinion, that’s about all she is: a massive stereotype and copy of an older character.  Very generic, very bland.

Have I mentioned my love of red hair yet?

That, plus an excellent strategic character.

Of course, this obviously sets up where I’m heading: I definitely have the opposite opinion.  In fact, I’d argue one of the most mentally interesting characters in the game…just that compared to the rest of the crowd in this game, which primarily features a lot of characters defined by their primary characteristic, it’s harder to identify.

She is a perfectionist.  This part is plainly obvious.  In a lot of her conversations, others will mention that she is excellent at what she does, but she will fail to recognize it or wash it off.  She is also an excellent and capable person and she knows it.  In a conversation with another character, she’ll point out that her mentoring others will be of no use, since they can’t effectively use anything she will teach them.  Additionally, she’s a type A personality.  For those unfamiliar, type A people, in that spectrum, are tightly wound people who will work hard and will sometimes take on more than they can handle.  And Cordelia fits the bill for almost all these types of traits.  Finally, and most critically, she doesn’t value herself.  In almost all her conversations, she doesn’t ask for the help of others, but merely relies on her own ability.  In a couple of conversations, she even admits that she actively does this (stating that it feels like a loss to even talk to someone about her feelings).

Building on all these, we can say that she values what others say about her more than what she thinks about herself.  In fact, I can extend this even further to the basic Myer-Briggs Typology and classify her as a fairly solid version of an ISFJ personality.  Some of the highlights for an ISFJ is that they are service-oriented individuals who live to please.  They are practical people who can take care of everyday needs and will take it upon themselves to handle it with effective organizational skills.  They are committed to single individuals romantically and will be devoted to their “one and only”, far past what seems logical.  This can further extend into their day-to-day life, where they will defend their friends even if it doesn’t make sense.  While determining this, I didn’t even notice some of the later comments, such as “isn’t sensitive to their own needs”, and this almost becomes a self-writing article: the traits the classic ISFJ has almost always coincide with the personality portrayed by Cordelia.  Yes, she has a quirk, but the bland personality behind is gone!  With a little reasoning and reading some of the subtleties in personality, we have gone from a character who has very generic descriptors and basic concepts to one which is fairly intricate.

So, what exactly IS the difference between being bland and being subtle?  It’s all about their intricate actions.  A bland character’s actions will never fly in what you know about them.  You, knowing a single trait, can almost always predict their actions.  A subtle character, on the other hand, will be one which will occasionally surprise you with odd wording or action.  Cordelia’s admission of struggle being a “loss” would be an excellent example.  However, as the name suggests, subtle characters are subtle.  Unlike often easily defined character in anime, they will be acting without strong emphasis on the meaning of the action.

I’ll pull up an example for the show Irresponsible Captain Tyler, using the character mentioned in the title.   This show is almost purely about using the intricacies of the main character to create arguments about one of the largest questions about the show: Is Tyler a genius or an outright idiot?

Or maybe just really, really bored and trolling us all.

Almost every episode puts Tyler and the characters around him into situations where Tyler’s actions will surely have a huge impact on the crew.  There is plenty of fuel for both sides of the debate (as well as a third, which suggests that he’s a spiritual figure designed to teach the rest of the crew to relax).  However, it’s important to just pick up the details.  For the single episode he acts serious, he becomes an inspiring figure.  Some of his plans don’t make sense even if you are a tactical genius.  His mind is very deep and at least self-aware of the persona he’s putting out.  All these points, while they don’t settle the question, certainly become excellent speculative fuel and it’s a great practice in learning to identify character subtlety to identify both sides of this type of debate.  And if you’re interested in practising recognizing subtle character traits (or spotting details which go into building them), I’d highly recommend watching the series.

Ultimately, where this is heading is to not look at characters at face value.  The quick and easy definition doesn’t always determine whether or not a character can be lampooned for being too simple and bland or if their life is very subdued and less of a caricature than some of the other characters.   Going through their actions with a fine tooth comb and seeing if there are any irregularities in their action to go off of is the first step.  After that, the debate of their personality can be looked at: if nothing interesting or unusual pops up, then they may be more generic…but if their actions and statements don’t always stay in line with an obvious stereotype, then there is something more working under the surface…

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