Saturday, October 5, 2013

What Makes a "Good" Character?

The last couple of weeks have been pretty rough for me. So, this week, while looking up something I can't even remember now, I got sidetracked (pfft, like that never happens) on an old TV show that holds some particularly good memories for me. Because I had been having such a bad time of it, remembering this show was a bit like a happy drug. I broke down and bought the DVD. I waited anxiously all week for it, and it finally arrived on Thursday. I finished watching the entire series by Friday night. But some interesting thoughts occurred to me while I was enjoying this old favourite.

(Images in this article were found across the Internet and posted under their original names. They are being used under the US "Fair Rights" law to discuss the product for educational, professional, and review purposes. No copyright infringements intended.)

First of all, let me introduce you. Everyone, this is Great Teacher Onizuka. GTO, this is everyone.

If you are familiar with Japanese pop culture in any way, you might already be well acquainted. My first meeting was in Sapporo during Yuki Matsuri. We had already seen everything there was to see of the ice sculptures and shows during the day, so we were walking icicles needing a chance to warm up again with more than a hot Georgia coffee from a vending machine before hitting the festival again during the night. While lounging in the hotel room, I was flipping channels to see what Hokkaido TV had to offer, when I found this TV show version of the series. I had heard of it, of course, via the wildly popular manga, but I missed the original airing of the live action TV show, so I was very happy to run into it like this. (Since then it's been turned into a movie, an anime, and a remake of the TV show has been done recently, as well.)

Second, if you're not familiar, let me briefly explain that this is a high school drama/ comedy. Imagine, if you will, a former member of the Japanese mafia (yakuza) wanting to become a teacher. He was a trouble maker in school, has a police record, and took 7 years to complete his education at a not so reputable university. He didn't pass the teacher's exam, but a private school is looking to hire. So he goes for the interview and is rejected by the head teacher, but then is hired by the school director after she witnesses how he handles an unexpected disciplinary incident while he's there. She hires him on one condition: he is to carry his resignation in his coat pocket at all times and be ready to hand it over if he ever hurts one of the students. Then, unknown to him, she gives him the worst class in the school to see if he can straighten them out.

This disciplinary crisis that occurred while he was present involved two expelled students chasing the head teacher with a baseball bat and threats. But he ended up siding with the students after the head teacher called them trash and gave Onizuka permission to rough them up because they would only continue to cause trouble if they were let go. Needless to say, using karate on the head teacher stunned the students, the director, and everyone else witnessing the incident, but his point was clear. It's because of adults like him that kids like them have no place to go. And if that's the way this school was going to be, he didn't want any part of it.

Onizuka often resorts to violence like that to solve his problems. He is a pervert, too, always watching adult videos, always trying to get a peek at the girls' panties beneath their school skirts. He's a slob. He's a slacker. He's reckless and takes unnecessary risks with other people's lives and his own. To say he is unconventional is an understatement. At a glance, and even after watching the series, one might come away from this character thinking, "How in the world is this guy regarded as such a hero?"

In the past, I have defended some rather unpopular characters for being good choices by the author. This may be the first time I'm defending a very popular character for being a good choice because popular characters don't usually get frowned upon. But many times, people expect characters, protagonists in particular, to be good role models. The thing is, often good role models are not good characters. I forget who said it, but a quote comes to mind. To paraphrase: "A man's flaws are often the most interesting thing about him." Onizuka might be a truly horrible concept for a teacher in real life, but in fiction, he is one hell of an interesting character. Why would we find ourselves cheering for someone like this while also cringing at his actions?

Here are some thoughts on the matter.

1. It's fiction.And all of fiction is fantasy, even the "slice of life" type dramas. Romance is fantasy. Cop shows are fantasy. Even horror and tragedy are fantasy; they just don't end with happily ever afters. But ALL of fiction has the potential to offer us something that's unlikely to happen in real life because it inspires us or teaches us or sometimes it simply reflects the best and worst attributes among humanity. So before anyone starts wagging fingers at Onizuka-sensei for being a horrible role model, while unrealistically inspiring everyone around him to greatness, step back and get a grip on reality. Remember, we're talking about fantasy here. For better or worse, the impossible becoming possible touches something in our souls. In fiction, anything is possible ... and that is why we enjoy reading it.

(The school director's "hobby" is that she enjoys working as the school shop keeper. How many school directors do you know that would come to school in curlers to man the register selling milk?)

2.Not all protagonists are meant to save the world.Think about it. Most protagonists actually do end up very heroic, saving the world and all that. It's very stereotypical when you realize just how many times our world has been saved by good-looking people with positive attitudes, strong morals, and the blessings of the gods. Ironically, many readers relate better with characters who have flaws because perfect people are unrealistic. The reluctant hero, the clutzy hero, and the anti-hero have their stereotypes, too, but sometimes it's refreshing to watch the cursed ones struggle with their flaws to find unconventional ways of solving problems. Raising a lowly character to an "I did it in spite of myself!" status usually forces at least some dynamic character growth, even that isn't always good. Real humans don't always have the right answers, either. We disappoint each other quite frequently. But somehow we muddle through, learning from both positive and negative experiences, and life goes on. The purpose of fiction is not to create role models. The purpose of fiction is to pull the reader into the lives of the characters so they can tell their tales about what happened to them. Readers may disagree vehemently with the decisions the characters make, but the characters must be allowed to make their own decisions because it's their story. So, readers and viewers of fiction should not expect fiction to reflect their own personal morality. (Seekers of morality need to look to spiritual philosophies, not fantasy. Yes, they can blend, but they are not meant to be one in the same.) Onizuka often chooses the wrong methods to solve his problems and they only create more problems. But presenting himself as the perfect role model is not his goal. Helping his students realize that "there is no practice for real life" is what motivates him, and he will do whatever he thinks it takes to save each and every one of his homeroom delinquents, even if that means hanging them from rooftops, forcing them to quit school, and allowing bullies to beat the crap out of them.

(To teach Miyabi a lesson about bullying, and teach Noboru a lesson about standing up to bullies, Onizuka hangs Noboru over the side of a rooftop and tells them if they're going to do something, why not go all the way? But where is the fun in picking on someone who doesn't fight back? That's not a real challenge.)

3. Redemption is a powerful thing.So for a "bad" character to be redeemed in the eyes of the reader, he has to do something right. He has to want to be good ... even if only once, even if he repeatedly fails. He has to have some likable qualities to make us think he's worth fighting for. For Onizuka-kun, he has a big heart. He is friendly, funny, often childish, and in many ways childishly naive. He realizes he screwed up his life when he was younger and he sincerely wants to prevent other kids from making the same mistakes he did. Now he wants more than anything to be a teacher. He doesn't hold grudges or pick on people he considers to be at a disadvantage, but he's crude and firm in a manner that opens "respectable" people's eyes to their own despicable behavior. He's optimistic, even when things have gone horribly wrong for him. And as much as he dwells on sex, he's a virgin because he's saving his first time for someone he loves. He even has a special condom marked for the occasion that he frets over when intrusive people get their hands on it and tease him about it. And though he struggles with exam scores, when pushed he studies hard. When all is said and done, he is literally willing to sacrifice his position, even his life, for his students. He not only ends up inspiring each of his students to greatness, but he ends up teaching their parents, and his fellow teachers, to value the opportunities they have to enlighten the lives of these kids.

(When two of his students are expelled for a one-time offense at compensated dating, which they didn't even go through with because they stole the money and ran, Onizuka spends the day with them, being there for them when everyone else shunned them, showing them they still have a big, beautiful world to explore.)

Why is this important to me? Because as a reader I prefer the unusual heroes. I find their stories more interesting. But as a writer, I've discovered how extremely difficult it is to find the right balance when creating darker characters that are meant to be "good". Trizryn, the male protagonist from my Elf Gate series, is definitely in this anti-hero camp, but I'm always looking for ways to inject a little of this into the other characters, as well. Because when I write "good" characters, or even strictly "bad" characters, I get bored with them. And if I get bored with them, I'm sure my readers do, too.

So, I'm working on this type of character development at the moment, and I've just started the second revision of book 3. I have quite a task ahead of me trying to whittle it down to a reasonable size, now that I've got all the plot elements tied together. I will have to take out one plot element, I think, because the length is just too big. But I will leave in hints that it is coming, and try to rework it into book 4. The title of book 3, is The Darkling. Book 3 is about Trizryn finding out who he really is. Yes, there is one more secret about him that not even he knows yet. But for this book in particular, I also want to bring out the darker sides of the good characters. At the same time, I'm going to pull the villains forward more, so I'd like to bring out some of their good qualities.

In other words, it seems my need for cheerful memories was also a need to bolster my work. So, hopefully, Onizuka-kun's influence on these thoughts will inspire me to greatness, as well. :)
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