The Best Friend

A lot of Japanese series feature a quiet, aloof protagonist. In some ways, he’s a blank slate so that viewers can project more of themselves onto the character. But that doesn’t always make for the most amusing of series. A way to counterbalance? A loud best friend.

The best friend usually is the person that the creators feel best represents their target audience, with the hero as the character the target audience most wants to be. Persona 3’s character designer, for example, once said that the obnoxious best friend Junpei was “the most important character in terms of getting the player to buy into the story” because he felt Junpei most looks and acts like a normal high school boy.

Any number of shonen anime demonstrate that. In Initial D, for example, you have Itsuki. He’s normal looking (as in not spectacularly attractive). He’s crazy about girls and cars. And he’s super loud and annoying. But all in all, he’s got a good heart (which is why the Hong Kong live action movie… well..  ugh… let’s not get into that awful pile of vomit). Meanwhile, there’s the protagonist, Takumi, who has had more than one girl pine for him. Totally conquers the Gunma racing scene in one summer. Has incredible talent and skill… but really doesn’t say much. He’s always thinking, but it’s often up to the viewer to figure out what about.

In Gundam Wing, Hiro Yui is stern, quiet, cool, and obviously scored Relena Peacecraft by hurling death threats but is balanced by (not quite best friend) Duo Maxwell. Troa Barton is balanced by Quaatra Rebaba Winner (or however his name is spelled). Wuufei… cries about weak opponents, so he’s not exactly a quiet blank slate.

Snake has Otacon

I think the point has been made. But there are other series that are not quite so one-sided.

In Dragon Ball Z, for example, Goku is still clearly the guy people want to be. The strongest fighter on earth. Everyone loves him. Has saved the world. And he has little Krillin as his more relatable but really important best friend. Still, what I think makes this more balanced is that Goku’s got a personality all his own. You can see him eat 90 bowls of rice and think “That’s so Goku.”

In Robotech, Rick Hunter has a starlet and a sassy slightly older woman’s panties all up in a bunch for him. He has incredible skill as a pilot. And Ben and Max are his goofy comrades. But the balance is there, as Rick, again, has his own personality – and really, his friend Roy is the guy more people want to be. Ben, yes, is a goof ball, but Max is, I believe supposed to be better with the ladies and cooler overall.

All I can hope for Ren and his buddy Axel is that we attain a similar balance. A likable lead that still clearly is “the guy people want to be” but playing off with his best friend Axel, rather than concentrating all the goofy antics in one character.

What do you think about these personality balances in shows? Has an imbalance between characters ever turned you off? Do you prefer the “blank slate” MC for your own stories?


4 thoughts on “The Best Friend

  1. Blank slate characters have never been my favorite. While I can understand the draw of having a character that viewers can project themselves on, it never really worked on me. Part of this is probably due to the fact that most of the main characters I’ve encountered are male and, being female, I’ve found there’s a tendency for me to identify with female characters first. This meets with limited success at times (depending on the show/game) and it doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the male characters. It’s just nice when they have a character to appreciate. =D

    Though I haven’t watched any of the shows you mentioned, balancing characters is extremely important. There will be viewers/players that identify with each of the characters, and some of the most frustrating anime-watching experiences I had were when I’ve identified with characters that never get their moment to shine. As my brother has often brought up to me, making characters capable, giving them talents and abilities, doesn’t cost the writers anything. Yet so often they are stingy with it, as if there’s a limited supply. He has a point. It’s not to say that the main character can’t be better at most things, but for every playable character there should be SOMETHING that they excel in. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a team?

    I really like that you mentioned the interactions between your main character and his friend. It’s fascinating to me how interactions between characters can bring out aspects of them that don’t come up until they’re together.

    As always, thanks for the fantastic, thought-provoking post!

    • Same here about female characters! I almost always choose a female protagonist if there’s a choice. Or I end up rooting for the love interest.

      Thankfully, the love interest usually gets more development than the best friend.

      And I definitely agree with you that as all characters are from the writer’s imagination, virtues are definitely not in short supply. It’s as though they’re making a character on one of those open world RPGs (or on the Sims) and not using all of the attribute points. Or just putting them all on goofy.

      Thanks again for the very thoughtful comment!

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