It took some cajoling from quite a few of my anime fan friends, but I finally did watch Attack on Titan. Last week, I finished the final episode of the first season. This isn’t a review blog, so I’ll leave my more detailed analysis about the plot, the structure of the narrative, and all of those other fun things out of this post completely (spoilers will be kept to a minimum, if you like being warned about that kind of thing). Suffice to say that, overall, I thought the show was ok: as I’m not much of a fan of war stories or shonen anime, I didn’t love it, but I understand why people did and where the hype came from. What got me to write this post, though, was my favorite character of the whole series, Armin Arlert.
If you don’t watch the show or need a bit of a recap, Armin is one of the main three protagonists. He’s best friends with Eren Jaeger, a pretty run-of-the-mill shonen hero who wants to be the best at killing the monstrous titans wreaking havoc on a post-apocalyptic Earth, and Mikasa Ackerman, who while not canonically Eren’s love interest plays that role in the story. He’s nowhere near as courageous or skilled in combat as his two friends and for the first few episodes after he graduates from his training he has panic attacks that keep him from functioning, but he makes up for that in his intelligence, ingenuity, and sheer observational prowess (which has the unfortunate tendency to make him the vehicle for patching up holes in the writing disguised as plot twists). He was not only my gateway into the world as the only character out of the main three that I could identify with, but also served as a way for the anime to deconstruct the horrors and psychological ramifications of war, which was one of the things that I liked best about the series as a whole.
But this was the character that almost everyone I talked to hated with a passion. The reasons people give for disliking Armin were along the lines of “He’s whiny/cried too much,” “He didn’t witness any of the big stuff,” and “He’s wimpy/weak.” As for those points overall, I feel the need to point out some psychology: trauma is relative and everyone reacts to it differently, whether that means getting angry, clinging to someone else, or having panic episodes. I’d also like to make the argument that living in a world where humans are (possibly critically) endangered as a result of creatures that are several stories tall appearing out of nowhere and eating them apparently for sport is a perfectly understandable reason to have some psychological damage, regardless of what you may or may not have witnessed.
Back on track, though, this phenomenon isn’t unusual. Unless you’re a fan of underdogs, the “wimpy” characters tend to be everyone’s least favorite, especially if they’re in an ensemble cast where they have a lot of other conventionally strong personalities surrounding them. “Wimpy” can mean a number of things ranging from simply being physically unable to handle the activities the plot requires (without being disabled) to freezing up when something triggers a traumatic memory to crying when things start getting too stressful. Interestingly, in my experience this bias doesn’t depend on gender: male and female characters with any apparent vulnerability that doesn’t conveniently go away when the plot calls for it are considered an insult to their gender, albeit for different reasons.
I’m having a hard time understanding this, though. Does the dislike of characters with certain flaws come from the wish-fulfillment part of fiction, where we aspire to be the stronger or less-flawed characters and hate seeing ourselves reflected in the more vulnerable ones? Is willing suspension of disbelief not enough to accept the possibility of a situation so desperate that it pushes a character not renowned for their bravery into action? Is it just plain old uncomfortable to watch characters break down and cry? Is anger, which inspires a lot more immediate action and is itself a justifiable response to a lot of conflicts, just more entertaining or satisfying to watch?
Admittedly, we’re making a good move toward having variety in the personalities of our fictional heroes. We see stories that take aphorisms like “The meek shall inherit the Earth” and “Beware the quiet ones” and run with them, making more protagonists and especially the “nerds” likeable and popular. If a fan of a story has strong feelings about it, it’s probably because something hurt that character very deeply, which wouldn’t be possible if your “unlikely hero” can save the world without suffering or losing his idealism somewhere along the way.
But still, people want confident heroes. A beta reader of mine described a main character from an admittedly early draft of Heroes & Villains as wimpy because, having just left a fight that caught her off-guard and learning some troubling information in the after-action review, she cried while confiding in a group of people once she was completely out of danger. I did end up changing the character in later revisions—while she’s still very emotional, I made anger and grief rather than fear the source of most of her tears, and I have her in treatment for depression where in earlier drafts this was implied but never outright stated—but that criticism stuck with me. I reached the point that I can concede that this particular beta reader had a point there, though. If a character starts out as being sensitive and overly emotional, it’s true that they can’t really fall much farther than that as we get close to the climax. At the same time, though, there’s no growth for an already-perfect character unless he hits rock-bottom and then climbs back up out of it again. Not everyone who’s forced into the line of duty embraces it, and even if they do, who’s to say that the reality of the situation matches their expectations?
Clearly, I’m a sucker for the classical antihero. Not the violent, misanthropic version that came about sometime in the Nineties: I’m talking about the guys that aren’t the best at much of anything and feel things like fear and doubt. These are the characters that I find most compelling and most relatable: I need these characters to give me an opening into a world, give me someone to relate to, and on some level remind me that my talents are useful and that I am capable of growing.
Back to Armin and Attack on Titan. He shows, by far, the most growth and development out of all the characters that we care about: while he started out as something of a coward that had all of these panic episodes and was mediocre at best when it came to combat, he’s getting braver and more competent. Armin works the hardest to overcome his flaws, because while the other two leads have personal weaknesses they aren’t treated as hindrances like Armin’s are: Eren has very serious anger issues that he is able to channel into combat in a few different (and spoiler-filled) ways, and Mikasa is so devoted to Eren that while she can barely function as an independent human without him, she can be driven to fight without holding back if he inevitably ends up in danger.
Armin isn’t like that. It took him some time to figure it out, but he found his niche: being the brains behind the operation. He’s a very smart guy, and I’m willing to bet that eventually he will end up being a commander or other authority figure in the Scout Regiment and probably even an archetypical chessmaster. From the beginning, even before his confidence began growing, he was the one coming up with plans and contingencies, often on the fly. He wins those battles that involve thinking and talking, which are just as if not more important than the battles on the front lines in any proper war, especially one with a lot going on behind closed doors, as seems to be the case in his world. His insights earned him the respect of his fellow soldiers and authority figures. He’s also the first major character to verbally acknowledge that, in order to win a war, you need to give up your humanity, and he’s able to say that like any other fact in this world.
It’s that last point that makes his development particularly interesting to me. While he was certainly the moral center of the trio to start, it wouldn’t surprise me if he veered off that path as the war continues. In addition to his intellect, he’s begun to develop a pragmatic streak and a disregard for individuals in favor of the whole of humanity. He even approaches his own life this way after a while, and before long the kid who suffered from panic attacks under duress starts to unflinchingly charge into dangerous situations to do anything from rescue a city to buy a few moments of much-needed time. My guess is that, eventually, he’ll at least outwardly become cold and ruthless: he is certainly capable of becoming a high-ranking officer in this particular military, and in order to be a truly effective one in a world where the troops are unquestionably cannon fodder, you have to be able to approach casualties as numbers rather than human faces. I’m of the opinion that, while it might not be anytime soon, Armin will shape up to become one of the scariest characters in the series.
And all of this from a sweet kid that needed to be protected from bullies.
That is a compelling journey to me. Armin definitely starts out as the classic antihero, and over time he’s edging his way into the more modern depiction, but it’s handled believably given the setting and the conflict. His development runs alongside the main plot of the show without getting in the way, and he’s been growing while the other characters, who embraced their new roles in society right away, have more or less stayed static. He stands out to me both as a great character and as a product of a world that is just as interesting, and I’ll be sticking around to watch the progression of both.
So folks, I ask you one thing: Give the wimpy characters a chance. They have all kinds of room to grow, a lot of hidden talents at their disposal, and they will surprise you.