Do Characters Really Need “Growth” To Be Good Characters?

Last year, as I was looking at the criticisms thrown at the anime adaptation of Watamote by its critics, I noticed that a common one was that Tomoko, our main character, never grows as a person or changes by the end of the story, and therefore, she’s a bad character.

Unbiased I say to you, and not just because I have a writeup detailing exactly why Tomoko is a great character, that Tomoko is a great character that didn’t need growth to be so (at least during that time in the story).

Character development has to be one of the most misused terms ever by critics today, and I think the confusion stems from the tense of the word being confused with it’s other meaning, which is similar to “growth”. “Development” does not necessarily mean “growth”, and vice versa. A good character can be developed WITHOUT the need for growth.

Development is finding out more traits or backstory about the character that already exist as the story progresses, while Growth is seeing the character do things that an older version of themselves wouldn’t have done.

To contrast and compare this idea, let’s compare Zuko and Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Obviously, there’s gonna be spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender. You can skip to my conclusion if you still somehow haven’t watched one of the best animated series to have ever graced television. Feel free to skip to the next section of Naruto and Goku with only the most minor of spoilers.

Zuko and Azula

When we first see Zuko, he’s the most villainous looking villain ever. The scar, the red battle armor, the scowl, and most importantly, the ponytail, makes him look like the worst guy ever. It doesn’t help that he’s introduced threatening to burn down a village for harboring the Avatar. I say to myself, “Well, this guy’s gonna be the villain of Season 1 until a bigger bad comes along” and so I watched every week to see him get beat by the Gaang until the Firelord or some other, more villainous villain arrives and he gets put to the side.

Well, I was half-right.

You can see my surprise (and delight) that as the seasons went along, he becomes one of the most likeable and sympathetic characters in the entire series. The change from “I WANT THE AVATAR TO MAKE MY FATHER AND COUNTRY PROUD” to helping that very same Avatar he swore to capture defeat his father and topple the regime of his country, is amazing in its own right,and it wouldn’t be possible if he wasn’t well-developed and grew as a character.

Even if you haven’t watched A:TLA, you have to admit whenever redemption arcs are brought up, Zuko’s is always the first to be talked about.

On the other hand, Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender is an example of a well-developed character that doesn’t grow by the end of the story. Some confuse this as her being a flat character, but just because she remains the same sadistic, skilled, and smug firebending B-word that she was at the start of the series, doesn’t make her a shallow character at all. Her “ideals” are challenged, and yet she refuses to let go of them. She doesn’t change at any point in the story, and it’s interesting to see her conflict thanks to her refusal to change her own views.

The contrast of these two characters show how the interesting it can be to choose when and when not to let a character grow past who they are. Some may argue that Azula turning nuts is “growth”, but again, the revelation of her being a lonely, paranoid girl with parental issues is just a development, not a fundamental change to her character like Zuko. Zuko went from good as a child, to lost in bad influence as a teenager, then back to good again. Azula was always bad, and it was her own choice and everything we see of her was always there from the start. It just hadn’t been revealed to us yet.

Goku and Vegeta

While the lack of growth is what makes villains so interesting, can the same be said for heroes who don’t grow, and villains that do grow?

Figuratively, in Vegeta’s case

I can point at Goku at the start of Z and end of Super, and the only real difference will be his power level and hair. He’s still same old Goku.

That’s boring.

Goku never beats the opponent by outthinking them, instead, he just gets stronger for some convoluted reason or through training because “Saiyans are infinite.” It doesn’t help that his friends have settled down, found more important things in life and have significantly changed, because it only serves to makes his character look even worse.

This is why almost everybody I know, when asked, “Who is your favorite character from Dragonball Z?”, the answer is almost always “Not Goku”.

Vegeta, on the other hand, goes from genocidal egomaniac to family man and defender of Earth. The craziest part is that it works in the context of this universe without being boring. Ironically, his growth as a character is inspired by Goku, a character that never grows.

So, what is my point here? Simple.

If you want to make a good character, you have to either make them grow or show the consequences of their refusal to grow. This is why all good villains/flawed characters are stubborn or arrogant. That determination works because they think they’re right, and when that becomes challenged, they have to either accept it or dig themselves deeper. Either results are very captivating to watch.

Just be sure that the lack of growth should be punished, not rewarded. For the consequences of refusing to grow up until the last second in another classic shounen, see Chimera Arc.

Conclusion

Back to the start of this review, I mentioned Tomoko. She is the perfect example of a flawed character still being interesting despite the lack of growth. She shows exactly what the consequences are of refusing to change the wrong way of doing things in your life. She’s a complex character because she’s realistic. You can’t just up and change your beliefs, biases and ideals overnight.

Otherwise, there’s pain.

The final verdict is that growth is not necessary tool to make a good character, because even the lack of it can make for some memorable characters.

Character development is still necessary though, so I’m still throwing it in all my reviews as an easy pro. I’ll just be using it correctly.

– Lumi

19 thoughts on “Do Characters Really Need “Growth” To Be Good Characters?

  1. Also, there are stories where growth in the character isn’t necessary such as Sherlock Holmes or Doctor Who. The character generally stays the same but it’s the untangling of the mystery that makes it interesting. That was a criticism I’ve seen aimed at Bunny Girl Senpai.

    Good post, glad you put in the part about resistance to change and said consequences.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for reading!

      Yeah, when it comes to iconic characters, change is a much bigger deal, because it’s hard to get people to like a character they already liked if they suddenly changed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think that comedies especially don’t really need “growth” with characters, so that’s a weird complaint for people to have about Watamote! One of my favorite shows this year was Asobi Asobase, and none of them grew out of being crazy obnoxious middle schoolers, lol

    also, speaking of “character development without growth” – I don’t think any of the Cowboy Bebop characters ever really grow by the end of the series. They all keep chasing the past without learning from it, and suffer because of it. I don’t think anyone out there would argue that that show has bad characters, though!

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This was so much fun to read and it’s excellently written! I feel that I’m definitely someone who hasn’t ever really thought about growth and development as separate entities, even though they totally are. I’ve read (going to use books as it’s my main medium for enjoying narratives) many books where characters had had splendid development without any actual growth (The Voidwitch Saga is an superb example) and it worked wonderfully for the story and for those characters. The same can be said for characters who’ve had plenty of growth as individuals, but concrete development outside of that.

    I’m actually going to be working on a book review later today that will focus on this concept; would it be alright for me to reference your article? I feel it’d help a lot.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Actually, Tomoko very much DOES grow by the end of Watamote. Not a lot, admittedly, but she has perceptibly changed.

    First and foremost, she makes the attempt, albeit abortive, to reach out and talk to the upperclassman who’s taken an interest in her. That’s something she never would have done at the start of the series.

    More importantly, the show closes on her looking at the internet definition of an unpopular girl. She reads it, laughs, and says, “Honestly, it doesn’t even matter.”

    Maybe you disagree, but I think it’s a real and hopeful sign that she’s finally recognizing her problem.

    Strictly speaking, maybe Tomoko hasn’t “grown” so much as she’s acknowledged that either she needs to change, or at least understands that she doesn’t really want to change…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I read the manga right after watching the series, and the reason I said she didn’t grow is because it takes a solid 30+ chapters after the epilogue for her to make a friend that she hasn’t met before.

      I’d say that like me back in high school, she acknowledges that she needs to grow up, but she’s too scared to actually try it.

      So yes, I think she, as you said, hasn’t grown but instead only admits that she needs to. Unfortunately
      , takes her a while to do that XD

      Like

    2. Also, this just heads back to development. I feel like Tomoko was always capable of talking to people who try talking to her first. We see this established when the teacher first greets her goodbye and she responds (mumbles incomprehensibly) in kind. That was just an extension of that habit of hers.

      Her statement of “it doesn’t matter” is her finally admitting her delusions.
      I don’t think she ever believed she could be popular to that extent, since put frankly, she’s an idiot, but a self-aware one, and I love her for it.

      Like

  5. I feel like a struggle involving growth isn’t absolutely necessary for a great character…
    Growth is an active, feels good kinda thing. You empathize with a character who grows. That’s why it’s usually the perspective character who does the growing. On the other hand, development of a character’s past and current personality is passive and typically remote. If characters only have backstory, and never have any conflict, then they often feel static and inhuman. All character growth has to feel earned though, so it must be done with caution- else you get disasterpieces like Chaos;Head.
    … and that’s why Monogatari is the best anime ever. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I prefer seeing growth in a character, but in the examples you mentioned it’s not always needed. If the character is fleshed out beyond “I’m evil” , or “I’m the best friend character” that’s typically good enough for me. I see too many characters just being one, and not expanding on that one trait to learn more about them. A lot of writers can take a page from Avatar for writing good characters.

    Liked by 1 person

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