Character Writing in My Hero Academia vs. Attack on Titan

This past season there were two big shounen shows that had their sequels airing at the same time (hell, even on the same day): My Hero Academia, and Attack on Titan. Though while the first seasons of both were pretty popular, it was the latter show that became a cultural phenomenon when it aired.

However, with their second seasons – again, having been airing at the same time – it became blindingly apparent to me how much more I enjoy My Hero Academia compared to Attack on Titan.

Normally that alone wouldn’t be enough to get me to write up something – My Hero Academia is doing well enough for itself, so who really cares – but two things made me change my mind. The first was seeing the viewer numbers on MyAnimeList for both of them driving home just how wide the gap is between them. The second was Crunchyroll releasing their map of which show is the most watched in each state for the season, and that’s when I knew I had to make this.

I won’t talk about the manga version for either, but it’s free game to discuss everything that’s currently aired as of the release of this.

With that said, welcome to another round of “Riyoga Tells a Bunch of People Why He’s Right and They’re Wrong”. …Though, maybe it’s not. It’s actually been getting harder for me to tell which show people like more.

As the title makes clear, there’s one major aspect I want to focus on, and that’s how each show tackles its approach to their large casts. The way characters are written in the two shows is different from each other pretty fundamentally, but also on a more obvious, general level. I want to cover the latter first since it’s less complicated, so let’s go over some character-writing basics.

There are generally three aspects that determine whether a character is well-written. The first is obvious: their literal personality. Namely, you want the character to have one. You want your audience to have some emotional attachment to them and you can’t really do that if they’re wet blankets.

The second aspect is a bit of an extension on the first: how does their personality affect their actions? A personality works on initial introductions of a character, but before long they’ll grow stale unless it actually plays a part in how they speak and approach various situations. This may sound like something obvious that every character automatically passes, but you’d be surprised. Finding ways to use a character’s personality to their fullest in regards to what’s happening in a show, let alone finding the times you’re able to do so, is harder than you’d think. Anybody can attach any kind of personality to a character, but fleshing it out in a way that makes you continuously interested in them is much more difficult.

Finally, the third aspect manages to be paradoxical in that it’s arguably the most important, yet also the one writers get away with a lot: why a character acts the way they do. While a lot of personalities can pass off as just being a natural evolution of a character as they grow up, it tends to be much more interesting if they originally behaved a different way, but some event changed them, or even if just their overall personality is a result of other more minor aspects of their character or from life events. Just some sort of creative reasoning at all. Layers tend to help a character be more compelling.

Though before going on, I should mention that plenty of characters have managed to get away with not following one or two of these guidelines and still become beloved. These aren’t required rules or anything, they’re just a core guideline to work with. I’m not sure if any have managed to escape all three, however. Mainly the first one about having a personality.

Also, while the existence of any of these is decently objective, the actual effectiveness is up to personal experience. Some character portrayals are just going to click more with some people than others. What you’re thinking about as certain scenes unfold and even the mood you’re in can end up influencing how you view a character, and you only get one first impression on important scenes.

With all that said, I’m now going to try to explain why Attack on Titan fails pretty spectacularly at making any interesting characters. Though before you get mad, I also have some positives to go over later.

First, credit where it’s due: the show tends to be good at first impressions in regards to characters. They usually show off the weird defining aspect of their character pretty quickly, so they’re easily definable, especially from each other, which is important when dealing with a large cast.

The problem comes about with sustaining interest in them, or sometimes it just drops the ball in really weird ways.

The most obvious example of this is Eren. This may be going after low-hanging fruit considering that even people who love the show largely agree that he’s incredibly shallow, but the thing is that Eren’s potential as a character was actually huge.

Being defined entirely by raw, burning hatred works well as a start for a character, because then you can work on refining it. You either chip away at that anger and move some of it into other emotions or motivations, or you focus down on it so you can channel it more effectively so it only comes out at specific times rather than just… well, almost the entire time. Of course, the show doesn’t do any of this. The extent of his development basically involves just making him even more angry, which isn’t particularly compelling to watch.

This also extends to the other two main characters. Mikasa weirdly enough has a backstory for her character, but then manages to not have much of a personality. It explains why she’s protective of Eren, but that’s a role she’s decided to take on, not a personality. Meanwhile Armin has probably the most defined personality of the three with him viewing himself as incompetent next to Eren and Mikasa so he’s trying to get stronger both physically and mentally, but the show does almost nothing with him so it’s hard to stay interested.

But I perhaps I’m preaching to the choir, I already see these complaints a decent amount already. The problem that nobody really talks about is that these issues also extend to the side characters.

As I mentioned before, Attack on Titan knows how to give a character a good first impression: Sasha and her love for food – specifically, potatoes, Levi being a pretty big asshole, the one science lady obsessed with Titans whose name I can never pronounce, etc. It then just suffers the same problem of not doing enough with them afterwards.

This is a regular pattern the show does where it just drops side characters when they aren’t useful for progressing the plot. Then, likewise, it’ll revive them when the plot needs it.

For example, you probably don’t remember much of Christina or Ymir from the first season, but now suddenly they’re incredibly relevant. You can also say the same for Reiner and Bertolt, but at least those feel more deliberate due to the twists of them being the two major titans behind this whole fiasco. Their problem comes more from Reiner deciding to tell Eren who they are and completely expecting him to agree to go with them.

No, really, he expects Eren – Mister “I’m going to murder literally every titan because they killed my mother in front of me” – to actually agree to go with them after revealing they caused the whole damn thing. Moreover, the show’s absurd explanation of how Reiner mentally flips between two different realities doesn’t even explain this decision. He had to be in his “I’m a titan” mentality in order to reveal he was one and also remember their plan was to get Eren to go with them. The stupidity of the scene is frankly astounding, and it serves as the perfect example of showing how the plot has too much control of the character writing.

To be fair, Attack on Titan is primarily a plot-driven show (despite taking an eternity to reach that damn basement) so it makes sense that the plot is going to dictate a lot of what happens. The problem is, again, when the plot has control to the point that characters don’t feel in control of themselves anymore. I think the best way to show how Attack on Titan falls victim to this – besides the examples I already gave – is to show how Hero Academia dodges this problem.

This might be a tad unfair towards Attack on Titan considering Hero Academia just recently wrapped up a pretty significant character arc for Todoroki, but it extends even beyond him.

The show also focuses on certain characters at a time, but unlike Titan it never outright abandons any of them. They still get to make a few quips here and there while others have the main spotlight. It’s probably aware that it’ll be easy to forget them otherwise. It doesn’t do a perfect job, but the show is generally smart about which characters to show off which times in order to bring them back into focus.

A good way to put it that might help explain what I mean is that if you asked someone to rank their favorite characters in the show, it’d probably be quite different depending on how far into the show they are. Some of the top spots may not change much, but especially the number five to ten range will get mixed up pretty dramatically. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off, and it’s a large part of what endears me to the show so much.

Though, again, this can also be influenced by personal thoughts. The effectiveness of various scenes to endear you more to various characters won’t always work for everyone, or even the amount of impact it’s supposed to have can vary.

To give an example, one of my favorites that I see almost nobody mention is when Yaoyorozu faces off against Tokoyami in the tournament. She struggles really hard to beat him but ends up losing pretty quickly due to not even realizing he shoves her out-of-bounds. Afterwards you see her looking incredibly defeated and the other characters even remark on how easy a win it was for Tokoyami.

This scene can be marked down as a pretty standard setback for a character, but if you remember the very beginning of the fight when they each were introduced it went out of its way to remind you that Yaoyorozu got in to the school on recommendations. It’s a super subtle addition, but when taken into account with how upset she is, it adds an extra layer to her disappointment because you realize the depth at which it’s hitting her. She feels like she needs to prove her worth due to how she got in – that there are expectations expected of her that she needs to meet, so losing so quickly and easily makes it seem like she’s just getting an undeserved free ride.

This level of attention and the cleverness at how it’s inserted into the story is what endears me so much to Hero Academia. You just don’t see this kind of care for the characters in Attack on Titan.

Again, in the interest of fairness, Hero Academia is primarily a character-driven show in contrast to Attack on Titan which is plot-driven, so there is a core fundamental difference in the approach each takes from the get-go, but that doesn’t change the fact that both have massive casts and one show handles them better than the other. If Attack on Titan would scale back how much control its plot had on the characters, I have no doubt it could do some pretty interesting things with its characters.

Back in my review of the first season (I think), I mentioned how Jean would make a more interesting main character than Eren since he goes through some solid development. He starts off wanting to be a soldier just so he can join the elite guard that watch over the royalty in the inner walls and he can take it easy. But as he comes face-to-face with the horrors the titans bring and even sees his best friend dead as a result of them, it changes him into being more determined to bring an end to the monsters.

That’s good stuff, if the show did more development along with those lines with its other characters I’d probably enjoy it way more. Unfortunately, as I mentioned the show does, Jean has been almost entirely sidelined since he isn’t useful for the plot currently.

This all may sound a bit more like a hit-piece against Attack on Titan than I meant it to. I don’t hate it, I’m mostly just indifferent. I mainly watch it for the production value since it tends to not disappoint visually. I’m not surprised why people like it so much, since it’s mostly from a plot angle at the beginning.

It makes sense, Attack on Titan had a bombastic first episode with giant, horrifying, humanoid monsters wreaking havoc along to a Hiroyuki Sawano soundtrack with tons of screaming and yelling to go around. For any faults the show may have, you can’t say it doesn’t know how to get your attention, probably because that was the intent. There’s actually a Q&A panel that that the producer for the show did at a German convention called Animagic where he mentioned that the first episode of the show took six months to produce, whereas all the later episodes were six weeks.

Really I just wanted an excuse to lavish a bit of praise on Hero Academia before the season finished since I’ve become pretty infatuated with it.

Basically the main thing you should take away from this is Hero Academia is great and you should watch it if you aren’t. I was skeptical at first since all I knew was it was the next huge Shounen Jump hit, but damn if there’s anything that deserves to bring in the next wave of anime and manga fans like NarutoBleach, and One Piece did for the last generation, I’m glad it’s this series.

2 Comments on “Character Writing in My Hero Academia vs. Attack on Titan”

  1. TRazor says:

    Been meaning to pick up Hero Academia for a while now. You might just have convinced me to.

    As far as AoT goes, does anybody really watch it for the characters? Even when they have a backstory or not completely one dimensional, they just don’t really come across as likeable and most importantly, memorable. Mikasa is Silent Badass With Sad Past, Potato Girl is Potato Girl, Levi is Cool Badass, Eren is… there, I guess.

    Make no mistake, AoT is still a top show imo and I’m dying for S3, but I definitely don’t watch it for its characters.

    Also hey, good to see you still around man :) !

  2. Irina says:

    Fantastic post – I’m a little mad I didn’t stumble upon it sooner.

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