A couple of weeks ago, I read a post about the need for reliability in protagonists from A K of sonatano1.wordpress.com (Everything is bad for you), using Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro as a talking point. And it got me into thinking about how we endeavour to relate to characters in our media, no matter how unrelatable they might initially seem.
In their post, AK talks about the premise of the manga, which is slated to be getting an anime adaptation soon. The first few chapters of which are kind of rough. It follows the titular Nagatoro; a high school first year as she takes an apparent sadistic glee in physically and verbally abusing her upperclassman. A character who only ever goes by “Senpai”, who himself is a quiet art student who really just wants to be left alone.
I said these early chapters are rough because Nagatoro’s treatment of her Senpai seems particularly ruthless and unwarranted. Although not long after it starts, it becomes apparent that she is actually interested in him, and her treatment of him is a tough-love kinda thing, trying to get him to come out of his shell somewhat. Which by the current point in the manga has developed into a more even-sided, awkward teen romance.
My original premise for this post was just to talk about an assertion AK made and my response to it. AK said he enjoyed the manga particularly because they related to the experience of the Senpai, which made them connect to the character even more and enjoy the manga on a deeper level then they would have otherwise. Feeling the Mangaka might have been writing from a place of personal experience.
In my initial comment on the post, I said that I couldn’t relate to the Senpai character because I was nothing like him when I was at school. But after a week or so removed from that comment with some time to think about it, I’m not sure if that’s actually accurate. I was a socially oblivious, stupid kinda kid in high school. And while I was a target for bullying, it was mostly my own fault.
I remember wanting, so badly, not wanting to be a person like Senpai that I was aggressively combative and boisterous whenever I got uncomfortable, as a way to stop myself seeming like an easy target. The problem was, I was not gifted with any social ability whatsoever. So I ended up pissing people off and making an ass of myself anyway, which led to the same final result I was trying to avoid in the first place.
So, while I didn’t think I related to the Senpai character from Nagatoro based on my actual high school experience, I still felt for the guy I still related to him, although it came from a different place. One you might not expect.
Like I said in the title, not all characters are inherently relatable. Many of the characters in media end up being larger than life in say form or another. Yet we still connect to these characters on some level or another, an example of this would be a character we aspire to.
I know that might sound bizarre, aspiring to a weak, doormat kind of character like Nagatoro’s Senpai. But hear me out. This guy might be a gibbering, nervous wreck around people he doesn’t know, nor does he seem to have any real friends. But there are still aspects to his character that I find admirable. When he’s working on his own, he seems totally comfortable in his own skin, something not many other teenagers can say about themselves, as they struggle to find their place in the world.
Plus, he’s passionate about art and works his ass off to pursue that passion. Looking back, I wish I’d taken less of an interest in playing the bullshit high school popularity game and more time focusing on something I cared about. I was writing a lot, even back then, but It would take me five more years to actually start taking it seriously. It’s easy to romanticise those years of your life when you’re this far removed from them, and that’s what almost all anime and mange of this genre tends to do.
Because there are still a lot of negative aspects to the Senpai’s character. It’s those little nuggets of positive qualities that make him a more relatable and appealing character. And so, while I don’t relate to his experience directly, it’s easier to simply empathise with feeling ostracised and targeted, because that’s simply part of the human condition. Which is the exact way we relate to even more inherently unrelatable characters in other media.
This might seem like a tangent but bear with me: I like to make the comparison between Marvel comic’s cast of heroes and DC’s cast. Y’see, Marvel make their bones in relatable characters, flawed individuals with very human problems. Characters that every reader can connect and relate to in some way as they struggle with juggling their real-world problems with their more heroic activities. DC, on the other hand, has a cast of almost purely inspirational heroes.
Characters so large and so iconic that connecting to them on some empathetic level is more difficult. Batman, Superman and Wonderwoman are symbols, larger than mere people, they represent something much larger than that. Superman, as much as modern writers seem to want to make him a villain, is the ultimate avatar of good, in all its incarnations. Yet, these characters are still popular. Still characters the audience wants to connect to.
It’s those nuggets of the character like his relationship with his very human John and Martha Kent. Or him struggling with the weight of expectation that comes from his status as said Avatar of goodness. There are even the analogies to be drawn from his situation as an immigrant, in essence. I’ve heard several podcasters with immigrant parents who say they relate to Superman in this way.
While these characters might seem unrelatable on the surface, there is always some crack in the veneer that audiences can get their fingers in and pry open. Which is inherent to what audiences do when consuming media, we endeavour to connect with the characters in any way we can. We want to connect and relate to those we follow, we go out of our way to do so. I’m not even going to get into the lengths fans of problematic Youtubers will go to justify their behaviour.
It goes to show that horrendous individuals can be relatable to relatively normal people when written a certain way. For example, giving your character a tragic backstory elevates some part of their character. To use DC as an example again; Victor Fries A.K.A. Mister Freeze, is a highly tragic villain of Batman’s rogue’s gallery, becoming obsessed with saving his wife from an illness at all costs, taking no pleasure in any of the crimes he committed. Thus we feel for him.
Another and arguably less desirable way would be through a “save the cat” moment. Which happens when we’re introduced to a character who’s pretty unlikeable in most respects, but the writer gives them one moment where they do something selfless to show that they’re a good person deep down. An example would be Jason Statham’s character of Deckard Shaw in the Fast and the Furious Franchise.
In which we see him going out of his way to protect a baby in an extended action sequence within the 8th movie. Which I’ll admit is highly entertaining and charming. But I know it fell flat for a lot of fans who simply couldn’t forgive him for killing Han, but there’s no denying it made the character more relatable.
I think that, in the end, there are no successful characters that don’t have a nugget of something in them to make them relatable to an audience. There are characters that we can like without relating to them, but as social creatures, we have an innate desire to connect to characters in our media no matter what. To bring it back around to Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro, The Senpai is probably the most human, most relatable character I could have talked about, even though I had basically no comment experience with him.
Because we’re human at the end of the day and empathising with people is what we do. And there’s nothing we empathise more within manga than when the nerdy, socially awkward guy finds himself in a romance with a girl that’s way out of his league.