What is it about certain characters that we find so captivating? Is it their cool tech; their complex backstory; their amazing powers; witty one-liners? Or is it maybe the realism of their person? I would argue for the latter, that characters who feel like they could be real people are the one an audience tends to remember. Now that doesn’t mean the world they oppucpy has to be realistic. It could be the most heavily categorized work of fiction you’ve ever produced and the characters could still have that realistic aura around them that earns the reader’s empathy. Take Batman as an example. Even though he doesn’t have superpowers, none of us would say he or his world in the DC comics universe is realistic. It’s very much a sci-fi fantasy world that looks just like ours. Bruce Wayne is a tortured warrior archetype whos parents died a tragic death in front of him when he was still very young but Bruce used that loss to fuel his vigilante cold-fury. The important point here is not that Batman has a dark and edgy backstory for the sake of fitting his archetype, but that he has a motive and a starting point that he changes from.
Character Progression – the key words that we hear praising many less-than-favorite character and the beloved main protagonists or side characters alike. But what does it mean? In the structure of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth, a protagonist starts with a want, moves through a few trials, meets with a mentor figure of some kind, obtains what s/he wants, meets more trials, and comes back to where s/he started a fundamentally changed person. This change is character progression, the ability for a character to grow, change and learn like a real person might. This is the core root of their realism. Keeping with our Batman example, who feels more real to you? Alfred Pennyworth or the Joker? Which version of the characters come to mind? Do they change through the course of the story?
What pops into my mind is the more recent TV drama Gotham and how we, the audience, get to see the birth of the Joker and the Batman all from a perspective aligned to Jim Gordon. While Jerome is a fascinating villain and Alfred the ever loyal father figure, it’s Alfred that ultimately feels more real to me. We spend more time with Alfred and Bruce, we get to see them in many different situations; we get to see his overprotective desires to keep Bruce safe turn slowly into making sure Bruce can protect himself. Alfred’s always a little disapproving of his ward’s recklessness, but he clearly loves and supports Bruce. His realness is helped by his relationship with Bruce, as the audience quite literally watches him grow up under Alfred’s protection.
Jerome, on the other hand, is much more static. He does change, of course, but it’s harder to see since he isn’t on screen as much (though these judgments are based on seasons one thru three as I have yet to see season four). What we do see of him is his beginning as just another psychopath evolving into the kind of showmanship and crazy we’re used to seeing with the Joker. Galavant helps him progress in his grand scale and gives him a taste of the limelight that Jerome takes to his grave… And then subsequently comes back with an even more insane level. The Joker also has some growth in relation to Bruce, but it’s still very much the Joker. He doesn’t move past the archetype, he was written to be. He’s a great villain played by a talented actor to be sure and despite his comparative static nature he’s one of those characters we love to hate. But, were I to be walking around in a big city, I’ll maybe see some Alfred Pennyworth’s and I’ll never see a Joker.