The pure hearted protagonist. A common trope in fiction, and a heavily criticized one. Understandably so; they’re not particularly complex or deep. They’re good people who do good things. End of character sheet.
There are plenty of examples of this. Superman is the biggest one of them all. You can fit basically any Disney princess on the list. Aang from ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’ is high up there. Phoenix Wright from the Ace Attorney games is another strong one. Deku from ‘My Hero Academia’ is one of the most recently critiqued of the lot. On the anime train, there is also Iruma from ‘Welcome to Demon School! Iruma-kun’ and Tanjiro from ‘Demon Slayer’. Take anyone with a heart of pure gold and you can fit them in here.
It isn’t hard to see why people don’t like this character archetype. Often times, characters like these aren’t given especially substantial arcs. Superman is a primary example of this; how do you give a pure-hearted man who is basically all-powerful a character arc? What does a person like that have to learn?
Another example of this is Tanjiro. Over the course of ‘Demon Slayer’, Tanjiro doesn’t really have an emotional arc. He never learns anything or is forced to confront some weakness or change. It isn’t his emotional state that needs to grow over the course of the story, it’s his physical capability. That’s not really an arc most people can relate to.
The most common critique I see leveled at characters like these are their unbelievability. Someone this pure-hearted and good surely cannot exist. Therefor them being in whatever story they’re taking a part of detracts from the believability of the plot. Is that an incredibly cynical and depressing take? Yes. But it isn’t an uncommon one.
Does this mean they are inherently bad characters? No, I don’t think so. In fact, I wouldn’t even say that they’re all that unrealistic. In the end, it all boils down to the execution.
It’s wholly possible to write a decent character arc out of this archetype. Take Deku from MHA, for example. Him being a goody-good boy isn’t what his arc is all about; that’s the quality that let him begin his arc. His story is about his own emotional and mental development; he’s already got the heart of a hero, but he lacks the know-how, the experience, and most importantly: the confidence. Sure, he’s not the best character in the series, but he’s far from poorly written.
Then there are the characters with flat arcs. Characters such as these don’t change themselves over the course of the plot. Rather, they inspire change in others, furthering their character arcs. Son Goku from the ‘Dragon Ball’ series is a prime example of this; Goku himself doesn’t change, but his nature inspires those around him to change, often for the better.
That in itself could make for a compelling story. A good person in a terrible world, fighting to maintain their values and make the world change for the better. Our pure-hearted protagonist must struggle not to bend against the pressure or against their own doubts. Will they buckle and become a worse person to fit the world, or will they overcome and inspire the world to change?
As for the realism issue: I don’t really know what to say to that. Would it be rude to say that folks need to have greater faith in their fellow man?
I suppose I don’t really have room to talk. I’m the most cynical bastard I know.
It’s easy to see why people don’t mesh well with the ultra-pure, heroic protagonist. But personally, I’ve never found an issue with them. They’re simple, but enjoyable. Like a comfort meal. Plus, they often have more depth than people give them credit for.
We already live in a grim world populated with grim people. If I were to escape into a story for a while, I wouldn’t mind if it was one with a bit more hope than we have now.
Oops. I just made it too real, didn’t I?