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12:23 pm: Wright’s Writing Corner: Good vs. Evil—Part Three: Character

 

 

This week, I thought I would discuss the characters mentioned in last week’s post in more detail. Some readers did not recognize the characters. Others did not see some of the characters in the same light and left scratching their head and wondering who could admire such a monstrosity.

So, here is a more in depth description of the four characters mentioned in last week’s post and an explanation of why I admire them and why I feel they are characters who inspire us to be the best that we can be.
 
 
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (From the movie Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Japanese director, Hayao Miyazaki. This film was released in the US at one point as a shorter version which lacked some of the important plot points but gained some really snappy dialogue called: Warriors of the Wind.)

Nausicaa is a princess of a small valley kingdom that flourishes because it has fresh winds when everyone else is plagued by winds filled with a poisonous miasma from the Toxic Jungle, a giant jungle filled with immense, gigantean insects. Most humans are afraid of these insects, but Nausicaa treats them with love and kindness, and they respond to her accordingly.

When war comes to her part of the world, Nausicaa takes a stand for peace and does everything she can to keep the various sides from fighting. However, she does not hesitate to fight herself when it is called for. This mixture of a strong and determined stand for peace with an active person who is not afraid to fight is I find tremendously appealing. Her strength of character, her determination, and her absolute bravery are the qualities that recommend her to me so strongly.

My all-time favorite scene in any book or movie is the one in this film where Nausicaa stands up on her cloudclimber (think ‘sideways, flying, surf board with jets’), spreads her arms, and flies straight at a machine gun in order to save a baby insect (think a bug the size of a tank) and, ultimately, her Valley.  She faces death with such bravery and determination and, even after she is wounded, does not even hesitate in her attempt to save the baby insect, even when doing so pushes her wounded leg into a lake of acid.

The scene is made more poignant by the fact that, due to earlier events in the plot, our heroine is wearing the robes of a dead princess from another land—the land the gunboat comes from. The gunner looks up through his site and freezes because he thinks he is shooting at his dead princess. This does not keep Nausicaa from getting shot, but it does make it so that her injuries are not as severe as they might have been.

 I have seen that scene many, many times. It never fails to cause my heart to swell, and my thoughts to pause as I contemplate all that is good and brave in the human character.
 
 
Himura Kenshin  (From the animated Japanese TV series Rurouni Kenshin. He also appears in other animated films, sometimes under the name Samauri X. But since I have only seen the main TV show, I am only referring to the character as he appears there.)

Kenshin is a wandering samurai, a ronin, in the Meiji period of Japanese history (late 1800s). Following a terrible war, the Meiji government decided to put a stop to the old ways and outlawed swords and swordsman. In the story, many former samurai have put aside their weapons but rogue swordsmen remain scattered across the landscape, causing trouble.

Kenshin stands out from these troublesome swordsmen in two ways. First, he uses a sakaba sword, a sword that is blunt along the hitting edge, which is meant for bludgeoning instead of slicing. This allows him to fight without slaying his enemies. Second, he is a better swordsman that everyone else he meets.

Turns out, Kenshin was once the Battousai (translated: Manslayer), the most deadly swordsman of the previous war. At some point, however, he became disgusted with his life and vowed never to kill again.

Like Nausicaa, Kenshin is a pacifist who is willing to fight to defend others. (Yes, I am aware that there is a pattern here.) He is lighthearted and rather goofy, until trouble strikes. Then his superb skills and his fierce determination come to the fore, and he rises to meet the challenge. He is also intellectually astute. When his enemies seem more than human, he studies them and is often able to defeat them because he has figured out the trick they are using to give this impression.

The drama in Kenshin’s story comes from the attempt of other swordsmen, especially those who would like to increase their reputation by defeating the famous Battousai, trying to force him to break his vow. At times, the pressure on him to break it this once and kill some particularly villainous enemy is tremendous. Yet, despite the temptation to backslide, Kenshin prevails. He remains true to his vow.  His strength of character and his convictions are so impressive that many of his former enemies are won over and becomes allies.

By his actions, Kenshin demonstrates that it is the spirit, rather than the body, that wins battles. When I watch Kenshin, my determination to stand on my principles increases.
 
 
Monkey D. Luffy (From the animated Japanese TV show One Piece. Note: In Japan, One Piece is currently around 500 episodes long. I have only seen a little over the first 100. These comments, of course, only apply to the shows I have seen.)

Monkey D. Luffy is pirate made out of rubber.

Now, I realize that this sounds a bit different from our two pacifist heroes mentioned above, but bear with me.

Luffy lives in a world lousy with pirates—huge, hulking, evil guys who prey upon the innocent. As a young boy, he vows that he will become the King of the Pirates, and, as our story starts, he sets out to do just that.

But Luffy, whose brain is also made of rubber, does not seem to grok what the word pirate means to everyone else. While he calls himself a pirate, he has yet to do a single pirate like thing. So far, in fact, the main thing he and his crew (whom he describes as: a swordfighter, a navigator who loves maps, a liar, and a reindeer) have done is fight pirates. The impression so far is that if Luffy ever does end up as the King of the Pirates, it will be because defeated them all and put an end to their villainous ways.

(Side note: the world of One Piece is very, very freaking. I am constantly amazed that this show can continue to freak me out so consistently. I keep expecting that my freak-o-meter will become numb, and everything will begin to seem normal. But, no—the moment I start thinking of some weird, exotic thing as normal, the next thing that comes along is bizarre in an entirely new way. And I begin shouting “freaky!” all over again.)

What appeals to me about Luffy is the following:

1) He has a dream—to become King of the Pirates—and he does not allow anything to daunt him, despite how unrealistic that dream might seem in the face of the odds against him.

2) He respects the dreams of others and urges them to follow their dreams as well.

3) He never gives up or becomes daunted.

4) He is utterly loyal to his friends and never fails to defend someone in need.

Like with Kenshin and Nausicaa, a great deal of Luffy’s appeal comes from his sheer determination, his unwillingness to allow what he perceives as an injustice to stand. He is a goofy, easily distractible fellow with no lack of faults, but when things get serious, he is as reliable as the rising sun. He will prevail and save his friends. It is these quality that makes him stand out to me as an inspiring character—watching him, I find myself inspired to try harder and to be less daunted by the obstacles life throws at us.
 
 
Harry Dresden  (From the Dresden Files books by Jim Butcher.)

Harry Dresden is the only practicing wizard, or at least the only one who advertises in the yellow pages. He is a rag-tag, noir-style hero, who constantly skirts the line between morally-ambiguous and downright wrong. And yet, he often shows great strengths of character. He refuses to give up, even when egregiously wounded. He stands up for his friends, for innocents, for what is right, even when it is blatantly obvious that doing so is going to dunk him into so much hot water.

He is also, in the words of one character, diplomatically-challenged. His perchance for snideness in the face of authority adds much drama and amusement to the series.

Dresden is fierce, tenacious, and loveable. He leads a life nearly as melodramatic as Peter Parkers (For those who are not familiar with the comics, no one leads a life more filled with heart-twisting angst than Spiderman.) He is easy to root for, and shows strengths of character that, while not pristine, are often missing from other heroes and heroines of urban fantasies. (Makes him look good in the crowd.)

However,  Dresden differs from the other characters described here in that he can be daunted. He is a much more tattered, less pure character, who does occasionally give in to the pressures of life. He breaks more often, compromises more than that other three.

So, why did I include him? Because it is my impression from the story thus far (I realize the series is not over, and I could turn out to be wrong) that Dresden learns from his mistakes.

Many characters is series, especially series with a grunge factor common in urban fantasy, noir detective stories, and some TV shows, participate in a downward spiral. As the series progresses, the character becomes more edgy, more willing to do the dark thing, less virtuous. Very few of these characters reverse their downward spiral. Very seldom do we see them acknowledge their mistakes and attempt to right what they have put wrong.

More often, the pattern is more one of ‘in for a penny in for a pound.” The thinking seems to be something likes: “Well, I’m not a virgin any more, so there’s no point even trying to be good now. After all, Slipping up once is the same as letting it all go, right? So, I might as well sleep with every single thing that has fangs.”

Face it, Folks, most of these characters are never coming up again. Much as I would love to see it, there probably will never be a plot line where they wake up one morning, realize their mistakes, and decide to straighten out their life. In these stories, virtue is considered passé, unrealistic. How dark and gritty you are willing to go is the standard they shoot for.

When Harry Dresden picked up a coin containing a fallen angel and began down one of these spiral paths of moral destruction, I stopped reading the Dresden Files. But I did not stop following it. Each time a book came out, I got a report from a good friend as to how Harry was doing. Was he getting worse? Had the series gotten darker?

The first couple of books after the coin, the answer was yes. Things are worse. Then, one day, to my great delight, my friend announced: “Harry’s beat the thing. He’s going back up. This next book is a bit lighter.”

That, I loved! Here, finally, was a guy who did not throw in the moral towel just because he had gotten it dirty.

So, I now am willing to give Butcher the benefit of the doubt.  I think Harry made some serious errors in Changes, but I am still hoping that he will recover (though probably not in the next book or so), that he will acknowledge some of the errors he has made and try to dig his way back to the light.

It is this quality—the refusal to surrender to the darkness, even after compromising with it, that makes me admire Harry Dresden so much. We all can use reminding that having soiled hands is not an excuse to continue playing in the dirt.

 
 
 
Conclusion:

What these four characters have in common, even if Dresden occasionally slips up, is a relentless determination to be true to their ideals despite the clamor of the world that shouts that they must do otherwise.
They never sell out.

Or if they do, as in Dresden’s case, they do not use their fall from grace as an excuse for further depredations.

What these characters have is integrity.

It sounds like a rather simple thing, but it sadly rare. A majority of characters do not clear enough ideals for the issue to ever arise. They have no principles to defend. Others seem to wallow in betraying any standard they might have laid claim to.

It is a joy to see those who do stand for something of value, to watch characters remain steadfast in the face of terrible odds. Seeing their resolve reminds us of what is best in ourselves. It inspires us to rise up and live the best lives we can.

 



Originally posted to Welcome to Arhyalon.

Comments

[User Picture]
From:marycatelli
Date:October 7th, 2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
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When Harry Dresden picked up a coin containing a fallen angel and began down one of these spiral paths of moral destruction, I stopped reading the Dresden Files.


Well, he did pick it up to keep a small child from getting it -- and does beat himself up for not realizing he could have picked up the child.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:October 7th, 2010 08:43 pm (UTC)
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Sorry...I should have have made it clear that it was the darkness of the next book I avoided. I did think he did the right thing to protect Michael's son.
From:mythusmage
Date:October 7th, 2010 11:14 pm (UTC)
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Believe me, Harry would never have gotten a foo dog if certain parties had gotten the impression he would be going down a dark path. I rather doubt the foo dog would've accepted him in the first place.
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From:marycatelli
Date:October 8th, 2010 01:11 am (UTC)
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I don't know -- we all know that foo dog. And said foo dog has made it clear that he thinks hanging out with Harry is cool.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 7th, 2010 11:20 pm (UTC)
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Have you ever read Fullmetal Alchemist? Edward Elric would fall very much into the vein of characters you have described here (he is most similar to Kenshin and Dresden, usually lacking the kindness of Nausicaa and the boundless optimism of Luffy, though he is rather undauntable).
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:October 8th, 2010 01:56 am (UTC)
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I have not seen it yet. (Optimism! That's what Luffy has! I wish I'd thought to use that word.)

Two other anime I've really enjoyed that are of a similar style...main character refuses to give up. Character's virtues win over other people around him and enemies become fast friends...are Kenichi, the Mightiest Disciple, and Kalido Star.

I do not thing that Kenichi or Sora have quite the scope of Nausicaa or Kenshin, but both shows are delightful.
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From:bojojoti
Date:October 7th, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
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When Dresden dirties himself, it is generally in a self-sacrificing manner.

I've come to realize that my principles are less important that other people's lives. For example, I hate lying. However, if I were in the situation as dissenters hiding Jews from Nazis, I would gladly throw away my principle and lie to protect the innocent.

I'm hoping that Harry will not succumb to the darkness but continue to look to those he respects who are beacons of goodness and light to guide him into the person he can become.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:October 8th, 2010 01:50 am (UTC)
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I recall the following ditty based on Kant from a play our tutors (read Professors) put on in college.

Sung to the the scarecrows tune from Wizard of Oz

"If your father's in the cellar
Hiding from a feller
who wants to break his skull,

You've got to go and let him in,
because lying you know is a sin
It's Catagorical!"

I think most of us would put life before fine points of principle...but I've also seen standing on Principle, even not lying, do amazing things. I've heard amazing stories through my church of people who made the calm and principled decision that they would not lie or give bribes while talking to Nazi's in WWII (literally!) or traveling in Africa...and found that once they took this stand, no harm came to them. These stories are amazing. I always love hearing them. They seem to include two things:

1) taking a stand calmly and firmly and understanding why it is important.

2) Not being afraid...ie, trusting God.

I almost included a section on the end of this about how doing these two things together seems to rearrange the universe and make it so that you come out better off, rather than worse off, if you stick with your principles. But I didn't because I thought it wasn't really on the subject.

This is why I love characters of this type. Both in real life and in roleplaying games (read 'talking novels run by John' not 'rule based game') I've seen this principle in action myself. It's just amazing.

So, while I definitely think that we should put live above human principles, if we put God first and follow his principles, amazing things tend to happen.
From:ladyhobbit
Date:October 8th, 2010 02:29 am (UTC)

In Dresden's world, actions have consequences

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What fun it is to read about Harry Dresden! I became hooked by listening to Presumed Guilty as an audio book and then read all of the books. You are so right about Harry's grit and determination, and his honesty with himself. He doesn't try to justify himself when he's gone wrong. I've noticed another thing, too. Harry's morally questionable actions have consequences down the road. For example, he yields to temptation and tortures Cassius. Two books or so later, Cassius comes back and tries to kill Harry. The whole story of Harry's relationship with Susan shows how his mistakes create consequences, starting with Grave Peril. However, I don't want to say too much in case someone who reads this hasn't read Changes. I think another element that contributes to the moral aspects of the series is the character of Michael Carpenter. A man who is Michael's friend can't be all bad, and Harry's admiration of Michael's character says something good about both of them.
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:October 8th, 2010 11:08 am (UTC)

Re: In Dresden's world, actions have consequences

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Considering that we are talking about good characters, I should have done a whole paragraph or two on Michael. He really lends a lot to the books. Gives that counterweight of brightness that so many urban fantasies don't have. (As John complains about quite often, lots of devils, not a single angel in sight--unless it's a fallen Islington style angel.)

There is a Dresden short story that I have not read, but which someone described to me, where, at the end, he talks at lenght to the angel Uriel. It sounded really good.

By the way, there is a Dresden short story book coming out in a couple of weeks. Supposedly, it has a story set after the end of Changes. I cannot wait to read it!


[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:October 12th, 2010 01:02 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I have. I believe that he wrote the first part of the manga, then made the movie, then wrote the second part. By that time, he had become somewhat disillusioned, so the manga takes a darker turn and has a sadder ending, but both are really neat.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:October 8th, 2010 09:10 pm (UTC)

I don't think it means what you think it means.

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"pacifist who is willing to fight to defend others" Isn't that a contradiction? I thought a pacifist is someone who doesn't fight. Hardly an episode goes by where Kenshin doesn't open a can of Hiten Mitsurugi Ryu on someone. Now he is peace-loving, and he prefers not to fight, and he will hold back so as not to kill you, but he does fight and fights very well. But he's not a pacifist.

Baron Korf
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:October 11th, 2010 04:35 am (UTC)

Re: I don't think it means what you think it means.

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Very true. He is an Athanatist...but the paragraph where I explained this got really long, so I cut it out and went with the more recognized, less accurate term.
[User Picture]
From:cronolink
Date:October 10th, 2010 03:04 am (UTC)
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I really liked Ruffy at the begging of the series; it reminded me a lot of Goku from Dragon Ball in being somewhat naive, stupid in a good way and with a good heart. However, the way Ruffy's character has fared over the course of the series has dramatically changed by sentiments towards him. I don't think I can talk about him without sounding a bit disgusted but maybe this won't be the case with you, Mrs Wright, and you'll get something better out of him.
But I would like to know, since you said you already watched up to the Alabasta saga: what were your thoughts when Ruffy fought against Zoro in Whiskey Peak?
[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:October 11th, 2010 04:44 am (UTC)
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My impression is that the moment he got on the sand, his rubber brain started melting and he's been acting a bit like an idiot. A lot of what I thought was going on with him and liked about him just isn't there...I've been hoping he'll be back to normal once he gets back to the sea. If he doesn't...that's quite disappointing.

As to the fight between Zorro and Luffy, I thought it was a bit silly, but I assumed it was the "Hulk fights Thor" type of scene thrown in for fans who want to see them take on each other.
[User Picture]
From:melodyv
Date:October 15th, 2010 09:09 am (UTC)

Incidentally, about Kenshin...

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I highly recommend watching the prequel movie Trust and Betrayal, although do watch it after the kids have gone to bed. It's a war movie and bit bloody.

Also, translation notes. I'm huge geek about Kenshin so I can't resist.

Kenshin nickname during the revolution was "Hitokiri Battousai."
"Hitokiri" is literally "man-killer" and means "assassin", the way "baker" means someone whose job it is to bake. The American dub translated this as "Manslayer", probably because it's more dramatic and easier to get past the television censors.

"Battousai" means "Master of Battoujutsu." Battoujutsu is that type of sword technique Kenshin does that involves sheathing the sword and drawing it quickly. It's common to many styles.

Also, Kenshin was inspired by an historical personage Kawakami Gensai, aka Hitokiri Gensai. Watsuki was inspired by the way Gensai confronted the new government about their hypocrisy because it dishonored all who had died for the sake of change, including those he had killed himself. He was executed for his trouble.

[User Picture]
From:arhyalon
Date:October 15th, 2010 01:01 pm (UTC)

Re: Incidentally, about Kenshin...

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Wow! Thanks. I had no idea that Kenshin was based on someone.

One thing I really love about that series is the way the history is woven in (I often think about the scene where they take a train.) I wish more shows could do something like that. It makes getting a better sense of history so painless. ;-)
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