1. Lee From Darker Than Black Season One
Judging by his character concept, Lee looks like another over-candied male power fantasy. He has special powers, and unlike every other superpowered character, he doesn’t have to pay a price for using them. Whereas most powered characters rely on their magic, he’s also exceptionally competent at physical combat. He has a reputation that precedes him, a secret identity he hides under a wicked mask, and a deadpan manner that only makes him look more badass. All of this would normally add up to a character that’s obnoxious to anyone who doesn’t identify with him.
But he’s a really likable character. Why? Because the writers gave him a second personality to supplement the first. Lee is a mercenary who spends much of his time undercover. While undercover as a normal guy, he works a low-paying menial job as a busboy or a server. He’s modest and incredibly friendly to everyone he meets. He always offers to help strangers in need, and it feels like mere coincidence that those strangers are also targets that his employer wants. While playing this role, Lee’s always the innocent young man somehow caught up in dangerous events.
Supposedly, Lee doesn’t have any emotions, and everything he does as his undercover personality is a lie. But his undercover routine is so consistent and convincing that it’s difficult not to believe that lie. It feels like the friendly Lee must be hidden somewhere under the cold Lee. The storytellers help maintain this by ensuring that even though Lee is supposedly a ruthless killer, he never murders a sympathetic character. They also created a story that questions whether he’s really as emotionless as rumored.
Lee’s strange superhero reversal, where his humble self is the disguise, makes for a fascinating character. It keeps him likable even though he technically isn’t a good guy. And as with a typical superhero, his humble act builds attachment and earns good karma, allowing his moments of candy to feel satisfying rather than sickening.
2. Stiles From Teen Wolf
As the best friend of Teen Wolf’s main character, Scott, Stiles could have easily been just another comic-relief sidekick. He’s goofy where Scott is badass, dorky where Scott is cool, and he’s the only teen cast member who doesn’t gain special abilities as the series continues. But of the characters in the show, he is the fan favorite by a mile.
Why? First, Teen Wolf didn’t make the mistake of many other works who never let the sidekick outshine the hero.* While Stiles can’t do much in a fight, the writers gave him his own area of expertise: research and investigation. His father is the town’s sheriff, so Stiles has access to a police radio and knowledge on how to do detective work. Giving Stiles something unique to contribute prevents him from feeling extraneous or incompetent.
Stiles regularly risks his neck for Scott and others, but he rarely gets the glory he deserves. Even though he’s brilliant, he often struggles in school because he has ADHD. “Stiles” is actually a shortened version of his family name; teachers take one look at his legal first name and make pitying remarks. He’s on the lacrosse team, but he sits on the bench during most games. All of these details make Stiles both sympathetic and interesting. Not having special powers only makes audiences yearn to see him excel.
It’s also worth mentioning that the actor who played Stiles, Dylan O’Brien, is incredibly skilled. Just in the first episode, Stiles calls Scott a “dumbass,” says Scott’s dream of making first line in lacrosse is “pathetically unrealistic,” and accuses Scott of “dragging me down to your nerd depths.” In a written work, these lines could be interpreted as abusive. Spoken by Dylan O’Brien, they just come across as playful. Making a good comic relief requires careful management of which characters are being targeted by jokes and understanding the effect those jokes have on the characters.
3. Jayne From Firefly
Firefly has a fantastic set of characters, but Jayne displays the most impressive character craftsmanship. He fits an archetype often found on Team Good: the hardened mercenary. In most stories, the mercenary team member is ruthless to foes but still respectful to other protagonists. Jayne doesn’t play nice with the rest of the team. He’s a selfish character inclined toward bullying; sometimes, he even uses the threat of violence to get other characters to do what he wants. In one episode, he betrays a couple of team members in exchange for cash. Yet, Jayne is endearing despite this.
Naturally the answer lies in another side of his personality. But unlike Lee, who has a separate persona that’s selfless, Jayne has an additional character trait that doesn’t contradict his flaws. He’s a dork. Specifically, Jayne is a comic-relief character, and he’s always the butt of the jokes he brings to the table. These jokes tear down the image of toxic masculinity Jayne wants for himself, instead creating a character who wants to be cool but falls hilariously short. Take this comeback he tries to throw at another protagonist.
Mal: Looks can be deceiving.
Jayne: Not as deceiving as a low-down, dirty… deceiver.
Mal: Well said. Wasn’t that well said, Zoe?
Zoe: It had a kinda poetry to it, sir.
When Jayne puts his foot in his mouth, the other protagonists make fun of him.
Jayne’s also given occasional moments of emotional vulnerability and tenderness, which help build attachment to him despite his selfishness. After he secretly betrays his team and thinks he’ll pay for that mistake with his life, he asks the captain not to tell anyone what he did. This shows that he’s ashamed of his actions and that he cares what others think. Jayne tears up when someone dies for him, yelling that he is not a good person and not worth dying for. And in one episode, he gets a package from his mother. The letter in it reveals that he sends money to her, and he’s excited to wear the hand-knitted hat she made for him.
Because of his complementary traits, Jayne is a great asset to Firefly. Since he’s capable of being both threatening and selfish, it’s easy to add tense inter-character conflict to scenes. But he’s also a goof, so he can lighten the mood whenever needed. He may not be the stand-out favorite on the cast, but he’s exactly what the show needs.
4. Seven of Nine From Voyager
We’ve discussed Seven of Nine a couple times before, but we’ve never broken down what makes her so likable. But before I go into Seven, let’s talk about her predecessor, Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Data is the quintessential construct that wants to be a real boy. He’s an android without emotions, but that doesn’t make him cold or mean. In fact, it’s just the opposite. He has no anger, hatred, or selfishness. When other characters mistreat him because he’s an android, he’s still perfectly nice to them. As if that weren’t enough, Data’s lack of social understanding creates dorky and endearing moments.
Data could have been featured in this post, but the formula that makes him work isn’t that tricky. Whereas the writers of the show Dark Matter failed to copy Jayne into a working character, they were quite successful at copying Data’s endearing traits into their own android. On the other hand, Seven of Nine’s success is a great feat of storytelling.
Rather than being another android, Seven of Nine is a former Borg drone. The entire purpose of a drone is to serve the Borg Collective; they have no personal desires or goals. Seven’s history as a drone is used to give her similar traits to Data: a seemingly emotionless exterior coupled with social awkwardness. Like Data, Seven is portrayed as innocent. She was captured and forcibly assimilated into a drone when she was just a little girl. She doesn’t know how to live as a human. This is important in keeping her likable, because unlike Data, she isn’t selfless.
When Seven joins the Voyager crew, she tries to maintain what she values from the Borg Collective. This includes treating other crew members like drones and criticizing typical human behaviors such as monogamy. When she takes charge of a group of children, she precisely schedules their playtime and tells them, “Fun may now commence.” If she were a knowledgeable authority figure, this might be unpleasantly severe, but with actor Jeri Ryan’s show of innocent earnestness, these scenes can be hilarious.
The emotionless routine actually works better with Seven than it does with Data. On close examination, it’s really difficult to believe that Data doesn’t have any emotions. His small emotional cues are necessary for him to stay relatable. Seven does have emotions; she’s just been trained to repress and deny them. This gives her character more depth than Data. Whereas Data lets mistreatment slide off him, when Seven is targeted for being a drone, she feels like she might deserve it. She committed many murders as a drone, and her strong character arc is one of both redemption and rehabilitation.
The result is a character that’s sympathetic and fascinating. The addition of Seven of Nine to Voyager significantly boosted the show’s ratings.
5. Boba Fett From The Empire Strikes Back
You may feel that Boba Fett is overhyped, but how did he get that way? He has only 4 lines, consisting of 27 words, in The Empire Strikes Back. In those lines, he says unremarkable things like “As you wish” and “Put Captain Solo in the cargo hold.” It’s hard to say what George Lucas or his collaborators intended for the character, but it looks like he was a generic throwaway bounty hunter. Yet, after Empire, Boba Fett became so popular that fans got upset when he died unceremoniously in Return of the Jedi. But his disposal didn’t diminish his popularity.
How come this throwaway villain has such a following? First, it’s easy to underestimate the value of a villain that actually gets stuff done. Boba Fett doesn’t have many lines, but he has an enormous impact on the plot. Just when Team Good thought they succeeded in sneaking away from a Star Destroyer, it turns out Boba Fett was onto them the whole time. Rather than tell the Empire that they’re escaping, Boba Fett follows them just long enough to discover where they’re going. Then he reports them and collects his bounty. After Vader is finished with Team Good, Fett takes Han Solo away and sells him to Jabba the Hutt. The first half of the next movie is spent rescuing Han from Jabba.
Fett’s limited character interactions also show a surprising amount of respect from Darth Vader, a villain who is both well-developed and intimidating. When Lando Calrissian complains that Darth Vader isn’t keeping his promises, Darth Vader tells him, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it further.” When Boba Fett complains, Darth Vader appeases him by promising to compensate him for losses. And of course, there’s the famous line from Vader to Fett: When instructing a group of bounty hunters on capturing Team Good, Darth Vader stops in front of Boba Fett, wags a finger at him, and says, “No disintegrations.”
It’s impressive how much is communicated by those two words. First, we know Boba Fett disintegrates people. Second, we know that he did this when Darth Vader would have preferred he didn’t, but Fett still got away with it. If he were denied payment for a disintegrated bounty or otherwise punished for the transgression, Vader wouldn’t have to stop and wag a finger at him later. This looks like a clear case of Vader saying, “Okay, we tolerated it that one time but seriously, don’t do it again.” This makes Fett a rascal who bucks authority.
The minimal lines and badass persona are both more effective for villains than heroes. People fear what’s unfamiliar, making mysterious villains more threatening than fully-developed ones. Villains aren’t supposed to be relatable or deserving, so candy usually makes them more impressive. By giving Boba Fett a small appearance, Lucas allowed fans to fill in the blank with whatever they want. If Disney produces more stories about Fett, it may just leave fans feeling disappointed.
While most of these characters are unique and complex, they don’t break any of the usual rules for depicting likable characters. The villains on this list are mysterious, competent, and cool. The protagonists have lots of selflessness, humility, or vulnerability to make up for when they are harsh. They all have novelty. That’s what creates a successful character and a successful story.
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