As much as Christianity can be a divided faith in places, there’s little disagreement over the tenet of ‘love thy neighbour’, the second greatest commandment handed down by Christ. We love others to show further love of God. Trouble is, we have a tendency to put ourselves first, and sins of greed, lust, envy and the like work against our love of others.
It’s the Christian’s constant goal to be improving the ways they put other people first in unconditional love and humility. But shouldn’t we applying that love to fictional characters too? A better question: why wouldn’t we?
Something I keep running into when reading comments about Charlotte, Key’s currently-airing show about pubescent superpowers, are complaints that some of the characters are ‘annoying’. Many get put off by Tomori’s temperamental personality, abusing one person while acting calm or even cute and cuddly to the next (or, in some cases, the same person). A lot of people also have grievances with the ‘imouto’ character of Ayumi, criticising her as a dimensionless cliché that gets on their nerves. Some even complain that they’re finding Yuu’s relegation to a supporting role in the plot irritating, as though the show is forgetting that it has a protagonist.
Being a Christian critic is hard, because I have to simultaneously consider these reactions while often not reacting the same way myself. I do my best to be as forgiving and optimistic about characters as a show airs, just as I try to be optimistic about the direction of the show itself (leading some people to accuse me of giving something ‘too much credit’). If something’s irritating to me, I accept that, but I immediately wonder why it’s irritating, and I often come to realisations that make me understand the cast, and my irritation, far more.
In Charlotte’s case, Tomori’s social ineptitude is clearly the result of her being robbed of a proper upbringing, an insight developed more with every episode. Ayumi’s sweetness is overpowering to both the viewer and Yuu, so her being annoying helps us understand Yuu’s inability to withstand her behaviour. Finally, having Yuu unable to take the lead both reflects how he never had an honest success before and the fact that this is Tomori’s quest far more than it is his. All these initially dissatisfying things, for me, make the show a lot more interesting to watch.
Yet, this kind of analysis brings another problem – do I only care about these characters because I looked more deeply into them? Charlotte has all its cast start as books that are wrongly judged by their covers; all of them have caring and wonderful reasons for them to abuse their powers and have potentially off-putting personalities. It’s dangerous, however, for a Christian to swallow this idea that we only start caring about them once we ‘understand’ them.
Just thinking about how Christ understands us perfectly as the sinners we are, and still gave his life for us, sets everything in perspective. We are commanded to love our enemies just as we love our friends; we love those who celebrate their sin, who insult, hurt and persecute us – we should even love someone who takes away everything we have from us. So if the empathy we have towards people is the same that we exercise when looking at a fictional character, it’s only right that we should exercise our love for enemies too. Does a character really tick you off? Fine; but love them anyway.
Charlotte’s Tomori is a good example of the kind of person to whom people would be unlikely to care about – she’s disliked by whole school – but who needs our love more than anything. It takes delving into her past for most viewers to soften towards her, a convention used in many emotional shows, but even after that backstory many viewers have chosen to remain on the side of the class, rejecting her because she has an unlikeable personality. If she was someone you knew in real life, rejecting her wouldn’t help solve her issues, so you’re only rejecting her for yourself. If you wanted to help her, you’d start by wanting to get to know her better – that desire for understanding itself is loving, and I’d argue that Yuu displays it too.
I think it’s sad – but inevitable – that a lot of people will only ‘love’ characters because they get something from them. It’s the reciprocal exchange of Full Metal Alchemist in emotional form: as long as the character supplies you with feelings you like, you give back to them the feelings they want – care, concern, support. Likewise, if a character annoys you to no end, you give back what you think they deserve – rejection, mockery, scorn.
This is exactly the kind of ‘eye for an eye’ principle that Christ came to undo, a barbaric way of appreciating people and, incidentally, art (for when is art not about people?). We should be better than this, as followers of Christ. We should give our love to the most despicable people and to the most abominable fictional representations of humanity – the greatest villains and antiheroes we’ve witnessed. Is there really much difference between the two?
Note that this doesn’t mean we support them; they might be, like Oberon in SAO’s second arc, disgusting creatures who make us vomit the moment they appear on screen. Our goal should be to distance our hatred for the evil they stand for – lust, greed, pride, etc. – from the person bearing all that shameful behaviour, who we should still extend our love to. When a character makes our blood boil, it’s the sin that’s doing that, not the sinner. If Oberon were real, he’d have as much a need for Christ as we did before we were saved.
Neither is this to say that these characters are real. God isn’t going to have Fay Valentine stand before him at the judgement. He does, however, know our hearts, and the heart we had towards a fictional character is the same heart we have towards someone real. You could argue that a director’s choices when displaying a character dramatically influence how we’re supposed to react the events in a story, but we should not be mastered by anything in a way that leads us to sin, even if it’s part of the purpose of the story we’re enjoying. We shouldn’t be deceived into having sinful thoughts because of a show’s design; that’s exactly why we work against pornography.
This returns us to the fact that being a Christian critic is hard. Sometimes it’ll be a lot harder for me to engage with a story the way most people are because the ‘correct’ responses to characters are ones I don’t want to have – responses I believe are sinful. People will ask me why I’m being so allowing and forgiving, and I’ll usually respond by evaluating how the story allows for such an interpretation. Sometimes, though, I’ll just be completely blunt and say that I’m trying to be nice because I try to be nice.
A lot people say that they have no reason to make niceness a general rule; but Christians know that we do. We are called to be patient and kind, not easily angered, not delighting in evil, and always protecting, trusting and persevering (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7). We are called to love:
1) Don’t use fiction as an escape from Christian responsibility.
It’s easy to say ‘it’s not real, so I don’t have to treat it like I would if it was’ and use that as a reason to indulge in the thoughts, feelings and actions the Bible teaches us to avoid. Stories can sometimes incite us towards the wrong kinds of ideas, and we should be careful not to fall into the trap of sinfully judging others because we become so used to judging people in fiction. Stop it where it starts; don’t pretend your heart is unaccounted for when it’s engaged towards a fantasy.
2) Love characters even if they give you nothing good, no matter how much you know about them.
Some stories make this harder than others, especially since artists can make characters appear more or less real, wide or narrow representations of humanity, transparent or opaque windows into the lives these imaginary people lead. No matter what we get, however, we should try to love. It may be impossible to give the same amount of love to a character we know for five minutes compared to one we follow for the entire show, just like we can’t do likewise for a guy we meet for a business meeting for a hour compared to a friend we know for life, but it is always possible to have the same loving heart towards them, which God will always be watching.
With this in mind, I tend to find protagonists and antagonists alike more enjoyable. The bad guys are especially more fun to watch, since I can engage wholeheartedly with detesting the evils they represent while also seeing the person around and underneath all that sin, certain – no matter how much the show argues otherwise – that God would love this person no matter what if they were living next door to me today. Unconditional love for characters still enables the viewer – perhaps it enables them better – to understand every aspect, flaw and criticism that someone can have, represent or receive.
This also means that I tend to drop shows for much better reasons. Bad company corrupts good character (1 Corinthians 15:33); if I can’t enjoy a show without feeling surrounded by the support or need for thoughts or feelings that go against my faith, it’s usually something I have to get away from, just as I would get away from a group of ‘friends’ that lead me down the wrong paths in life. It’s still loving to distance yourself like that, since you’re putting God first and prioritising leading a righteous life, which will help your love of others be more beneficial to others. The prayers of a righteous man are powerful indeed (James 5:16).
Thanks for reading, and may God bless your loving (and anime-loving) hearts.