Analysis

Five Surprisingly Successful Characters and Why They Work

Boba Fett from Star Wars
At Mythcreants we’ve previous discussed characters who were too unlikabletoo isolated, or just disappointing. Some had too much candy or too much spinachterrible motivations, or too much candy again. But believe it or not, we occasionally run into characters that impress us. Let’s go over some characters that were surprisingly well liked for their archetype and investigate how the storytellers accomplished it.

1. Lee From Darker Than Black Season One

Anime showing man with creepy mask

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

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

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

Seven of Nine Portait

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

Boba Fett points his gun

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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Comments

  1. El Suscriptor Justiciero

    I love Vader and Boba’s “no disintegrations!” bit. It sounds like one of those “but you screw one goat…” moments.

    • Cay Reet

      Vader: No disintegrations!
      Boba Fett thinks: Great, you disintegrate a guy one time and you never hear the last of it. Good thing I can roll my eyes without anyone seeing it…

      • SunlessNick

        I always wondered if the disintegrations were his cover story for when the target got away.

  2. Lizard with Hat

    Wow, that’s spot on Chris! Great article.

    I add my thoughts on Boba Fett:
    I like him (and his cool space ship) but only in Star Wars 5 and Star Wars 6. Everything else with Boba Fett just never felt that cool (or consistent).
    Most material of the extended universe makes him into an anti-hero with a warrior-culture – and warrior-cultures are not very interesting, at least not in this case, suddenly Boba Fett wasn’t a grim bad guy but a noble fighter – that just doesn’t add up for me.

    And I’m not convinced that the new Star Wars Film will change my mind…

    • BeardedLizard

      I agree with you, fellow lizard. Boba Fett worked very well in the original trilogy, but was never built to be a point-of-view character: working best when you don’t look too closely under his badass looking helmet.

      Also, you made me think of something I find quite funny and ironic with the star wars universe regarding Boba Fett and the Mandalorian. Their entire culture was built to develop Boba’s “backstory”, but in the end, Boba is an oddball regarding his own culture, almost unrelated to it since he’s a clone and as no clans to speak of. Meanwhile, the animated series (among other) introduced many other Mandalorian characters arguably more interesting than him (I really liked Sabine Wren and her story arc in the latter seasons of star wars: rebels).

      • Lizard with Hat

        I agree, Fellow Lizard :3
        It also very common that the good guys enlist him for some stuff – he sometimes looks more like a Talon Karrde in badass armor than a ruthless bounty hunter I like.
        I think they could have done more with Boba Fett in the Movies but as it is, it’s quite awesome (especially considering he is only in a few scenes with little lines)
        A thing I noticed about Sabine is that she doesn’t have quite as much armor as male Mandalorians (but at least her helmet worked that one time, I love that scene) and her fighting style is the classic girly-fighter-ninja-ballet.
        Honestly though Rebels, while very predictable for me, was still quite enjoyable and the female leads are the main reason for that

        • BeardedLizard

          Female Mandalorian armor in the show seems to be a bit lighter than the male one I agree, but I’ve just noticed by looking at pictures that Sabine’s is particularly light (lacking the abdominal bloating that her mother and Bo Katan haves). Ketsu’s armor is even lighter. Guess you need to be especially light to be a badass space-ninja-demolition-expert.

          (At least, they don’t have a sexy mandalorian armor. That would have been the worst).

          • Lizard with Hat

            Glad we all dodged that blaster bolt “sexy armor” is such overused trope. As is the female ninja-ballet style … with blasters. I get why the jedi do that with force powered fencing and that – but Sabine isn’t force sensitive (at least not in the way the canon treats the force) but still jumps around like a jedi and it is never really explained – it just is… not even a statement how badass she is for holding up the way she does. I find that unexplained badassitude of none force users a tiny bit annoying as Sabine is a teenager and: a demoliton expert, a super-acrobat, a exeptional sharpshooter and a capable brawler. Yet that comes of as being par the course when other people gone on who awesome thier magic powers are…

            But as you said, could have been worth but thankfully it was quite okay :3

  3. Kel

    Thanks to the related links, I read this and then https://mythcreants.com/blog/five-disappointing-villains/
    Interesting to see the very different takes on Boba Fett’s character.

    • Cay Reet

      Two different authors writing an opinion piece is always interesting.

      Personally, I think Boba works a lot better when we don’t know too much about him (which was why the whole ‘clone’ business was such a disappointment).

      • Cannoli

        I think what we know about him in all three movies in which he appears works well. He travels the galaxy with his bad ass dad who is actually a selfish villain intent only on molding his son into an extension of himself. Procreative love is considered among the highest forms because of the ideal of unselfishness involved, but Jango can’t even be sufficiently vulnerable or accessible to another person to make that work, and instead has a copy of himself made to serve as his son, and legacy. That’s where Boba came from and he saw his dad as this awesome & cool expert on everything important, right up until he dies desperately backing away from a Jedi Master who is unaware that he has just shattered Boba’s world.

        So Boba does his best to be as tough and good as his father, and probably overcompensates, leading to the disintegrations, and he eventually succeeds at impressing one of the most powerful men in the Empire, by succeeding where the fleet could not, and getting a score so big that it intimidates a rebel general, who thinks that getting out from under a bounty that big is a reasonable justification for one of his top officers taking some personal time during the nadir of the Rebellion’s fortunes.

        Then, once he’s at the top, what does he do then? He’s got the huge score. He’s in Jabba’s favor, and the Empire’s good books. How does he top that? He doesn’t, so he hangs around Jabba’s palace, shmoozing with the other courtiers and elite criminals and bounty hunters. He’s rich. No more scrambling around trying to beat his colleagues to other scores. So maybe he loses a bit of that edge, and then one day, some punk upstart comes in dragging Han Solo’s bigger, stronger & fiercer partner on a mere chain! He didn’t even need to encase Chewie in carbonite to get him there! And then this new guy stares down Jabba and wins his respect by threatening him with a mutually assured destruction. Now Boba Fett is no longer cock of the walk in Jabba’s court! And then the new guy turns out to be an infiltrator who penetrated Jabba’s security, but even if Fett’s significant nod concealed a suspicion that led to Leia being trapped, it’s still got to rankle. So when Luke’s escape plan kicks off, Fett sees his chance to top himself, the cover story of Leia’s alter-ego and even his idolized father! He can CAPTURE a Jedi Knight! So he tries to take Luke with a rope, rather than a sniper shot or a bomb, and that doesn’t go well, and he is brought down by a random accident he NEVER would have fallen prey too when he was sharp and on the way up.

        Boba Fett’s behind the scenes & between the lines story is the tragic tale of a self-made man who wasted his potential striving for money and glory and had nothing else to live and couldn’t maintain his level of accomplishment once he got a surfeit.

        • Cay Reet

          Procreation and love do not have to be mutual, just saying.
          For a long time in history, people have formed alliances (generally called marriage, but it’s not even necessary to be together long-term) for procreation without any thought of love. Marrying out of love is a concept which has been around for about 150 years now, ever since the romantic movement in literature where people suggested that you only marry someone you feel love for – before that, you loved person A, but married person B, because your family and/or you bank account said so. Mandalorians could just as well ‘mate’ with partners who are suitable (have skills they were born with someone wishes for the child to have, are highly successful in the profession) and contribute money to the child-rising (and, perhaps, take over the child in time for training). There’s not just ‘was born as a clone of his fater’ and ‘grew up in a loving family.’ Or you could have the Spartian approach where children are removed from their families at an early age and trained in all necessary skills until adulthood.

          Generally speaking, the less you know about a villainous character, the more villainous they appear. Once you’ve heard about their childhood and how they decided to become what they are, a lot of their air is out of the window. Yes, there’s a lot more to fawn over with all the background, but it also makes the character more sympathetic and that is a dangerous thing for a villain to be. Before the whole ‘I’m your father’ and the prequels, Vader was more threatening, too, but he was set up for some redemption in the end, so it makes sense in his case. Bobba neither has nor needs redemption and could have stayed more shadowy.

  4. Laura Ess

    The Android on “Dark Matter” was one of the best characters in it! She had access to extra personality but considered it an option rather than mandatory.

    When it comes to LEE From “Darker Than Black”, I though hi running around as a server et cetera, WAS his “paying the price”. That’s not a benefit, but the cost of his abilities.

  5. SunlessNick

    Regarding Seven of Nine, Jeri Ryan’s performance also consistently demonstrated one of the most manifestly obvious (but stll forgotten by many of the writers) things about the character – she was *never* going to human the way Janeway wanted her to be. She’d been assimilated as a child, and been a drone most of her life – recovering her humanity was a pipe dream – her individual self would be something new.
    (It’s why her interactions with Tuvok were always refreshing – he showed more willingness to help her find herself rather than mould her the way Janeway tried to).

  6. Joshua Foreman

    Very interesting thoughts on Fett. I’ve only every seen him held up as an example of great costume design. But your analysis makes way more sense of the phenomenon.

  7. Anonymoo

    I love “Darker than Black” and all this time I thought Hei was his real name and Lee was his pseudonym, not the other way around. oops!

    • Chris Winkle

      No, you’re right. I just didn’t want to use both names because I thought that would be more confusing. I probably should have chosen Hei instead of Lee.

      • Anonymoo

        No worries about the name; I’m just glad to see his character getting some love! I really appreciated your breakdown of him.

  8. E. H.

    I read somewhere that an early idea was to have Vader and Fett be brothers. LOL

    Glad they didn’t but interesting possibility for sibling rivalry. His brother is more successful than him and won’t let that little disintigration incident go after all these years!

    • Julia

      Ah, geez, bro. It was just that one time!

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