By way of varying circumstances, these characters are all uniquely complex. They are all the protagonists of their stories, letting you follow them and their journeys. They may not always fight for the right reasons, but this is precisely why we love them. They represent a mixed bag of philosophies, fighting styles, thought patterns and more. Today, we’re celebrating our Top 10 Complex Protagonists.
10) Manny Cavalera
He’s a travel agent to the recently deceased, a hard headed salesmen with a job to do and an ambition to reach. He has friends in his office, and rivals, and the woman he off-handedly flirts with, honestly if he weren’t dead he’d be just like you and I. When his life is turned upside down by conspiracy and criminal activity he is sent on a journey across the afterlife, falling in love, starting a business, becoming a pillar of his bleak little community, before breaking free and escaping into adventure.
Manny lives an incredibly rich “life”, exploring the very depths of despair and the giddy heights of ambivalence, wandering through a world of wonders and marvels that would blow the minds of the living. To him, the afterlife is a cruel mistress, hope and love drive him onwards to the uncertain future, a great promised beyond, but along the way he is forced into underhanded and unpleasant tactics, to overcome obstacles laid down by enemies as devious as he is, he must play by their rules.
9) Alice – American McGee’s Alice
A unique spin on the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland, American McGee portrays Alice as a child with mental difficulties. She’s often with a doctor, in an asylum and often with other children displaying mental issues. The game taps into her psyche a lot, leaving you to paint her as a traumatised girl, who slips into her Wonderland whenever she needs an escape from the harsh realities of the real world.
The game does an exceptional job portraying her as a sympathetic hero… However, when she gets into her Wonderland, you bet that she’s ready to tear apart her enemies. Anyone who dares ruin the Wonderland is likely to be sliced apart by daggers, or sprayed with her pepper grinder. Alice is struggling, so she needs her escapes, but to lash out in such uncontrollable rage is a terrifying and all too understandable prospect.
8) Kain/Raziel – Legacy of Kain
This complexity is born of longevity and time travel. Kain, lord of all vampires, and his right hand man and sworn enemy, Raziel, have lived for centuries in conflict and brotherhood, their souls bonded forever by a common enemy and the sword that is – strangely – both of them. Yeah, it’s that weird.
Theirs is a saga. Kain is a former nobleman, slain, raised, travelling to the depths of hell, becoming bound by fate itself to the pillars of the world as their protector and guardian. Raziel, a priest turned monster, subsisting on the souls of the living and a foot each in life and what waits on the other side. Their history is long, quite ridiculously long in fact, I can’t really summarise it in a few dozen words, but the short version is they play into the role of “pieces that take control of the game” rather well. Elder gods, prophets, mysterious divine forces, the nature of order and chaos are both integral to their history and their relationship, and it is impossible to discuss one without the other.
7) Hiccup – How to Train Your Dragon
Here’s one of the greatest underdogs in modern media history. Hiccup is the least vikingly viking in the village of Burk, and every day is a struggle to prove himself, not just to his father and the rest of the village, but also to himself. It’s not that he doubts himself, actually his wit and cunning are peerless… everyone else is pretty dim to be honest, but to find a place in the world in which he lives is a task in itself.
Meeting a dragon, loving a dragon as a brother, unifying the ancient warring forces of dragon and viking, all of it gives Hiccup the resolve to be a leader, a true blooded viking capable of taking war to all who oppose him. He goes from the scrawniest of vikings to the most cunning and ruthless of chiefs across three films, all while remaining stalwart and resolute to himself. He has gone through grief, and tragedy, and loss, and each step has changed him, tempered him, and ultimately made him the most terrifying force to sail the seas and rove the skies.
6) Solid Snake – Metal Gear Solid
If you’ve never heard about how complex the Metal Gear timeline is, then you’ve been missing out on something pretty major in gaming. A pivotal, central character in the franchise is Solid Snake, who is a clone that is aging rapidly. As a clone of Big Boss, a world renowned soldier, Solid Snake would respond to any order given to him, most of which was to disarm and destroy the Metal Gear.
Most people see Snake as a solid (hah) character, one that is always calm and stoic about a situation. He has a good outlook on his life, accepting that he is a clone quite happily. He just wants to keep on surviving, as he was trained during his time in FOXHOUND. As a military man, seeing betrayal and even the fall of some of his closest friends and allies drove him to PTSD. He became dependant on alcohol and became immensely cynical.
5) Commander Samuel Vimes – The Discworld
It would be entirely fair for one to assume that Sir Samuel Vimes, Duke of Ankh Morpork, Commander of the City Watch, was Pratchett’s favourite character. When we first meet him he’s a drunk, a failure, commanding the shadow of a squad on the night watch, with his only two officers being a fat incompetent mess with a cheery disposition, and a straight-up criminal of questionable humanity. Enter simple but determined and fair Carrot Ironfounderson, whose enthusiasm and timely arrival in the middle of a crisis, drives Sam Vimes to rise to the occasion, and begin the slow and painful process of rebuilding the night watch, restoring law and order, and remaining sober in a city of vices, temptations, and a great deal of stress.
As it turns out, when he’s off the booze and on the job, Vimes is a force to be reconned with. He’s cunning and duplicitous in the best possible ways, willing and able to use underhanded tactics to achieve the best possible outcome, and while there’s still an angry beast that wants to lash out and destroy any creature that dares to threaten his family, he is first and foremost a copper, every bit the policeman to the very core. he’s not an earl, or a duke, no matter how many titles Vetinari ladles upon him. He is the Watch, and he’s bloody good at it.
4) Ezio Auditore da Firenze – Assassin’s Creed
Ezio came from a lineage of assassins. As a child, he saw the hangings of his father and his two brothers, forcing him to flee with his remaining family. It turned out that it was the Templar Order who had ordered the hanging of his family, which gave him something to focus on. Indeed, he found about his ancestors who were great assassins, so then started to train to become one himself. He wanted vengeance against the Templar Order.
Before becoming a great assassin, Ezio was a Florentine nobleman from the 15th century. He was born to wealth, but he was hugely humble as well. He was well liked and well regarded, not only by his family but by everyone around him. However, after the murder of his family, he trained to become a cold-hearted assassin. This led him to some fits of rage, causing him to repeatedly stab some of his victims to death, as opposed to being calm.
Whilst a hugely skilled man, Ezio had to work hard to learn to control his emotions. Eventually, he did and he became an incredible assassin. Not bad for a rich boy.
3) Black Widow
Natasha Romanoff was originally a Russian Spy, acting as a foil to Iron Man. Her skills as a spy and assassin were unparalleled, making her a deadly foe. However, her time as a villain was not to last, as she eventually defected to the U.S. This happens after she starts to team up with the villainous archer, Hawkeye, only for her to start to develop feelings for him. This annoyed the KGB, who gun her down, only for the Avengers to save her.
With white blood cells which give her insane regenerative properties, Black Widow hides more secrets than most heroes. She is one of the Avengers, who has had interactions with most of the Marvel universe. For her to come from such a violent and brutal past, to the Avenger she is today, she’s an excellent addition to the team. Naturally, she was also part of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
A natural born leader, an intelligent fighter and all in all, an important character with a strange and storied history involving the KGB.
2) Sherlock Holmes
It’s elementary my dear readers, Sherlock Holmes is one of the most complex characters in all of literature. Penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is the most portrayed character in film history. The character is so well known worldwide, that people actually believed he was a real person. This is the start of why Sherlock is such a complex character, more so than you would first think.
His ancestors were country squires; his grandmother the sister to french artist ‘Vernet’. His family history is shrouded in mystery and intrigue, but his friendship with Watson unveils even more oddities. With Watson writing about Sherlock’s findings, Sherlock always remarked about how the science of his craft isn’t explored. No matter how much you think you know about Sherlock, there’s always more to know and find out – and that’s why he’s such a fascinating and complex character.
1) Walter White – Breaking Bad
There is a reason why Breaking Bad was among the highest acclaimed crime dramas of all time, and why Bryan Cranston is no longer “just the dad from Malcolm in the Middle”, more famous as a villain and a character capable of monstrous acts in the name of his family. Walter White was a man cursed with private healthcare, who found a way to make money quickly and easily, without ever burdening his family, shouldering the weight of his actions, and starting along the slow path to accepting, embracing, and embodying his darker side, Heisenberg, lord of the underworld.
He is, at his core, a perfectionist. He pursued the finest possible formula for his “product”, and when he looked around him at the seedy underbelly he now inhabited, an old ambition rekindled and grew, and he became an unstoppable force on his rise to the top, shedding layer upon layer of humanity as he ascended to the very top of the very worst, and only an act of redemption finally ended his life. Heisenberg the monster was unstoppable, White the man was weak and vulnerable… but at least he was human.
Some things are best left unanswered, which is why we wouldn’t ask why these characters got this way. However, if they tell us, we certainly will read all about it! Now that we have pontificated upon our ten valiant protagonists, here are two more complex creations who deserved to be mentioned.
Rodion Raskolnikov – Crime & Punishment
Impoverished and selfish, Rodion Raskolnikov is one of those characters you shouldn’t sympathise with… And yet, I bet you also do. See, he is an ex-student who is the lead protagonist of the classic novel Crime & Punishment. He is down on his luck, so he sees an opportunity and goes for it. Unfortunately, the opportunity that comes his way is the murder of a pawnbroker, in order to steal her money.
That would normally be as far as a criminal goes, however in Crime & Punishment, we see Raskolnikov go through a vast array of emotions. From confusion at the world, to the guilt that he feels, which eventually leads him to turning himself in. A cruel and cold-hearted man at times, but yet at the same time charitable, Raskolnikov is a man with a split personality. After all, murder does change a person and it’s fair to say that crime doesn’t pay… At least mentally.
Elan – Order of the Stick
The party’s bard is a super-duper essential role… what’s a dramatic moment without music to tell you it’s dramatic, and you simply cannot survive for long in a complex fantasy setting without someone acting as a narrative consultant and advising on the fundamentals of story structure. That is the job of Elan in the Order of the Stick, he champions for epic moments and good story telling, which should make him the butt of most jokes, but in fact he ‘s among the richest characters in the party.
His mother raised him alone, leaving his identical twin brother in the hands of their tyrannical father, one learned the value of stories from the perspective of great heroes and the power of good to overcome evil, while Tarquin taught his son the value of narrative through the eyes of the villain, and how to make a nation kneel by manipulating perspective. Elan, naive as he may seem, has had to deal with two of the most terrible villains of the comic to date, his own flesh and blood.
Also he made a hand puppet a god. So far as I’m aware, that particular church still has worshippers.
Ah, I am aghast at the state of mind some of these characters come from. Their mental power, their resolve is all admirable, whether or not we agree with all of their actions. They may be a bunch of folk who seemingly have it all, but when you see things from their perspectives, you know they’re a tricky bunch. Help us decide what next week’s list will be, before we dwell too far on this.
With that, we can take off our thinking caps and stop pretending we’re complex. No, we’re definitely not complex beings – We see things we think are cool and we tell you all about it. But perhaps we messed up? Perhaps we forgot about a genuinely complex character who deserved the nod here? Did we get the order wrong? As ever, we want you to tell us what you thought of today’s list in the comments below, or on Facebook and Twitter.