A little goes a long way when it comes to displaying who a character is and making them endearing to the audience.
It doesn’t take much for me to fall in love with a character if the writers make time for character development. There’s something about seeing a character being themselves that I just adore.
|Avatar: The Last Airbender, 2008 Viacom
Some of my favorite characters are from stories that take the time—even if it’s just one line of dialogue—to display something about who that character is. Spiderman’s quips as he webslings bad guys. Captain Jack Sparrow’s nervous tics when things aren’t going quite according to his plans. Prince Zuko’s frustrated proclamation that his appearance is not, in fact, a costume and that “[t]he scar’s not on the wrong side!” The littlest things can bring characters to life.
So it comes as no surprise that it was the little things the protagonist of Kingdom Hearts, Sora, would do and say that made me fall in love with his character back in 2002. Now, I’m always a sucker for Paragon characters: the shining heroes with unshakeable courage and kindness. But Sora went the extra mile; he wasn’t just a charming goody-goody; he had a few quirks that made him that much more realistic and charming.
For one thing, Sora had a reputation for being a bit lazy and lackadaisical. At the beginning of the original Kingdom Hearts, Sora wakes from a remarkably lifelike dream and is startled by his friend Kairi, who teases him for being his typical “lazy” self. “I knew I’d find you snoozing down here,” Kairi giggles.1
Sora also had a competitive streak, frequently challenging his best friend, Riku, whether through impromptu races or battles with makeshift wooden swords. With every competition, Sora kept track of his wins and losses, celebrating each victory and despondently tallying any defeat. But he remained persistent, challenging Riku as many times as the player desired.
And it wasn’t just in athletic ability that Sora competed with Riku. In one scene, Riku teases Sora about his obvious feelings for Kairi, and it becomes pretty clear early on that Riku wouldn’t mind Kairi’s attention, either, though neither boy openly admits their desires.
Sora could also be a bit of a punk. From getting into frequent arguments with allies to calling a complete stranger an “old man” to flat-out telling Riku when he was making a “stupid” mistake, Sora wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows all the time.2
It was little things like this that made Sora feel like a person rather than a character in Kingdom Hearts, little quirks that made his admirable qualities shine all the brighter. His childlike wonder and thirst for adventure were tempered by his lackadaisical, carefree attitude. His cheerful, friendly demeanor coexisted with his competitive side, which caused him to butt heads with certain individuals.
Through the first game, Sora slowly transformed from a naive islander to a young man who has lost everything he cares about and still continues to fight. In many ways, the main entries of Kingdom Hearts continue that same narrative: Sora facing increasing challenges in order to protect others.
Those challenges increase exponentially in Kingdom Hearts II, where Sora comes face-to-face with the main villain force in the series: a group known as Organization XIII. The majority of Kingdom Hearts II involves Sora clashing with the Organization as they attempt to manipulate him into doing their bidding. This conflict necessitated far fewer character development moments for Sora compared to the somewhat looser plot of the original Kingdom Hearts.
But not all character development was gone: we do see a bit of Sora’s inner struggles in Kingdom Hearts II. Sora has no idea, but during the previous year (when he’d been in an induced coma), there were experiments performed on him that created a bond between him and a young man named Roxas. Though Roxas had to be destroyed to wake Sora from his coma, Roxas’s memories still live inside Sora’s subconscious. When Sora encounters Roxas’s old friends, he finds himself inexplicably bonding with them and their home. Things he’s never seen before feel familiar, and when he must say goodbye to it all and move on with his adventure, he becomes overwhelmed with emotion to the point of tears. “You know what?” Sora murmurs to his traveling companions, “I’m sad,”3 even though he doesn’t understand why. Roxas’s lingering, ghost-like memories and feelings continue to guide Sora long throughout the series.
We also see Sora dealing with doubt as the Organization blackmails him. Though Sora is loathe to give any aid to villains who don’t care about others, the Organization is holding Kairi prisoner. The Organization instructs Sora to continue fighting the Heartless, as it will further their plans. Though Sora has been fighting the Heartless for years, he now wonders if he’s doing the right thing in continuing such a quest. For every monster he destroys, he may protect people in the short-term, but he’s also advancing the villains’ plans in the long-term. Should he continue fighting as he has been? How can he justify that, knowing every monster he defeats is strengthening the Organization and endangering the worlds? This moral dilemma is an unexpected development for Sora’s character, but a welcome one. We see that the story, and Sora, are maturing.
Beyond this, however, Sora’s character development moments are few and far-between in Kingdom Hearts II, as he’s far too busy tangling with the Organization to truly stop and have a bonding moment with other characters in the series. And that made me concerned.
There was so much I loved about Sora in the original Kingdom Hearts. He had a heart of gold, but he was sassy and brazen but not stupid. He had spunk to his good nature. So when Kingdom Hearts II came out, I enjoyed seeing Sora struggle in ways he hadn’t in the first game, but I became concerned that it came at the cost of Sora becoming a “goody two-shoes” stereotype. In any games past the first, Sora became less and less of a well-rounded person and more like his archetype: a Paragon who sought to fight for others. Not that I mind Paragons! But it felt like Sora had lost a little piece of himself. We saw little of Sora’s competitive streak; we saw little to none of his sass and back-talking. No, Sora was much more polite in Kingdom Hearts II, in part because he had grown up a good deal. But in growing up, he’d lost some of the fire that had made him so endearing to me.
Which is why his portrayal in Kingdom Hearts III is an excellent combination of aspects I loved about Sora’s character development from Kingdom Hearts I and II: the sass and the self-doubt are on full display in this game. It’s an incredibly refreshing return to form and an excellent display of how much Sora—and the storytelling—has grown and changed over the course of the series.
Sora has gotten more character development moments throughout the first 27 hours of Kingdom Hearts III than I’ve seen in any Kingdom Hearts game to date. While Sora remains his characteristic cheerful, optimistic self, we’ve seen plenty of tiny moments where he proves once again he’s not a perfect Paragon.
The remainder of this post will contain spoilers for
Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance and Kingdom Hearts III
At the beginning of Kingdom Hearts III, two recurring villains bump into Sora and his constant traveling companions, Donald Duck and Goofy. Sora teases the villains for their bungled attempts in the past, as he’s always been there to stop them at every turn. But one of the villains comments how much weaker Sora seems than the last time they fought.
While ordinarily the cheery Sora could just let such a comment wash off his back as he jumps in to fight, this time it clearly catches him off guard. It stings a little. He’s left a bit at a loss for words, and you can see from the look on his face that he certainly acknowledges the truth of that statement.
In the game prior to Kingdom Hearts III, Sora nearly became a puppet of the main villain of the series. Sora’s friends narrowly saved him, but not without cost: the incident left Sora drained of much of his strength, and much of Kingdom Hearts III focuses on Sora training and rediscovering his lost abilities.
Goofy and Donald both notice Sora feeling taken aback, even commenting on it and asking if he’s all right. Sora tries to brush the comment off, saying he can “take it.”4 But it’s clear that the encounter is still bothering him long afterward.
It’s a tiny seed of self-doubt we haven’t seen Sora deal with before—not on such a personal level—and it makes perfect sense taking place here. Never before had Sora come so close to losing. It’s clearly shaken him up.
Indeed, Kingdom Hearts III places Sora’s feelings on display far more often than other games so far.
For example, though we’ve seen some instances of Sora expressing gratitude for his friends and experiences, there’s a poignant little scene in Kingdom Hearts III in which Sora openly states how much this world-exploring adventure with Donald and Goofy has meant to him. Immediately, however, he becomes embarrassed and deflects from the admission, teasing Donald and running off laughing as Donald gives chase, furious. It’s like watching two brothers pick on each other knowing that both of them still care deeply for one another.
But it’s not just moments of humbling self-doubt or touching gratitude we see Sora experiencing in this game. Later on, we see Sora cranking his charming, childlike insistence on helping people up to ten. When Sora learns of an ally who has been trapped in the dangerous Realm of Darkness for the past eleven years, he immediately proclaims that they need to go rescue her, with no concern for his own wellbeing… even though he doesn’t know how to get there.
But that doesn’t matter to Sora. His immediate reaction is to pull out his phone to try to call Riku, who does know the way to the dangerous realm.
Goofy and Donald frantically reiterate what Sora already knows: that until Sora learns a special ability to protect himself from the harmful effects of the Realm of Darkness, he simply can’t go.
Sora is distraught at this, frustrated. But he perks up immediately when his phone goes off. Hopeful it’s Riku, Sora eagerly answers… only to sink into his chair in dismay when it’s another ally instead.
“Is… this a bad time?” the ally asks as he glances at Sora’s disappointed face.5
It’s one of my favorite scenes of Sora being his selfless, caring, adorable self I’ve seen in the franchise so far. But it’s not my favorite scene overall.
One of the most moving moments for Sora’s development and growth is when he looks on as a friend is stabbed.
There has only been one actual death in the entire Kingdom Hearts franchise so far, and Sora was not present to see it. This is the first time he’s come face-to-face with the possibility of one of his friends dying. To see the cheerful, innocent Sora looking on in fear, dismay, and fury… it’s almost as shocking and painful for us as it is for Sora.
Each moment of character development in the Kingdom Hearts series may be short, but they’re never small. And none have struck me quite like those from Kingdom Hearts III. Though I’ve loved Sora since the first game, Kingdom Hearts III renewed my love for his character and has possibly brought it to new heights.
I can’t wait to see what other character development moments Kingdom Hearts III has in store for Sora and the rest of the cast, as well.
- Kingdom Hearts, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura, Written by Jun Akiyama, Daisuke Watanabe, and Kazushige Nojima, March 28, 2002, Square.
- Kingdom Hearts II, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura, Written by Kazushige Nojima, December 22, 2005, Square Enix.
- Kingdom Hearts III, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Tai Yasue, Written by Tetsuya Nomura and Masaru Oka, January 29, 2019, Square Enix.
Kingdom Hearts and all related terms are the property of Square Enix Holdings Co., Ltd.; Donald Duck, Goofy, and all related terms are the property of Walt Disney Studios. And I am not affiliated with either of them.