Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Sometimes, even when something has existed for hundreds of years, it takes another culture to accurately identify it and give it a name. Such is the case for the ‘tsundere’ character – a personality type that we all recognize but which the English language hasn’t quite succeeded in capturing.
Now, learning a new literary term is always fun, but identifying a character type that can be found across multiple genres and which readers tend to love has real value. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be looking at what makes a character tsundere, why readers like tsundere characters so much, and how your plot can serve to make tsundere characters even more engaging.
What makes a character tsundere?
A loan word from Japanese, ‘tsundere’ is a portmanteau of two terms: ‘tsun tsun,’ meaning to turn away in disgust, and ‘dere dere,’ meaning to become affectionate (the latter is comparable to the English ‘lovey dovey.’)
Combined, these words denote a character who is initially cold or hostile but whose warmer, more loving side is exposed over the course of the story. The level of hostility shown is usually social, and tsundere characters are generally allies to the protagonist, even if they’re not initially friendly.
Perhaps the most famous example of this type of character is Fitzwilliam Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – a character whose aloof presentation makes him not just unfriendly but hard to believe as the protagonist’s ultimate love interest.
He was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Tsundere characters are relatively common, but they’re also frequently beloved by readers, and they can add a huge amount to many different types of narrative. It may be that you’re already writing a tsundere character in your novel, but now that we know there’s a term for this kind of behavior, we can identify how best to write it.
Why are tsundere characters so popular?
One of the most obvious reasons tsundere characters are so popular is that they come complete with their own personal arc. They begin the story as a hostile presence, but as it unfolds the cracks begin to appear, and by the end they’re behaving in a way that was unimaginable at the beginning.
One of the primal joys of stories is the sense of watching change happen, and tsundere characters offer this up even before the rest of the plot is taken into consideration. Something that makes this process particularly satisfying is the sense of comparison that comes along with it.
In The Dos and Don’ts Of Writing Smart Characters, I described how one way to make a smart character really feel smart is to have them rephrase a complex idea in a way that makes it clear to the reader. This is more effective than trying to make a character feel smart by just having them understand the complicated version because it gives the reader a form of reference – they know how confused they felt, and so the gap between that and their new comprehension is a palpable way of understanding the character’s intellect.
Tsundere characters work in much the same way, but in their case, their warmer behavior is what’s being measured. A character who begins the story as an affectionate presence might take the reader’s fancy, but one whose affection feels hard won is likely to be treasured even more. This is because, in any given late-book situation, the reader can imagine how the character would have behaved in their early, pricklier state. The comparison is always there, and that means the character’s personality is always being contrasted against how they used to act. Similarly, because the reader had to ‘work’ (invest in the story) to get to the kinder form of the character, their friendliness feels earned, and this again imbues their relationships with value.
In this way, tsundere characters endear themselves to the reader by withholding something the reader wants to see, but that’s not the only reason they work so well. Hostile characters also tend to be great sources of interpersonal drama, meaning that a tsundere character begins as an intriguing, dramatic presence and then gradually rewards the reader’s interest with meaningful transformation.
Mr. Darcy isn’t an enduring heartthrob just because he’s eventually revealed to be a good person, but because he takes the reader on a journey from outrage to affection. His love is meaningful because it feels earned, and his initial foibles make him intriguing in a way that a more immediately pleasant character couldn’t match.
There’s also an argument that tsundere characters echo real life. After all, our relationships tend to increase in intimacy as time goes on, and it’s not uncommon for people we initially dislike to become our closest friends or even romantic partners. Tsundere characters reveal who they really are over the course of a story, which mimics the actual experience of meeting and growing to understand someone you like.
So, that’s why tsundere characters are held in such affection, but how can we improve their depiction in our writing?
How can I write better tsundere characters?
When it comes to writing tsundere characters, it’s useful for the story to at least partially support their journey. Yes, you can write a character who just gets friendlier as the narrative unfolds, but to take such a simple approach is to ignore opportunities to really get under the reader’s skin.
One way to do this is to make a tsundere character feel genuinely unexpected. An unusual example exists in the opening episodes of the sitcom Scrubs. Here, protagonist JD is confronted by the cruel, sarcastic Perry Cox, perennial enemy of kindly, grandparent-like chief of medicine Bob Kelso.
JD quickly invents his own narrative about the hospital, expecting Cox to be an enemy and Kelso to be a source of support, but has a rude awakening when it’s revealed that Kelso’s kindness is a façade and Cox’s impatient nature is partially an expression of how much he cares about his patients.
In this moment, Cox is rendered even more compelling, because the viewer is faced with the contrast between the enemy they expected and the positive force that’s actually revealing itself in front of them. While the nature of sitcoms means that Cox’s affectionate side takes a long time to surface, this initial bit of trickery exaggerates the initial state to which his gradual transformation will be compared. The more surprising that first crack in a character’s hostility, the more valuable their transformation becomes.
There are many ways to ensure this surprise, but presenting the reader with possible alternatives is often effective. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Helen Fielding presents Mark Darcy (named for his similarity to Jane Austen’s character) alongside love interest Daniel Cleaver. While Cleaver is a charming rogue, Darcy is seemingly stuck-up, and the reader is invited to see Cleaver as the real love interest and Darcy as an unlikable antagonist. This only makes it more effective when Darcy’s true character is revealed, and Fielding contrasts his own emerging positive qualities with Cleaver’s behavior shifting from the enjoyable to the objectionable. Here, again, the tsundere character is even more enjoyable because they’re presented as a surprise.
Of course, the opposite can also be true – sometimes, the satisfaction the reader derives from a tsundere character is the knowledge that they’ll eventually thaw. In this sense, the initial period of hostility is more like the burning fuse on a firework; it’s a good way to build anticipation, but the reader is really just waiting for the ‘Bang!’
If you’re writing this kind of obvious tsundere character, it’s worth keeping in mind that they may be even more satisfying if their attitude is directed at a single character. Tsundere characters work in groups, where bonds can grow through experience, but if the reader knows they’re going to thaw, focusing their ire on a single character invites a more intense sense of anticipation. During every disagreement, the reader is already enjoying the knowledge that eventually these two people are going to transform their relationship.
It may seem like I’m saying that anything goes – and hey, it’s art; if it works for the reader, it works – but whether you’re hiding your character’s tsundere nature or drawing attention to it, the point is to begin a tsundere character as far away from affection as you can get them. Either way, you’re building up to something that will intensify the reader’s appreciation of the character’s journey.
Another technique for writing more compelling tsundere characters is to make sure the cracks in their hostile façade are hard earned. One common trope is for a tsundere character to appear disdainful of an ally up until that ally is hurt, at which point they move heaven and earth to help them. Your tsundere character can mellow over time, but it’s usually more compelling to have a specific reason to show the friendly feelings that have been bubbling under the surface.
Something to avoid with tsundere characters is making their behavior too objectionable. The thawing process of a tsundere character is best when it feels like you’re gradually seeing who this person really is, which means it’s better to avoid major flaws that aren’t eventually justified in some way. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Mark Darcy is made to seem particularly objectionable because Bridget believes he seduced his friend’s wife, but this is eventually revealed to be a lie, with Darcy actually the victim. While you may wish to begin with a tsundere character and add to their complexity, the aim with the purest version of this character type is to have the reader forgive them entirely.
This can be achieved in multiple ways – Fielding removes Darcy’s worst sin by revealing it as a lie, but there may also be hidden context you can reveal that justifies a character’s hard exterior, and even just having them apologize can go a long way. After all, if their bad behavior was compelling and now they want a relationship the reader wants to see, the reader doesn’t need much of an excuse to forgive them.
The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner.’ Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me; – though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.– Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Writing tsundere characters
At the end of the day, tsundere characters only represent one personality type you might want to try in your writing, but it’s a type that readers tend to love. As with any character, it’s usually a mistake to have their tsundere nature be the only thing that your character is bringing to the table, but it’s a great start for building complex characters and relationships that your readers really want to see unfold.
Who’s your favorite tsundere character, and what was the moment you realized there was more to them than their hard shell? Let me know in the comments, and check out This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters for insight into how tsundere characters fit into groups (pay particular attention to the ‘lancer’ archetype) and Writing Romance: Why Perfect Men Make Boring Heroes for advice on a genre where tsundere characters really shine.