I know I talk about Animorphs a lot. I’m not sorry. If you’ve read them, you’ll get it, and if you haven’t, you should, because then you’ll get it. Those of you that have – think about the members of the team for a second and where they were at the beginning of the series (or, at least, book 4, when we met them all). Think about what notable character traits and skills they had.
Marco had his analytical mind, caution, greater awareness of real world consequences, and a presumed dead mother than turned up alive as Visser One’s host body. Cassie had her love for animals and natural morphing talent and a range of actually useful skills. Rachel’s impulsiveness and brute force approach to solving her problems made her the team’s best fighter, from the first time she morphed an elephant in the Yeerk Pool. Ax’s alien perspective and familial ties separated him from the others and allowed plots to progress much faster than they would have without his knowledge. And Tobias was a tragic character long before we discovered he was Elfangor’s time displaced son, between his lack of a family that cared for him and being trapped as a hawk. Jake, on the other hand? None of that.
Jake was just a regular old white boy, the dumb jock that wasn’t even that good at being a jock. The younger brother. No major ambitions. He was a pretty standardized leader, making the decisions because he didn’t have as much of an extreme personality as the others. He was calmer under pressure and more composed, not as abrasive as Rachel or Marco, the balance between Rachel’s impulsiveness and Marco’s caution. He was not operating entirely on logic, nor on impulse. He’s the boring one…And that’s what makes his character development so excellent. His character arc, when compared to everyone else’s? It’s the best handled from beginning to end. Very few moments that didn’t feel true to the character. It was, for lack of a better word, tidy. Not in a sense that it was clean and pretty, and he got what he deserved, but in the utterly tragic hero sense: you see where he’s going. You see his descent into darker and darker decisions, nearly all of which make perfect sense in the moment. You understand what he’s doing and why – he’s fighting an empire with an army of six and a single weapon. It’s a war he can’t afford to lose. So when you go through the series, you’re watching helplessly, knowing the direction he’s going in, but unable to think of any way out of it for him.
Cassie is frequently accused of being a Mary Sue – an assessment that I disagree with. But for argument’s sake, let’s accept it as true. If we do that, we also have to take nearly all the others except Jake as Sues. Rachel is the best fighter on the team with a natural boldness that far exceeds everyone else except perhaps Ax. Marco has and always had the most analytical mind and best ability to see the straight line path to a solution. Not something he had to work on. Tobias is the half alien son of a war prince. Ax is said war prince’s younger brother that has more knowledge of Yeerks and technology than anyone else. Jake is none of those things. He’s an ordinary guy from an ordinary suburb that’s not particularly good at much, but not bad at anything either. He’s decently popular, but not to the extent that Rachel is. He’s brave, but compared to his family – Tom that tried to fight a Taxxon, Naomi that may not be related to him by blood but still attacked a bear with a spice rack, Rachel – he’s practically timid. He’s smart, but his leadership skills needed the entire series to actually develop. At the beginning, he did a lot of dumb things. He nearly got them all killed or enslaved in the very first book because he nearly told a temporarily freed Tom who he was. He morphed in his kitchen, in a house that he knew has a Controller in it. It took a lot of time and character development to get to the point where he could make the decisions he did in, say, book 38, or see the solutions he did in book 53.
None of them are actually Sues, because they’re all well developed characters with plenty of flaws to go along with their strengths. But if you consider a Sue to be a form of wish fulfillment, Jake is definitely the furthest. No one on the planet would fantasize about being Jake. He’s interesting not because of any trait, but because of how his traits and relationships combine. Because of that, he’s not the most common answer to the question “who’s your favourite Animorph?”, but to me, there is no other answer. They all have great qualities. They’re all fun to read about and interesting to consider. But Jake’s character development is out of this world. There’s no comparison. His white middle class nuclear family completely falls apart. He changes the most out of all the characters, in ways both subtle and overt.
It’s an interesting way to use a character. Oftentimes, the Everyman is used as the protagonist because they’re somewhat of a blank slate. They’re an easy way to ease someone into a story. They can be an audience surrogate. Because of their lack of any extreme traits, they’re boring at worst, which makes them a safe person to put in the lead while giving the more extreme personalities that may or may not be popular to less central characters. The audience might grow to love the Everyman or they might latch onto other characters with more distinct traits instead, but there aren’t often reasons to hate them. But if there’s more thought put into it, like in Animorphs, it can be a very powerful tool.
Jake demonstrates just how nuanced the character arc for an utterly average person can be. He got fleshed out over the course of the entire series through slow, steady development, not so much because of any major events. Not like Marco finding out his mother was alive or like Rachel waiting for David to run out of time in morph, not like Cassie meeting Aftran or like Tobias finding out about Elfangor. No, Jake’s was a slow descent from “I’ve got to fight this war to save Tom” and “I’m leading this team because Tobias told me to because I have the least grating personality” to “there’s no way my family comes out of this intact” and “I know what I have to do to get the most people out alive, and I’ll do it”.
Animorphs had a lot of ghostwritten books, which meant there was rather inconsistent quality, particularly in regards to characterization. Jake had moments of that at times, just as the others did – books like 43 and 47 come to mind. But compared to some of the others? Those few moments of bad characterization were really quite rare. The advantage of him not having traits as distinct as the others while still being a distinct character when observed as a whole is that it became much harder to flanderize him. He’s a complicated character with subtle traits that undergoes a lot of growth throughout the series – there are out of character moments…but few that are really due to misunderstanding a characteristic he actually has.
Jake is one of the best written Everymen I’ve ever encountered. He’s more than that – as I’ve said before, he’s one of the best written characters of all time. He’s not static. He’s a great foil for all the characters around him. He’s interesting on his own as well as around others because of how believable his arc is and how well written his relationships are. Sometimes, I find the Everyman boring and get invested in other characters instead. And I used to think that was because the character type in general doesn’t interest me. But that’s not true. Jake proves it. There are a lot of things that authors could learn from Katherine Applegate. How to write distinct and nuanced characters, down to the point where the most interesting and best developed one is the Everyman, tops that list.