Comparing Protagonists: Haruhi Suzumiya and Light Yagami
Haruhi Suzumiya and Light Yagami make for an interesting comparison since they are both more or less unsympathetic, morally ambiguous protagonist characters. They also both have God complex issues, with Haruhi actually being God without knowing it and Light being caught up in his idea of becoming a god of justice. However, looking at these characters' differences can shed some new light on them and deeper one's understanding of their respective shows.
In "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya", the titular character is an angsty, temperamental teenage girl whose primary concern in life is that real life isn't as cool as fiction. This makes her a serious case of first world problems, in my book, and generally annoying and unsympathetic. Furthermore, to advance her cause by starting a club dedicated to investigating paranormal phenomena, she is willing to sink to sexual harassment, blackmail, and theft. That's right; this is a character who will go to any extreme just to explore the possibility that there might be real aliens, time travelers, or persons with psychic powers, like in a goddamn movie.
But when Haruhi was grating on my nerves, and I was thinking about writing a hub called "The Trainwreck of Haruhi Suzumiya" because I think that anime is bad...
Somewhere, a little voice in my head said "Hold it! You don't like Haruhi Suzumiya because she's the protagonist of a story and yet does some things you do not agree with, but you like Light Yagami?" I said yes, timidly... "Objection!" said the voice. "You like a protagonist who actually murders people over one who merely sexually harasses a teenage girl and blackmails a teenage boy in order to steal a computer?"
So how can someone like Light and not Haruhi? Well, their primary difference is that they have different goals in life. While Haruhi's goal struck me as naïve, childish, and unrealistic (because real life isn't fiction, and only in this anime, where the writers added the things she was seeking to the narrative, does her desire become validated, but it isn't validated by what we know about how the real universe works), whereas Light Yagami is a character with a plan for all of humanity, as he believes he can use his powers to create a better world.
Whether you agree with Light's later actions in the show, or the issue of one person dictating morality for all people, it's obvious that, in the beginning of their respective series, Light is the one with a dream for a future the audience can at least understand and maybe get behind. Haruhi, with a dream most people will think is naïve, isn't as easy for the audience to support, especially when she does bad things in pursuit of this goal. When Light Yagami does bad things in pursuit of his goal, you might be tempted to cheer for him anyway, because the ends justify the means. But what are Haruhi's desired ends? For everyone to do what she wants all the time and for magical stuff to happen to her so she can have a sense of mystery and adventure in her life? In one scenario, the character wants to improve the quality of life for all of humanity, and in the other, the character only wants to improve their own quality of life so they can live a much more fulfilling life than the vast majority of people get to. This, to me, makes Haruhi more evil than, and less sympathetic than, Light.
There's also the major difference in that Light Yagami consciously wields his power, the death note, with a high degree of awareness of its powers and limitations. Haruhi on the other hand, doesn't even know she has any special powers, and is never consciously using them. I did not like this about The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, because it makes Haruhi less of a person using her powers according to her will, like most magic users in anime, and more like a mere force of nature like a hurricane that has no will, purpose, or intention. Her ability to just sort of lazily daydream things into existence is weird, but what's also weird is the fact that nobody is allowed to tell her about her power, for fear that she'll go crazy. Because if there's one thing anime likes to remind us, it's not to mess around with the fragile girly psychology of hormonal teenage girls.
Which brings me to another point of difference between Haruhi and Light. Light is calm, controlled, and collected. Even when he erases his own memories to advance his cause, he's still the one in control. He's more mature, as a college student, and more disciplined, as a good student and the son of a cop. He plans many steps in advance. Everything he does is somehow logically connected to his main goals and priorities, which can be easily understood by the viewer. That's part of what makes him a cool character, even if you disagree with his beliefs or actions at certain places.
Haruhi, on the other hand, is wild, emotional, and unpredictable. In the first episode, they show her changing her hairstyle every day, giving perhaps a bit of foreshadowing as to her temperamental and unstable nature. Haruhi doesn't plan things, she just gets a random notion in her head and decides that's what everyone else is doing, like it or not. This makes her seem incredibly childish, unable to bear the pain of not having everything go exactly her way. She's spoiled, self centered, and a bully.
So yes, I'm standing by my statement, I believe that a character who actually murders people can be more sympathetic to the audience than a character who's mostly just annoying. It all depends on the characters' ultimate purpose and plan, what motivates them, and if they carefully plan ahead vs. fly by the seat of their pants/skirt. There are many things that can be used by good storytellers to make characters who do bad things sympathetic, and yet bad writing can make a character who's supposed to be sympathetic look terrible.