This month for Lost’s character evaluations we are looking at something a bit different. Though it may have been the Japanese light novel that popularized the genre for western audiences, Chinese and Korean light/web novels have been slowly and steadily making their names known. Out of those, one Korean novel in particular has been standing out, popularized due to its adaptation as web comic. That novel is Only I Level Up or Solo Leveling by Jang Sung-Lak. The main character of this series is Seong Jin-Woo, a weak young man living in modern day Korea with a fantastical twist. We will look at his Motivation, Growth, and Impact to find out whether or not this individual has the components we’re looking for in a compelling character.
Synopsis: 10 years ago, after “the Gate” that connected the real world with the monster world opened, some of the ordinary, everyday people received the power to hunt monsters within the Gate. They are known as “Hunters”. However, not all Hunters are powerful. My name is Seong Jin-Woo, an E-rank Hunter. I’m someone who has to risk his life in the lowliest of dungeons, the “World’s Weakest”. Having no skills whatsoever to display, I barely earned the required money by fighting in low-leveled dungeons… at least until I found a hidden dungeon with the hardest difficulty within the D-rank dungeons! In the end, as I was accepting death, I suddenly received a strange power, a quest log that only I could see, a secret to leveling up that only I know about! If I trained in accordance with my quests and hunted monsters, my level would rise. Changing from the weakest Hunter to the strongest S-rank Hunter!
Going into motivation from that synopsis is a pretty straightforward endeavor. Seong Jin-Woo begins the story as a weak but endearing young man, desperate to make a living through being a Hunter. He is encouraged by several colleagues and friends to give up this lifestyle that puts him near death several times, but with his mother’s medical bills increasing by the day, for an otherwise average individual he feels he has no alternatives. However, when the party he is exploring with finds a secret area in a D-rank dungeon and the people around him keep dying left and right, it is Seong Jin-Woo who uses the observation skills he gained from years of fighting foes stronger than himself that keep the people around him alive. Solving riddle after riddle until there is only one left, Seong Jin-Woo feels like they are all going to make it, until one by one the people who had relied on him run for the exit and leave him to die. Resigned to his fate he resolves to die with a weapon in hand, and then everything stops and a screen appears letting him know he has cleared a secret quest called “Courage of the Weak.” He survives, and from that day on is given quests every day that allow him to level up. He faces challenge after challenge, enemy after enemy, but he remembers all too well what it felt like to be weak and chooses to never feel that way again. That is his Motivation. The strong can protect the weak. The strong do not suffer from betrayal. The strong can find the medicine to heal their mother. The strong do not need to fear the unknown. It is a simple Motivation, but compelling nonetheless.
Growth in this series is not particularly complicated. He starts at E-rank, and grows to be S-rank. There, job done, I’m gonna go get a coffee. Easy as that would be, Seong Jin-Woo’s Growth has a fair amount of complexity to it seperate from the leveling system in the world. He begins the series as a normal person. Diligent, depressed, incorrigible, and ultimately fruitless. He does what he does because he feels he has to, and has no real hopes for the future. After he gains his leveling system though, over time he begins to change. Not just his strength, but his personality. He grows in confidence, becomes slightly aggressive, and overall becomes apathetic towards the world and people who aren’t close to him. While undercover in an A-rank dungeon the group he is traveling with gets attacked by overly powerful beings. As he watches them fall one by one he does little to help his fellow humans. Only after asking the leader, who is on the verge of death, whether they would like to be saved does he step in and clear the room for them. This is a massive departure from the kid who risked his life and worked hard to save as many people as he could in that secret area. Is it just a sense of detachment from growing too powerful, or perhaps a hatred for humanity brought on by experiencing betrayal after betrayal. Or, perhaps, it has something to do with being a “Player?” Whatever the cause is the change is there and very noticeable. I for one am interested to see what he will grow into.
And so we come to Impact. As you may have guessed from the few pieces I’ve done so far, when it comes to Impact I find overpowered characters to usually be lacking. Their choices do not tend to have weight because the world around them provides no challenge or true opposition to their goals. Solo Leveling is somewhat different in that regard though. While it is true that compared to most challenges in the average world he is vastly overpowered, that is somewhat balanced by his personal leveling system. It works like in any game, in order to gain levels later on you need more experience, and thus need to face more powerful enemies or quests. For Seong Jin-Woo, when the world does not provide those enemies, the system provides them for him. Personal dungeons or class change quests whose difficulty scales to match his level, forcing him several close calls. Early on though there was more personal Impact. The small Impact of when he decided to lie about his new strength, the Impact around facing death in his first personal dungeon, the Impact of when he first took a human life. All of those moments changed him, carried weight, and little by little became pillars of the story. None more than the Impact of that very first dungeon. As he grows in strength the Impact of his choices diminishes, less firsts for him to accomplish and less fear of facing stronger enemies. My hope, as I have not finished the series yet, is that there will be more significant events going forward and that it will not just ride the initial wave until the end. While I would still enjoy that series, it would be to a lesser extent than I do now.
So where does that leave us? Well we have Seong Jin-Woo, a young man who awakened to tremendous power after falling into despair, motivated to keep growing stronger as he loses his humanity piece by piece in a world that is becoming less dangerous for him by the day. When I put it all together like that it doesn’t paint the best picture, but all the same this character fascinates me. Perhaps it is the shock of that initial brutality that cemented him in my mind as the underdog, causing me to view him that way even as his power increases exponentially. I find myself poised, excited for every new chapter, waiting with bated breath for the next moment his world falls into crisis. The story as it stands feels as though the character is building up for something, perhaps the S-rank dungeon that is rampant on Jeju. Whatever it may be I find this character compelling and his story intriguing. I look forward to finishing it soon and hope this analysis has helped.
While I wish I had a link for an English translation that supported the author, unfortunately I could not find one. If you would like to read the translated Web Novel you can go to WuxiaWorld, and the comic is available on MangaLife.