These opinions and interpretations are mine, critical thinking is welcomed and encouraged.
In the series, it’s strongly suggested he’s a literal genius. Where Gray is smart because he’s a workaholic, everything comes naturally to Stephen so you have to assume he was born a prodigy.
Before talking to Gray, Stephen was a lonely individual who didn’t have any friends. He’s generally outgoing, so it makes you wonder why he waited until he met Gray to start befriending people.
A reasonable assumption would be that Stephen did his research about prodigies like him and found his feelings of loneliness, isolation, and boredom weren’t uncommon. He may have learned from some religions or philosophies about things that ward off loneliness and feelings of unfulfillment, such as acts of selflessness and compassion. He finds that he actually likes being selfless, both for the mental benefits and because it intrinsically fits his moral code and personality.
And he does take into account that kindness does not pay bills, but he sees being a functional member of society as a necessary evil. Besides, how he chooses to be part of society is entirely up to him and he’ll spin the most creative path possible.
However, while he is altruistic, he does still feel isolated, especially now with his new outlook on life. It’s a strange outlook and not one he thinks people would understand if he tried to explain, so he keeps to the background, doing his noble deeds. He doesn’t want or need recognition because seeking that out would undermine the whole idea of being selfless and maybe he’s very particular about keeping to that doctrine.
Part of keeping to the background is pretending to be dumber than he is. It tickles him to be a chameleon, a genius among regular people. It’s both more fun, and less irritating. He scores low on purpose. He knows all the answers but places himself perfectly in the bottom half so no teachers or students will see him as an academic threat and antagonize him before he even gets the chance to try to befriend anyone under his set-up pretenses. He knows aside from competitions he wins, being looked upon as a prodigy would force him into the spotlight and he’d never be seen as regular again, which is the one thing he wants to avoid the most.
Reaching Out To Gray Yeon
When he sees Gray and his drone-like work habits, he sees himself and who he could’ve been if he hadn’t chosen the path of benevolence. His purpose in life is already clear, so now he may have the chance to help Gray find his and finally talk to someone who’d understand his goals, needs, and desires.
He lets Gray (and only Gray) peek into his true intellect to ease Gray into his overall personality. The first full display of “this is who I am” is surpassing Gray on the test results, only to sink back to the lower ranks. He knows Gray is baffled, confused, and maybe even put off by how some random student can yo-yo so dangerously with his future. And with something Gray thinks of as his only anchor at that. But Stephen also knows Gray is too intrigued to push him away.
He and Gray share the same great hunger, not for knowledge, but for a greater purpose. That’s the thing that brings them closer together as friends, even outside of found-common interests like games. The fact that Gray likes video games is just the cherry on top.
Gray likes Stephen’s personality and the way Stephen doesn’t get bothered by his stoic tendencies, although Stephen teases him for it sometimes. Stephen considers Gray’s continuous drive to study, even if it’s misdirected, very endearing and showing of his potential once Gray finds his purpose.
Stephen is a bit of an individual, and this is entirely because of his personality from the start and only a little influenced by the things he’s learned. Stephen is naturally confident, self-assured, and even a little cocky at times. He’s laid back because he can be and all the extra time he’s been afforded lets him explore things like: fashion!
That’s not saying his fashion is very good, especially considering it’s hinted he comes from a poorer background. His financial situation may have lended in his rather thrifty fashion taste, exemplified by using a random mattress pin he found to hold up his pants instead of a belt. He also just finds being a bit of an enigma funny and entertaining, especially when it confuses Gray.
As stated in the webtoon, Stephen is considered conventionally attractive by most people. It’s vague whether he’s aware of it or not. Most characters who know they’re attractive tend to flaunt it for personal gain, but the only time Stephen talks about his looks is when speaking of them ironically, calling himself “stunning” and like the statue of David come to life. He’s joking because he’s with Gray, who never takes him at surface level anyway.
Actually, his attractiveness is one of the many reasons Bryce began to grow an inferiority complex towards him. Stephen is effortlessly good-looking and charismatic, two things Bryce is not, no matter how hard he tries. To Stephen, he is equals with his friends, but failed to deliver that message to Bryce properly, letting the problem fester and grow.
Stephen is painfully unaware of the emotions of others around him once he’s found a friend in Gray. He wants to believe he’s emotionally intelligent, but that’s one of his other flaws. He chooses to see the world in rose-colored glasses and consequently overlooks the hot-red anger and jealousy brewing beside him. He also misses his classmates’ hatred, not predicting they might participate in slandering he and Gray behind their backs.
When Stephen starts getting bullied, his biggest and most costly flaw is exposed: his selflessness. Theoretically, he’s both bigger and stronger than the kids who bully him, but he never fights back even if he can for several reasons:
- A. He doesn’t know how to. He didn’t think he’d ever be bullied. It’s unfathomable to him. His kindness had taken him so far so he hasn’t learned that not everyone will appreciate his kindness. No, he knows people aren’t going to be tripping over themselves to thank him, but he’d never think their neutrality or slight dislike would turn to the hate and contempt that Bryce Oh had.
- B. Even if he knew how to, he wouldn’t want to. It’s just not his nature to hurt people, no matter how they hurt him, either emotionally or physically. He understands the need for self defense, but his weakness (his selflessness) comes up again and becomes his undoing.
- C. He wants to protect Gray. Hypothetically, if he beat them up, they’d learn their lesson and leave him and whoever he hung out with alone for fear of being embarrassed. However, there is no guarantee anything of the sort will happen, and knowing Bryce’s personality now, as well as the true condition of human nature, Stephen knows it’s perfectly possible they’ll go after Gray next. That’s a risk he can’t take. Gray is not only his best friend and emotional soulmate, Gray wouldn’t stand a chance against the likes of Oswald Yang and his crew. Gray’s even skinnier and frailer than Stephen is, and it would just break Stephen’s heart if he allowed a single bad thing happening to him to be turned onto Gray. So he takes the beating, despite Gray’s protests.
The one way he knows he can fight fire with fire is to directly defy Oswald’s orders. Stephen deciding to come in rank first on testing when he could end his suffering by coming last is a choice. He’s far from a fool at that point. The last person he would trust to keep his word is Oswald Yang, and the moment he starts doing what Oswald says is when he loses permanently. So in a reckless act of defiance and pride, Stephen does what he wants. It’s not his wisest choice, but it’s his most character-defining.
Stephen doesn’t get the chance to tell Gray about his journey to becoming who he is. By himself, Gray comes to understand Stephen was just as lonely as he was and that they found a light in each other. But Stephen’s light had been essentially snuffed out and he could never tell Gray on his own what he thought of himself, the thoughts and feelings he had for Gray and that is what tears Gray apart the most. That the person who loved and understood him the most, who had so much left to say, was silenced.