Coined in Japan in the late '90s, "Moe" (萌え, pronounced as "Mo-Eh", derived from a Japanese word that means "budding, to sprout/bloom")note 燃え, also pronounced "moe", is a different word meaning "to burn" is an ill-defined otaku term that means, amongst other things, "cute", "huggable", or "endearing". While it's sometimes used to describe a series, it's more about a specific ideal or kind of character, similar to Kawaisa. When used as an interjection, figuratively, it's used to convey that "something blooms inside your heart".
A common definition is that Moe is the ability of a character to instill in the audience an irrational desire to adore them, hug them, protect them, comfort them, etc. To evoke a sort of Big Brother Instinct, in men and women.
Moe characters are, generally speaking, cute. Moe characters are implicitly youthful, congregating to high school age and below. Adult female characters who qualify are almost always in their low twenties. Any characters older than that have this fact unmentioned, or the character's appearance is altered as little as possible regardless of the actual time that has passed. Moe characters often take many characteristics, tropes and forms of appearance from the Bishoujo genre.
Their personality will reflect an "innocent" outlook on something vital, such as about romance. A related implication is that moe characters are virgins, though mostly in Japan, where virginity and purity still remains important to a girl's appeal.
The classical Moe character is highly associated with innocence, submission, helplessness and woobie characteristics (e.g., Fragile Flower, Shrinking Violet, Dojikko, The Ingenue, etc., usually drawn with Tareme Eyes), although this does not need to be always the case. In many other, more modern variations, there is also a trend towards more upbeat and extroverted personalities that are far more unique, noticeable and recognizable (such as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the more benign variants of Tsundere) although these variants do have a risk of getting kinda annoying (e.g.,Tastes Like Diabetes). Other contributions to uniqueness can also come in the form of quirks, reliance on Costume Inertia, odd language, strange hobbies and the like. Occasionally, these quirks are completely unrelated and seem a bit disjointed.
If a character is plain, they are "loudly plain" in the way Hollywood Homely characters are "ugly"; sometimes they're just more moderate than the rest of the cast, and the writers implicitly suggest the audience is kind for liking the character for being plain.
More on these traits can be found here, although trying to define the exact nature of "what is Moe" is still up to debate.
Such characters are also prone to being used as mere Pandering to the Base. When a character has no visible personality traits aside from vaguely cute uselessness, he/she is termed the dreaded "Moe Blob". An interesting result of this is some moe characters are quasi-Animated Actors; the series they star in need not be related at all, being only devices to enable the viewer to enjoy the character. Many of them feature in Gag Series, and only the merchandise for the series shows off its intended and occasionally creepy roots.
Also, do note that the Moe aesthetic in itself is generally not considered to be a sexual thing. Saying otherwise will hit the Fandom Berserk Button. That is not to say, of course, that Moe characters can never be sexually attractive, and indeed some aesthetics may deliberately blur the line, with varying amounts.
Male characters can also have moe traits, and they figure prominently in Shoujo and Josei. Like their female counterparts, moe boys are usually ridiculously cute. The Adorably Precocious Child is a good example. Bishōnen characters (particularly Troubled, but Cute characters) also tend to evoke feelings of Moe in a female audience and are frequently called Moe by both fans and authors.
See also Moe Anthropomorphism, Moe Couplet, Moe Stare; compare The Woobie where the focus is about sympathy. Yamato Nadeshiko has a similar appeal but for older characters. Also see When She Smiles for situations where applicable characters get massive Moe points for finally breaking out a smile. In darker series, very likely to suffer Break the Cutie. Weakness Turns Her On is a sort of Distaff Counterpart that concerns women's attraction to moe males. Contrast Rated M for Manly. What Do You Mean Its Not For Little Girls when someone mistakes a moe show that's meant for older males for a show that's meant for little girls.
No connection to a certain bowlcut-wearing would-be leader, surly bartender, or six-year-old school bully. Or, for that matter, a town in Victoria, Australia.
Calliope gets moe points from her character design alone. She's a burn victim instead of an alien skull monster in this universe, but still terribly cute in her own way.
Frodo Baggins in "Lord of the Rings." More so than the book, in which he seems slightly more composed and more mature than his younger Hobbit friends, film Frodo is every bit the doe-eyed, plucky little-train-that-could. Whenever action goes down, even the other Hobbits manage to get some licks in. But not our Frodo, who whimpers and faints and plays the IllBoy throughout. He's so in over his head it's absurd... which is what makes his pluck all the more moving. It's just a damn good job Sam went with him...
David Bowie's character from The Man Who Fell to Earth is a fragile, if stoic, alien who proves highly, tragically vulnerable to the pitfalls of the human world. In his human disguise, he's one of the older examples of this trope (his true form is that of a Rubber Forehead Alien). It's telling that Bowie fangirls usually refer to Thomas Jerome Newton via his in-story nickname of "Tommy".
Chekov, from the 2009 Star Trek movie. He's developed quite the female following.
He's practically a live-action anime character with his enormous greenish-blue eyes; no wonder he's a Moe! That and his positively adorable accent (especially when the computer acts like a bitch to him).
"I can do zat! I can do zat!"
Little Nancy in Sin City the movie. She is a lot cuter when seen in full color light in the bonus DVD features than in the black and white of the movie.
An arguably superior choice (due to the fact that adorable and needing protection is part of its plot) from Pixar: Boo. Not that one.
Both used straight and subverted when Wednesday Addams turns on the charm at summer camp in Addams Family Values. In just a few moments she blossoms from her usual drawn and dour self into a charming doe eyed lovable little girl.
The other children are visibly shocked. One remarks "she's scaring me!"
Child!Hanuman/Maruti from The Return of Hanuman. Big girly eyes, cheeks, innocence, he's just so adorable.
Bumblebee fills this, despite being a mechanical life form. Due to being the most humanoid of the robot cast, his movements moddelled after Marty Mcfly, the fact his horns are replaced with little bug antenas, he's given Prowl's door wings which act like dog ears, and his childlike enthusiasm at times. There's a reason many cried when he was injured in the first film and when it looks like he's about to be executed by Soundwave in the third. Possibly lampshading this, Laserbeak uses his aparent ability to change into anything to become a human child sized pink version of him to trick a small girl into letting him inside so he can kill her family.
Carly in the third film aslo acts as this, due to being more emotional than Megan Fox's character Mikeala in the first film and more playful.
Chucky from Child's Play. Yes, he is a psychotic mass murderer, but he just looks so adorable in his doll body.
Barbra from Night of the Living Dead. After all of the horrible things that happen to her, she becomes a nervous wreck. And it's adorable!
Vanellope von Schweetz in Wreck It Ralph is the most adorable character in the movie and also the most abused, whose living conditions were even worse than Ralph's. She is essentially a Dummied Out character in her home game, which is horrifyingly tragic if such a character were sentient. Some of the story team members even grew protective of her.
Felix is this for some of the fandom, although YMMV.
The GURPS advantage Pitiable basically facilitates moe.
Something about you makes people pity you and want to take care of you. You get + 3 on all reaction rolls from those who consider you to be in a position of helplessness, weakness, or need (which never includes those with the Callous disadvantage). Taken in conjunction with above-average looks, Pitiable means you are "cute" instead of "sexy"; in combination with below-average looks, it means you are "appealingly homely," like a basset hound.
The Collectible Card Game Weiss Schwarz uses moe as its primary selling point, allowing moe stalwarts such as the Lucky Star and Clannad casts to wage bloody moe battle against each other.
Reiterating that Hanako out-moe's the others, that series of Yonkoma has most of the girls doing something to make Hisao's condition act up. Hanako's was just 3 Beat Panel of her looking at him, looking away, and looking at him again, apparently trying to work up the courage to say something.
It's worth noting that despite fandom's treatment of Hanako as moe, her route in the game actually deconstructs the concept. Hanako becomes well aware that Hisao feels sorry for her and sees her as The Woobie, and she greatly resents it. In her Bad End, she calls Hisao out on this, yelling that she hates him for this behaviour. With the way she's facing the screen, however, it doesn't seem that she's yelling at Hisao so much as she's yelling atthe player. In her H-scene, the reason she has sex with Hisao in the first place is so that he'll stop seeing her as someone to be pitied and protected.
Really, any of your female companions fall into this in some way. Maya with her childish naivete, Pearl's innocent ignorance of the world outside Kurain Village (and just being the one little girl in general), and Trucy Wright just all around. Even Kay Faraday, Genki Girl as she is, gets in on it sometimes with her charming ambition. It helps that all these characters have Woobie backgrounds.
The elves of ElfQuest are deliberately Moe, particularly Suntop (later renamed Sunstream in-universe) who is practically the Ur Example. Around age 5 or 6, he had to endure being kidnapped by Winnowill, the only truly evil elf known and magically hurt in order to keep him from struggling. Then as a 7yo (guesstimated), he had to endure 2-3 days of sleeplessness because of constantly "hearing" telepathic screaming of other elves from some unknown place. If it weren't for sympathetic parents and an understanding mentor, he could have literally turned out an insanely evil being instead of godlike good.
Speaking of Kimiko...Masha Kinoko. Using the power of moe, she single-handedly melted any objection towards the introductions of original characters in the series and was considered too adorable to become the final boss of the series, which was her intended role in the story at the time of her introduction.
(Touhou Nekoyayou #50: A Maid's Work)
Tewi Inonymous: The unforgivable sin of fan works is original characters. DUH!
(Shenanigans in a Magical Forest 244: Masha: Wait, which her? PANIC!)
Tewi Inonymous: >Masha: Calm down, panicking will get us nowhere. Let's assess.
Moeshroom. Yes, she recieved a fan nickname because of this!
Tifany from Precocious is considered this on the work page. Bud and Jacob comment on seeing her curled up asleep that she's "exceedingly cute!"
You know what? Skip individual descriptions, all the kids, and ALL the trolls can count as Moe at one point, for a ludicrous plethora of reasons. Which makes the three trolls who are now hated and feared an especially interesting character study...
Cuanta Vida has Anton, the panicky Mega Nekko medic. The CV fandom is usually ridiculously protective of the two main characters, so it really says something that Anton was immediately forgiven for working with Rojo to kidnap Bleu.
Drowtales has Faen'arae Val'Sullisin'rune. While she may be older than the typical Moe character, she has the advantage of actually being a Drow whose age-equivalent in Human Terms would only be in the late Teens, Early Tweenties. This character has the drawback of being able to feel the emotions of others and frequently will go into what is termed "Empathic Shock" due to highly stressful emotions. She also suffers from severe PTSD. All that said, she is also one of the most endearing characters in the series.
Oh and Kyo'nne Val'Illhar'dro may also count... depending on whom you ask. Not to mention Naal'suul Val'Beldrobbaen would have counted Prior to being turned into a Demon.
The Nostalgia Critic. Those huge, pretty eyes, his actor's gleeful catering to the fangirls and the fact that he looks like a kid playing grown-up (andtendstosuckatit) in that messy suit adds a lot to his appeal.
Oancitizen, from Brows Held High; chubby face, fluffy facial hair, lovably snobby, cries almost as much as the Critic and has a soothing, Stephen Fry-esque voice.
Donnie DuPre from Demo Reel goes straight to the bedroom eyes to convince his co-workers to do anything, manages to be a complete Dude Magnet, is weak, femmy and very rarely raises his voice, has a horrible past (and present!) and nobody can resist looking after him.
while we're on this subject, San too who was in pretty much the same situation as Melissa but wasn't shy or withdrawn but so socially awkward that most people avoided her.
Betty Boop may well have been the original progenitor of the animated Moe character. The target audience of her cartoons was adult men rather than children, and she made popular the large eyes and other child-like facial features that are common on a lot of modern Moes. Also, she was voiced by Mae Questel, who at the time was very popular due to her cutesy voice.
Adorably ditzy Magical Girl Hay Lin, from W.I.T.C.H., IS this trope. Aside from Rei, one struggles to find a character who fits it so perfectly. If she's not being suggestive and adorable, she's being even more adorable and frightened, she's a slender little thing with a nice chest when she transforms but Pettanko leanings when a normal person. All she needs is blue hair and some bandages and she could be Rei's (much more chipper) sister.
Zuko sometimes has Moe traits too. Especially during the episode "The Western Air Temple" where he tries to join Team Avatar and it doesn't go so well at first, resulting in him yelling, "Why am I so bad at being good!" There's also the fact that his temper stems more from him being the Woobie than him being a jerkass for the most part, and he can be very socially awkward.
Futurama. Come on...if you were Leela, you know you'd date Fry in a second. None of that pussyfooting around. It's all his heart, and the fact that he is so very, very, very lonely, being the oldest human in the world by a very long shot. Plus, he's nice to people who don't give a rat's ass about him, for no good reason at all. What's there not to like? Intelligence? Overrated!
In fact, he's most adorable in his good-hearted loopiness.
Or how about Leela herself? How can you not hear orphanage stories and not want to give her a hug? One eye or two, who cares?
What about Kif? With the big head, large eyes, small nose, girlish voice and the borderline Woobieness, he's downright adorable!
Shego from Kim Possible turns Moe when she gets hit by an attitude ray, which changes her personality to the opposite of her current one. That lady on the Dark Action Girl page? That's her.Seriously◊.
Ron has his moments.
Toki of Metalocalypse is the closest thing to Moe you can get in that series. He's so childlike, endearing, and you just can't help but want to hug him because he's probably the most sentimental of the group. And then there's his little song "Underwater Friends." However, he's also a good example of Beware the Nice Ones...
Among the new contestants, Dawn and Zoey. The former is a Luna LovegoodExpy, is the shortest girl in the season, has big, doe eyes, and a cute, squeaky voice. The latter is a cute redhead that has an endearing personality and a Friendless Background that would make anyone want to give her a hug.
Hugely subverted in "The Best Night Ever" when she goes completely Cute and Psycho when the animals in the garden of the palace run away from her. Although, she was under a lot of stress at the time however, given that all she wanted to do was be friends with the animals and they just kept running away from her.
Most characters from My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The entire show might be the best example of the "moe" concept catching on in western fandom. Many of the Ponies can fall under different moe tropes, such as:
Rainbow Dash being a Boku-girl
Pinkie Pie being an Aho-ko
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle being little girls.
Sweetie Belle gets the added bonus of being a Cute Clumsy Girl with an amazing singing voice and adorable voice cracks.
Fluttershy being either typical moe, Yandere, etc.
Particularly invoked is the episode "Green Is Not Your Color," where Fluttershy becomes a supermodel entirely due to her Moe appeal, complete with Enforced Method Acting so she always looks scared in her pictures.
Perhaps we should speed this up by saying that pretty much all of the mane cast is moe and calling it a day.
The main six when they were in kindergarten were just adorable as well
Miss Grotke is a rare over 18 example of the trope. Personality speaking, she's like a misplaced Disney Princess. Sadly, a lot of her moe-ness is taken out of most dubs, where her cute, high-pitched voice is usually replaced with a lower, more boring one.
T.J. can be pretty moe sometimes. Most of the Japanese fans consider him to be very moe.
Touhou actually averts this for the most part, since despite 98% of the cast being cute girls wearing some kind of frilly clothing very few of the characters really have any stereotypically moe personalities (and it's not like any of them need to be protected anyway). It's still pretty easy to think it's a moe series, though, since fans are very fond of emphasizing moe traits whether the characters in question have any or not. Some details in the guidebooks have actually subverted the moe treatment some characters got (i.e. Hina is not someone you want to spend time with because she leaks misfortune, Kisume is actually a Creepy Child, Nitori may or may not actually be racist against humans).
There's actually a whole VN genre for so-called "moege". Da Capo and its spinoffs, Shuffle, Snow Sakura and Canvas 2 are just some that this particular niche has to offer.
Speaking of Da Capo, remeber the character Moe above in the anime section? In the VN there's more to her than meets the eye, and it has to do with her unusual sleeping habits, if that alone is not Moe enough. She takes sleeping pills. Not because of insomnia, but due to a tragic incident in her childhood - there was a boy she liked, then one day he died. Overcome with grief, she made a wish to the magical Sakura Tree to see that boy in her dreams. Hence her need to sleep. Thus when the tree withers, she loses that wish, and just breaks down. Awwww