In the anime and manga, Gaara is a ninja affiliated with Sunagakure, and is the son of Sunagakure's leader, the Fourth Kazekage. As a child, his father attempted to turn him into a human weapon by placing a tailed beast into him, and he was ostracized by the Sunagakure villagers. As a result, he develops into a ruthless killer, slaying others without remorse, and treating his siblings Kankuro and Temari with contempt. His battle with Naruto during the series changes this outlook, and he begins to aid others in order to emulate Naruto. In Part II of the series, he becomes Sunagakure's Fifth Kazekage. Gaara has appeared in several pieces of Naruto media, including the second featured film in the series, the third original video animation, and several video games.
Numerous anime and manga publications have commented on Gaara's character. IGN labeled the disparity between Naruto and Gaara as "emotional" and "a tad creepy". Anime News Network called Naruto's fight against Gaara the high point of the entire series. Among the Naruto reader base, Gaara has been popular, placing high in several popularity polls. Numerous pieces of merchandise have been released in Gaara's likeness, including plush dolls and key chains.
Gaara's initial attire, along with the costumes of his siblings, were difficult for Kishimoto to draw on a weekly basis. Because of this, Kishimoto gave the three siblings simpler costumes towards the end of Part I; Gaara received an outfit with an upright collar. In addition to being easier to draw, it was used to demonstrate the change in relationship between Gaara and Naruto following their previous fight. Kishimoto cites The Matrix, one of his favorite movies, as an inspiration for Gaara's new costume, and he considers it to be his favorite costume of the three siblings.
Gaara's drive to kill is his most fundamental characteristic at the start of the series. After his introduction in the yearly ninja examinations, Gaara has little interest in the actual examination but rather in seeking to kill or seriously maim anyone who makes the mistake of insulting him. As he battles stronger opponents during the course of the examinations, Gaara begins to believe that he must kill anyone he perceives as stronger than him because they are a threat to his existence.
Gaara's quest for stronger opponents leads to his crossing paths with Naruto Uzumaki. Recognizing Naruto as a formidable opponent, Gaara threatens the life of one of Naruto's friends to force him to fight. He treats his battle with Naruto as a contest to determine whose philosophy is correct: his belief in fighting for himself or Naruto's belief in fighting for his friends and allies. Naruto defeats Gaara, and as a result, Gaara adopts Naruto's philosophy, realizing that fighting for others yields greater strength than fighting for one's self. He makes amends with the many characters he had alienated, apologizing to those he hurt and improving his relationship with his family. At the same time, Gaara's fundamental characteristic becomes the desire to protect as many people as he can, as in doing so he will be able to find true strength. This culminates in his replacing his father as the leader of Sunagakure during Part II of the series, and he states his greatest desire is to give his life for the villagers for Sunagakure regardless of the opinions they hold of him.
Due to having Shukaku sealed within him, Gaara has control over sand. Gaara always carries sand with him in a calabash gourd on his back. To attack his opponents, Gaara uses sand to engulf them, and he can compress the sand, crushing them in the process. When Gaara is attacked, a shield of sand automatically blocks the attack, a result of Shukaku being sealed within him. Gaara also covers his skin with a layer of sand as a precautionary defensive measure.
Like other hosts of tailed beasts, Gaara can manifest aspects of the tailed beast sealed within him. By covering himself in sand, Gaara can take on the appearance of a miniature Shukaku, increasing his speed and strength in the process. As he does so, he allows Shukaku's personality to influence him, making him more violent and bloodthirsty. Once he has completed his Shukaku replica, Gaara can fully bring out Shukaku's personality by forcing himself to sleep. Doing so allows Shukaku to control the replica and fight using its full strength so long as Gaara remains asleep.
In Part II of the series, two and a half years after the failed attempt to retrieve Sasuke, Deidara, a member of the criminal organization Akatsuki, is sent to Sunagakure to capture Gaara. Deidara manages to capture Gaara by threatening Sunagakure, and the members of Akatsuki extract Shukaku from his body. Gaara dies in the process, but is revived by Chiyo, an elderly Sunagakure ninja, who gives him her life so that he can continue to protect Sunagakure.
Anime and manga publications have praised and criticised Gaara's character. IGN noted that Gaara was an "anti-Naruto", possessing a "dark, solemn character" as opposed to Naruto's continuous cheer and excitement. In another review, IGN also called Gaara's background "emotional" and "a tad creepy" due to the disparity between the development of Naruto's and Gaara's personalities. Anime News Network celebrated the "depth and emotion" that Naruto's and Gaara's similarities added to the plot, and commented that "nowhere in the entire series run does Naruto shine brighter than in the peak period of his battle against Gaara". They also complimented Kishimoto's visual presentation of Gaara in the manga, referring to "chilling [glimpses] of Gaara's crazed, exposed face". Liam O'Brien, Gaara's voice actor in the English adaptation of the anime, has been praised. IGN noted that he did an "excellent job" of making Gaara sound terrifying to the viewer, and Anime News Network noted him as one of the best voice actors in the series.