Management: Been a while since I’ve done a general criticism post, eh?
Are shows starring adults meaningfully different from shows starring teenagers? How about college students versus high school students? I ask because in many shows (Working! versus Servant x Service, etc), the differences seem largely superficial – the humor and character interactions all carry over.
They certainly ought to be! Adults, college-age people, and teenagers all have different central concerns, different degrees of experience, different manners of speaking – if characters are written so that they’re actually reflective of their experiences, shows about adults should naturally be fundamentally different from shows about teenagers. Plus, characters aside, there are many themes and narrative focuses that make the distinction particularly relevant. For example, Samurai Flamenco is very clearly a show about the disconnect between youthful ideals and adult realities – so yes, it wouldn’t really work as a show about teenagers. Cowboy Bebop is similar – its themes are echoes of those found in films like Seven Samurai, the story of the old soldier trying to find purpose in a world that has moved past him. That pretty much necessitates adult characters.
Granted, many shows don’t write characters that seem believably reflective of their experiences, and when you combine that with shows focused wholly on something like action or comedy, you can get situations where the characters’ age isn’t a meaningful distinction. But most of the time it really should be.
Management: That’s where the original response ended. But let’s see if we can dig into this a little more.
Adults versus adolescents is a nice, stark example of the fundamental principle here, but really these rules are the underpinnings of all character design. Characters do not exist in a vacuum – they shouldn’t just be collections of traits put together in a pleasing manner. They should be the culmination of their experiences, a meaningful reflection of their circumstances, upbringing, and formative experiences. Sure, various people do have fundamentally different dispositions, but everyone is also reflective of their environment. And when designing characters, making sure this applies is important for a variety of reasons.
First, it’s just true. Characters who are reflective of their experiences read as much more real than those who are simply the way they are because that’s how they were written. The audience will be much more likely to buy a character whose nature is reflective of things they can actually understand than one who is simply constructed of given pieces, regardless of how reasonable those pieces may be. And audience aside, if you want your work to reflect some inherent truth about people, skimping on character grounding is pretty much the worst choice you could make.
Second, and extending directly from this point, understanding the underpinnings of a character’s emotions, goals, and values is by far the most reliable path towards making the audience empathize with that character. Many authors try too hard to make their characters blandly likable – and honestly, this very often works. Audiences will often attach to characters they think they’d want to be, see as idealized versions of themselves, or simply would enjoy being actual friends with. But this approach inherently limits the audience of people who can empathize with those characters – when you keep a character loosely defined or merely pleasant like this, you rely on the audience investing in that character, applying some of themselves to fill out the gaps. And this will only work with people predisposed towards liking the particular personality, set of tropes, or fantasy that particular character represents. Actually, it’ll only work with the subset of that group that also don’t see this kind of character design (or at least this particular instance of it) as off-puttingly manipulative.
In contrast to this, establishing the formative events which have shaped a character leads to empathy through actual understanding. The audience may not personally like or personally relate to a character, but if the story articulates the sequence of events that led a base person to this fully-articulated personality, the audience can still empathize with why that person would make the choices they make. This is the foundation of that oft-repeated “good stories don’t have villains, they have antagonists” point. Very few people wake up one morning and think “today I’m going to meddle with some heroes” – antagonists should be people whose own circumstances, formative experiences, and goals lead them to naturally oppose the desires of the protagonists. Even if this doesn’t result in them being sympathetic characters (certainly not always possible, though a very powerful effect when appropriate), it should result in them being understandable human beings.
Finally, understandable circumstances are fundamental to character design because they’re also fundamental to drama. Even if character development isn’t your focus, and you’re crafting a story largely based on action, entertainment, or some high-minded thematic purpose, our human ability to empathize with constructed characters is possibly the most powerful storytelling tool we have, and discarding it means discarding potential resonance that can enrich virtually any style of narrative. No story is weakened by discarding character fundamentals – even if a given narrative doesn’t prioritize such things, that just makes the few details that do inform the characters carry that much more weight, as they become wholly responsible for acting as those gateway-to-empathy resonance points for the viewer. It takes virtually no time to ground a stone-cold badass in a formative experience or two, and the amount of work that small investment can do to attach an audience to a character is just an absurdly positive ratio.
Additionally, the necessary building blocks of good character design – this past-minded grounding I’ve been discussing – are some of the most useful materials available when trying to build an organic, personal narrative. Just as character background informs personality, that background can also be looped around to construct narrative, and having the things which inform a character’s personality come back to inform the narrative (confronting a past fear, retreading an old argument, etc) enriches both the character (whose fate we are interested in specifically because these old ghosts humanized them for us) and the narrative (lending it a satisfying holism, and grounding the spectacular in the personal). It turns a series of events into a story.
This doesn’t have to take a blunt, physical expression – protagonists don’t have to actually meet their dead fathers, they can simply be put through some other experience that forces them to confront the emotions that charged the first one. The various expressions this can take are pretty much beyond counting, but the base concept is not optional – tying the overt narrative to the emotional one is critical to creating an emotionally satisfying narrative.
Then, once this is all done, you can look back and realize you’ve forgotten the damn thematic throughline, and now you’ve gotta start all over again. Woops.