Character Design 101: Want and Need

Management: Vague character-arc spoilers for a few shows here – FLCL, Eva, Tatami Galaxy, Cowboy Bebop, Hyouka. Hyouka’s the only one I get particularly specific on.

Gonna share something a little different today! Recently I’ve been thinking about characters, which is probably because I am always thinking about characters. While a lot of my personal views on character writing have obviously come from reading and watching a whole lot of stories, a fair amount of my understanding has also come from writing characters. As a fiction writer, knowing how to write a fleshed-out human being is rarely optional – but even just as someone who just wants to poke more deeply at the things they consume, I think analyzing characters from a character-creation standpoint can be very enlightening. Characters are kind of like trees – though the individual branches of their actions may look strange and circuitous, generally everything winds its way back to the central trunk of their base nature and desires. And looking at characters trunk-first can do a whole lot of work to make sense of their wildly winding limbs.

So let’s get down to that trunk, to the absolute base nature of a character. There are a few ways to approach this, but personally I think the easiest way to consider character writing is to start with two key variables. The two often-conflicting desires that tend to define their choices, their conflicts, and their ultimate resolution: what they want and what they need.

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Top 30 Anime Series of All Time

Yep, I’ve finally put together a top shows list. As I hopefully made clear in part one and part two of my critical biases post, this is obviously my list – it represents the things I think are most valuable in stories in the way I think they’ve best been articulated. It’s also just a list of shows I enjoy – there’s no hard criteria here, so I wouldn’t stress the numbers too much. Also, it’s a bit front-loaded – I only started watching anime seasonally about two years ago, so the last couple years are disproportionately represented. Incidentally, I’m not including movies here either – I think direct comparisons between shows and films are a bit of a stretch, but if they were included, this list would certainly be somewhat different. And finally, I’m absolutely (and thankfully) certain this list will change over time – there are still piles of widely beloved shows I’ve never seen, so I’m sure the current rankings will be filled out in the years to come. So with that all said, let’s get to the list – Bobduh’s Top 30 Anime of All Time.

-edit- I have now created a Top Shows Addendum for shows that have either fallen off or just barely missed this list. Please enjoy these additional almost-top shows!

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Once More With Fury: Rebuilding Evangelion

Management: This one’s all about Eva and Anno’s relationship with his fans, so it’s a bit thornier than most. As such, the usual caveats apply – this isn’t an attack or an indictment of anyone, it’s just a personal take on some very strange fiction. Hope you enjoy![Coalgirls]_Evangelion_3.33.0_You_Can_(Not)_Redo_(1920x816_Blu-ray_FLAC)_[FC2091F9].mkv_snapshot_00.33.52_[2014.01.31_23.00.21]

“I started this production with the wish that once the production complete, the world, and the heroes would change.” – Hideaki Anno

In attempting to justify the existence of the Rebuild of Evangelion, Hideaki Anno offers an interesting defense. In the words of my handy statement-of-purpose booklet, “I do think, why revive a title that is over 10 years old now? I also feel that Eva is already old. But in these 12 years, there has been no newer anime than Eva.”

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Do Characters’ Ages Really Matter?

Management: Just a mini-question today, since I found myself searching the archives for this and realized I’d never posted it in the first place. Organization!

Question:

Are shows starring adults meaningfully different from those starring teenagers? Are shows set in college meaningfully different from those set in middle or high school? I ask because I see this distinction made all the time, but generally it doesn’t seem meaningfully different outside of a setting/character-appearance sense.

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C3-bu: Like Evangelion, but with More Moe Airsoft

C3-bu is a strange little show, marking the second entry in a little genre I like to call “moe club shows that aren’t pointless and terrible.” The first entry in this hopefully burgeoning genre was Girls und Panzer, and going into this show, my most optimistic assumption was that it would be a less good but at least watchable version of that.

C3-bu is not that. Not in the slightest. Girls und Panzer succeeds by working as a legitimate sports show, and C3-bu doesn’t have the slightest pretension of being a sports show. Sports shows survive by infusing their central game with drama, by laying out specific rules to create believable tension, by pulling off fun pure-plot turns in the winding of combat or sport or cards or whatever their chosen game is. And C3-bu never grounds the airsoft enough to make for actual tension – all the battles are essentially “wacky stuff happening,” and sides win because the show’s actual goals demand it.

What are the show’s actual goals?

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Thematic Integration and Philosophical Discussion

Question:

As a fan of philosophy, I tend to enjoy shows that take the time to discuss their philosophical or ethical questions, such as Psycho-Pass or Evangelion. However, it seems clear that writers can go overboard with this, and that sometimes these discussions can seem inappropriate or even pretentious. Do you think there’s a specific pattern to when discussions like this are appropriate, and when they start to become pretentious?

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Is Anime an Inferior Medium?

Question:

Many people seem extremely dismissive of otaku culture and anime in particular, claiming anime is an inferior cultural medium to books, movies, etc. How would you go about refuting this argument?

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Harems, Deconstructions, and Good Storytelling

Management: As per usual, questions rewritten to better map to responses.

Question:

Why do all harem anime contain casts of unbelievable characters and avoid all long-lasting drama or relationship changes like the plague? Do we need a deconstruction of this genre to make it worth anything?

Someone Else’s Answer:

We had a deconstruction. It was called School Days.

Question:

From what I’ve heard, School Days doesn’t make the harem genre make sense in the way Madoka and Evangelion do – those shows make their genre elements make sense in the context of a specific world. Couldn’t there be a harem where the characters actually make sense as people in the same way?

Bobduh:

Evangelion and Madoka work not because they’re deconstructions, but because they’re good stories that happen to have the aesthetic trappings of certain genres. The fundamental nature of harems is to be unrealistic power fantasies, making good storytelling pretty close to impossible – if you make a harem with well-written, realistic characters and relationships, it generally ceases to be a harem and becomes a romance instead

Question:

But most anime romances seem to just be love triangles, where in the end the main character abandons the actually complementary romantic choice to stick with the weird/sickly/frail girl. I haven’t seen a single romance where the main character actively pursues both girls. What makes the “fundamental nature” of this genre less storytelling-friendly than magical girls or mecha? And how about The World God Only Knows, doesn’t that kind of work in this territory already?

Bobduh:

There are a few elements to discuss here, so I’ll take them one at a time.

First, you’re making some pretty broad assumptions about romance there. They’re not all about love triangles, and the nature of the characters involved is a lot more diverse than the setup you’ve outlined.

A romance anime where the MC actively courts both females

School Days probably is what you’re looking for – it’s pretty hard to have a protagonist remain sympathetic while willfully courting multiple women. School Days plays this straight; most harems play it for laughs, because in a realistic situation it comes off the way it actually is – dickish and narcissistic. The World God Only Knows only maintains sympathy for its protagonist and works on a narrative level by combining comedy, amnesia, and the fact that his harem-acquiring is based on an unrealistic, fantastical plot contrivance that forces him to act this way. It’s also self-aware and constantly draws attention to the tropey nature of anime characters, further distancing itself from reality. This is necessary; the closer this situation veers to reality, the closer it veers towards the MC being an asshole.

Fundamental nature of genres

The way I see this is that for magical girl shows it’s “girl transforms into frilly version of self with powers to fight evil.” With mechas, it’s “boy pilots giant robot.” Both these core concepts are silly, but they don’t inherently fight against good storytelling or characterization. Meanwhile, harems are fundamentally “boy/girl is surrounded by lovers who fight for their affection.” There are a lot more hoops you have to jump through to make a premise like that valid for a meaningful story – it’s not impossible, but it’s more of an inherently problematic premise than either of the other two, and seems very difficult to justify in a way that respects all of its characters and works towards a coherent and worthwhile point. I think School Days actually does this, but it does it by saying “all these characters are insecure and dependent, the MC is emotionally dead, and this genre is a rancid pit” – it doesn’t create a distinct story using the trappings, it just attacks its own genre.

Deconstructions

I honestly just don’t find deconstructions that interesting in the abstract. I don’t need a deconstruction to tell me that boys riding giant mechs is a silly idea – like I said originally, Evangelion and Madoka work because they are less interested in tearing down their genre than they are in telling great stories and saying meaningful things using some of the tools of those genres. To me, this is less deconstructing the genre than redeeming it – finding something meaningful to say with traditionally meaningless tools. I find School Days a lot less impressive than those works because (along with it having a much lower standard of aesthetic craft and storytelling) it never goes any further than tearing down its genre – but like I said, the harem genre is a very hard one to tell a great or meaningful story within, so perhaps that’s just the best a show can do with those raw materials.