Monday, June 8, 2015

What Anime taught me about Memorable Characters

I may have mentioned it once or twice before. I have this thing going on with Anime. What that basically means is I really enjoy watching animated series that come from Japan. (And yes, I watch them all in English Sub. No Dub for me.) These animated series have a type of storytelling that I absoulutely love and I wanted to be able to share a bit of that love with you today.

(Two Disclaimers: Just before we get started. One is that not all anime are created equal. I'm not reccomending anime to younger audiences. I'll save was constitutes good and bad anime for another article. Two is that, besides the header, none of the images included in this article are mine. I got them all off my Anime Board on my Pinterest.)

Besides the fact that I love anime for the unique storytelling style and the awesome fight sequences, I love anime for the memorable characters. A lot of these characters have made me laugh and have even made me cry. (I ain't afraid to admit it) I've noticed over the course of watching all these series that there are certain things within the Japanese style of storytelling that makes this characters memorable. Now not all of these are directly applicable to writing. However, I think the basic concepts could be useful when creating your own memorable characters. So let's get started!


Backstory Effects Everything

Anime has this bad habit of dedicating long stints of episodes to backstory. Sometimes it can get a bit annoying, but honestly, after watching those episodes you gain a whole new perspective of the characters. A good example of backstory in anime would be Naruto. I'm pretty sure if you cut that series into parts a whole two thirds of it would be backstory. The other third is simply the awesome action the backstory put into motion. Spending time on the backstory filled up the somewhat flat characters we "liked" into massive, dynamic characters that we Loved.

Now in a book it is not always the wisest choice to spend so much time walking your reader through the backstory. In fact most experts would tell you not to spell out your backstory at all. However, I would suggest that you as the writer go through all those backstory "episodes" in your head. Imagine them or write them down. If you know everywhere and everything your character has been before they appear in your story then they will naturally have that mass that makes them memorable to your reader.

They Fight For Something

Similar to backstory, anime characters also have a surplus of drive. They all have something they are fighting for. It could be acing that test in school or getting the attention of their crush. It could be protecting their family or becoming a stronger ninja.

I find this aspect of memorable characters in almost every anime I've ever watched. But if I had to pick one that stood out as the best possible example, that would be Fullmetal Alchemist. The drive behind the Elric Brothers' quest is rooted in the desire to restore the other to the way they were before the accident that claimed Al's body and Edward's arm and leg. Ultimately this stems from a theme of redemption, restoration, and the cost of one mistake. But you get what I'm saying, right?

This element of memorable characters is rooted in the backstory and fleshed out through the plot. Make sure you have a drive that characterizes your character's journey from their backstory and through their plot.

Diversity Is Possible

When I think of diverse characters in anime, I think of the Squad Captains in Bleach. These guys were packed with individual physical qualities, backstories, and layers of intricacies for how they related to each other and the world around them. They taught me that diversity is possible with a set of characters. The work just needs to be put in to develop each individual until they feel that real in a story.

Bonds Build Plot

I'm constantly amazed by how musch emphasis is put on friendship and family in Anime shows. I think it's a fundamental part of the Japanese culture to be an individual who draws strength from a group. Whereas in America the ideal is to be an individual who draws strength from their individuality. From what I have observed of Anime the strongest characters are those who value the family/friends/tribe more than they value themselves.

What does this have to do with memorable characters? Think of the power of bonds when it comes to plot. I like to think of Avatar: The Last Airbender for this area. In such an epic journey every person Aang and the gang meet along the way has the possibility to become a pivotol player later on in the series. Like Suki and the Kyoshi warriors for example. The bonds built over one tiny episode served as a building block for the plot later on.

Nothing happens by accident. Keep that in mind when your character bumps into someone and makes a bond of some sort. That bond does not have to become pivotol right away either. But when danger comes the character will remember his friends, and they will remember him. Dedicated friends make some of the most memorable characters.

Rivals Build on Each Other

Every Anime has a rival situation. A rival is like the Japanese version of frenemies. Two people who know each other, maybe even respect each other, but they clash against one another to see who is stronger. Why this makes memorable characters is because it is literally iron sharpening iron. Through the rivalry both characters develop physically, mentally, and emotionally.

A rivalry can be over something as petty as who gets the girl, like between Inuyasha and Koga over Kagome. Another simple rivalry can be who has the stronger powers, like Gray Fullbuster and Natsu Dragneel from Fairy Tail. There's the competitive sort of rivalry of who can get stronger faster, like with Ichigo and Renji from Bleach. Each of these rivalries build on the character's friendships and their bonds which can later influence plot development.

Less tame rivalries would include Naruto vs. Sasuke and Hinata vs. Neji from Naruto. What started as a tame rivalry between Naruto and Sasuke evolved into Naruto's determination to save his friend from himself. All the while each was trying to surpass the other. What resulted (besides awesomeness) was incredible character development. Hinata and Neji's rivalry spawned from political roots. One was born to power and the other was born to servitude. One was weak and the other was physically powerful. Their rivalry on such strangely equal ground changed both of them and contributed greatly to the plot.

So, is your character trying to become better? Are they fighting for something? Try giving them a rival who will challenge, teach, and give your character the oppurtunity to grow.

Sometimes They Don't Get Together

(WARNING: Possible Spoilers from here on out)

"Just kiss, darn it all!" I cannot tell you how many times I've shouted that at my screen whilst watching anime. Anime just loves to draaaaaggggg it out as much as they can! These characters really have no luck in the love department sometimes. They're too busy being awesome ninjas, saving the fuedal era, or being totally oblivious to get this whole love thing right. But this irritating part of Anime is a good lesson in what makes a memorable character. Sometimes love interests just don't get together.

Love interests might never have time to get together. One might die before they can get together. Or, they could both be so awful at communication that you as the audience never get to see them get their act together before the story ends! I really hate that last one. The trick for us, the writers, is to make whatever happens realistic.

My best examples in this department come from Naruto. The debate rages as to whether Sasuke deserves Sakura because she's had a crush on him forever. But Naruto has had a crush on Sakura forever too! While in the background Hinata harbors feelings for the oblivious Naruto. What is that? A love square? I have no idea. Anyway, no one expresses their feelings verbally. It's all through actions and that's what makes it real for the viewer. I don't even think I've heard an anime character say, "I love you." It would be weird if they did.

Sometimes love interests are never resolved. Even if they aren't, they have got to feel real. None of the gushy words of devotion. Try some acts of devotion instead.

Real Love is Possible

YES! Yes, it exists! Thank you, thank you to whoever created Kirito and Asuna! *gestures wildly to Sword Art Online* Still a better love story than Twlight. Sorry, I couldn't resist that one. Anime has taught me that real love in possible in traditional and unexpected ways between characters. Those two ways might seem simple, but they make for really memorable characters.

The first example is obviousble Kirito and Asuna. First off: They're Mature. They don't beat around the bush. They acknowledge their feelings and move ahead. Second reason: They Get Married. (Sort of) They actually make it official and it happens at the midpoint in the story as opposed to the end. Kirito is dependable and Asuna is a strong woman without being unfeminine. Win-Win! This taught me that it's okay to make characters that can actually make mature decisions. Two well-developed characters can actually get married in the middle of a story and the story still be awesome.

Real love can come out in ways that are not common in our literature today. Memorable characters often have that quality.


Death is Where Your Character Teaches Their Lesson

We really need to stop killing off characters just for the fun of it. The same goes for killing off a character because their death is the only thing to jar your protagonist into doing the right things or whatnot. Deaths in anime almost always come unexpectedly, and at the worst possible time. A prime example is once again Naruto. Granted, the ninja in this series expect to have short lives and sudden deaths, but that's not the point!

The character deaths in Naruto (I'll try not to spoil things) are used as the pivotal point in the character's development where they can finally pass along the lesson they have been trying to live out throughout the ups and downs of their life. The characters are at their most transparent at the moment of death. Anime has this bad habit of monologing but in the case of character deaths it's worth it. I learned that if I am going to kill a character in one of my stories then they had better be passing on a lesson/truth that will alter the other character's paths for good or evil.


So how about that? Never knew anime could teach you so much about memorable characters did you? What do y'all think? Did I miss any lessons about awesome characters? What are some of your favorite animes? Any other hints for making memorable characters? If you have any questions or comments feel free to post below!











  1. Love love love this post! I did one on anime characters a while back. It's neat to know I'm not the only one who realizes the awesomeness of anime! Kirito and Asuna all the way! :D :D :D Anime has some of the best storytelling. I prefer it over a lot of American media personally.

    1. Yay!! Another Anime fan! I'll have to try and find that article on your blog and read it. SAO was so amazing, and Kirito and Asuna were perfect! The second one is pretty good too but not as awesome as the original. I'm so glad you liked this, thanks for stopping by!

    2. I have noticed that American television is either geared towards seven ear olds or 21 and over. In most cases the quality for both is atrocious. Do have give credit to the original Teen Titans and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for being good at any age. Danny Phantom, Jimmy Neutron and the first five seasons of SpongeBob were fair too. Anyway, I would agree that Japanese animation is usually more complex and sophisticated. I prefer it to most American cartoons.

  2. I 100% agree with your list, but since you asked I would like to offer a few more lessons. This will be a long post, so I will break it up.
    1. Characters do not have to black and white to make an impact. I think a lot of people expect the main protagonist, especially if they are a hero character, to be the epitome of righteousness and physical, emotional strength, mental strength or all of the above. People expect villains to be the embodiment of everything wrong with humanity. An example of where this is done with success is Dragon Ball. Goku is an example of the first. He is inspirational and lovable. Vegeta, in the beginning, is detestable. I find the most interesting characters, however, to be imperfect. Being human means having strengths and weaknesses and learning how to live with them. Granted, some people have more weaknesses than strengths and some people have more strengths than weaknesses. I think most of us relate to characters, both good and evil, who share the human condition. The most inspirational heroes fight to overcome their greatest fears, weaknesses and limitations. An example of this is type of character is Erza Scarlett. In the beginning she is tough, cool, just, kind of scary and always has it together. She is a fine run of the mill hero character. Learning about her background made me like her. Watching her struggle to overcome her past and her fears made me love her. One of her most memorable moments was watching her allow Jellal’s arrest with such dignity and grace, but then breaking down and crying her eyes out a few minutes later when she is alone. In that moment all of her physical and mental strength did not matter. Her powerlessness allowed the viewer to see her emotional vulnerability. She became much more interesting. I believe Jellal is one of the finest complex villains in the anime world. He was originally good. Then he became evil. Even when he is pure evil he is still a victim who suffered terrible pain at the hands of another. I never saw that as an excuse for all the horrible things he did, but at least I understood why he was the way he was. He wasn’t ever a monster that crawled out of the darkest part of the earth. Rather, he was a very broken human being. In one way or another we are also flawed and fight to keep the worst parts of ourselves from defining what we do and who we are. I did not like him at this point, but I did feel pity for him. And when he does become good he still has to deal with his dark past. Those of us who have made mistakes, especially big ones, can understand the burden of the guilt and shame they continue to haunt us with. Most of us, like Jellal, just want to make it right. We find ourselves looking for absolution or redemption with no guarantee we will find either. Also, have characters who are neither primarily good not primarily evil will create a more convincing and dynamic story. They reflect the majority of us and are less predictable.

  3. 2. Do not fear weakness. A lot of people are conditioned to expect the main protagonists, especially in the action genre, to be able to kick but anytime, anywhere. There is nothing wrong with this approach. However, I think it ignores a valuable lesson: weakness is human and has much more potential for growth than strength. I think Naruto takes advantage of this. There is Kakashi, who seems to be unshakable and have it all together, but is a phycological and emotional wreck who might as well have died a decade before we met him. Over time he conquers his inner demons and learns to live life to its fullest. There is Sakura, who was brilliant, but whiny, dependent on others to solve her problems and physically and emotionally weak. Rather than be compliant to her weakness, she faces it and uses it as motivation to become strong and independent. As human beings with our own weaknesses, us viewers also have the option to settle for who we are instead of working to be better versions of ourselves. This is what makes her so inspiring. Finally, there is Hinata with a heart of gold. She has wealth, status and power, but cannot meet her father’s expectations no matter how hard she tries and is overshadowed by her naturally talented younger sister. Her feelings for Naruto are also not reciprocated until the end of the Shippuden series. Hinata does not let her weaknesses or setbacks break her resolve. She continues to struggle and improve and fight for what she wants until she makes the transition from lamb into lion, earning her father’s respect and eventually succeeding in winning Naruto’s affection. We can also allow our backgrounds, lack of natural talent and other peoples’ expectations shape who we become and what we make of our lives or we can choose to who we will be and how we will live our lives as well. Weakness is not an evil, but a powerful tool for developing characters.

  4. 3. Change is a good thing, at least for writers. Plenty of shows, including anime, have characters who more or less stay the same. This is rare in real people and makes more interesting characters. I watched Inuyasha three times simply because I was fascinated by Sesshomaru’s character development. He is the ultimate human-disliking, cold-hearted demon who is willing to kill his brother over an heirloom sword he can’t even use without severe injury. (It’s a pride thing.) However, he for whatever reason decides to save a human child, who proceeds to teach him the beauty and strength of humanity, love, compassion, mercy and selflessness. She is also essential in helping him make peace with his brother. I wasn’t all that crazy about him at first, but now he is one of my favorite characters of all time. Sesshomaru’s personality remains similar to the beginning, but he has a completely different heart. And then there is the opposite change, from good to bad. The dissent into madness is less common, but still captivating. Change in characters appeals to us because we also change for better or worse over time or in response to things that happen to us.

  5. 4. Don’t underestimate the children. I get it, children are generally less sophisticated and harder to work with than teen or adult characters. It is easy to make them cute and or tantrum-throwing simpletons who contribute in the most base way to plot, thematic and other characters’ development. It takes a lot of effort to find creative ways to make them dynamic characters who contribute to the story and its themes in meaningful ways. However, I believe taking the high road is worth it. I have found that in real life children are full of surprises, in part due to their innocence, and can teach adults many more lessons than adults teach them. They often have the wisdom to see the world as it is because they lack biases of what it should be. Child characters can be interesting and important in their own right. The most effective use of a child character is Rin (8-10 in her first episode of appearance) from Inuyasha. She watched bandits slaughter her family, had to survive on her own for some time afterwards, was killed by wolf demons and saved by Sesshomaru, who she decided to follow for the rest of the series. Her backstory is beautifully developed and memorable. She is essential in the development of multiple characters and drives portions of the plot. She is not just there to look cute and she does not feel like she is there to fill minutes or make the script writer’s job easy. She has an important purpose. Also, all of her scenes are beautifully crafted. She is sometimes the center of attention and sometimes in the background, but either way she says or does something that makes the show better. Most of the time children are created with very simple personalities, but Rin is a vibrant character. This partly comes from the fact that we get to know her very well by the end of the series. The other half is because the writers were not afraid to be bold and creative. Finally, she has an uncanny talent to say things that are deadly accurate, but no one else would think or be willing to say. Children are often far less filtered than adults and less bound by social convention. This can be used to develop themes or to point out things that may be important, but easily missed by older audiences. Rin often does this despite being dismissed by other characters. She is a huge part of why I think Inuyasha is successful. Not all children characters, especially really young ones, have to be as developed or involved in the story as Rin to be meaningful. The point is that children characters can be versatile and dynamic characters who have the potential to significantly impact a story.
    This is my last comment. Thank you for your patience. I am a fan of anime and probably get a little bit carried away.


I'm very eager to hear your thoughts or questions. Please use the comment section to encourage good conversation for curious readers and fellow writers. Thank you for commenting! I try to reply to most comments so make sure to check back!