I don’t think anyone needs to say that character is a critical part of storytelling. I mean, ultimately drama is conflict, and conflict arises from character (at least, if the conflict is character-driven, which is about the same as saying lava arises if the volcano is lava-driven).
Certain character types work to simplify the creation and resolution of conflict. Good vs. evil, right? Duh. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl, right? Duh. There are seven basic plots, supposedly, and the majority of them are driven by character archetypes.
At the same time, there are character combinations that can be used to drive story. Hero and sidekick. It works better if the sidekick is either Comic Relief…Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Space Dandy and QT…or a younger, less mature version of the hero…Batman and Robin, Doctor Who and (pick a companion). In anime we often see the senpai-kohai relationship, but the cool thing about that is that the characters will use the senpai and kohai honorifics so its easy to keep track of who is whom.
Once we get past the simple pairings, things start to get complex. The problem with that it that in anime, at least the ones of fixed, short length, you only have a limited amount of time to explore the complexities of relationships. Of course, there are anime that are nothing but that…I’m looking at you, Spice and Wolf…But the rest have a different story to tell, and so they fall back on archetypes so they can get past the beginning of the story (introduce characters and setting) and into the middle (conflict).
Once you get past pairs, a trio can get to be complex. There’s the Eternal Triangle, of course, with two characters vying for the affections of a third. But if you don’t want to go there…How about a trio of archetypes?
How about the “Mind/Body/Soul” trio, in which one character is brainy/logical, one physically strong and forceful, and the third emotional and intuitive? The trio works because, although they’re all on the same side in the overarching story, they create tension inside the group by disagreeing on solutions.
Is there anyone crazy enough to consider the Powerpuff girls as anime? Is that a hand I see sheepishly raised in the back? You, sir, are dismissed. You will never be otaku.
But still, you can see the pattern there. Blossom is the smart one, Buttercup the strong one, and Bubbles the emotional one. (It’s interesting to consider that Bubbles is also the weaker one…Macho, anyone?)
A manga that caught my eye was School-Live! You pick it up and thumb through the first couple pages and say, “Oh, yeah, jeez, school girls/slice of life yada yada yada zzzz….” Seen it, right?
Until you turn the page and see little Yuki skipping obliviously down an utterly devastated school hallway. BOOM! They’re actually some of the few survivors of a zombie apocalypse.
That’s not a spoiler. That’s the premise of the series. Just so you know.
From left: Yuri, Kurumi, Yuki, Miki. They look much more empty-headed in the anime than the manga.
I found School-Live!, the manga and anime made from it, interesting because each of the three girls who make up the trilogy…Yuki, Kurumi, and Yuri…is spectacularly traumatized in a different, particular way. Classic PTSD, and they come by it honestly. I’ll have another entry about that later – remember, I’m a social scientist by profession. But I also found it interesting that the girls were written such that they formed a classic Mind-Body-Soul trio.
Yuri…Ree-san…is the smart one. She is their leader, and more importantly she is their bookkeeper. She knows how much food they have and the power levels they get from their solar cells, knows where to find things, and knows what they need to find. She keeps meticulous, detailed records, and formulates plans for the future.
Kurumi, she’s the strong one, the muscle. She keeps a shovel with her at all times and knows what to do with it should a zombie wander nearby. (Look up “Entrenching tool” and “trench raid.” It’s an ugly story, and Kurumi knows it.) Before everything went south she was on the track team.
Poor little Yuki, she’s the emotional one. She comes right out and tells the others that, that she’s not smart or strong, so what she can do is be upbeat and supportive and cheer them on.
Smart, strong, intuitive. Mind, Body, Soul.
You see it all over. Go all the way back to Neon Genesis Evangelion: Rei, Asuka, and Shinji. Rei, the intellectual one. Asuka: strong, loud, physical. Poor Shinji, torn apart by his emotions. Think of Samurai Champloo, of Jin, Mugen, and Fuu. Jin, cold, intelligent. Mugen, the wildest swordsman in the country. Fuu, strong of will. Am I right? Each of them has talents beyond their role, which is why Samurai Champloo is so complex, but they are basically Mind, Body, and Soul again.
From the standpoint of this set of characters the interesting thing about School-Live!, the manga is that after a couple issues they decided to throw a random number into the mix. Our Heroes go out to look for other for other survivors and find Miki.
Miki’s not part of their stable trio, and early in her time she creates a lot of tension internal to the group. In particular, she questions whether the others should tolerate Yuki’s adaptation to the circumstances. (Yuki is in deNile so far that she’s not aware that there’s a river in Egypt. She actually doesn’t see anything that doesn’t fit into her world view. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Fugue state.)
What’s interesting about Miki from a storytelling standpoint, though, is that once she’s done being the fourth wheel on the tricycle, her role degenerates to being an amalgam of the others. She learns to keep careful records from Yuri. When Kurumi ventures out of their bunker, it’s Miki covering her ass. And she becomes kohai to Yuki’s senpai. She also gets fewer lines. That’s how strong that trio of archetypes is: when you put in a fourth character to break things up, instead the archetypes suck her in.
Good story telling? Bad? I dunno. Archetypes exist because they work to create the drama needed to tell stories. If you’ve seen the anime of School-Live!, though, one thing you notice right off is it starts with all four of them together already. I think the anime writers thought that if they put Miki in there right off, it might prevent her from getting subsumed by the trinity. Didn’t work.
That’s the power of three.
I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.