I’ve talked before about how trios of characters can fall into familiar patterns, specifically The Eternal Triangle, Mind, Body, and Soul, Princess, Protector, and Protagonist, and Hero, Sidekick, and Girlfriend. To that we can add Daddy, Mommy, Child, as represented by Kobayashi, Tohru, and Kanna in Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. There are probably other stable trios, and I’ll call them out to you as I run across them.
Once you try to go for more than three characters, as a writer you face a more difficult set of problems and more exciting set of opportunities. The opportunities come from simple mathematics: the number of interrelationships inside a group is equal to N(N-1)/2, where N is the number of entities in the group. For a group of three the number is three. For a group of four, it’s six…twice the possibility to create dramatic tension and/or plot lines.
This continues with more characters. Note that Cowboy Bebop has five main characters, fifteen relationships; Samurai 7, like its progenitor The Seven Samurai, has eight (the seven plus their local contact), twenty-eight relationships(!!). That gives a lot of potential for conflict, creative tension, and creative storytelling.
Potential is potential. The question is: What can you do with it?
One problem is distinguishing the characters. I’ve mentioned the problem the writers had with School-Live! before: They had a stable Mind-Body-Soul trio and when they tried to add a fourth character she ended up co-opted by the trio, playing any of the three roles when convenient to the story, but not a new role of her own. The more characters there are, the more carefully the character roles have to be defined and the harder it is to stick to the definition. In Samurai 7 they divide the group into subgroups to have manageable numbers of interactions. In Bebop they ended up giving Ed and Ein much less to do than the others. But the narrative rewards are worth it.
One thing I like about Wolf’s Rain is the way they managed to pull off a stable group of more than three characters. It’s as though someone said, “Well, let’s look at the sociology of wolves, and figure out how to make a pack that works.” Then they invested a great deal of skull sweat into translating the lupine roles into human terms, to make the characters relatable and interesting as four separate characters, not a stable trio that subsumes a fourth.
I think they made it work.
There are a lot of characters who matter to the meta-plot in Rain. In that it’s like Neon Genesis. But the basic meta-plot is The Quest: the four members of the pack are in search of Paradise, and that simplifies things in some ways and allows for dramatic conflict in others. I mean, after all, the point of having different characters is to create conflict internal to the group about the goal or, to be specific, how to achieve the goal.
What I think the writers did was stop to think about archetypes of wolf behavior and then superimpose the wolf characteristics and motivations onto the characters, who are mostly manifested in human form.
So you have Kiba, the alpha male. If he was totally Paradise directed they’d have little story, so they gave him an obsession with Cheza, who is a construct (basically a flower except in human form). (To make this make sense, the writers made Cheza the key the wolves need to reach Paradise. This makes Kiba’s obsession tolerable to the pack.)
Don’t even have to label this one. It’s pre-labelled.
Tsume is the classic lone wolf. He’s independent, and he’s with the group only because they’re going the same way he is. This creates any number of possible conflicts with the group, since he doesn’t really see himself as part of it.
Hige is the good wolf. He likes humans, and could live with them all his life. He wears a frickin’ collar for Pete’s sake, even in his human form.
Toboe is the runt. He is given puppy-like characteristics, and less physical strength than the others.
Wolf’s Rain is beautiful to watch and, frankly, slow of plot, but it works because the writers and animators sat down and said, “Let’s respect these characters.” Sometimes the group has to help Toboe (despite Tsume’s contempt). Sometimes they have to convince Tsume to stay on their course. They spend a lot of time chasing Cheza around, which they need to do because she is their key. But what the writers always do is say, “Who is this character? How would he respond, as a human and as a wolf?” And the animators show the characters the same sort of respect, by being careful to have the human forms of the characters move in ways that suggest lupine behavior. (I have mentioned this before, in the animation of Holo, the Wolf Goddess, from Spice and Wolf.)
The plot of Wolf’s Rain is simple and the length excessive. But it’s a pleasure to watch because you get to see the writers successfully managing four main characters in a non-stereotypical way. Nice piece of writing.
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.