Building a Beginning: Rent-a-Girlfriend

Okay, one more time: The beginning of a narrative is supposed to do a lot of things.

You know, it really SHOULD do a lot of things. The key one, of course, is to get the user to KEEP GOING. If the beginning blows, no one’s interested in what comes next. And if you’re looking at an anime series or a manga series, that’s a problem, because to make money they need to attract eyeballs.

So it needs to

Introduce characters
Establish setting
Hook the reader

Right? Said it before, and I’ll say it again.

Rent-a-Girlfriend is a manga of those things I picked up because I like a good, well-written romance, and Rent-a-Girlfriend sounded modestly interesting in that way. Plus it’s pretty popular, with twenty-two manga volumes and a twelve-episode anime.

Bear in mind now that I haven’t seen the anime. This is just the manga.

Basically, the book does something I like, which is it opens right on the inciting incident. That’s kind of neat because the inciting incident drives the plot forward, so the story starts out with some momentum, right?

So there’s this college kid, Kazuya, and his girlfriend Mami has just dumped him.

See how that drives plot? Getting dumped motivates Kazuya to do SOMETHING, and since he’s horny and frustrated he calls a Rent-a-Girlfriend agency, which sets him up with cutie-pie Chizuru.

BOOM. Characters: Kazuya, Mami, Chizuru.

Setting: Nerima City, Tokyo. If anyone cares, it’s two municipalities west of Arakawa, as in Arakawa Under the Bridge. But they’re all college students in Tokyo.

Hook.

Yeah, um, this was where I had a real problem with the story. I liked the premise, given that it’s stipulated that the Rent-a-Girlfriend is NOT repeat NOT we’re not kidding NOT engaged in some sort of quasi-prostitution. She’s strictly there to make the renter look good, out on the town with a pretty girl, and to make their date as pleasant as possible.

Chizuru makes that EXPLICIT several times. She is expected to be pleasant, charming, and interesting, and she works hard to come up with interesting activities and studies up on interesting topics so her “dates” are intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

But let’s take a look at Kazuya and how he’s constructed.

Kazuya, boy buzzkill

Typical of this sort of story, he’s supposed to be a loser at the start. The reason for that is to give him a chance to develop as a character. So he’s not too bright: It’s said he took a “gap year” before college, which is a sort of code for having failed his entrance exams the first time around; he doesn’t seem athletic in any particular way and is very skinny and not muscular; Mami was his first girlfriend ever, so he’s a flop with chicks. He has other negative qualities I’ll get to in a moment.

To make him sympathetic he needs at least one positive characteristic, and he’s got a good one: He’s devoted to his grandmother. They go into this point at some depth and build her into a figure worthy of his devotion, a tough lady who kept the family together through very hard times. So he’s got this one positive element to make him likable.

Now, we need some tension between Kazuya and Chizuru, so, let’s see: Oh, I know – they go to the same university! If the people in the school find out the shy girl no one likes is actually hot little Chizuru, she’ll be in BIG TROUBLE.

See it? Her hold on him is that she’s a great Rent-a-Girlfriend. His hold on her is that he knows her secret.

So far, so good.

BUT.

The simple fact is that Kazuya is actually a complete asshole, and he’s a complete asshole not because of his negative traits but because of the one positive trait that’s supposed to make him attractive.

He promises not to tell anyone about Chizuru, but because he wants his grandmother to think he has a great girlfriend he blackmails Chizuru into meeting him again by threatening to expose her. Broken promise number one.

Chizuru agrees to this blackmail on the grounds that he not tell AND not contact her again. THEY SHAKE ON THIS. IT’S A CONTRACT. He breaks that again as soon as his grandmother wants to see her again. Broken promise number two.

This isn’t working for Chizuru, since she takes her business seriously even though Kazuya is a lying, contract-breaking sack of crap. She cooks up a plan: He will tell his grandmother they broke up. HE AGREES TO THIS PLAN.

Oh, wait, he can’t bring himself to break his grandmother’s heart by doing it. Broken promise number three. That’s three for three in the broken promise test. Third time’s the charm! He’s a stone-cold, 100% liar and user.

Now, to make things even worse, it turns out that Kazuya and Chizuru have adjacent apartments. YEAH, LIKE THAT COULD HAPPEN. There are thirteen million people in Tokyo. But when Grandmother breaks out of her hospital room and comes to visit him so she can see him with Chizuru again, Chizuru tries to hold him to their contract (involving no social contact outside the Rent-a-Date context). Does he keep his promise? Nope. He breaks down her door (and goes for the old “boy’s nose in girl’s crotch” trope).

He. Breaks. Down. Her. Door.

Yeah, um, nope.

Got it? What’s going on is that his supposed positive quality makes him lie, cheat, commit property damage and assault. It turns his one positive into a negative.

So what’s Kazuya got left? Nothin’ honey. He’s a total wuss.

Chizuru is kind of interesting in that she gets the concept of social roles in a way a lot of kids her age don’t. I know this for a fact since I teach this stuff to kids her age, right? But as an escort, the Girlfriend in Rent-a-Girlfriend, she is sweet, devoted, hard working, and friendly. Off the clock she has no problem whatsoever giving him a piece of her mind. No, she doesn’t especially like him. No, she doesn’t especially dislike him. On the clock it’s her JOB and she’s good at it. Off the clock … well, the text hints she’s going to fall for him. For no reason whatsoever.

But Chizuru isn’t really a real character, or at least not a real character yet, and here’s how to tell:

She’s exactly as smart or as dumb as she needs to be to advance the plot.

Right? Have you read it? When Kazuya’s in some kind of bind she’s quick-thinking and saves the day every time, but when something’s happening that gets HER into uncomfortable situations all of a sudden she’s got nothing. She’s exactly as smart as she needs to be to advance the story line at any given point.

Chizuru’s a plot device.

Mami’s a little better, actually a pleasant young lady, but we see so little of her it doesn’t matter.

So, did the beginning of Rent-a-Girlfriend do its job and hook me as a reader?

Well, I like the setting, I like the plot, I thought the pace was good.

But Kazuya is the protagonist and he’s a scuzz bag. Why should I care if he finds romance? They haven’t given me any reason.

If you’re building a series around a character, he has to have SOMETHING to make him attractive. ANYTHING. Kazuya destroys his only positive trait so he’s got nothin’.

So: Not interested. Anyone want a copy of Rent-a-Girlfriend #1? Drop me a line and it’s yours.

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.

2 thoughts on “Building a Beginning: Rent-a-Girlfriend

  1. I understand. I’ve dropped many series because every character was a scumbag that I didn’t care about. I have to deal with scumbags for my job – why would I pollute my free time with them?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From my perspective as a writer, he’s a poorly constructed character. Once we know how he’s poorly constructed, we write better characters. (Same with Chizuru, by the way. She’s not scum, but she’s badly constructed.)

      Like

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