Character Motivations

How a character behaves in a story can go a long way towards how well a series is received.

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I know if I go into a long spiel about anime and manga stories, the average person will zone out or lose interest. That said, I have a really important discussion I want to raise around character motivations that can be more easily found in shōnen characters than in western stories.

Shōnen are the kind of stories aimed at young teen males. The kind that I watched growing up were Bleach, Naruto and Dragonball Z, and the rest I had to salvage in various bootleg forms until they were more readily available in the UK. These are the kind of stories with high-action plotlines and humorous characters (usually dudes). While the features of a typical shōnen stories often include martial arts, science-fiction, some horror and mythical creatures, the key element are found family, brotherhood, teams, fighting squads etc.

While western stories focus on finding one’s own niche in the world, independence and such, eastern stories usually explore one’s place in the community while having their abilities, skills and maturity tested. That’s not to say there is no cross over in these ideas, this is an average take from someone who is happy to absorb both.

The reason I am bringing this up is because there is an interesting fact about shōnen stories, and that is that the protagonists’ drives are usually more self-motivated rather than reactionary, and this goes a long way given how monumental many of these narratives go on for. For example, in Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece, the main character, Monkey D. Luffy’s motivation is to become the Pirate King. This drive actively propels him and his band of pirates into various adventures and troubles. As a result, the manga has been going since 1997 and so far has 97 volumes (that’s 20 chapters per volume).

Meanwhile, another once popular manga and anime, Tite Kubo’s Bleach, had a protagonist that was very much reactionary. As a result, the plots became contrived and the protagonist’s own status as the main character was frequently mocked or questioned by fans. Many have stepped up to argue that the nature of the main character would have been suited to a shorter narrative. His story should have ended, to some, after the defeat of the first big bad as opposed to the third.

Protagonists and main characters that respond to the plot only because it prods them are better suited to shorter narratives. The reactionary nature can make long narratives feel more episodic rather than arching, and conflicts with antagonists run the risk of feeling flat and impersonal.

For example, a lot more dynamism is offered to a novel if the main character needs to get through the antagonist to reach their goals, as opposed to simply stop them because of the bad thing they did that upset the protagonist in the first place. It offers the question of what the protagonist is willing to do in order to achieve their dreams as opposed to revenge or suchlike.

This is not to say western stories are boring or flat, but as an offering of a way to consider your character’s role within the novel, and whether your novel or story is suited to your character. If you’re intending on creating a long-running series, akin to Andrzej Sapkowski’s *The Witcher*. For example, Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher is suited to the short story format that it originally started in, very much being a monster-of-the-week kind of affair, as that is all Geralt particularly cares about as that is all he has been trained to do.

I believe the issue is in how we as a society view self-motivated characters. I’ve considered that maybe it is seen as selfish to be propelled by one’s own goals and selfless to be the bear being prodded. The self-motivated character is usually the antagonist, whereas the protagonist is brought into the fold because of something the villain did, not because of their own agency.

This all being said, it is perfectly acceptable to have a character that starts as reactionary but developing into a self-motivated character (though, I struggle to imagine how it could work the other way around). The motivations do not have to stay the same either. You could have a character that starts off wanting to take their throne back but then deciding that democracy may be the better way forward.

And all of this isn’t to say reactionary characters are bad. For example, John Wick in the eponymous *John Wick* franchise is arguably a reactionary character, only starting his revenge spree when antagonised into doing so. He has no goal such as ‘becoming the greatest assassin there ever was’, but simply survive long enough to kill the person who has ordered a kill on him.

There is also no world-ending plot in John Wick, and instead the threat remains personal and growing with the skill of the enemy. In shōnen it is very common for the stakes to grow from hometown ending to planet-level destruction in the course of a series – probably because of this self-motivation to be the best at something, and that means taking down the current best. Whether this is scale of threat is a good thing is a discussion for another day.

How many characters can you think of that are popular in Western media that are self-motivated in a way that drives the plot forward. For example, Marvel’s Tony Stark is motivated by money at first, but that isn’t what drives the plot forward. You could argue that only in *Age of Ultron* does his self-motivations, the desire to pre-empt an alien invasion, does his actions propel the narrative. He reacts to what is thrown at him. He does not seek out the threat that he has been fearing until he is on a spaceship heading to the villain’s home planet.

I may have upset a few people with this viewpoint, and I think that goes a long way into how we view characters. Create a character, one that has a goal that they physically have to move and jump through danger to achieve, and see how fast the plot grows organically.

I personally find it difficult to write a character that simply waits to get going, but every writer is different. Though do consider whether a reactionary character is your best lead in a long term series. You may find upping their goals will create a much more dynamic character to read.

Good luck

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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1 Comment

  • This is a really interesting insight into eastern vs western protagonists (especially for someone like me who isn’t familiar with eastern narratives). Moving a character from reactionary to self-motivated is a very powerful device that I sometimes forget to utilise because most of my protagonists are born from reacting to things rather than seeking out their goals with their own agency.

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