Readers of manga, and viewers of anime, who follow anything in the “shonen” (“guy”) genre, may be surprised to see me writing about such a topic. Actually, even though I wouldn’t call myself a natural in the genre, I am somewhat exposed to it from my previous life as a translator. However, the manga I was translating – “Rave Master” – was so unconventional that no great lessons could be learned from it since its actual twists weren’t very predictable at all, even if the general style was “shonen-ish.”

However, there is a very important creative writing strategy at work with this genre which I finally have reason to understand in full. I wanted to write a blog post about it, so here I am.

Shonen style includes long stretches where the supposed main/ leading character is not taking a main/ leading role in the action. These manga and anime dramas tend to have a wide variety of “secondary” characters, many of which are of great power and ability themselves, and have long roll calls of antagonists as well as protagonists, all of which can be put together in a wide variety of match-ups against each other.  Over the course of extended plot-lines, or “arcs,” action often shifts quite heavily to these significant, major, but technically secondary characters (often with enough power they seem to, or do, equal/ better the main character).

Yet there is a good reason for this.

In storytelling terms, it is said that everyone hears of the knight in shining armor who dispatched the barbarians, but no one hears of the one hundred infantry that marched with him into battle. More to the point, should the 100 infantry be responsible for saving the day, not the shining night, this is a storytelling disaster, an utter nightmare for the creative writer. Nothing can be gained from focusing on a hundred nameless, faceless souls, or so it is thought. In storytelling, the group must be condensed down to the individual; a face and name must be put on the story so that people may identify with the tale more easily.

However, that does not mean that the one hundred infantry truly go unmentioned. Rather, we come to the creative concept of the sidekick.

The sidekick is an individual who is usually the proverbial salt of the earth; he represents, if not the common man, then the more common man, more ordinary than the main character, yet indispensable to his success. In other words, the sidekick is a replacement for the one hundred infantry referred to above; he represents everything that the infantry represented, but adds a human face, a personality, and a name that can be woven into the tale.

But what if there is not one sidekick, but a rag-tag dirty half-dozen? Or if a story delves into six people who were part of the one hundred, leaving the other ninety-four in the dust while focusing on these six people and the main character? This, too, is a valid technique, for it is an extension of the sidekick concept. The main character is shown to stand on the shoulders of, if not giants, then at least his fellow man; yet he is able to overcome his challenges (and in shonen, specifically, the main character is invariably male, so that the male reader may identify with his struggles) and grow as an individual.

However, shonen manga elongates the sidekick concept and creates what is essentially a cloud of major characters (as well as minor ones) that closely, or loosely, surround the main character. Here, the manga writer’s ability to create characters is put to the test; mass marketability requires creating interesting, unique characters that grab and retain the attention of a significant section of the audience. Exactly who is more popular can vary with time; indeed, character popularity polls can be fascinating for that reason.

Nonetheless, we return to the core issue: why does the main character seem to be sidelined or forgotten for long stretches? Also, why are shonen style battles heavily individual rather than groups functioning together as well-oiled machines?

This is for two reasons.

  1. Secondary characters would get squished against primary antagonists.
  2. Secondary characters would be thoroughly overshadowed in group competition.

By splitting up the action and having numerous, prolonged battles focusing heavily on the individual, secondary characters are given maximum opportunity to shine. By allowing them to fight battles that are difficult, yet surmountable by some way the reader has not necessarily grasped, entertainment is prolonged; battles are not simply an issue of who has the greater physical (or magical, or psychic) might. In this sense, the writer is attempting to serve the purpose of broader entertainment.

However, more specifically, in shonen manga, every dog has his day. By first creating large numbers of unique and distinctive characters, and then giving these characters opportunities to get face time on the printed page (or the animated cel), those members of the audience who particularly like, or identify with, a particular secondary character, have an opportunity to become personally invested in the outcome, similar to how people cheer for their favorite team in sports. By providing many opportunities, the reader/ viewer has a choice of who to cheer for and who to wish ill will upon.

This last effect gives rise to frustration with characters who “deserve better” not receiving their due; after all, that a particular character design is done well has little relationship to how good a writer the artist is. A good character can be easily condemned to an inglorious or unsatisfying role, particularly when the “greater good,” the needs of the overall plot arc, come calling. This gives rise to fan fiction, which can be good or not so good depending on what kind of fan is writing the “fiction” (which is really a non-canonical story using the same characters, as all of it is fiction; the Japanese term is doujinshi, for “same person story”). Indeed, it is far from impossible that a particular fan-written story may have elements that exceed the original; some writers go from fan fiction to professional work, but this would require a similarly high level of character creation ability.

This is why shonen manga/ anime have storytelling quirks that seem very similar, while differing heavily in the details. This maximizes the broadness of the appeal and makes for commercial success. After all, even in fiction, the bottom line is still “the bottom line.”