What does it look like when an author truly cherishes their characters?
What does it look like when they don’t?
An author that doesn’t cherish their own characters may overwrite characteristics and decisions that the character has already established or made. They don’t respect the character’s story arc, and instead will bend it to fit the overall plot. Sometimes authors will be forced to do this by their publishers for various reasons, but that’s not what this is about.
Instead, I want to look at a few examples of authors that do cherish their characters.
3-Gatsu no Lion
3-gatsu no Lion or March Comes in Like a Lion is a manga written by Umino Chika which tells the story of a teenage professional shogi player. The story follows Kiriyama Rei as he attempts to balance his shogi career, finishing high school, living on his own, his complex feelings toward his foster family, and a budding personal life. Yeah, a lot.
The main driving force in Rei’s growth is his relationship with a small family nearby which consists of three sisters and their grandfather. They often invite him over for dinner and treat him like part of the family. As the story progresses, Rei meets all kinds of people, most of whom are professional shogi players themselves and much older than him. His relationships with them all differ greatly, from awe and admiration, to aggressive competitiveness, to deep friendship.
For me, the biggest sign of an author who cares about their characters is the way they treat side characters, those not central to the main story. Umino is a storyteller who is not afraid to turn the attention away from the main character completely in order to tell us a story about another character, even if it has nothing to do with the main character at all. These stories often stand alone and add a richness to the story that I very much enjoy.
Ultimately, treating all these side-characters as protagonists in their own stories makes the overall work feel much larger while taking nothing away from the main character. The story also never shies away from difficult problems that don’t have neat solutions, or struggles that are only ugly and painful. As a result, all the characters feel incredibly real and alive.
Of course I can’t talk about wonderful character writing without talking about Haikyuu!!
Haikyuu!! is a manga written by Furudate Haruichi about Hinata Shouyou’s volleyball career, focusing mostly on his first year at Karasuno High School.
While Hinata is undoubtedly the main character, it also wouldn’t be wrong to say that Hinata and Kageyama both are the main characters. Nor would it be wrong to say that for the majority of the story, everyone on the Karasuno’s Boys Volleyball Team are the main characters. They certainly all get a great deal of attention and fleshing out.
But even outside of Karasuno, so many characters are given their moment in the spotlight, feeling real and complex even if we only see them for a chapter or two. No one ever feels unimportant. In fact I believe that one of Haikyuu‘s main themes is just that, everyone and every moment is important. It all shapes ups, it all matters, and nothing is wasted.
Karasuno’s main rival teams get quite a lot of attention. We spend a lot of time getting to know Aoba Johsai, Nekoma, and Datekougyou. We get to know many of the teams members quite well, understand where they come from and what their dreams and aspirations are, as individuals and as a team. We grow to care about them so dearly that one of the most common things you’ll hear from fans during a match is that they wish both teams could somehow win.
But that’s true even for teams that aren’t given as much time in the spotlight as those rival teams. Even opponents that Karasuno faces just once are fleshed out incredibly well during the match.
In particular, I remember Karasuno’s match with Ohgiminami High during the Miyagi Prefecture playoffs. In that single match we went from knowing absolutely nothing about Ohgiminami to understanding their team dynamic and history incredibly well. They were a team that had grown lazy and complacent with their abilities, convinced that they would lose no matter what at this level and not bothering to put in the time or effort.
As the audience we watched the majority of the match through the eyes of Ohgiminami’s captain. We watched as they realized that despite their lazy attitude, Karasuno was taking them 100% seriously, never underestimating them, and giving them all they had. And that, in combination with the cheers from their previous captain, and their growing irritation with themselves, motivated them to start taking the game seriously and try to win. But it was too late. Not only did Karasuno already have a significant lead on them, but there was no way that their sudden efforts could make up for months of halfhearted practice.
Haikyuu!! always does an incredible job of showing us multiple angles to a story. In a few pages Furudate will have us understanding and caring deeply about characters we’ve just met. It’s never just the one team, never just the main characters that want to or deserve to win. Every team wants to win, every team and every player has their reasons to be on the court. And all of it matters.