This is Part IV in a series. Check out Part I, Part II, and Part III.
(Minor Spoilers for Naruto, the Incredibles, Star Wars, Finding Nemo, the Matrix.)
(Disclaimer: Gonna be generalizing here about Western preferences. Like WAAAY generalizing, for the purposes of clarity.)
Shonen stories feature a completely different kind of protagonist in comparison to Western adventure stories. I think the following is the best way to sum up the difference:
Look at this familiar picture:
Breakfast Club, right? Imagine this movie DID NOT EXIST, but you were shown this same cast as characters to be featured in an average adventure story. Just by looking at the picture, who do you think would be the protagonist?
In the West, no question: the charismatic-looking jock kid.
In Shonen, no question: the delinquent.
Here’s the general principle:
The West prefers heroes they can ADMIRE. The East prefers heroes they can IDENTIFY with.
Put another way:
The West likes heroes they can admire from the BEGINNING. The East likes heroes they can admire at the END.
Western heroes are the popular kid in school. They’re cool, charismatic, capable, and clever. Common flaws include not being able to feel, not being able to believe, being too selfish, being irresponsible, being too submissive.
Your average Shonen hero is often the awkward, hyperactive kid who has no friends. He’s bit of a clown, he wears his heart on his sleeve, he’s naive and overconfident. His most prominent strengths are his ambition and his idealism.
Oh, and being DUMB is also important. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Shonen hero who’s smart. (Possibly Ed from FMA?) Shonen protagonists are almost universally either screw ups who can’t seem to do anything right or proud idiots who may be good at fighting, but lack any book smarts and are constantly confused.
The West doesn’t exactly shy away from dumb heroes, but it’s a different kind of dumb. Western protagonists are not usually DUMB per se, but they are NOT the voice of reason. That is reserved for another character, usually more enlightened in some way: the old mentor, the scholar, the religious man.
In contrast, Shonen heroes are usually both dumb AND the voice of reason. Shonen likes its voice of reason to be a child’s voice.
Truth is portrayed as uncomplicated, almost simplistic, and often obscured by the struggles that come with age and life experience. The Shonen hero is the one who brings the audience back to those old feel-good truths that often sound ridiculous to adult ears: follow your dream, friendship is the most important thing, never let people get hurt, look for the good in others.
These kinds of ideals pair with integrity, that “never compromise on your values” attitude that is also a hallmark of the Shonen hero. In the West, integrity is often learned. In fact, it is not uncommon at all for a Western hero to not display any integrity at all, at least outwardly. Usually these characters are hiding their integrity, which would be unheard of in Shonen.
Another difference is in relatability. While both hero archetypes are charismatic, there’s often something a little off about the Shonen hero, like he’s not exactly on the same page as everyone around him. He’s kind of weird. This sets him apart as odd and awkward in the beginning. But that same uniqueness allows him to take on the image and mystique of a real leader by the end.
All these qualities we’ve talked about–the goofball personality, hyperactivity, wearing your heart of your sleeve, dumbness, the child-like ideals, the oddness–are designed specifically to speak to the demographic (ages ~10-19). The teenage years are the time when kids are being pressured to change and grow up. Their childishness is being suppressed and they are urged to start letting go of fun, to not be so emotional, to stop messing up so much, to become smarter, to stop being so naive. Shonen heroes tell kids they don’t have to grow up. They can succeed and do great things even as children.
This brings me to the last difference I want to discuss today between Western and Shonen heroes: flaws.
Both genres feature heavily flawed heroes, but how those flaws are DEALT with is drastically different.
For Western heroes, flaws are THE THING the hero must overcome in order to succeed.
Han Solo has to overcome his selfishness by saving Luke in order to, among other things, win Leia’s love.
Neo has to start believing in himself in order to save Morphius and fight Smith.
Mr Incredible has to accept help from others in order to defeat Syndrome.
Marlin has to let go in order to find Nemo.
Wolverine has to risk himself in helping Rogue in order to stop Magneto.
Ready for the difference?
In Shonen, heroes do NOT overcome their flaws. They succeed DESPITE them.
Luffy’s main flaw is never thinking ANY decision though and just plunging head first into EVERYTHING. He NEVER overcomes this. He even pays for it DEARLY many times over the course of the series. But he uses his strengths–ambition and endurance–not only to deal with the consequences of his mistakes, but to try again and figure out a way to succeed.
Naruto is slow, untalented, and overconfident. He too NEVER overcomes these flaws, but over and over again uses his work ethic, his creativity, and even another flaw, his complete lack of shame, in order to succeed.
Some Shonen heroes have a temper, or are hard to get along with, or have big appetites or get severe motion-sickness.
They are ALL too trusting, too optimistic, and too stubborn. And they never move past ANY of these flaws. The story is about learning how to succeed WITH flaws.
This often involves flaws becoming strengths.
One of Naruto’s biggest flaws in the beginning of the series was only being able to do ONE technique: the Shadow-Clone Jutsu.
When it comes time to learn a new skill, the Rasengan, he simply cannot do it no matter how hard he tries. In the end, he gives up the traditional method of performing the Rasengan and finds a new way to do it using his Shadow Clone Jutsu. Another story might classify this as a failure, as he DID give up. Even though he found a way to do it in the end, it’s incredibly roundabout and inefficient. However, in Shonen, this was a victory: Naruto accepted his weakness and used what small strength he had to succeed.
Western heroes need to CHANGE in order to achieve their goal. A Western Goku might get burned by his naive personality and become more jaded. Shonen heroes learn how to succeed through accepting who they are.
When I first encountered Shonen heroes, I was utterly confused by them. They were NOT the admirable heroes I was used to. They came off as annoying and sometimes even pitiful. I did NOT want to identify with them. But I DID, because you cannot really choose who you identify with, and they became some of my favorite characters of all time. Even though I appreciate Han coming back for Luke and giving up his selfishness, I can relate SO MUCH MORE to Naruto, the goofball-social-outcast, growing into a capable, admirable human being.
In short, the guidelines for a Shonen hero are the following:
– The Shonen hero is impulsive, fun loving, overconfident, passionate, ambitious.
– He is idealistic and does NOT compromise on his somewhat naive morals.
– He’s the delinquent, the class clown, or the weird kid without many friends.
– He lives with his flaws and uses his strengths to succeed.
(It’s also worth noting that I’ve never EVER heard of a female Shonen protagonist. This is probably because the target audience is teenage boys. Still a little surprising to me.)
So if you want to write a Shonen story, don’t look to who you want to be when designing your protagonist. Look to your insecurities, to the child you’re afraid you still are, and turn HIM into a hero.
Next time we’ll talk about ESCALATION!
Check out the rest of the series here: