On more than one occasion I have expressed my general preference for character driven narratives in anime in order to give some context to my opinions for you guys. But as language is an imperfect tool and I am a far from perfect craftsman, I realized that the expression “character driven” may not have a set meaning. Or at the very least, may not mean what I think it means.
In order to bypass that little problem and finally give you the context I was aiming for, I figured I would take a minute to explain the difference between character and plot driven narratives in anime. Except, when I tried to do this in real life, I quickly found out it’s not as easy as it sounds!
Two short disclaimers up top. Just because I generally prefer character driven shows doesn’t mean I haven’t loved some plot driven stories just as much. I personally don’t think either approach is better in any way or is more likely to give a high quality narrative. Second, I haven’t done a poll of my readers but from what I’ve read in blogs, most bloggers seem to lean a bit more towards plot driven anime, by my definition.
The simplest way I can define the difference in narratives is that in character driven anime, the characters inform the events instead of the other way around. Basically, the things that happen in the story happen because those people are who they are. In a plot driven story, the characters act and react because that’s what happened. I told you it was going to be a mess.
Although this isn’t a fact, the way I like to imagine it is that in a character driven narrative, the people inhabiting the story are crafted first and the plot strives to follow what they do. In a plot driven narrative, a detailed universe is set up and a fascinating event (conflict) or several, are crafted and the people who would naturally take part in the adventure inhabit the narrative. Character driven tales are stories about people, plot driven ones are stories about events.
There you go. Two entire paragraphs on the subject and I’m not quite sure anyone understood that. I hope so. I think it does make some sense. But here’s where the hard work begins. Even if you understand the theory of where I’m coming from, there’s almost no chance that we’re applying it in the same way.
There’s an unfortunate misconception that plot driven narratives have weaker or underdeveloped characters, or that less time is invested in the cast of such stories. On the flip side some people will assume that character driven shows won’t have elaborate premises and will be shows about “nothing” mostly confined to slice of life or cfdct. (That’s cute *folks* doing cute things). Personally, I think that’s almost entirely wrong.
A well written narrative will usually include an interesting or at least viable premise, a plot that is on some level enjoyable, a rich universe AND fleshed out characters. The difference is in the presentation, narrative impact and pacing. For instance let’s take two action oriented anime which are both quite popular and which I happen to love. Fullmetal Alchemist and Hunter x Hunter. I figure most of you have at least heard of these titles.
In my opinion FMA has some of the finest character craftsmanship out there. It features a comparatively huge cast of morally complex characters who all play intricate roles. Yet, even fairly insignificant side characters feel complete and individual. They seem like they exist outside the confines of the story. Even though we don’t get to see it, we instinctively know they have full lives of their own because they are so well developed. This is a huge strength of the series and I believe it’s something that has helped secure its ongoing popularity. As so many fans felt a real connection to these characters despite how unusual or eccentric they happen to be.
On the other side we have Hunter x Hunter which features a series of clearly defined and escalating narrative arcs, as is traditional for long running Shonen. There have been numerous debates among fans on which arc happens to be the strongest as they each tend to feature their own world building, rules and antagonists. (Most people go for chimera ants I think. Can’t blame them. Tremendous arc!) But 2 out of the 4 supposedly main characters get a rather superficial treatment in the series with Leorio remaining downright underdeveloped.
And yes, to me Fullmetal Alchemist is clearly plot driven while Hunter x Hunter is completely character driven. The takeaway and impact of FMA are the moral questions at the core of the narrative. This was the story of two wars and the ravages we bring on each other out of fear. It was about communication and about the basic value of life. I remember these characters and what they went through. What the world was doing to them. I was fascinated by the story and wanted to know what happened next. I wanted to be part of the adventure.
Hunter x Hunter is the story of two friends. Who shared a path for some time and grew up, and changed or perhaps just realized who they always were. It’s also the individual stories of a menagerie of assorted weirdos who all had their own adventures going on. I remember those characters and how they felt. I remember how they saw the world. I really wanted to know what they would do next. I wanted to be friends with them.
As you can see, it’s a rather subjective distinction. KonoSuba – character driven, ReZero: plot. Psycho pass: plot, Steins;Gate: character. Most of the cute individual (boy or girl) doing cute things shows I’ve seen are plot driven in my opinion. The universe and atmosphere of the series is what is brought to the forefront and the characters have thematic roles to play. Often they are archetypes.
This isn’t an exact science. For instance, when I decided to write this post I tried really hard to qualify Natsume’s Book of Friends and I still don’t know if I would call it a character or plot driven narrative. Finally I took the easy way out and decided that it varied with each episode.
I’m not sure if I manage to properly explain my classification here. In general I tend to prefer character driven narratives only in the sense that I enjoy personal connections I don’t have to directly interact with so I find that I’ll tend to be a bit more generous than the average viewer toward those shows. But there are a lot of plot driven anime in my favorites (manga as well). I simply have to understand that character development wont always be a narrative priority and that’s not a bad thing.