Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

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Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by Piero on Sun 13 Sep 2009 - 16:05

There's a question that's been rattling around in my mind lately.

Does it seem to anyone that it's hard to think of any anime guys who can stand out who aren't supposed to be action heros or something? Don't get me wrong, badass characters are cool, but not every character should be one. I think there's really something to be said for having some 'ordinary' characters in the mix.

Except there's just one problem. How do you make an 'ordinary' character distinct?

Maybe this is a stupid question, but is it possible to make a 'ordinary' male character 'unique'? Are such characters generic by default because they're 'ordinary'?

This issue doesn't seem to crop up as much for female characters for some reason. Why is that?

This question was partly prompted by my recent musing about one of the anime guys I considered an example of good characterisation. I thought said character was well balanced in that he had issues but also wasn't a total loser, he actually even managed to have a few moments of being cool despite being pretty ordinary (usually when he wasn't actively trying to be cool). But I also came to the realisation that despite my thinking this character was well written... I couldn't think of much to say in responses to accusation that he was 'generic' or worse, 'dull.'

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by Toma-kun on Sun 13 Sep 2009 - 16:19

It's funny you mention that because it's almost the complete opposite in real life. I don't mean to sound sexist, but there are considerably more prominent male figures in the world than there are females and maybe that has a lot to do with the fact that it's easier to make them stand out in anime; it almost makes them automatically unique. Plus, if I'm not mistaken, aren't most anime aimed towards the male demographic?

I've actually gone over my anime collection and much of what you mention is true; from the top of my head, I had a very difficult time remembering any standout male characters.

Of course you have Shinji Ikari who is, if anything, below ordinary because of his emotional issues. At the same time, his glaring character flaws make him unique and memorable in a somewhat negative way.

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by rusty-spring on Sun 13 Sep 2009 - 17:03

Anime is all about pleasing the otaku. Harsh reality, but that's what it is. And since most are guys, I find it no surprise most "most memorable" characters are female.

The male psyche works in this way: Boobs > Food > Boobs > Alcohol > Violence > Boobs > Sleep.
Spoiler:
And yes, I'm stereotyping and generalizing, but that's the kinda humor everyone wants anyways.

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by Totoum on Sun 13 Sep 2009 - 17:26

A few candidates that come to mind are:

Kaiji from the show of the same name,definatly not a "badass" but i guess he's not ordinary either,more like a loser ,i mean here's his description "Kaiji is poor, downtrodden and lazy - he lives by himself in a slum and is constantly in debt. He bides his time by playing cheap gambling games with neighbors, though he always loses." so not badass,but no completely ordinary either.

Shinichiro from True tears , definatly just a normal high school student to me,i'd say he's ordinary,and he's the main character,but then again even if he's the main character no one watches the show because of him,if you just looked at promotional pictures you'd have no idea he even exists lol
http://myanimelist.net/anime/2129/True_Tears/pics

Tohno from 5cm per second , i guess the fact I don't really know what to say about him shows that he's ordinary?

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by Nachtsider on Sun 13 Sep 2009 - 19:41

Simple. Give them flaws, follibles and idiosyncrasies.

Issue doesn't crop up much with female characters simply because anime creators love to lavish attention upon them. I think that's very disappointing.

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by Ggultra2764 on Sun 13 Sep 2009 - 20:44

Guys who are multi-dimensional, yet don't fit the standard "badass" action anime star mold? Let me think:

Every major male character of Fruits Basket
: The male Sohmas have fleshed-out personalities and backgrounds that pertain to how their lives are affected by their curse, some of them even dealing with the trauma of being neglected by their family.

Johan Liebert and Kenzo Tenma of Monster: Tenma struggles to retain his morality as he learns more of Johan's origins, whereabouts and the dark world he inhabits. And the more that is learned about Johan, the more the viewer is left wondering whether he is a tragic villain or the living embodiment of evil as folks say.

Kaoru Hanabishi of Ai Yori Aoshi: Doesn't fit the standard mold of guys having an unwanted harem in a harem series as his love interest is clear from the start and he deals with the thoughts of what sort of future to have with that girl despite breaking connections with his wealthy family.

Shuji of Saikano: A young man who struggles to come to grips with the fact his girlfriendis a weapon of war for Japan and is slowly losing her humanity and figuring out whether to direct his feelings towards her or his old flame, an upperclassman, from middle school.

Seita of Grave of the Fireflies: A young man who struggles to hold up a strong front for his sister to survive until their father's return from military duty in post-World War II era Japan yet fails to realize giving in to his pride could cost him what little he has left to cherish.

Shu Maritani of Now and Then Here and There: While the main hero struggling to overcome a military dictatorship and holding a strong resolve against the pain and suffering he comes across, Shu is just a normal kid with poor training in kendo and struggles with the same pain and suffering he sees, as well as being forcibly drafted into the dictatorship's military squad of children.

Tatsuhiro Satou of Welcome to the NHK:
He's a hikikomori. Fearing the outside world, he uses his delusions of a secret organization as an excuse to escape the pressures of reality and isolate himself from others.

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by MikhailN on Sun 13 Sep 2009 - 21:57

Lets look at what kind of audience anime and manga are targeted at - normal people. That's why if you boil down every anime and manga it's basically normal people getting into extraordinary situations, possibly to appeal to the fantasies of a normal person (kinda like, your everyday schoolboy/salaryman can suddenly come home and find a bevy of beauties in his house and discovering that he actually has special powers)

That being said, it also depends on what audience your anime is targeted at. If you watch anime for girls (Hana Yori Dango or worse, Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura etc) the girl is your generic schoolgirl while the guys are far more interesting. Anime for guys is the other way round.

If you're looking for a male character that's less than generic you need to go look at manga/anime for older men. Those delve into more complex themes and characters and indulge less in "ready-made" characters. I would think Rock from Black Lagoon was interesting. The handlers in Gunslinger Girl are interesting too.

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by ElfenMagix on Sun 13 Sep 2009 - 22:45

There is no such thing as an ordinary protagonist.
There is no such thing as an ordinary antagonist.

If you take the ordinary man and try to make him distinct and unique, he is no longer ordinary.

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by emperor on Mon 14 Sep 2009 - 0:17

Remind me of Kyon from God Haruhi.

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by LoC978 on Mon 14 Sep 2009 - 1:24

...and people wonder why I loathe most Shonen series'...
Mikhail wrote:If you're looking for a male character that's less than generic you need to go look at manga/anime for older men. Those delve into more complex themes and characters and indulge less in "ready-made" characters. I would think Rock from Black Lagoon was interesting. The handlers in Gunslinger Girl are interesting too.
Quoted for truth.

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by Piero on Mon 14 Sep 2009 - 2:09

Eep. So many responses to try to take into account with this reply...

To start with, I have to agree to a point with Elfen. You can't make an 'everyman' character unique, or else he ceases to be an 'everyman' character.

So obviously, you can't really make a completely ordinary character unique. Yet somehow, it's possible to make relatively ordinary anime girls into characters who aren't merely generic. So why does it seem to be so difficult with the guys?

Some of you who were talking about the target audiences issue may have a bit of a point. When I think of the shows that kept surfacing in my mind as I pondered this, I came to realise in quite a few of them the girls were the main focus. Hell, even Black Lagoon sort of falls into this category, action girls are a bit part of its schtick and Rock is for a Seinen audience sort of along the lines of the teenage males that crop up in so many Shounen titles. Yeah, his talent for talking dangerous people into doing what he wants sets him apart a bit, but otherwise he's actually quite generic. (Although come to think of it, he might arguably be considered a bit of a case of wish fullfillment for the Seinen crowd... I can imagine there are plenty of people out there who wish they could throw away all the crap they have to put up with in their jobs... Laughing)

I suppose the quest here is towards a character who the audience can truly connect to, but whom is actually interesting. Honestly, I doubt having such a character would hurt a series even if the girls were the main focal point (unless its a yuri series). So why are there so few guys like that?

I also have to say I don't think it's as simple as giving characters flaws and achieving a balance. If you don't mind me speaking a little on a series I've been totally fanboying over as of late... Yuiichi Tate from Mai-HiME was a really well balanced character, and one the writers were paying attention to. Yes, he was a male character in a show which focused a lot on girls and was targeted at a male audience. But the writers recognised that he had a hugely important role to play and paid attention to him. And they got so much right with him. They managed to make him flawed without making him totally pathetic like a lot of anime guys. Hell, he even managed to be genuinely cool on a few occasions, and did it most effectively when he was just being himself and trying to help the people he cared about (rather then posturing). And yet... if anyone said he was generic or even kind of dull, I'd have to more or less agree. Because he darn well was. Strip away his relationships with Mai and Shiho, and what the hell did he have left to define him?

Then again, maybe he's not a good case to look at, considering that he was basically there to be a love interest for another character and one of the big driving forces behind his development was likely giving him enough in common with Mai so that the two would relate to each other and therefore be convincing together. But still... he was one of the characters who prompted me to study this issue. Because he was in many ways really well written, and yet he still fell into the generic trap somehow.

(And damnit, why did it have to come back to something I'm already worried about fanboying over excessively? Especially when it's a series a lot of the people here haven't even seen. Can't really think of an equivalent example from another series though... sorry for going into fanboy mode again guys.)

As for Ggultra's examples, Tenma and Johan really aren't very ordinary. Tenma's kind of a badass normal of sorts (although frankly, how normal you can consider someone who was originally a genius neurosurgeon is open to debate) and Johan is incredibly freaking scary. They're great characters, but far from ordinary.

Unfortunately, about the only other one of those shows I've seen is Welcome to the NHK. Whose protagonist is also... not all that ordinary. Though I wouldn't really consider that a flaw in his case, as he's different from pretty much all anime protagonists.

But anyhow, main question... is it possible to make a character who is ordinary enough for the audience to really connect with him, but still make him stand out as a character rather then being generic? It seems it ought to be. They've managed it for the girls.

Damn, I hope that post didn's eem too disjointed... this is hard on my brain at times...

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by LoC978 on Mon 14 Sep 2009 - 3:49

I think the biggest issue you face is the limitations of anime writers. People write what they know well, and imagine details for what they only know a little of. So, what I'm saying is... male anime leads will always seem a little bit... samey. Just as even the best thought-out Western action movie lead will seem samey to someone born and raised in Japan.

Going back to the Black Lagoon example; the writer there probably knows a lot of salarymen, maybe he was one himself at some point. So Rock is the most fleshed-out character... and he seems little more than a cookie-cutter salaryman in a fish-out-of-water scenario. No matter any details the writer cooked up for his backstory, no matter the uncharacteristic cojones he displays later, he's always a stereotypical salaryman to us.
For a contrast, look at Benny. Take your basic hacker stereotype, make him more photogenic, give him something of a laid back, beach bum philosopher personality (yeah, he's pretty much the character I identify best with in the series), make him an experienced driver of old american cars, and stick him into unbelieveable situations alongside the badass combat monsters of the series. He doesn't seem very stereotypical anymore, but it didn't take much knowledge to make him...
so, as much as I'd like to see his character fleshed out more, I know it probably won't happen, because of the sheer amount of research the author would have to do to make it even a little bit believable... and even then, he would probably seem a little... forced. Writing from research can never match writing from experience. Hence, even though he's less generic than Rock, he wouldn't make a good lead. Same goes for Dutch, only doubly so, since he's most likely a few more degrees removed from the author's experience.

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by MikhailN on Mon 14 Sep 2009 - 8:52

LoC978 wrote:Writing from research can never match writing from experience.

A lot of us will agree with that. QFT

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by Piero on Mon 14 Sep 2009 - 12:23

It's interesting to see Rock get used so much as an example here. He had a fairly important role in prompting me to start this discussion too.

Which sort of does raise the question... if a character as good as Rock can be deemed 'generic,' then is 'generic' actually much of a criticism? It seems like it ought to be, and people use it as a criticism, but...

Funny thing is, Rock and that other character I mentioned both stand out a bit from the horde of other characters, yet they still can be described as generic. You'd think that term would stop applying once a character has managed to stand out. Though then again, if that was the case, plenty of shounen leads could be deemed to be 'not generic' based on the fact that they stood out by being popular...

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Re: Generic by Default? A Question of Characterisation

Post by boomer_gonz on Mon 14 Sep 2009 - 13:08

I think he's called generic because it would upset the otaku to call him(or any male lead, i.e. Shinji fron NGE) moe.

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