I’ve belabored my preference for shounen on this blog; I think even a reader in passing can see that they resonate with me more than the drama and romance in shoujo titles. This means I’ve come into contact with plenty of plucky, young male protagonists who either killed or carried their story. Some even did both, to the chagrin of their audience (I’m looking at you, Naruto.)
Shounen is also home to its own set of cliches: lots of fighting, lots of super powers and visuals meant to be more awesome than practical. But through all the fighting and pecs and the blood, one must remember that shounen is a story genre. And like any other genre, it needs a strong leading man/woman to keep the story going. It leads one to wonder what a good shounen protagonist is made of; what does your main character need to be successful?
I believe, when you break it down, that what makes a good shounen hero isn’t all that separate from what makes a good hero in any genre. Because, when it comes to a good story, a little humanity and a little stubbornness goes a long way.
It gets you all the green
Let’s face it,the biggest challenge in life is life itself. So, finding someone who barrels into it without a second glance is what fans like me live for.
The “never give up, never surrender” attitude is always fun, but it’s even funner when the thought of failure never crosses your hero’s mind. Maybe it’s sheer will, or sheer stupidity, but some protagonists keep on trucking despite everything that says otherwise and all but force their way forward through the story. Their stubborn insistence that they’ll accomplish their goals is refreshing and energizing, as it convinces the audience that they actually have a shot. Or they wanna watch this person fail gloriously.
Sorta sounds familair, eh, Dan?
And when it comes to blind persistence, or even battering ram style progression, I can’t think of anyone better than Monkey D. Luffy. The whole show centers around his single-minded pursuit of Gold Roger’s legendary stash, and everything that should make him quit just gets climbed over and left in the dust. I always saw him as Oda’s avatar in the show, but there’s no arguing that it would suffer immensely without him.
Shounen Island can be a power-fantasy haven of sorts, where people who are far stronger/faster/better than us tend to appear in spades. But, every so often, we get a hero who can connect far better with the audience.
It takes skill to create a living human in text; let no one tell you otherwise. To make a character who behaves in a way the audience recognizes as human is a damn difficult task and the rejects that fall short are often a great source of mockery. But the easiest and best way to reach the watcher/reader is to create a character whose experience can be related to, no matter how fantastical your story gets. It grounds the character and gives the audience a leg up, making the rest of the story much easier to swallow.
After all, Yu Yu Hakusho would have suffered a great deal if Yusuke Urameshi was just another dime-a-dozen high school student who got sucked into supernatural circumstances. Yusuke is the opposite of what most people want in a hero, at least at first. He’s a thug who has given up on life, spat out by Japan’s school system and all but a disappointment to his alcoholic mother. His position is a frustrating one that others may be able to relate to, making the Spirit World schtick that happens all the more interest in the long run.
But speaking of impossible odd stories, we certainly do love when those on the lower rung rise up and become the best of the best. Girl animes have their Cinderella’s, boys anime have the Underdog.
Bark Bark, mother–!
A protagonist who has to build their badassery from scratch is a wonderful thing to watch, and usually promises some amazing stories. It’s basic human nature to support the idea of those who are suffering escaping and surprising everyone with their skills, coming up from behind as it were. An Underdog protagonist allows us as watchers to follow the protagonist’s journey through a plethora of interesting places and people, providing endless opportunities for the writer to stretch those creative muscles and carry the audience along for the ride.
Though they don’t necessarily have to start at the very bottom; they just have to be the one no one expected to do good. Take, for example, Gene Starwind from Outlaw Star. Gene is a simple “handyman” of sorts, who takes small jobs and small contracts for a living, But Gene has high hopes of becoming an outlaw in space… with little means of getting it started. That problem gets solved for him, ironically enough, but we still enjoy watching his journey from moral punk to space outlaw.
Lots of Energy Usually Helps
Consider this last one less a requirement and more sugar on top.
A protagonist who lazes about is little fun, though possible to make work. When you have a protagonist whose very existence energizes the rest of the cast to work harder and longer it spurs on a more exciting story. If they want to go forward and are psyched to do so, you can be sure the audience is too.
For an illustrative example, look no further than Eren Jaeger from Attack on Titan, who effectively represents the Fighting Spirit of Humanity. I say this because, when Eren is MIA (no spoilers here) it isn’t just Mikasa who loses the will to go on. Eren brings all the fighting energy to whatever team he’s on, and seems to be the first one to jump into the next titan fight. His energy is infectious, and it’s easy to latch onto him and follow through the story.
For all the jokes people make about shounen as a genre, I.E it’s nothing but meat heads, what makes a good shounen hero is just as difficult as any other genre. It needs to be a character who goes beyond chest plate storytelling and actually carry the weight of the plot, be it a tragedy or a comedy. They need an identity that the audience can connect with or the whole story goes into the Pile of Forgotten Adventures, where shoddy shounen goes to die under the weight of the DBZ franchise.
In short, make characters that love adventure and won’t buckle, and you’ll have your audience.
Do you like this kind of hero, or are they for the birds? Feel free to comment below and don’t forget to like and follow for more content.