So You Want To: Write A Shonen Series
First, you have to want to be the best. Ah, shonen. 90% of anime exported to America falls under this category. If you want to market your anime/manga/whatever to young guys, read this... ...after you read So You Want To: Write A Story, of course.
Necessary TropesWell, you've probably got a young man, right? And he probably wants To Be a Master of whatever his universe deems Serious Business. At least, that's the motivation of The Hero. Other characters will have other motivations. But that'll be the core of your story. Before you do anything, though, read the description for Japanese Spirit, as well as its analysis page, to understand why Shounen uses the tropes it does.
Choices, ChoicesEven with the To Be a Master plot, you've got a few choices to work with:
- Motivation: Why does The Hero want To Be a Master? To please his parents? To get everyone to notice him? To win the heart of his love interest? Or is it a more selfish goal, like fame or fortune? What will he have to sacrifice To Be a Master? How does one become a master? Will he encounter any potential rivals?
- To make your fights even grander and epic, give your hero and his enemies Stock Superpowers, related to said Serious Business that he wants To Be a Master of. Choose wisely what kind of powers each character gets, as they must reflect their personality and background.
- More on the way...
PitfallsAlright, rule number one of shonen is simple: say no to the Spotlight-Stealing Squad. Yes, you would assume The Hero gets a vast majority of the spotlight — but that's okay, he's the main character. Sure, we all know you want to focus on that angsty, brooding Lancer...but give him some time out of the spotlight, too. (This is especially true if the story has Loads and Loads of Characters.) Other tropes to avoid:
- Arc Fatigue. Shounen is often mocked for having very slow pacing, and with good reason. Going through your plot points too fast is bad, but going through them too slowly is deadly. (Especially if it looks like you're trying to draw out the story for no good reason, which is a good source of Narm.) Also, decide early on if your series will be episodic, or if it'll focus on Story Arcs.
- Gary Stu/Mary Sue. Just don't. Give your hero a realistic flaw. Shoot, maybe even two... dozen! (Don't overdo this, though; see Failure Hero and This Loser Is You below.) On a related note...
- Invincible Hero. A hero who wins most or all of the time gets boring fast. Even more so if all his fights follow the same formula of the hero receiving a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown until he's finally able to use his signature technique, which he will always use in the same way with little or no variation. (See One Trick Pony below.) Little kids might not mind as much, but older audiences will get bored quickly.
- Invincible Villain. Using more than one Big Bad over the course of the series is a good idea. Having your heroes fight the same villain too often can lead to Arc Fatigue.
- Failure Hero. If it's bad to have your heroes win too often, it's also bad to have them lose too often. If they continually suffer The Worf Effect, then your show will wind up as Snark Bait. And if you establish your characters as competent fighters, only to have them start losing battles they should have won as the story progresses, fans might start complaining about Character Derailment.
- Faux Action Girls. Oh, boy. Here's a tip: if you want to establish a female character as a competent Action Girl who can kick ass alongside the guys, show her doing it and justify the times when she's not as competent as she's said to be. Show, Don't Tell is the main problem with Faux Action Girls.
- Demoted to Extra/Out of Focus. Beware these tropes, especially if your story has Loads and Loads of Characters. Granted, if you have a large cast, you can't give every character a major role in every episode. However, fans of a particular character won't be happy if they think their favorite is getting slighted, especially if he or she was introduced as a major player in the story. Of course, one way to avoid these tropes is to keep your cast fairly small. This may lead to...
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You. If you want your hero to be the only one who can beat the Big Bad, make sure to justify it via Only I Can Kill Him.
- One Trick Pony. If your hero has only one technique which he uses over and over, your series will become repetitive. You can avoid this by letting your hero discover multiple uses for his technique. Example: early on, Naruto only used his Shadow Clone Jutsu to have his clones Zerg Rushing his opponents. As the story continued, Naruto began using the clones for The Rasengen, training, collecting information, etc.
- Idiot Hero. Not ABSOLUTELY taboo, but this trope has been way overused. A cool, calm, intelligent shonen hero would be an interesting subversion and likely well received by fans.
- Case in point: Ichigo Kurosaki from Bleach. Not always calm, and not incredibly intelligent, but definitely cool.
- New Powers as the Plot Demands. Power Creep, Power Seep is inevitable in a shonen plotline. Fans expect and even want the hero to keep getting stronger, and in turn face stronger and stronger enemies, on their way to becoming the master. The trick is to keep your world internally consistent and believable. Take a break from the battles to do a little Foreshadowing or World Building. It will go a long way towards explaining the latest super power the hero has decided to use at the last second to defeat their newest foe. In addition, don't power up your characters too fast. Sure you want to make it clear that they are The Chosen Ones, but if they quickly outpace every other character in the show it will become apparent that you're just making up new abilities and enemies as you go. A well placed Chekhov's Gun in an early episode that comes back in season four will impress shonen fans, who are all but resigned to writers having no idea what happens next.
- This Loser Is You. Surprisingly, audiences will often find it difficult to identify with a jerkass idiot who never learns anything and no one likes.
- Ass Pull and The Untwist: If you want to have a good Wham Episode, make sure you used Foreshadowing beforehand. Otherwise, audiences will feel cheated. However, do it in light proportions, as too much foreshadowing may make the planned twist TOO obvious.
AdaptingThe most common way to avoid the vast majority of the work and pitfalls mentioned above and below is to adapt a pre-existing manga series to an anime. This comes with its own pitfalls, however, and the biggest one is time. If you're adapting a manga that's currently running, you're going to Overtake The Manga sooner or later. Your average episode is going to take up the same events as two or three chapters, and as such the anime will be moving two or three times as fast as the manga does. This leads to some specific problems:
- Gecko Endings. Trying to continue or finish the story on your own. If you're not working with the original author, this may not end well. On the other hand, the author may not want to work with you, in which case you may end up resorting to...
- Filler. Good Lord, Filler. It killed Rurouni Kenshin and gave Fan Haters a lot of ammo regarding Naruto. Filler in itself isn't terrible — you're just trying to give yourself a little more time to write the main story. But for crying out loud, at least make it interesting! Delve deep into the backstory of a Satellite Character. Develop a subplot that hasn't gotten a lot of airtime. Stuff like that. If possible, see if the manga-ka has any ideas that they don't have space to put in the manga, a la One Piece.
RomanceRomantic relationships are rarely done well in Shonen. In some works, they're not done at all. While it might be best to leave it to Shipping, here's some ideas if you think you can make it work:
- The Battle Couple: Your main audience is guys. If there's one way to suck them into the relationship of a pair, it's to have them both be on the front lines, as equals. Give them powers that complement one another better than the rest, or have it so they can't do as much unless they're together. (The Nirvash from Eureka Seven, a Humongous Mecha which the two main characters could only pilot together, is a good example of how to do it right). The Chick barely getting involved in the fight is overdone; the Lady of War who saved The Hero's ass again while working on the bet they made to see who's on top tonight will be a few metric tons more interesting. And of course, you can always make your hero's Love Interest a full-fledged Action Girl.
- Keep in mind that there's a difference between romance and sexuality. The young male readers who might gag over a mushy kissing scene will have no problem with panty shots, girls undressing, and general PG-13 nudity. Even if your hero might never confess feeling anything for a girl, you can still have him try sneaking a peek of her naked, so long as he never gets to see anything too good. You can also have him beaten up by the girl he was drooling over, although this trope has Unfortunate Implications.
- And not all Fanservice must be female, either. A few pretty boys can help get you some rabid fans from the other side of the chromosome pool. Just be careful with how pretty you make those boys, otherwise you can wind up with some very confused fans. And don't be afraid if the male fanservice can venture into Ho Yay, heck feel free to play around with if you like (even do a good-natured gag or few about it). But if your worried that the Ho Yay might be too much of a Turn off to male viewers, some well-used Les Yay can help even things out. It might come off as Everyone Is Bi, but hey, a little equal opportunity fanservice never hurt anyone huh?
- However on the concept of Ho Yay and Les Yay you might want to be careful about how their "official love life" will go. If their Canon romantic status is either a case of Strangled by the Red String or a overly Designated Unrequited love, then this might be a good case of Fan-Preferred Couple.
- Unrequited love is not a flat out bad idea but if the romance in the story is a case of All Love Is Unrequited, this can make the concept feel a bit... enforced, to put it mildly. Fans sometimes complain about certain characters (often female) who exist only to be perpetually unrequited love interests. (And if one of your male characters is a Celibate Hero or Chaste Hero, then you might want at least one female character to follow suit; otherwise, chances you'll be accused of a Double Standard.) Basically, if you don't want to do romance, you probably shouldn't do it. Lack of romance certainly hasn't hurt One Piece...
- Speaking of Celibate Heroes and Chaste Heroes: If you want one of your characters to be one of these, then you might not want to have any of the other characters holding unrequited feelings for them. Having a character to be a Celibate Hero no matter what will often make his/her unrequited love interests either be Flanderized because of this unrequited love or at least appear to be. (And this will be especially deemed annoying if said unrequited love interest is an otherwise appealing character.) Fans are generally more forgiving towards these characters if they are not used as a reason why one of their favorite characters will never be in a good relationship.
- If you want one of your cast to be the most common form of Tsundere, a girl who's angry on the outside but is sweet on the inside, then please remember the "sweet" part. Otherwise, you'll wind up stuck with just a Jerkass who engages in Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male—and all the trope's Unfortunate Implications. You should also avoid making this character a Faux Action Girl, or else she'll just become The Scrappy.
- Be careful when writing a Patient Childhood Love Interest, as there are plenty of fans whom would sympathize with her and make her part of their Fan Preferred Pairing. If you're determined to include such a character, then make sure to justify the relationship.
- As noted, shonen already has too many Idiot Heroes, so this is a good trope to avoid. And no, we're not talking about making The Hero a Book Dumb character. Make a hero who's genuinely intelligent both inside and outside the classroom.
- Also, The Hero doesn't have to be the only one to win major fights. Let The Lancer or The Big Guy go up against the Big Bad once in a while...and win! If The Hero has just been thrashed by said villain, it makes for some interesting drama.
- Make The Hero a boyish girl. Not necessarily The Lad-ette, but a Tomboy, a Bokukko, or an Otaku Surrogate. It's not like it hasn't been done before. For a Cherry Tapping, you get an endless supply of fanservice right there on the front lines.
- Gender-flip some traditional shonen character roles. Make The Lancer or The Rival an Aloof Dark Haired Action Girl. Make The Chick a cheerful Non-Action Guy. Or just go with the above suggestion and make the hero female.
- Instead of The Chick, why not give the role of the hero's Love Interest to, say, The Lancer? It could make for some interesting relationship development, especially if The Lancer also doubles as The Rival.
Suggested Themes and AesopsTo quote Shonen Jump: Hard work, friendship, victory! A shonen hero is someone who never, ever gives up. The deceitful and treacherous might appear to have the upper hand at first, but their downfall is as certain as the rising sun... unless they too learn the error of their ways and embrace shonen ways themselves. It's a common trick to give the hero some special power or talent that makes them unique, but heaven help the writer who leans too much on that device. Nobody will respect a hero who doesn't sweat blood to earn their victory.
Potential MotifsShonen means POWER! STRENGTH! GLORY! Your audience doesn't have any patience for abstraction or allusion. They want the real stuff. The juice. Characters themed after powerful animals, beasts from myth, deadly natural phenomena. Heroes who lay it all on the line for love and justice. Battles where everything is at stake: the character's courage, their soul, the soul of mankind! Even a simple game of Mahjongg or Go can be made epic by likening the participants to gods or demons.
- The Tournament Arc is a favorite of shonen. It gives you a chance to introduce a whole lot of new characters in a short amount of time. Usually, you'll encounter the following there:
- The reigning champions, who will face the main team in the finals.
- The team that cheats to win, and usually gets away with it until they, yes, face the main team.
- The team that has an incredibly strict training regimen, but loses to the easy-going main team and learns to lighten up.
- Any number of teams containing people from the main team's past.
- Finally, note that any of these teams can overlap.
- If the first episode features The Hero winning a tough battle against a fairly tough rival, the second episode should feature him being absolutely owned against an even tougher rival.
- If you are using Stock Superpowers, you can make a lot out of them:
- At the beginning, give The Hero some superpower (possibly, accidentally) and let him rampage around with it for a few episodes, defeating the smaller fry. What he doesn't know yet is that his power is in no way unique to him and is, indeed, the weakest of them all...
- ...so you introduce new enemies with stronger superpowers stemming from the same source, who inevitably hand The Hero's ass back to him at first, until, through hard work and dedication, he lives to see the Time to Unlock More True Potential. After that, you introduce even more characters with even stronger powers and the cycle repeats itself endlessly...
- At some point, consider introducing a Badass Normal rival who kicks The Hero's superpowered butt without any powers of his own. Bonus points if your hero later defeats him on his own ground or if the rival is amicable enough to coach him in the fine art of muggle-fu (or both).
- For the Grand Finale, pick the Final Boss carefully: he must be Large and in Charge and slinging superpowers of cosmic proportions that only The Hero's can (barely) match. However, defeating the Shōnen Big Bad never, ever happens through superpowers alone but instead, primarily through Hot Blood and The Power of Friendship.
Set Designer / Location ScoutEverything must be HUGE, EPIC and UNPRECEDENTED. The laws of physics are a low priority here. When in doubt, take a real world landmark or natural feature, make it ten times larger and fill it with ninja.
Props DepartmentAnachronism Stew is your friend. Only wusses restrict themselves to a single time period. A REAL MASTER knows that atomic ninja are better than regular ninja, steampunk pirates beat ordinary pirates, and Everything's Better with Dinosaurs. And of course, the Katana is a tasteful adornment to any time period.
Costume DesignerDo your characters go to school? Well, they'll need their uniforms. They probably won't change out of them too terribly often, either. Japanese schoolchildren love fighting evil in their uniforms. Also, if you're so inclined to do a Beach Episode, you'll need bikinis and trunks. Of course, you could always subvert it and have the hottie show up in a demure swimsuit.
Casting DirectorAt the core of every Shonen show is its Five-Man Band:
- The Hero: Wants To Be a Master. Usually Book Dumb. The hero gets all the Next Tier Power-Up items, and is generally the only one able to defeat the Big Bad. He (it's usually a "he") will win his battles by lots of Heroic Resolve, because he's such a Determinator like that.
- The Lancer: In terms of motivation, The Lancer usually wants to kill or defeat someone from his past. If this is the case, there's always an episode early on where they meet said person, and are absolutely destroyed. The Lancer is usually the second strongest member of the team.
- The Chick: A difficult character to do well, often making her The Scrappy. If she's there for simple eye candy then maybe it's best to let her stay in the background looking pretty, or if you're feeling a little braver she might do well with a wacky personality. Giving her useful skills can help; maybe she has Healing Hands, or you could make her a Wrench Wench or a Waif Prophet. And she could always be an Action Girl who joins fully in the fights.
- The Big Guy: This character is really strong, tough and powerful, powerful enough to lose repeatedly against all the major enemies (when that isn't The Lancer's job). Generally physically bigger than the other characters and more heavily muscled, their brute strength often comes in useful even if their fighting record is somewhat less impressive. This character is often a good choice for your Token Minority or Captain Ethnic. (Chad from Bleach is a textbook example.)
- The Smart Guy: Usually doesn't get much screen time, unless he can show some Awesomeness by Analysis of his own. He is usually stays back while others fight and comes up with new ways how to overcome the newest obstacle or empower The Hero even more.
Stunt DepartmentIt's hard to depict a punch to the face that is as painful as actually being punched in the face, but we try. Exaggeration and externalization are your watchwords. Never tell what a character is feeling — show it! A chess player doesn't just realize he's mate in five: he falls to the floor in agony, haunted by terrible visions of shattered swords and slain kings! A quarterback doesn't just go beyond his limits to score the winning touchdown: he literally becomes a demon, bulling his opponents off their feet! A ninja doesn't just throw his enemy to the ground with a well-timed reversal: he SLAMS them down from three different angles, with rushing speed lines in the background and a resounding KABLAMMM!
- Fist of the North Star
- JoJo's Bizarre Adventure
- Saint Seiya
- Dragon Ball: Due to its huge popularity, the Trope Codifier for many classic shonen tropes and a major influence on the genre.
- YuYu Hakusho
- Hunter × Hunter
- Rurouni Kenshin
- One Piece
- Fullmetal Alchemist
- Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann
- Soul Eater
- Note: This edges into Seinen territory. NOT for the young and the squeamish!
- Eureka Seven