The characters of BAKUMAN by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata

Learning About Storytelling From Anime and Manga, Part Two: Romance

WARNING: This article might contain spoilers for the series Death Note, Toradora!, Sword Art Online, Ore Monogatari, and Attack on Titan. It also contains a lot of pictures.

Ah, February: the month of love and romance. You might be inspired to write a romance story this time of the year, so in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, let’s talk all about writing romance using examples from anime and manga.

Is romance really necessary in your story?

Sometimes, romance just doesn’t have a space in your plot, either because of the characters or the way you’ve built your story. Let’s take a look at an instance where romance would be misplaced due to the story:

One-Punch Man is a story about a super powerful hero named Saitama who can defeat his enemies in one punch (hence the name). However, because he’s so strong, he becomes bored with his powers and treats his superhero job as more of a game. On more than one occasion, he says he’s a super hero for fun. Saitama is an easygoing character who cares about trivial things, such as the electricity bill and missing special sales. Giving him a love interest wouldn’t work because One-Punch Man is a parody. In most superhero stories, the hero has a love interest that is usually his or her Achilles’ heel, or their raison d’être. The fun, comedic, and unique thing about Saitama is that he’s an unusual superhero when it comes to his motives and the things he cares about, like in episode four of the anime.

In episode four, there’s a gang called the Paradisers (who are all bald men) that are terrorizing the city. Saitama sees this on the news but decides they’re not worth his time and that another hero can take care of it. However, when the news reporter announces that people should be wary of any bald man on the street, Saitama gets offended and concludes that the Paradisers give bald men a bad reputation, and that’s when he goes out to stop them.

Having him care romantically about someone would go against not only everything we know about him thus far but also the type of story One-Punch Man is—a comedy/action story about an unorthodox superhero with an egg-shaped, bald head.

Now, here’s an example of misplaced romance due to the character’s personality:

Death Note follows Light Yagami, a high school student who discovers a supernatural notebook from a “God of death” named Ryuk that grants its user the ability to kill anyone whose name and face he knows. The series centers around Light’s attempts to create and rule a utopia cleansed of evil by using the Death Note to kill criminals, and the efforts of a detective known as L to stop him.

Light Yagami is a sociopathic serial killer with a god complex who would do anything to achieve his goals of a crime-free world. From the very beginning, Light uses the Death Note and made plans without much thought as to how it could hurt others, including his family.

He uses and manipulates people for his personal benefit and never has romance on his mind, as we can see in episode four of the anime, in which he asks his classmate out on a date as a decoy to get the name of an agent who was following him. You can believe that once he got what he wanted, he never spoke to the girl again.

And what about Misa Amane, his most consistent “love interest” throughout the series?

Once he realizes that she could be useful to him, he decides to appease her by calling her his girlfriend and letting her help him out every now and then, knowing full well that he will get rid of her once she has served her purpose.

Misa is a delusional girl who falls madly in love with Light and is willing to do anything at his beck and call. She is easily his most loyal ally in the series. Despite her devotion, Light never shows signs of requiting her feelings or even gratitude for her servitude.

Even when Light’s memories of the Death Note are erased and he becomes “good,” he never pays much attention to Misa and only focuses on catching the antagonist.

The same could definitely be said about Kiyomi Takada, another woman Light seduces and uses for his selfish purposes.

As you can see, Light sees other people (in this case, women) as nothing more than tools. Falling in love wouldn’t go with Light’s character, as he only has one thing on his mind: becoming god of the new world.

Now, you might say that even though Light and Misa aren’t exactly love interests, they do have a love story — albeit a one-sided one — because they’re in a relationship and the anime and manga take time to delve into just how much Misa is infatuated with Light. I would respectfully disagree. Light and Misa’s relationship is no more a love story than it is an abuse story, just like Light’s relationship with Takada, his sister, his father, and everyone else who’s unlucky enough to cross his path.

Make them likable.

The most important thing you have to do in any romance is to make both the characters likable. If they aren’t likable and the readers don’t care about your characters, why would they care about the relationship? Before you even begin to have your two characters make kissy faces at each other, they must be established as independent, three-dimensional characters whose sole existence doesn’t revolve around the other person.

In some cases, like Misa Amane, having one of them be dependent on another is what the story needs and it works, as long as you and your readers are fully aware that the character is dependent and you don’t try to disguise their reliance as something else l̶i̶k̶e̶ ̶B̶e̶l̶l̶a̶ ̶S̶w̶a̶n̶ .

In Toradora!, author Yuyuko Takemiya makes us care about the characters Ryuuji Takasu and Taiga Aisaka individually before making us care about them together. In the beginning, Taiga has a crush on Ryuuji’s best friend Kitamura, and Ryuuji has a crush on Taiga’s best friend Minori, so the two decide to be each other’s wing man. As the series progresses, we learn about each character’s individual dreams, fears, and past. Ryuuji’s father left before he was born and his mother works at a night club and entrusts him with household chores, leading him to become a self-sufficient neat-freak with many domestic skills. He also wishes he were more approachable, since he inherited his father’s scary-looking expression.

Taiga, on the other hand, is nicknamed Palmtop Tiger because of her short stature and her tendency to snap at others. However, because of her under-developed body and dislike of her nickname, she feels self-conscious, which only fuels her negative and angry attitude. She’s clumsy, unsociable, doesn’t know how to take care of herself, and despite coming from a wealthy background, has family problems many can relate to.

Both characters are endearing and likable, and we find ourselves rooting for them throughout the story to succeed in their love lives. They work out their personal issues on their own, and those they can’t solve by themselves, they work out together, showcasing how much they trust one another. By the time they become a couple, we care enough to be happy about them being together.

Such isn’t the case with Sword Art Online.

Sword Art Online is a science-fiction action story about players trapped in a virtual reality video game of the same name. To get out, a player must reach the 100th floor and defeat the final boss.

Anybody with good taste in writing knows that SAO is a mess of sloppy writing, bad pacing, botchy character development, and wasted potential, and everybody who writes about why SAO is so disappointing usually starts with the protagonist, Kirito.

Kirito sucks as a main character. He’s overpowered for no logical explanation other than being the main character and being “good at games” (as if he’s the only good player in the whole SAO universe). He’s dull, goes through no character development, and every single female character falls in love with him for no reason, even his sister (who’s actually his cousin, as if that makes it better). All of this makes him a frustrating, unlikable character who falls into the same old cycle of saving everybody in every game he enters with little explanation as to how he became strong enough to do so.

Then there’s Asuna, the obligatory pretty girl whom you thought would be a good player and help Kirito save the day. But she falls flat, as she turns out to be the damsel in distress who’s as mundane as her male counterpart, and as useless as Yamcha from Dragon Ball.

There are even a few episodes in the anime (11–13), which focus on them playing husband and wife and adopting a virtual daughter. While watching these episodes, all I could think of was, “Who cares?” Because once I realized how boring these characters were, I no longer watched for them, but for the plot, and I did not appreciate these filler episodes dedicated to their boring romance.

Make them equal.

Have you ever seen a mismatched couple? Maybe one of them is really attractive and the other is … hard to look at. Or maybe one of them is really successful and the other has no talent or achievements for which to speak of. These kinds of odd pairs are an ordinary occurrence in real life, and even though they make a question mark pop up in people’s heads, it’s not something people really care about.

The same can’t be said for fiction. When reading books or watching movies, people do care if one of them isn’t up to par with what they believe the other character’s standard is.

This is especially true for romance novels. Since most people who read romance novels like to project themselves into the story, if the male lead is a 45-year-old beach bum with a beer belly who’s dating a skinny 25-year-old Harvard graduate, you’d better believe people will put the book down and erase it from their memory (unless they’re into that).

However, you don’t have to make both characters young and attractive for your readers to like them together. By giving them redeemable qualities, you can make your readers believe the two characters deserve each other, like in Ore Monogatari!

In this romantic comedy, Takeo Goda is a tall, muscular, and rather unattractive high school student who falls in love with a petite girl named Rinko Yamato. At first, Takeo believes Yamato is in love with his more attractive friend, Sunakawa, but she’s actually liked him since the day they met because of his kindness. Fortunately, the two realize their feeling for one another quickly and get together by episode three.

Since their childhood, every girl Takeo comes to like developes a crush on Sunawaka instead, and despite his kind and helpful disposition, Takeo is usually ignored by others. This causes us to cheer him on when Yamato comes along, as we want him to be loved by another after so many years of rejection. We can’t help but feel a bit protective of him as well after seeing how mean people are to him, so we hope he gets a girl who deserves him.

Yamato follows through, of course, as she shows her appreciation for Takeo by thanking him, complimenting him, and baking him pastries, and it’s clear she only has eyes for him. Yamato is also deserving of Takeo, as he is a genuinely sweet fellow who loves her just as much as she loves him.

So, despite how odd of a couple they are, especially for an anime, people can love them together because it’s clear they both deserve each other.

Think of your readers.

If you’re writing something that isn’t a romance novel but you still want to include a love story somewhere, it’s important to think about just how much or how little romance to add. This is easy to do once you’ve reviewed all the points above, such as your genre, the personality of the characters, and whether or not you want readers to actually like them together.

However, if you’re still lost on how to add a romance your readers will enjoy, ask yourself this question: What have I promised my audience?

If you promised your readers an action-packed adventure about people fighting blood-thirsty giants, that’s what they’ll expect and that’s what they’ll want if they decide to invest their time in your work.

This is one of the reasons why people love Attack on Titan so much.

Here’s the description of the series on Crunchyroll:

Known in Japan as Shingeki no Kyojin, many years ago, the last remnants of humanity were forced to retreat behind the towering walls of a fortified city to escape the massive, man-eating Titans that roamed the land outside their fortress. Only the heroic members of the Scouting Legion dared to stray beyond the safety of the walls — but even those brave warriors seldom returned alive. Those within the city clung to the illusion of a peaceful existence until the day that dream was shattered, and their slim chance at survival was reduced to one horrifying choice: kill — or be devoured!

If you guessed a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat drama with lots of action, blood, and Titan-slaying, you’d be right on the money.

Attack on Titan always delivers when it comes to the story we were expecting. It doesn’t waste time with romantic subplots nobody asked for, because it’s a story that takes itself seriously. Both Wit Studio (the anime’s producers) and Hajime Isayama (the mangaka) know what the show is about and what the audience wants.

This relationship … it must be cast into the void.

This is something the first part of the live-action movie adaption got wrong. We wanted epic titan fighting. Instead, we got a short-lived sex scene between two characters nobody cared about, the most awkward boob grabbing scene in movie history, and a forced relationship between two characters who hardly interact in the original work.

Now, if you have a story involving vampires, like the anime and manga Vampire Knight, people will automatically expect romance. It’s just a universally known fact that modern stories with vampires run the risk of turning into romances, so people will anticipate it. The same goes for YA novels. We’ve all been bombarded with enough dystopian teen stories to know.

Long story short…

  • Be aware of what your story needs. If the genre doesn’t call for romance, think carefully before adding it.
  • Don’t suddenly turn characters into love-struck idiots if it doesn’t go with who you’ve shown them to be. Not only is it a severe display of inconsistent writing, it will also throw your readers off.
  • The character must have their own fears and dreams that have nothing to do with their partner. They should be strong enough to resolve at least one of their problems on their own. Don’t turn your character into a Bella Swan.
  • If you want people to care about the relationship, make the characters likable. Make us care.
  • People aren’t as tolerant about mismatched couples in fiction as they are in real life, but you don’t have to make the caracters young and attractive for people to enjoy them together. Give them both qualities that make them deserving of one another and people won’t care if one of them is out of the other’s league.
  • Don’t forget the kind of story you’ve created. If you want to include romance, be mindful if your readers are in it for anything other than the romantic subplots.

The last part of this series was all about introducing your protagonist! You can read it here. Next month will be about active vs. reactive characters, so make sure you follow for more.