Sunday, April 5, 2009

Essence of Characters

My other blog, Star of the Lancer, is focused on WoW and mathematics, but while I may be a mage, I'm also a writer. Paradoxically, I feel I don't read as much as I should, and some of that, I think, is motivated by fear. Perhaps it's just me, but when I read something or watch something (for television and film are as much an art as the novel), I find it all too easy to get attached to those characters and to grieve for them when the show or book is over, and sometimes, I don't want to grieve. Even still, from time to time, something really catches my interest. Of late, that something has been Ranma 1/2.

In short, Ranma 1/2 is a late 80's/early 90's manga and anime about a 16-year-old martial artist who, thanks to his bumbling father, falls into a cursed Chinese spring. The curse itself is rather simple: when splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl. Only hot water reverses this effect. Aside from that, Ranma himself faces a small handful of suitors, all vying for his hand in marriage, and from time to time, he squares off against martial arts rivals (though the "art" in question can be anything from "martial arts tea ceremony" to "race along the beach without getting your watermelon popped").

As a whole, the series is comedy, and as such, often the characters exaggerate their reactions to fit comedy. One of the prime examples is Tendou Akane, Ranma's principle love interest, with whom he enjoys an intensely denial-ridden relationship. Ranma and Akane are more often seen insulting each other than anything else, and should Ranma slight her (or if she even perceives a slight), Akane won't hesitate to punt him or beat him over the head with whatever available blunt object. Rarely do the two enjoy a moment where they can express their true feelings (since, for comedy's sake, something usually comes along to kill these moments). Even the end of the manga refuses to get them fully "together" (or anyone else, for that matter).

But, at any rate, Ranma 1/2 is comedy, and as I said, thus the characters bend a bit to fit the tropes of comedy, but this leads to problems when people on the internet try to evaluate the characters seriously. In such discussions, Akane is characterized as little short of a total...witch (or, conversely, people take the other extreme and dismiss her actions as entirely justified by Ranma's insensitivity). In short, however, I feel that little effort is made to understand the characters, rather only to judge them.

As a writer, I don't judge characters. In my story Echoes, I deliberately avoided characterizing people as evil in their own minds. Characters judge each other, but as a third-person narrator, I don't. Nor do I think it interesting to do so. I think when you get to the point as judging characters as good or evil, redeemable or forsaken, you take away an essential dynamic of conflict. I feel characters should always be well-intentioned, at least in their own world view. At the risk of Godwining myself, even Adolf Hitler must, in my mind, have seen his actions as morally just and for the betterment of humanity. We can condemn him as a person, for he's not a character but a real man from history, but I think the point still stands: few people see themselves as truly evil. When they do, often there's another reason for it--they consider themselves under out of control, slaves to urges they cannot keep in check.

After Echoes, I've planned to write a Ranma fanfic novel, and as such, I feel I must understand the characters in order to do them justice. Indeed, working with characters from another source, I feel it's even more important than with original characters or original fiction, for you have a long history of behavior and development to match.

How do I see Akane? In a word, insecure. Ranma (and several of his other suitors) are her superior in martial arts. Her homemaker skills are mediocre (though perhaps not as terrible as sometimes portrayed), and as a woman...well, that's everything Ranma insults about her. She is an "uncute, macho tomboy." Every time Ranma has an indiscretion (or if she even thinks he's having one), it calls into question her womanhood, puts one more nail in the coffin of her desirability. Naturally she fights back, and while I think the malleting and other slapstick overreactions must be considered in a more toned-down light if you want to make comedy serious, I think the quality of her reactions is still there. She's paranoid. She's afraid. And when she feels her place slipping from her, she can be jealous. She can be a bitch, and she will continue to be one until she really pushes Ranma away. Then, and only then, can she grow as a character. Then she can strive to better herself. It will only be a question of time and timing.

And Ranma? Ranma is all about ego. The last thing he wants to be perceived as is weak or feel humiliated, embarrassed. This is why he so vigorously denies his attraction to Akane, even to himself at times. This is why he insults her--he must have the last word in an argument, for trading insults is as much battle as a martial arts duel. True, there are some things he genuinely doesn't understand and can make him come off as a jerk, but he's not so ignorant all the time. We can see more often than not he's motivated by being better than others. The two times Akane got powerups to or beyond his level, Ranma greatly disliked it. When Shampoo came under the effects of the Reversal Jewel, he needed the satisfaction of her pursuit back, even though he's not seriously considered her for a wife. Ranma's all about ego, and admitting his feelings would require him to put that aside and, well, bear his soul. He doesn't do that. He doesn't want to let anyone in. Even in the small number of times he's let that wall down, as often as not Akane shoots him down for it. For Ranma to grow, he will have to put his ego aside, allow himself to put down that wall and be hurt. Then he can be stronger for it.

Writing, to me, is all about character growth. I structure my novels in a semi-serial nature, and as such, growth is gradual, with each sub-story setting it up. Some characters, of course, are static, and the tragedy is that they didn't grow. That's something to consider, too.


Anonymous said...

Akane really is not all that insecure. In fact for some things like martial arts I would say she is over confident. She always thinks she is capable of doing whatever martial arts task is at hand be it beat the dojo destroyer or Kodachi even though the Dojo destroyer defeated her father and she did not know martial arts gymnastics. What she is really insecure with is her looks (she keeps an entire box full of things that are supposed to increase breast size as seen during the bust battle). Similarly she is not insecure about her cooking she assumes that it will be wonderful every time even though she doesn't cook well at all. So it is true that she has insecurities martial arts and cooking are not things she is shown to be insecure about.

You do realize that Akane insults Ranma just as often as he insults her? Hell the very first volume set the tone Akane insults Ranma (in that case the Tendo's were making it out like he was a freak and completely undesirable) and then he insults her in retaliation to the insults she has given him (in that case he stated that he was better built). Then Akane hits him. That is the order for the vast majority of the manga Akane insult Ranma, Ranma insult Akane in retaliation, Akane hit Ranma.

Quite frankly if I spent most of my life training and working to get my skills then someone is just given a power up I'd be pissed as well. It makes all the work and sacrifices I made for the skill pointless. You have to take that into account also Akane did make it out that those were her skills as opposed to being a power up and she lorded her new found abilities over him.

Muphrid said...

Perhaps insecure isn't the right word, but I do think there's a significant amount of dissonance in the way her expectations of herself don't meet reality. I think she expects herself to be much higher than she is on the martial artist pecking order and isn't. I think she expects herself to be a better cook and isn't. And there are a lot of directions one can take that as a writer: one way is for that dissonance to mount and result in insecurity. Another way is for it to result in a healthy quest for improvement. I suppose the difference lies in whether she does make progress and improvement to her liking or doesn't.

Does Akane insult Ranma as much as he insults her? Sure, perhaps even more so, and more often unprovoked than how Ranma usually does in response, so I agree wholeheartedly.

Certainly Ranma had ample logical reason to resent Akane's behavior in that arc, but I think even if she hadn't acted very childishly about it, Ranma would've not taken it well. That's just my opinion, though. I don't see him being entirely happy about someone surpassing his abilities even if it's "temporary" in this sense. At the least, I'd think he'd want to end it quickly and return to the status quo. I think Ranma's the kind of person who really, really prefers the status quo, whatever that situation may be.