Paul Chato’s Rules for Writing Manga?

I recently posted Paul Chato’s rules for writing sitcoms, which is an excellent discussion of the topic by someone who spent years in the trenches producing sitcoms. However, reading through Paul’s “rules” I can’t help but think many of these apply to shonen manga as well. So, I thought I’d comment on how they apply to manga and anime in general, and shonen manga specifically.

 

  1. Location – Have an interesting home base or “container” where the story happens.
    • Can you easily imagine and list story opportunities coming from this location? To what degree does the location enable and generate story ideas and character situations?

 

Shonen manga, as a general rule, are about milieu or setting, not about character development. (See Character Development below for more on this.) So, with that in mind, it makes sense that having the right setting is pretty much a requirement for a good manga story. The setting is there to facilitate character interaction and develop the themes of the story, so having a suitable setting is a must. Notice, however, I said “right setting” and “suitable setting,” not “good setting” or “detailed setting,” as the setting can be very simple or very complex, but as long as it supports and develops the story it’s the right setting for the job.

Keep in mind, setting is “everything that isn’t the main characters” (at least in my definition) and includes places, objects, animals, and even people. So, the other characters the main characters meet along the way represent the setting, and their ability to generate interesting stories for the main characters is an important consideration.

Also, the idea of a “home base” is used literally in Paul’s rules, but in manga it can be literal or metaphorical. In One Piece, their home base is their ship (the “Going Merry,” and later “Going Sunny”) which they return to at the end of each story arc. In Naruto, it’s Konoha ninja village, which serves the same function. However, sometimes it follows the logic of “home is where the heart is” and instead it’s wherever the main character’s family unit of characters is located at that point in the story. This is true in many “travelling” manga like Black Clover where the characters never stop moving, but their family of friends comes with them. Doctor Stone does both! In the first half of the series, Taiju Village is their home base, but later they go travelling by ship and take the main cast along to act as a mobile “village”.

 

    • Start at the core location from the very beginning of the story, don’t “work your way there”

 

This is more flexible in manga, depending on how important the setting is to the central premise of the story. Sitcoms are rooted in a specific location, whereas manga usually aren’t.

 

2) Premise – have a clear, strong, and interesting “dilemma vector.”

    • In other words, the premise of the show must naturally create dilemmas and conflicts that the characters have to deal with.

 

Definitely true for manga as well! A good story premise has to both stimulate the reader’s imagination and at the same time make the writer’s life easier. The premise should be one that hooks the audience and makes them want to explore the premise with the characters because they can see the natural potential of the premise. This is great for marketing, but also makes the reader more easily invested in the story and likely to stick around.

And, of course a premise that generates situations the characters can’t avoid dealing with makes the writer’s life much easier. Naruto can’t avoid dealing with enemy ninjas because it’s his job, and Hanamichi Sakuragi of SLAM DUNK! is a basketball player so team conflicts and rivalries are inevitable. A strong manga premise is the seed from which most of the stories and situations will come, and the better the seed the easier it is to make it flourish.

 

3) Distinct Characters – every character has to be strikingly unique. Easily recognizable and capable of generating dialogue that is unique to them. (And if possible, unique to the show.)

    • Dialogue should not be interchangeable between the characters.

 

One of the hardest parts of doing shonen manga is probably creating distinct main characters, because shonen leads tend to be so similar to each other. They have to balance out being a somewhat relatable everyman with being an exceptional, quirky, and interesting character that readers want to see explore the world and have interactions with others. It’s super hard to create a good shonen hero that can do both well, and that might be why there are so few long-running shonen manga series.

Regardless, not just the lead, but all major characters in the story need to be as unique as the creator can make them without them getting ridiculous or feeling unnatural. They should each act and talk differently, and each character should have some core hooks (usually flaws) that the audience understands and that make them unique in the story.

 

    • If multiple characters can convey the same idea, then give it to the character for whom you can construct the best and most interesting wording.

 

Good advice for developing characters and pushing their uniqueness in general.

 

    • Dialog and character are inseparable.

 

True in manga as well.

 

    • If you’ve created a character and you still can’t come up with funny things for them to say- you don’t have a character.

 

Since not all shonen manga are funny, this might not seem to apply, but in manga the main characters should at least be able to come up with interesting things to say in different situations. The audience should enjoy spending time with them and look forward to seeing what they do or say next.

 

    • What you need is a character flaw that the character conflates with their ego and will do anything and everything possible to avoid having brought out into the light or confessing to it.

    • Characters not wanting to say things gives you lots more to say.

 

This is good general writing advice, and is equally true for manga characters. Character comes from flaws more than it does from strengths, and sometimes those are obvious flaws (like the many anime characters who think of nothing but chasing women) and sometimes those are deeper flaws which they may not want to admit to anyone, possibly even themselves.

The best flaws are ones which affect what the character says and does, so they appear “on screen” in the form of how the character acts and behaves. If a flaw doesn’t affect the story and play out in the character’s actions, then it’s probably best to replace it with another flaw which will.

 

 

4) Distinct Casting – make your characters as different from each other as possible.

    • Make your comedy writing life as easy as you possibly can by selecting characters that play off each other physically as well as in personality.

 

This follows up nicely from the point about distinct characters – manga is a visual medium, so watching the characters interact visually should be interesting as well. If you look at the cast of any major manga, you’ll see they all look physically very different from each other within the constraints of the art style. Their character designs and bodies interact in different ways with each other visually in the panels of the story.

One Piece is again the perfect example of this – not a single member of the main cast has the same body type or silhouette as the others. At least, not once the art style of the manga developed and the character designs evolved into their more iconic forms.

An old artist’s trick when creating comic characters is to draw each of the characters in silhouette and see if you can recognise each easily just based on those silhouettes. If their silhouettes aren’t distinctive, then go back and redesign them until they are.

The “Straw Hat Crew” of One Piece – (l>r) Brook, Nami, Usopp, Zolo, Luffy, Sanji, Chopper, Robin and Frankie. (And I didn’t have to think about who any of them were for a second when writing this.)

 

5) Conflict – Sitcoms are an organism. They are stable at the beginning, then some pathogen enters the organism (through a character or situation), the cast then attacks the pathogen like white blood cells, and deals with it so that the organism can return back to a stable state.

 

This is a neat analogy, and I like the way it applies to sitcoms a lot, but there is also a flaw here that prevents it from applying to as many stories as you might think. This is a reactive pattern – where the main characters are attacked from outside and then react to whatever trouble has appeared with a goal of restoring order. And that’s great if you’re writing a sitcom, but manga casts are often active, not reactive – the main characters are trying to go forward and accomplish something, not sitting there waiting to for trouble to come to them. This makes them different from sitcoms in an important way.

On the other hand, manga main casts do usually start each story arc in a state of relative peace, so they do have that in common. It’s just that peace is disrupted by something that happens to them in pursuit of their goals, not inflicted upon them from outside.

 

    • All of the cast of characters should be involved in contributing to dealing with this destabilized situation in their own unique ways.

 

In many manga, especially ones with ensemble casts, the element of conflict doesn’t just apply to the main character but the whole “family unit” of the main characters are affected. Each one of them will then need to deal with this element of disruption in their own way, and how they deal with it will depend on the character and their situations.

In shonen manga, the “disruptor” is usually a villain or the effects of a villain’s actions on other characters in the setting. For example, the main characters meet some “innocent” who is being harmed by the villain of the story arc and then this draws them into conflict because their personalities won’t let this injustice stand and now they must deal with it. As long as one member of the “family unit” is drawn into the conflict with the villain, they all are by their family bonds, and thus it becomes their group against another group. They might not all fight, but they’re all affected in trying to sort the problem out.

And by nature, once the story arc is over, the story of a shonen manga largely returns to the status quo. They might have new powers/abilities, a few new friends, a new teammate, or a better relationship with a formerly troubled teammate, but the family unit has been restored to peace. (Until the next story arc…)

 

6) Character Development – there is no character development in a classic sitcom.

    • A sitcom only works if it resets at the end and starts over in the next episode

    • People confuse character expansion with character development, but they are very different from each other

    • Sitcoms are not about change, they are about inviting our favorite people into our living rooms, seeing them get into trouble, and then enjoying how they extract themselves from they’re one or more current dilemmas.

    • In movies, plays, and novels, the main character becomes a changed person in the end – this is not true for sitcoms where the main characters should not significantly change as people.

 

This is the one where many readers might think that shonen manga and sitcoms diverge – after all, shonen manga are all about character change, aren’t they?

This is a tricky one, and it varies by the shonen manga, but on the whole, this is an area where manga and sitcoms are more alike than you’d think.

One area that sitcoms and manga have in common is that they’re both designed to be long-term entertainment delivered in short bursts to a casual audience in a (often) weekly media experience. This means a few things important things – First, they must be capable of lasting a long as the producers need them to last. Second, they must be easily accessible for new readers who want to join somewhere along the way and are unable to look back at older chapters. And third, each chapter/episode must be able to tell a semi-complete story that an audience member can follow in a weekly chunk.

What does all this mean? It means that both sitcoms and manga avoid actual character development as much as possible because their goal for both is to find a steady and easily accessible mix of characters, premise and situation the audience enjoys and then keep that mix working for as long as possible.

It also means the goal is to have interesting and easily understandable characters who the audience can make a quick connection with and then proceed to enjoy the story without worrying about a whole lot of backstory or where they are in their particular hero’s journey as a person. They need to be able to instantly peg the characters as familiar archetypes like “tough guy,” “shy girl,” “bad guy” and then enjoy watching the story unfold.

And this is where we need to discuss what Mr. Chato refers to as “character development” and “character expansion” and how they’re different from each other.

As he defines it, “character development” refers to changes in who the character is as a person – the character changing from their core self. The example he gives in the original video is Ebeneezer Scrooge, who in A Christmas Carol goes from being a miserable greedy man to a generous and loving man by the end of the story. That is character development – the character going from being one type of person to another type of person at the end of their story.

On the other hand, “character expansion” (a term I rather like) refers to changes that make the character broader and more well rounded without changing who the character is. An example of that might be a character learning a life lesson and that it’s important to say sorry sometimes, even though it’s hard. This character hasn’t become a new person, but they have become a more well-rounded one. This is character expansion – the character growing slightly as a person or developing new facets to their character without real change to who they are.

To simplify it even more – character development is about big changes, whereas character expansion is about tiny incremental ones. So, a character going from being sad and pessimistic to optimistic and full-of-life is a big piece of character development, but a character learning a new ability or finding another side of themselves would be character expansion. There is definitely some overlap here, but this will work as a general guideline.

So, if you think about it, because of their very nature both sitcom and manga characters can’t really “develop” in the way Mr. Chato defines developing. They are designed to be static and unchanging in who they are so that they’re easily understood by their casual audience who isn’t looking for a deep and introspective character study.

Instead, the characters of both media “expand” – or become more nuanced, more detailed, or (most often in shonen manga) more powerful. They are more like a tank or attack helicopter that you add new and different armor and weapons to than a living, breathing person. The underlying tank never stops being a tank, it just upgrades its equipment to make it a better tank. And it’s the same way for your standard manga shonen hero who will still be the same hot-headed but good natured lunkhead no matter how many magical martial arts powers the learn that turn them into a walking war machine.

The main characters like Luffy, Naruto, Sakamichi, Izuku, and Tanjiro never change as people during their hundreds or thousands of chapters of adventures, and the audience doesn’t want them to change either. They do want to see the characters expand to be more capable and powerful so they can take on bigger opponents and move closer to their final goals, and maybe have small and cosmetic changes like gaining some confidence (if it doesn’t interfere with their core character archetype). Heck, manga lead characters don’t even change how they dress or appear, and all damage is usually fixed to both them and their clothes by the end of each story arc.

So, with this in mind let’s look at an archetypical shonen manga – One Piece – and see how it deals with the duality of character expansion versus character development.

In One Piece, the main character, Luffy, is basically the same character in Chapter One, as he is in Chapter 1000. He gets more powerful, better defined, and more scars, but essentially he never changes. He is a perfect example of character expansion instead of character development. All of his development actually happened BEFORE the story started (as is told in flashbacks) and when he enters the story he’s a fully developed version of who he is – a self-actuated free spirit who knows who he is and what he wants in life.

On the other hand, the main supporting cast (Luffy’s “Straw-Hat Crew”), all follow the same pattern. When he meets most of them, they’re miserable people who are trapped in their lives and long to be free. Through meeting Luffy (and a lot of fighting) they are shown Luffy’s true right way to live and transform into their best selves in what is a major story of character development. Then, at the end of their origin story arc, they join Luffy’s crew and sale on to the next adventure.

But, and this is the important part, they are now transformed into the people they should be, and they’re no longer developing. They do continue to expand as characters and grow in small ways, but they are no longer changing as people and join the crew as fully developed supporting characters – their journey of personal development is over and joining the crew is their reward.

And this pattern is true for most shonen manga if you look at them – the main character rarely develops, but usually expands. If he does develop, it’s usually in the very first and last story arcs, and everything in between is character expansion and very small baby steps of development that lets the author stretch out the story. And, if the main character does need to develop a bit, like say Goku of Dragonball, they do a time-skip so they fast-forward to them in their newest incarnation and leave most of the development parts off screen.

Instead, because they are milieu stories where the character is changing the setting, the stories are about them inspiring other people to develop, not developing themselves. Most of the story arcs are about allies, villains, or innocent civilians being transformed by the main character entering their lives and their journey of change. With allies and innocents, it’s usually about them overcoming personal challenges and becoming their best selves, and with villains it’s usually about refusing to accept the call to change and instead dying stupidly, but all of them are changed by meeting the main character. Through this approach, the audience’s desire to see real change is satisfied by other characters around the main one changing, not the lead character changing in any significant way. (Which is a trick sitcoms also sometimes use as well.)

 

7) Learn Your Craft First- master the basics before you try to do something advanced.

    • Learn to love the rules: total freedom does not make for great work- constraints do.

    • Before you break the rules- follow them first.

 

This is pretty self-explanatory. Know your rules, learn from the people who came before you, and stop trying to be original until you prove you can master the art of manga storytelling on a fundamental basis. Know what makes manga into manga and try writing a standard shonen or shoujo story before you try to create something wildly original.

 

8) Final Notes

    • If you want to learn to write a sitcom- read as many scripts as you can get a hold of.

 

This why people who don’t immerse themselves in a genre or media form shouldn’t try to write for it. You have to know the fundamental tropes and standards of what your readers expect before you can try to engage them.

 

    • If you want to test your skills or practice- Frazier is the easiest model to write for.

 

If you want to write shonen manga, the easiest model to write for is the tournament battle story model pioneered by Dragonball Z and Yu-yu Hakusho, and perfected by One Piece, Naruto, Pokémon and BLEACH!. Take a bunch of characters who all want to be the best at something (anything!) and throw them against each other in a series of competitions. If you can make that work, and keep it interesting, then you’re mastering the most basic shonen formula there is. After that, you can start exploring the different subgenres and angles.

 

    • His favorite stories come from when characters create their own problems based upon their character flaws and then solve them

 

This is true for shonen manga as well. The best stories are often generated by the characters themselves due to their flaws turning a normal situation into an abnormal situation. This makes the stories personal to the characters since those stories are an outgrowth of that character and it gives those stories a more unique flavor than a generic plot will bring. It creates a nexus between story and character, and shows the whole package of story, character, premise, setting and everything else at it’s best.

 

    • If your lead character isn’t funny- it’s not a sitcom.

 

While it doesn’t hurt, shonen manga lead characters don’t need to be funny, but they do need to be entertaining. If your lead character is boring, then even if the rest of the cast is amazing, don’t expect the audience to keep coming back. They need to find the main character appealing (and preferably fascinating) enough to root for them as they try to accomplish whatever their goals they seek.

 

    • If you can’t write a full episode of a sitcom with the main character trapped in an elevator and still make it interesting and funny while they monologue, you don’t have a character or a sitcom.

 

The point here is that main characters must be able to sustain reader interest by themselves without their supporting cast to be strong main characters. If they can’t do that, then it might be a good idea to rethink your main character because they should always be the strongest link in the character chain, not the weakest. They are the anchor which holds the whole project together, and if they can’t pull their weight, the project will go nowhere.

 

Okay then, that’s a look at how the rules for writing sitcoms compare to the rules for writing shonen manga. On the surface, even to me, they looked quite different, but when I started to think about it, it was amazing how much crossover there was between the two mediums.

Now, you will have noticed that I have emphasized shonen manga here, and not all manga are shonen manga. (Just the most popular ones.) That’s because shonen manga, like sitcoms, have evolved to a form of perpetual storytelling which maximizes both the comfort and appeal of the familiar and the novelty of fun character interactions with each other in a single package. This is what has allowed One Piece to run over twenty years and made Dragonball Z a global brand on par with Spider-man.

Other types of manga for various audiences will follow some or even none of these rules, although it’s safe to say that most of the major ones still do. After all, there’s an appeal to these types of stories that carries across cultures, mediums, and genres and lets Mr. Chato’s rules for writing good sitcoms turn into rules for writing good manga as well.

Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments section!

 

Rob