One of the things that the top selling manga have in common is that their lead characters are almost all working towards some overall arching goal. Accomplishing this goal will be the main arc and driver of the overall story, and the series will usually kick off by introducing a character with this goal and it will finish when the character has accomplished their objective. (Or the editors can it, whichever comes first.)
However, one of the most common mistakes that aspiring writers make is that they give their main characters complex goals instead of simple ones that are easy for any audience member to understand. They give them goals like “bring peace to my homeland” or “transform the lives of my seven depressed friends so they can be happy people.” And, while goals like these are perfectly reasonable for characters to pursue, they’re also too vague or too specific for most readers to easily understand and connect with unless they’ve gotten a lot of explanation.
After all, what does “bring peace to my homeland” really mean? That phrase could mean a hundred different things to a hundred different people? Similarly, “transform the lives of my seven depressed friends so they can be happy people” raises a lot of questions about how and why that’s going to happen. And how do you introduce all that on a regular basis in a weekly serialized story where you have to keep the story easily accessible to a new audience while keeping the long-term audience also engaged and happy?
The answer is, the top manga don’t.
Instead, they leave those complex ideas to character motivations and instead make character goals simple. In fact, they keep the character goals so dead simple that even if you explained them to a five-year-old child, they would probably understand them.
Now, there are two levels of goals – immediate goals and long-term goals. Immediate goals usually apply just to the current story or situation at hand, while long-term goals instead apply to the story as a whole.
Immediate Goals usually fall under the “attain/maintain/lose” trio.
A character either wants to attain or gain something they don’t have (objects, knowledge, power, victory, etc.), keep something they already have (maintain the status quo, avoid losing things), or they want to lose something they have (get rid of a objects/disease/debt/obligations/unhappy emotions etc.). And in any given story or scene, they are usually trying to accomplish one of those three very simple things.
In manga, the most clear and obvious immediate goals are usually “win” (attain victory), “survive” (maintain what they have), or “don’t give up” (lose feelings of self-doubt). Although sometimes their actual goal can be buried under other motivations or ideas. For example, a common stated goal in manga is to help others, but if you think about it, their real goal in helping others is usually either to gain a friend (attain), prevent someone from being hurt (maintain), or try to overcome some personal problem they face (lose).
In any case, you can usually find the attain/maintain/lose trio lurking somewhere in the background of what characters are doing, and this is on purpose because those are clear and easily understood goals that the audience can instantly understand and relate to. After all, these goals often need to be conveyed to the audience in images or short lines of dialog which get them up to speed and let them focus on what the character is doing at the moment. The more complex the goal, the longer the explanation, and the harder it is to express in simple terms.
With Long-Term Goals, you might expect things to be more complex, but actually it’s the opposite. Long-term character goals for the lead character in manga are usually super-simple, and even simpler than the attain/maintain/lose trio, if that’s possible.
What those goals are will depend on the type of story the author is trying to tell, and syncs up nicely with the M.I.C.E. Quotient types of stories because each of the four M.I.C.E. stories (Milieu, Inquiry, Character, Event) has a different focus which translates into a different goal for a lead character in that story to pursue.
For simplicity, I have formed these questions into “I want” statements to reflect the main character’s desire to achieve this thing, with “X” referring to some unknown thing the character wants.
- Milieu– “I want to be king of X”
- Inquiry – “I want to find X”
- Event – “I want to survive/protect X”
- Character – “I want to overcome X”
Each of these main character goals reflects both the type of story and the typical nature of each type of story as they’re told in young male oriented manga or comics.
Let’s look at each in turn, along with examples.
Milieu– “I want to be king of X”
A milieu story is a story about a setting where a person enters a setting and adapts to it or adapts it to themselves (or both). The key to a milieu story is that the focus is on the new world the character is entering and their interactions with that new world. And, in the case of shonen manga, it’s a story about a character who enters a new world and doesn’t survive it, but dominates and conquers it. The character wants to become “king” of this new world they’re entering, and will continue to work hard until they reach the top of the pile.
Some people might question the use of “king” here to describe the character’s goal, but the word is chosen on purpose. To be king of something means to be not only to be the master or ruler of a territory, but also the winner of some contest or struggle. It can reflect being the acknowledged master of a place, a group, an art, a science, or any other domain – all of which are milieus or settings that the main character can conquer in their own ways.
- I want to be king of the Pirates. – One Piece (The most famous example of all!)
- I want to be king of the ninja. –Naruto
- I want to be king of the fighters. – Dragonball Z
- I want to be king of the manga creators. –Bakuman
- I want to be king of the actors. – Act-Age
- I want to be king of the superheroes. – My Hero Academia
- I want to be king of the basketball players. – Slam Dunk!
- I want to be king of the Rakugoka storytellers. – Akane Bananshi
- I want to be king of the assassins. – Sakamoto Days
You will notice that only Luffy in One Piece actually says those words, but in each manga those are the goals of the character in that story. They are all milieu stories which are about the main character exploring a setting, adapting to it, and ultimately dominating that setting after they have mastered whatever they needed to learn to understand it.
Also, this isn’t just a goal in Japanese manga. In Korean and Chinese webtoons are also filled with stories about characters who are trying to become masters of the domains they’re in. Whether it’s as humble as trying to be the best doctor, lawyer, or streamer, or at the extreme other end trying to become kings, emperors, or even gods.
Inquiry – “I want to find X”
An inquiry story is a story where a character is trying to find the answer to some question. Classically, these are mystery crime stories, although they can actually be about any character seeking anything that requires them to logically puzzle through a series of challenges to find the answer. Shonen manga reflect both types of stories, with the main character either trying to solve mysteries or seeking someone/something important to them.
- I want to find the killer. – Detective Conan (or any mystery/crime series)
- I want to find a cure for my sister’s illness. – Demon Slayer
The truth is that these types of stories are pretty rare in Shonen Manga, except for the occasional mystery series, which usually don’t have overall goals except to solve the mystery of the week.
Event – “I want to survive/protect X”
In an event story, something happens and the character reacts to the event. While most stories have inciting incidents that set them off, in this case the main character’s reactions to the event and the chain of events it sets off make up the bulk of the story. And that’s the key – the story is about the main character reacting to external problems and trying to deal with them as best they can. In shonen manga, this usually means the main character is trying to either get through something (survive) or keep something safe (protect). Stories about the main character protecting something are more normal in Shonen manga because we feel more sympathetic to characters who are working to help others.
- I want to survive this crazy death game. – Kaiji, Liar Game, Every death game/contest manga.
- I want to protect my city/country. – Attack on Titan
- I want to protect people from aliens. – Aliens Area
- I want to protect people from monsters. – Kaiju #8
Because these stories are usually defensive in nature, this goal isn’t as common and are usually built around the character trying to get stronger (as a fighter) in order to protect the ones they love. It’s easy to mistake some of these stories with “I want to be king of X” stories because they still are usually built around getting stronger. The difference being that the end of a “king” story is being the strongest/best, while the end goal of a “protect” story is a peaceful life. It’s the difference between goals and motivations – see below.
Character – “I want to overcome X”
Character stories are about personal transformation – where you start with a flawed character who needs to change and then they do (or don’t!) change by the end. In the case of shonen manga, this means they’re trying to overcome some personal issue or problem that is causing difficulty in their lives.
- I want to overcome my extreme shyness. – Komi Can’t Communicate
Again, like Inquiry stories, these aren’t common shonen manga because they’re more internal and less focused on conflicts and problem solving. Boys and men tend to be more focused on the external (on average) and don’t find stories about personal change as compelling. Which is the exact opposite of Shoujo Manga (girls manga) where Character and Inquiry stories are the rule, and Milieu and Event stories tend to be less common.
When Character stories do pop up in boys’ comics, they tend to be in places like comedies where the comedy aspect is what lets the character focus go down more easily. Also, they’re often about the main character’s goal being to help someone else overcome their personal flaws, or filtered through the perspective of another character than the one changing. For example, in Komi Can’t Communicate, the main character Komi’s goal is to overcome her extreme shyness, however the story is told through her male friend Tadano’s perspective as he helps her transform. This is true for many romantic comedies, where the male lead is helping a flawed female lead transform herself. (Which could be written as “I want to help X overcome X” as the goal.)
As you can see, these different types of stories each map well with different character goals, and at least in shonen manga these underlying goals will be the hearts of the story.
One very important other thing to consider is the difference between character goals and means.
For example, in One Piece, Luffy’s stated goal is to be King of the Pirates, so he literally can’t stop until he becomes… king of the pirates. He has many means to achieving this goal – getting stronger, gaining allies, and finding the One Piece – but his actual goal is still being the top pirate. If Luffy stopped because he felt he’d become strong enough or made enough friends, that wouldn’t accomplish his goal and wouldn’t make for a satisfactory ending.
Also, there’s the question of motivation versus character’s goals. This is a bit of a cause and effect problem where it sometimes becomes difficult to determine which one is driving the other. However, the solution to this problem is also fairly simple in nature. Look at what would end the story, and that’s what your character’s goal is.
For example, in Demon Slayer the main character’s motivation is to save his sister who has been turned into a monster. His goal is to find a cure for her, and his means is by fighting demons and getting stronger so he can face the master demon and cure her.
In SLAM DUNK!, the main character Hanamichi Sakuragi’s motivation is his pride as a basketball player. His goal is to be the king of basketball players, and his means is by improving his skills as a player and bonding with his team.
Going back to those two examples from the beginning, for “bring peace to my homeland” that would be the character’s motivation in the story. Since it’s about a place, it’s probably a milieu story and about the character transforming that setting (chaotic > peaceful) so the main character could be working to become an army general who will defeat the enemy and stop the war. In other words, he wants to become “king of the soldiers” (i.e. a general) as his goal. Finally, his means would be by joining the army, attaining rank and glory, attaining allies, losing his self-doubt, and of course surviving combat.
Similarly, wanting to “transform the lives of my seven depressed friends so they can be happy people” would be a character motivation in another milieu story since you’re trying to change the setting. In this case, it might be the character plans to do it by becoming “king of the therapists” (i.e. someone who excels at helping people overcome their personal traumas) and their means would be through attaining knowledge about the people’s traumas, attaining the knowledge to help them, attaining allies, and of course maintaining their own emotional balance.
So, as you can see, at their heart, characters in manga (and especially shonen manga) might have complex motivations, but they usually have very, very simple goals. They need these simple goals because they have to appeal to a wide and casual audience who need to be able to jump back into the story week after week without needing to remember a lot of complex ideas or details. And knowing this can save you a lot of time and heartache when you are planning your manga stories.
Don’t give in to mixing up long-term goals and motivations, because that’s a trap that so many young manga writers fall into and it’s one of the major reasons why their projects usually fail. The readers simply can’t connect and keep up with complex character goals, and so they go off and read a story which is simpler and more enjoyable instead.