There is no one shonen plot to rule them all, but there is a plot that has basically become a “gold standard” for shonen manga targeted at young adult males. This plot is an outgrowth of the philosophy that has evolved among the producers of such manga and been passed down to each generation of creator through the editorial staff and by reading the work of the previous generations. It is a plot which works time and again for the audiences of manga, and if creators are in need of a plot to wrap their stories and characters around, this is the one they will most often default to.
This plot, which can be called the “Troubled Soul Plot,” brings together many of the needs of the creators and the desires of the audience into a single package that not just works for both sides, but has been proven to work over and over again. However, before going into the reasons why the plot works, let’s go over what the plot is for those of you who are impatiently looking for a plot to hang your own stories on. After we cover the plot itself, we’ll cover why it works and how to make it your own.
The basic version of the Troubled Soul Plot has two (or three) characters:
- A hero who is there to inspire or guide the troubled soul
- A “troubled soul” who is unhappy, trapped and in need of inspiration
- A villain who is threatening the troubled soul (optional)
And, on the simplest level the plot looks like this:
A hero shows a troubled soul (who may be being threatened by a villain) the right way to live through their actions and inspires the victim to change and break free of their personal limitations.
This is a story where a hero character enters the life of a “troubled soul” who wants to change their life, but can’t because they lack courage or don’t know how, and through being inspirational (and often heroic) shows them life is better when you give it your all. This inspiration motivates the troubled soul to dig deep down and find the courage within themselves to change and overcome their own personal challenges to transform into a better person.
At the simplest level, this might be the troubled soul gaining the courage or inspiration to do what must be done and overcoming their fears. For example, they might tell a truth they’ve been hiding from others, try something new in their life, or even just overcome their fears. They’re beating a personal challenge that to outsiders might seem small, but to them has been something they’ve been struggling with.
On the other hand, at the highest level, the troubled soul might be motivated to make life-changing decisions about who they are and the direction of the lives. They might want to become a new, self-actualized person who is no longer the unhappy and emotionally frustrated person they were before, but a new and better version of themselves. This is usually them accepting that they’ve been living life in the wrong way and gaining the courage they need to take their lives in a new direction, no matter how scary it is.
However, no matter what level of change is involved, when the story starts the troubled soul is stuck and unable to change, and it’s through interacting with the hero of the story that they find the confidence and/or way that they need in order to break free of their limits and achieve whatever it is they need to achieve.
Let’s look at a more practical example from shonen manga so that you can see the plot in action.
Tsukasa Hojo’s City Hunter is considered one of the top shonen manga of the 1980s, and while it’s older, it also uses this plot in a very clear and simple way in each story arc. So, while this plot is still common today, City Hunter can teach us a lot about how this plot is used.
The majority of City Hunter story arcs run something like this:
A sexy young woman in danger seeks help from the “City Hunter” Ryo Saeba, a “sweeper” (basically private detective/mercenary) for hire who helps people who the Tokyo police can’t help. Despite her being a bit rude to him at first, Ryo agrees to help the girl, who being chased by the thugs of an evil gangster (or criminal, businessman, politician, mercenary, etc.) and becomes her bodyguard. (Safe from everyone but Ryo, who often acts like a lecherous pervert.) While under Ryo’s protection we discover that the girl is a troubled soul who has some problem in her life is making her unhappy and miserable. At the same time, the bad guys are trying to get her, and Ryo foils their attempts at her. Eventually, the bad guys manage to separate her from Ryo, and it’s revealed the head bad guy wants her for some reason connected with her personal problems. Faced with both a physical and emotional challenge, she is overwhelmed until Ryo shows up and saves the day, in the process showing her that her problems can be beaten through being brave and courageous. Now free of the ghosts haunting her, she thanks Ryo and starts her new life as a free and transformed person.
Here you can see a good example of this plot in action. The story is really the story of the troubled soul, in this case the pretty girl, who usually enters the story trapped in unhappiness because of some personal problem. She is trying to accomplish some goal, but her personal problems keep getting in the way, and now she has to deal with some bad guys chasing her as well. Ryo is there to act as a guide or supporter for her (he’s the focus of the story, but not the main character, which is her), and through spending time with him she verbalizes her problems, which is the first step to facing them. The bad guys are there to provide action and drama while forcing her to confront her problems (or at least bringing Ryo into her life) and are usually connected to her problems in some way. Then, at the end of the story, everything comes together and she is forced to face her fears/problems and Ryo helps to overcome them by being brave and wise – showing her she doesn’t have to live in fear. She then transforms into her better self, Ryo beats the bad guys once and for all, and everyone (but the bad guys) lives happily ever after.
The story works on two levels – the mental/emotional and the physical. On the mental/emotional level we have the troubled young woman who starts the story a broken troubled soul and by the end of the story she has been transformed into her better self. This is the heart of the story – her emotional transformation – and it’s what keeps the story from being just another “damsel in distress” story where heroes and villains shoot at each other. On the other hand, there is also the physical level, where she is being chased by people who want to harm her (and often kill her), and this keeps the story from just being a drama while she undergoes her mental change. Naturally, these two plotlines eventually come together in some way at the end for a big resolution.
City Hunter made this formula work across 191 manga chapters, two TV series, and several films, and almost all of them follow this pattern because it works so well. In fact, this version of the Troubled Soul Plot can even be laid out into a fairly clear formula, like this:
- The audience is introduced to the hero of the story
- The hero encounters a troubled troubled soul who is facing both internal and external challenges (usually being chased by some bad guy)
- Something happens to bind the hero with the troubled soul for the rest of the story
- The hero works with the troubled soul to solve their external challenges
- The hero and the troubled soul spend time together and the troubled soul slowly learns to trust the hero
- The troubled soul’s background and reasons for being distrustful are revealed
Midpoint Turn (Ten1)
- There is a plot twist where often something the troubled soul has been hiding from the hero is revealed, or the true nature of the external challenges (villains, if there are some) are revealed
- The troubled soul leaves the hero because something happens to make them distrust the hero, they don’t want the hero involved anymore, or because they’re lured away
- The troubled soul tries their hardest to solve their own external problems but fails, often because they haven’t solved their internal problems
- The external challenges threaten to overcome the troubled soul and crush them
- The hero comes to help, and often shows the troubled soul the right way to live through their fearless or selfless actions
- The hero helps the troubled soul to overcome the external challenge once and for all, and in the process inspires/leads the troubled soul to overcome their internal challenges
- The hero and troubled soul defeat the external challenge together
- The troubled soul overcomes a minor opponent to prove they have changed and the hero overcomes a major opponent
- The troubled soul overcomes a major opponent (proving they have changed) and the hero handles the smaller ones
- The hero and the now no longer troubled soul (usually) go their separate ways, with some final lighter moment to put a smile on the audience’s face
The hero in this plot is there as a helper and guide for the troubled soul, and is more of a viewpoint character than the actual main character of the story, since all the character change and development is happening to the troubled soul and not the hero. Which is actually the point of this plot – to shift almost all character change and development to the “guest” character and leave the hero unchanged by the end of the story. It’s a way to trick the audience into thinking they had a satisfying story about character change without actually giving them one where the main character is the one who changes.
This is great for shonen manga since audiences don’t want their favorite heroes to actually change as people – they like them who they are and want them to stay familiar and fun. However, audiences still want a story where some change happens because stories are about change, so the creators introduce other characters around the lead who do the changing in the course of this particular story arc.
Another advantage of this plot is that it’s great for battle manga stories where the lead character(s) are going to be facing off with some evil villain(s). When the main character is fighting for themselves they aren’t that cool, but when the main character is fighting to save others, that’s when they really shine. It adds great stakes to the fight beyond just the threat to the main character because there’s also the troubled soul who will suffer if the main character loses, and the audience very much wants the troubled soul to succeed because they’re emotionally connected with them.
If you want to see this in action, you need look no further than the legendary manga/anime One Piece, where most of the story arcs is built on exactly this plot. The Straw-hat Pirates go to a new place, meet a troubled troubled soul being threatened by a terrible fate, and end up fighting the villains as they inspire the troubled soul to be brave and overcome their self-doubt. Then, in the end, after a long series of duels and fights, the troubled soul stands up for themselves and Luffy finishes off the villain. The transformed troubled soul then waves goodbye to the Straw-hats and they sail off to help out the next troubled soul on their quest to find the One Piece.
Eiichiro Oda, creator of One Piece, is a true master of this plot, and uses it in a wide variety of forms. One of the things he often plays with to keep the stories fresh is the nature of the troubled souls in the story. Sometimes the troubled soul is a child or teenager. Sometimes the troubled soul is a (future) member of the main crew. Sometimes the troubled soul is a rival pirate. Sometimes the troubled soul is an animal. Sometimes the troubled soul is a whole community of people instead of a single person. Sometimes the troubled soul is an organization. And sometimes the troubled soul is even a member of the villains who is actually a good person who has lost their way.
Whoever (or whatever) the troubled soul is in a One Piece story arc, they are there to be inspired by Luffy and his friends, and to face some great inner challenge that will require all of their courage to overcome, thus becoming their true self. Also, through leaving a line of people and places that have been transformed for the better behind them, the Straw-hat Pirates change the world one life at a time. (While getting into a series of cool fights with awesome superpowers.)
It should also be noted that the troubled soul’s character arc should usually reflect the theme(s) of the story. For example, in One Piece, the theme of the story is freedom and living your true life, so almost all of the troubled souls go from living in fear and doubt about their lives to being their true selves and finding freedom in being themselves. It’s only when they face their fears that they become free, and Luffy is just there to help them transform from imprisoned caterpillars to beautiful butterflies by acting as a guide and example.
Another note is that the “hero” in this plot can actually be more than one person. There are times when the troubled soul character isn’t just inspired by the leader of the cast like Luffy, but by several different members of the main cast. It might be the lead character who does the final inspiring in the climax, but before then supporting characters might be the ones the troubled soul really talks to and who help to explore the troubled soul’s problems.
Finally, while the hero in shonen stories is often a powerful fighter, that doesn’t mean this plot requires the “hero” to fit the traditional mold or even be used in a shonen story! An example of this is the manga/anime Barakamon, which is a fun slice-of-life story about a calligrapher who is stuck in his artistic progress and moves to a remote island town to get away from it all. There the calligrapher Handa (the troubled soul of the story) encounters the “hero” Naru, who is a fearless 7-year-old girl, who through her fearless approach to life inspires him to break out of his shell through a series of events.
Similarly, the slice-of-life manga series River End Café is about a teenage girl left orphaned and emotionally damaged by the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and teen bullying. The troubled soul of this story, Saki, meets the also damaged Master of a local café (the “hero” character) on the recovered land in the devastated zone who helps her to overcome her grief and find her direction in life.
So you can see, there are many ways to present this plot, and to use it as the emotional core of a story. It can be the focus where the story is at its heart about loss and recovery (where the main character is usually the troubled soul), or it can be a subplot where the focus is about action and adventure (where the main character is usually the hero). Either way, it’s a powerful and flexible plot that has become the go-to for manga creators for decades, and if you want to do a character-centered story, it can be your go-to plot as well.