Plot Twists, Character Designs, and Worldbuilding: Writing in Anime (and Other Media)

One of my favorite video game-centric YouTube channels, Extra Credits, recently put out a video about “The Three Pillars of Game Writing – Plot, Character, Lore“. I definitely recommend watching this video, especially if you love video games. It explains how “video game writing” is actually split into three “pillars”: plot, character, and lore or worldbuilding. It then explains what goes into each of those pillars, and how video games in particular can execute on each pillar.

The thing is, these three pillars can apply pretty much to every single form of fictional media, including otaku-centric media like anime, manga, and light novels. So in this post, I will take a closer look at each pillar and how they apply to anime in particular (though again, they can apply to pretty much every work of fiction). Note that most stories feature elements of all three pillars, but will tend to focus on one or two of them.

Plot: Tell Me A Story

According to the Extra Credits video, plot-centric writing should either:

  • be something unique and not seen before
  • have some kind of “twist”
  • have a message to convey

There may be other ways to deliver a plot-centric story, but for now we can focus on these methods.

A good example of a plot-driven anime is Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which uses twists on the usual magical girl formula to create an engrossing story that quickly became popular. (It also arguably presents various messages, including something similar to the Gospel message, though then you have the movie…) My favorite plot-centric anime is probably Humanity Has Declined, which is definitely very unique, full of small twists, and even uses satire to present messages now and then.

Reanimated grocery store chicken? They (and the viewers) never saw it coming!

One type of story you might not think of as plot-centric is comedy. If you think of humor as a result of twists on our expectations of the flow of events, then writing humor involves crafting multiple of these small (and sometimes not-so-small) twists throughout a story. So something like Gamers! (used as the featured image), which uses the continual escalation of misunderstandings to create comedy (as well as the build-up to one big, comedic twist), can very much be described as plot-centric. Even something like Nichijou, which has no overarching plot line, can be considered as “plot-driven” in this way; it just uses multiple small plots rather than one large one.

Characters: Make Me Fall In Love

I already wrote a big post on characters. In that post, I talk about how we come to love characters for how they are likable, interesting, relatable, or some combination of the three. While good characters benefit pretty much any story, character-driven writing puts extra effort into what goes into the characters. They put great focus on character development arcs and relational developments. They take time to show characters in more mundane, non-plot-driving situations, just to further characterize them. Even the character designs themselves are given extra attention in order to make the characters as detailed as possible. While these stories can certainly have the plot-based elements mentioned above, even if they have very simple plots, they can still be engaging because the audience attaches themselves to the characters. The plot itself can be one that has been done numerous times, but the audience does not mind as much because their interest is not in the uniqueness of the plotline, but on how their beloved characters in particular will deal with that situation.

I can list off character-centric anime for days, but one such anime I would like to highlight is Anohana. This critically-acclaimed series shows the difference between character-centric and plot-centric writing, and how strong character writing can form the foundation of a story in lieu of plotting. If you think about it, Anohana does not really have a notable plot. Its plot is not particularly unique; stories about old friends reconciling or coming to terms with death are common, and even the whole “meeting the ghost of someone who died” storyline has been done plenty of times. There is no major twist in this “reconciliation and grieving” storyline, and it does not have a particular message to say. Despite all of this, Anohana is a beloved anime because the characters are so well-written. Their individual personalities, their relationships with the other characters, and their own history and feelings about Menma’s death are all brought out and integrated into the story, and it is very easy to get caught up in their development.

Of course, you do not have to have detailed, relatable character arcs to have a character-centric story. A story can instead focus on making interesting characters that interact with each other and the world in amusing ways. (While characters being likable are often great for character-centric stories, a character that is only likable and not interesting or relatable usually does not work in such stories except as side characters.)

Worldbuilding: Take Me To Another World

Lore, or worldbuilding, is everything that goes into developing the setting of the story. Everything from histories, cultures, world maps, magical systems, and even background art and more goes into building this pillar. This is a key element in fantasy, science fiction, and also historical fiction, but even a series taking place in a “normal Earth” setting can use worldbuilding to establish things like the culture of a school or town.

Of course, it is one thing for a story to require some worldbuilding by nature of its genre, and another thing to put the extra effort to focus on it to make a world seem alive. “Favorite anime worlds” could very well be worth an entire post on its own, but I would be remiss to not mention my favorite anime of all time, ARIA the Animation and its sequels, and its wonderful Venice-inspired world of Neo Venezia. Plenty of episodes explore everything from the work of Undines and the companies that employ them, to places in the city, other important jobs in a terraformed-Mars environment, the mysterious Cait Sith, and more.

Everything in Balance

As I mentioned, most stories will have at least some elements of all three of the above pillars. Where stories can differ is which pillar(s) they focus on, and which pillar(s) they only provide the bare minimum for. This is particularly important for anime since a given anime series is greenlit only for a certain number of episodes and a certain length of time per episode, so there is only a limited amount of screen time to present whatever writing the story has. The only anime series that can really afford to spend time on building all three pillars are ones that run for a very long time; a series that only gets 12 or even 26 episodes almost certainly has to focus on one or maybe two pillars or its story feels too thin. Even longer series may want to focus on one or two pillars in order to give its audience a more focused experience.

ARIA does provide some plot moments in the last season, but that’s only after building a strong character and worldbuilding base in its first 36+ episodes.

If a work does not really need worldbuilding, then there is no real need to spend time explaining small details about the world. If plot is not a focus, writing should not focus on creating unique stories or crazy twists. And if the characters are just there to progress the story or to fill out the world, writing extensive backstories for them might not be the best idea. (And while over-moefication of characters is arguably a problem for any story, non-character-driven stories in particular probably should avoid forcing moe tropes on their characters.) This idea of choosing which pillar to focus on becomes even more important for anime that are adaptations of longer works. A long-running manga or light novel or an expansive visual novel may have more room for exploring multiple pillars that a 12-episode anime does not have time for; a good adaptation must realize which pillars are key to the work being adapted and focus on those, carefully choosing material to exclude in the process.

Finding Meaning

While plot-focused stories can particularly choose to broadcast some message through its plot, that does not mean character- or worldbuilding-focused stories cannot have some meaning in them. Worldbuilding can be used to set up a world in such a way as to explore certain aspects of our own world. By creating cultures, religions, government systems, and the like that mirror those in our own world to varying extents, stories can explore the impact, benefits, and dangers of those parts of our world. Characters, likewise, can mirror all sorts of aspects of the human condition, both good and bad.

Relevant to this site, one can also find reflections of Christianity beneath the tangles (cough) of each writing pillar, whether it be a plotline similar to a Biblical story, a character with similarities to a Biblical character, or a world built upon–or in contrast to–certain Biblical principles. One does not have to stick to stories focused on one particular pillar for this sort of content, and it means we blog writers have a nice variety of angles to approach Christian reflections in anime, which I definitely appreciate.

Wonderful Stories

Writing is not the only part of anime; an anime can have bad writing but still be appreciated for its visuals (animation, character designs), sound direction (soundtrack, voice acting), or whatever other aspects catch your attention. Nevertheless, when discussing anime (and other media), writing is oftentimes the one aspect that drives the most discussion and criticism. I hope that, in talking about these different pillars of writing, we can see anime writing not as a singular art, but as something that can be taken in different directions, and that we can evaluate any given anime’s writing by how well it fulfills the pillar(s) it chooses to focus on, rather than criticize it for pillars it is better off ignoring in the first place.

Anyone who complains that AnoHana has too little worldbuilding probably needs to re-evaluate their anime viewing choices.

Perhaps more importantly, I hope this piece helps you understand which kind of stories you prefer in your anime and other fictional media. Do you like plot-heavy stories that take you through twists and turns and perhaps throw a message in there? Do you like to have characters that you get attached to? Do you like to get immersed in detailed fictional worlds? I know that my preferences lean towards character-driven stories, though I also really like good worldbuilding. On the other hand, while I do not dislike plot-driven stories, I tend to not care as much for those, hence why I gravitate towards slice-of-life anime with maybe a light fantasy on the side. Your preferences may differ, and by understanding those preferences you can better understand what anime you might like, as well as why you might dislike an anime when it spends too much time on a pillar you do not care as much about. And, as I mentioned, this does not apply just to anime, but also all forms of fiction.

So which pillar of writing do you like? Let me know in the comments along with your favorite examples of good writing in anime!


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