Anime Archetypes - How to Create the Shounen Hero
A Reference for Aspiring Writers Inspired by Anime and Manga Who Want to Create an Original 'Hero'
In the world of Shounen, who do you think of?
When you think about heroes in the world of Shounen, you probably think of these guys: Naruto Uzumaki, Son Goku, Monkey D. Luffy, and Ichigo Kurosaki. They’re significant members of the "over-powered hero" club and are a few of the many characters who may have inspired the creation of your hero. Perhaps you’re an aspiring writer like me who wants to create a hero similar to these characters, but stands out as an original. Before we dig into what kind of unique qualities we can give our characters, let’s start with the foundational elements that create the Shounen Hero Archetype.
The Seven Foundational Elements of the Shounen Hero
Common Alignment System Position: Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic Good
1. Born With a Purpose
Whether they were born as a super saiyan or had the chakra of a nine-tailed fox sealed inside of them, the birth of a shounen hero is the most significant event of their story. It foreshadows their strengths, weaknesses, and the obstacles they must conquer before they mature to a place of achieving honor. The origin of the hero is meant to be special, but also relatable and consequential. They are born as “the chosen one,” but what happens to their life as a result?
2. They stick to their roots.
The shounen hero usually grows up to be a troublemaker or a good-hearted kid, but there’s always room for flexibility. Some heroes are raised by pure tragedy, which is a good thing because shounen heroes symbolize adversity in harsh times. Their childhood is where the personality of the hero takes shape and answers the question, “Why is he like this?!” A hero’s childhood clearly portrays how they connect with other characters. Does their personality attract or ward off others? Why?
3. Looking For Group
The hero is usually accompanied by a variety of companions. Usually, the companions help the hero view life from a different perspective or complement the hero’s flaws with their strengths. For example, if your hero is a knuckle-head ninja that seems to not know his left foot from his right, you might make his closest friend a calculated person that usually keeps his cool and constantly challenges the hero to think before he leaps. The companions could be a rival, a romantic interest, a teacher or parental figure, or a best friend/sibling figure. The shounen hero is often surrounded by a party or support group to symbolize the benefits of friendship. The companions aren’t always “secondary” characters, but their primary purpose is to enhance the growth of the hero. Consider them as either muses or future enemies. Are the hero’s companions trustworthy or traitorous?
4. The Impossible Quest
“I’m Luffy D. Monkey and I am going to be king of the pirates!”
“I’m Naruto Uzumaki! The next Hokage!”
“I am the hope of the universe.”
“All I want is a normal life.”
Get the picture? Out of all these famous quotes, one stands out because it doesn’t seem “impossible,” but for the hero, it is. The quest or ultimate goal that encourages the hero to move forward is meant to appear unlikely or impossible because of their life’s circumstances. The hero’s quest is the catalyst of the story that ultimately brings the hero a sense of honor. Will the hero achieve their goal, die trying, or accept a different fate?
5. Trials That Reveal Potential
The hero and their companions are going to have a lot of trouble ahead, but those troubles don’t exist just to create cool battle scenes. Events filled with suspense and close calls are the stepping-stones for the hero to enhance the skills they already have, confront a haunting fear, or develop a new skill as a result of enlightenment from the trial. These transformations have to be particular to the hero, but, again, must be relatable to the audience. Trials can bring out the best or the worst of your hero. Whether they fail or conquer the trial must push the boundaries of their physical, mental, emotional, and maybe even spiritual strength.
6. The Wound That Never Heals
There has to be something about the hero that separates them from everyone else. Something deep that the companions would have a hard time understanding, but the hero’s enemy would enjoy exploiting. Most shounen heroes are usually granted a power that keeps on giving, except for the one thing power can’t really change. Examples are being rid of loneliness, resurrecting a parent or parental figure (surely we’ve learned from Fullmetal Alchemist), recovering lost memories, or defeating someone or something that has the leverage to manipulate the hero. Although the author can decide whether the hero heals this wound or not, a large portion of the hero’s life is struggling with this wound. When you create your hero, decide what, when, where, why and how this wound was formed and how the hero they respond to it.
If you attach to the hero very easily in any anime or manga you enjoy, you know that this part sucks or will suck if and when it happens, especially if the impossible quest isn’t achieved the way you expect or if the wound that never heals isn’t really taken care of. When creating the hero, thinking about their death may not even seem like they’re really gone because parts of the hero will linger within the companions, other characters, and even the villains. However, that won’t get rid of the grief. That’s why the death of the hero has to be painfully memorable and beautiful at the same time. I know he’s a video game character, but Zack Fair from Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core fits the hero mold almost perfectly and his death haunts me to this day. Zack’s death pulls at the heart so strongly, it ends up stalking Cloud Strife as the story continues. The fact that a part of Zack passes on to Cloud still keeps him alive in a way, just as Angeal was alive in Zack (for the record, anyone who has played this game doesn't care how cheesy you think Zack's death scene is). A hero’s death isn’t just the end of their story, but also a new beginning for the characters the hero was connected to. What revelation or theme do you want your hero’s death to pass on?
Now that the foundation of a hero’s life has been addressed here are some “What if” suggestions to hopefully help us think out side the box when we’re trying to create characters that fit the “hero mold,” but aren’t completely generic:
- What if the hero’s gender was ambiguous? Yes, I know “Shounen” means “boy” so the story has to appeal to boys, but we’ve had female heroes that have rocked the shounen hero life before and have kept the roughness and grit that the male hero experiences. Won’t that change the genre? Perhaps, but I think about how successful Ryuko Matoi from Kill la Kill and Lara Croft from Tomb Raider are and think we could definitely use more of that whether there’s a gargantuan of fan service or not. I don’t want to get into the details of “sex appeal” for the female hero, but whether it’s there or not, as long as the story is good, it’s awesome! But you know what hasn’t been done yet? A transgender hero. I’m just saying, that could rock somebody’s world if you do it correctly.
- What if the hero started out as the villain? We’ve had characters that appear as the hero turn into the villain, like Light Yagami from Death Note, but if something so twisted caused the villain to just snap in the other direction, that would be pretty insane. Altering the definition of a hero is always a neat way to fiddle around with the morality scale (think Megamind, but anime).
- What if the hero had a personality disorder? I think the Shounen Hero usually has the ESTP/ENFP/ENFJ (these are MBTI personality types) or Sanguine-Choleric personality. This can be considered as someone who is social, loud, kind of bossy, likes to leap before thinking, and loves to roll with the punches. If we gave the hero a "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" kind of problem, could they still be the hero? Perhaps this problem is a part of the "wound that never heals" or Hyde is the "hero" and Jekyll is a companion.
The Spectrum of the Hero
Take a look at these generalized archetypes and see which one fits your hero. All archetypes listed here paraphrase Marie D. Jones, author of The Power of Archetypes (2017).
- The Chosen One/Messiah: A person who is chosen by a religious tradition, a particular culture, or perhaps a myth such as the dangerous adventure in which only he or she can succeed at.
- Desperado: Usually a male, but can be female, who is broken and alone, and often because of their own fear and avoidance of others. A desperado is running from something, perhaps a shady past, or most likely their own shadow and pain (ref. the wound that never heals).
- Creator/Magician/Leader: … Can be both like a god or creative source of the universe, or someone that creates. The visionary.
- Destroyer/Outlaw/Rebel: The opposite of a creator, someone who destroys things, whether it be other people, objects or situations. This is a destructive soul, but not necessarily evil. The lawbreaker and nonconformist within. Revolutionary and iconoclast.
- Diplomat: A peacemaker and collaborator skilled in bringing opposing ideas, viewpoints, and sides together; a mediator.
- Doppleganger: Identifies the duplicate or shadow/evil part of the personality (ref. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
- Explorer: The wanderer within and the pilgrim on pilgrimage; wants to seek out a quest or adventure.
- Fool/Pupil/Initiate: The fool is confused and often wandering aimlessly without direction. The student or learner.
- Free Spirit: … doesn’t like rules and is uninhibited; does not like to be constricted in any way.
- Geek/Nerd/Genius/Misfit/Loner/Orphan: Different, may be isolated…proud when with like-minded souls. Abandoned from within… must “go it alone.”
- Survivor/Warrior: The part of the self or collective that survives trauma, obstacles, and challenges.
Would you like me to break down another archetype in anime? Find me on Twitter under @Authentikei and tell me!