What is more important, characters or plot? This whole “characters vs plot” debate is one I see crop up from time to time. While arguably the “correct” answer is both are important, I think I have a more nuanced opinion on it. After some experiences with the current anime season and much thought, I put forth that the characters are more important.
How the fuck did I come up with that answer, you ask? Well, let me answer your question with a few of my own: do you like slice of life anime? Do you watch sports anime? Do read manga and novels with a similar premise? If you said yes to any of these, what is it that keeps you invested? Uh huh, that’s what I thought. Let’s explore this a bit.
Same Old, Same Old…
Now, I’ve stated the importance of characters for a long time, but it wasn’t until watching Tensei Kenja no Isekai Life that their importance really dawned on me. If you haven’t watched it, it’s a pretty generic isekai (despite being a fan of the genre, all I can say is “what else is new?”). I figured it’d be nothing special, as I’ve read enough of the manga to have an idea of what to expect, but it’s way more dry than I anticipated.
I wrestled with why this was for a while before it hit me. Sure, the main character is paper thin, but that isn’t too unusual for an isekai. The real issue was the lack of side characters to fill that void. Most series that have this empty lead character are filled with varied and fun side characters. They give the audience someone to latch on to. They have backstories of their own, and you end up rooting for them.
Tensai Kenja no Isekai Life is completely lacking this. Up to the point I read or watched, there hasn’t really been any consistent side characters. Aside from the hero’s slime army, which can be fun but are largely faceless and nameless shells of characters, and proud wolf, who is frankly kind of dull, we don’t really have anyone. You could make a claim for dryad, but she isn’t really with the hero as much as she shows up occasionally.
It Transcends Genre
As I thought about this problem more, I realized the importance of characters extended beyond examples like this. Take slice of life anime. There’s not really a “plot” per se. It’s kind of just characters living their daily life (albeit usually with more comedy than most of us seem to have day to day). On paper, this should be kind of boring, but it’s a well-established and enjoyable genre. So, what gives?
I propose that it’s the strength of the cast of characters that really makes a slice of life anime stand out from the rest. Yes, character designs (often moe designs, my personal favorite if you couldn’t guess) help with this a lot, but their personalities play a big role in this too. The characters in K-On! are prime examples. The cast has a diverse set of personalities to pair with their very moe designs. As an aside, I’m a big fan of Mio and Azusa. Must be the black hair…
The same can be said for sports anime. While not my preferred genre, I’ve watched enough of them over the years to comment. The sports aspect of the show is basically there to give a challenge to overcome. It’s exciting watching them grow and finally win.
Indulge me for a moment and imagine this. Take your favorite sports anime and remove the characters. Replace them with a bunch of no-name characters. Do you still care? If you get a training montage instead of full episodes of them working to improve themselves, do you get the same satisfaction of them overcoming the challenge? I’ll hazard a guess and say that it’s not the same.
The fact is, characters are immensely important to a story. As humans, we connect with a story through its characters, as they are inherently relatable. It’s not easy to care about a story if there’s nothing gained or lost on a personal level, nothing for us to care for.
Getting to know characters as individuals is what makes you care about the story. There are some amazing plots out there, but often they’re made even better by the characters. Death Note is a fantastic example. The plot is great, but if you replaced Light or L (heh, if you know, you know) with the cardboard-cut-out characters from Tensei Kenja no Isekai Life, the series wouldn’t be nearly as noteworthy as it is.
And this is why I stand by my statement that the characters are the most important part of a story. You can have a story with a rehashed plot, or even NO plot, and still have an enjoyable tale. Following characters through their trials and tribulations, growing with them as they grow, taking every step of their journey alongside them is what makes for a great and memorable story.
Okay, I think that’s all my thoughts on this subject. I’m sure there’s more stuff, but it’s hard to remember all of my insane ramblings when I finally sit down to write. Let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter and we can discuss. It’s a fun topic, and I’d love to chat with you about it. Catch you in the next one.