Last week, we went over romantic subplots, the commonly found elements in them, and how they work to shape the story–for good and bad. And with most of the more prominent elements of romance stories out of the way, We’ll be moving on to what it takes to make romantic subplots truly satisfying for fans.
Of course, once more, there are pretty massive spoilers ahead; consider yourself warned!
This bears repeating. Giving closure is crucial for a romantic subplot to be considered successful. People followed a romance building between a character and one or more potential love interests, and by god, they want to see something happen! They want to see a happy ending. That’s what keeps most people drawn to the story, and that’s an abundant source of shipping fuel. Most harem stories that end in a “Maybe ever after” are good news for the shippers and fanfic writers because they get more material to work with from the source, but that normally isn’t a good ending from a plot-wise point of view in cases where the romance was actually the main point, or an important point, in the series.
Rosario + Vampire saw Tsukune and Moka ending together. Sword Art Online had Kirito and Asuna’s story having a proper, heartwarming conclusion. Others, however, fall flat. Such a case is the anime adaptation of Mayo Chiki! and its development of the relationship between Subaru, a butler that’s actually a girl dressed as a boy and Kinjirou, a boy who suffers from gynophobia. After the whole anime kept developing their relationship to the point they kiss in the 12th episode, the last episode pulls an End of Evangelion on us, and the focus is on another character entirely. Namely, Nakuru Narumi. And nothing on the 12th episode ever gets mentioned, so we might as well consider their kiss a big lipped alligator moment.
Avoid Dragging the Romance Out
Some romances come up short for the sole reason that they’re dragged out to the point the audience starts losing interest. Hell, Nisekoi went the extra mile: Over the plot’s course, the characters themselves aren’t that interested in the main plot (about Raku’s promise, the keys, and who was, in fact, the girl he made a promise with) anymore on the rare occasions it’s brought up. It’s very easy to forget about the subplot with Raku’s pendant and the promise he made, partly due to its slow pacing, and partly because its often sidelined in favour of chapters focusing on the characters’ daily lives and adventures. That isn’t a bad thing, though, as these chapters, which are the most present kind in Nisekoi, are actually quite enjoyable, giving good development to all characters’ personal stories and relationships with other characters. But at this point, you might wonder why anyone ever highlighted Raku’s pendant and the story behind it as a major plot point at all.
Dragging is understandable as a means to keep the audience drawn in, but the major issue with this connects to the first point. If the romance is dragged on to draw the audience in, but it isn’t given decent closure, the ending has a high risk of flopping, as was the case with Oreimo.
Inuyasha also suffered from this. It’s basically over 200 episodes of teasing the audience on whether or not Kagome and Inuyasha would end up together, with some rather pointless love triangle conflict along the way with Kouga and Kikyo. And they stay not-quite-official until the last second, after the anime makes a huge deal about their relationship. That’s made even more jarring when you consider that the other relationship the series focused on, Miroku and Sango, was executed much better and given a proper closure.
This only goes for subplots, however. If the romance is actually the main point and focus of the plot, then it’s more understandable for it to have a slower progression.
Don’t Overtake the Main Plot Without 100% Commitment
A common criticism of Sword Art Online is that the romance subplot between Kirito and Asuna takes a good deal of the main plot and that the setting of Aincrad isn’t fully explored. I like to think the romance was an enjoyable point (particularly because in many ways, my fiancée and I relate to Kirito and Asuna, as a couple fighting to be together for real) that actually works in the plot’s favour, making them develop as individuals and giving them a reason beyond return to their normal lives to fight for their survival and freedom, giving the story more emotional weight. They want to meet in real life and start a life together.
But the criticisms actually highlight a good point. Sometimes, romantic subplots overshine the main plot or at least, a character’s individual personality, detracting from the main plot. Such a case was the love triangle between Negi, Nodoka and Yue in Mahou Sensei Negima!, where Yue plays matchmaker for Nodoka and Negi and eventually has a crush on Negi herself. After the secret’s out and Nodoka convinces Yue everything is ok, until the last arc, Yue’s character’s been all about other people urging her to confess to Negi, and everything else her character is about is sidelined in favor of this running gag that stops being, “Oh, this is pretty funny!” and more, “This again? Seriously?”
The issue here is just about giving the romance focus, but not in a way that the main plot is forgotten or overshadowed, or a character’s romantic feelings overshadow his/her individual identity. The characters need to be human, not plot devices.
Avoid Overusing Elements
The reason all the elements mentioned in last week’s article draw criticisms, especially when it comes to the dense lead, misunderstanding and jumping to conclusions, and tsundere characters, is because their quirks can be too overused, and so they get boring and repetitive quickly. Let’s have a look at how some elements get overused.
- Dense Male Lead: He stays dense for most of the show’s run and never gets any better. It happens with Ichika in Infinite Stratos and Natsuru in Kampfer.
- Tsundere: Her quirk might be constantly repeated for comedy (or at least, an attempt at comedy), the writers might put too much emphasis on the harsher side and not enough on the sweeter inside, the “beating up over misunderstandings” routine could be used too often, or there might be nothing much to her character aside from the tsundere quirks.
Examples include Louise from Zero no Tsukaima and Naru and Mokoto in Love Hina. The crossover fanfic “Love Hina Double Trouble” actually plays with that by having the police immediately suspect Naru and Mokoto when a bona-fide pervert is found murdered near the inn they live in and by having a wanted murderer give them this speech:
“Don’t you two get it? You two are the monsters, not me! You two attack people just for gesturing at you wrong! I know! I’ve done my research into you two bitches! Parents tell their kids to stay away from people like you! You two are ten times scarier than I could ever be!”
- Misunderstandings/Conclusion Jumping: It’s pretty unrealistic when every single thing a given character does is interpreted in the worst possible way. This is pretty much what Haru Onodera in Nisekoi was about before she got better. This also happens for a good portion of the first half of Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaou, where the main character that was prophesied to be the next Demon King always has every good deed he does interpreted the worst way possible.
Too much of one thing is rarely, if ever, good. Moderation is key here.
If you decide on one pairing to focus on, stay with that pairing until the end or, if you want to focus to another pairing, at least give the former pairing proper closure before shifting to the other one. Ichigo 100% worked this out somewhat well: The main character was dating one of the main heroines early on, but they broke up and stayed that way for most of the series so the other potential routes could be explored more.
But Ichiban Ushiro no Daimaou, at least in the anime adaptation, executed this poorly. The main character, Akuto Sai, realizes he loves Keena Soga, the girl that was friendly to him from the beginning despite everyone in the school being out for his blood, only for the last four episodes to suddenly shift to tsundere love interest Junko Hattori, the series’ gold medalist of Conclusion Jumping. In anime adaptations’ case, the writers should always take the number of episodes into consideration so the source material can be properly adapted into a given number.
This final element goes for any kind of story, really, but it’s important nonetheless. Infinite Stratos‘ popularity owes largely to the diverse cast, each with their own unique personalities, backstories and quirks. Well-developed characters are key factors in keeping the audience drawn to a work. Even if a character doesn’t have that much going on initially, the first instances of character development he or she gets catch the audience’s interest and keep them raring for more. Fans want to see more about the characters, their journey, and their story, no matter how small their role.
In Infinite Stratos, Charlotte, the nicest girl of Ichika’s harem, is the most popular girl in the fandom by a large margin, with Laura very closely coming in second largely due to her eccentric character and her interactions with Charlotte. Their unique traits stand out in comparison to the other girls in Ichika’s harem that come behind the duo, largely because all three of them are the tsundere archetype. Many fans argue that it would be a refreshing change for a harem hero to end up with a sweeter and kinder girl rather than yet another violent, domineering, emotionally indecisive tsundere character, which is pretty much every other girl in the harem, at least in the beginning. But even as the other girls change with time, Charlotte and Laura’s place at the top remains untouched.
If a character has something special, unique about him or her, you can be sure to see a fanbase grow for said character in a short time. This is the case where secondary or minor characters become the most popular ones, like Kurumi Tokisaki from Date A Live. She isn’t quite a prominent character, but one look at any dedicated community page or forum relating to the series shows Kurumi has quite the following to the point that she’s the character paired most often with the protagonist in the fandom, with only Miku Izayoi being a close contender.
And with all the “Dos” and “Don’ts” addressed, what do you all think an anime or manga romance should have? What works and what doesn’t? Leave your answer in the comments!
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