If you have known me on the internet for more than 0.05 milliseconds, you may be aware that I am a huge fan of the Pretty Cure franchise, also known as PreCure because real words and proper capitalizing are for losers.
While I could spend the next seven articles plus a spin-off book detailing the how’s and why’s of my love for the franchise, one of the main reasons is the fact that PreCure is surprisingly good when it comes to character writing; unlike its brother franchises, Super Sentai and Kamen Rider, PreCure tends to rely more on moving side merchandise besides the usual role playing toys and ridiculously expensive figures, and this usually entails making character based products like pencils, stickers and a billion music CD’s. Simply put, for PreCure it is more of a priority to make good, lovable and fluffy characters so they can sell merchandise based on them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the PreCure franchise is a master piece of character writing (I will take back those words in approximately five sentences), this is after all a show aimed at children, but it can actually be argued, mostly by me and another four people I know on twitter, that PreCure has a habit of pushing the envelope in ways most anime won’t, and in spite of its simplicity, or maybe because of it, it gets certain things right about writing that bigger, more popular franchises often get wrong.
Which brings me to Yes! Pretty Cure 5, for all intents and purposes one of the best character driven shows I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
What makes this show so special you ask?
Well, after three seasons of doing the two-person formula, the producers of the then-young franchise decided to rework the format of the show, which in Toei-speak means “making a Super Sentai season”, and in the process created one of the most memorable character ensemble pieces in the history of the company.
I know this sounds like the exaggerated ramblings of a fanboy, mostly because that’s exactly what they are, but for all its simplicity and budget restraints, YPC5 nailed the nuances of character writing so well that more than 10 years later I still hold it as the benchmark for character writing; be it live-action or animation, whenever I dig into the flaws of a particular character, I can usually point towards YPC5 and say ‘This is how you do it.’
Because of this, and because my love for this season of PreCure is inversely proportional to my free time, I decided to write this educational piece: a five point guide on how good character writing works and how not to do it, because pragmatism.
*Disclaimer: While I go into great depths during my character ramblings, I actually have no formal studies on the subject of writing, or using a keyboard for that matter, so all of my arguments are based on my direct observations and biased analyses after watching enough PreCure to kill a horse. Also, I don’t know what pragmatism means.
- Character traits, it’s all about buts.
I know this is a very basic thing, but you gotta starts somewhere and I cannot stress enough how important this first step is: to write a good character, you must define its basic traits as a person and/or sentient bike.
A character can be brave, cowardly, calm, aggressive, passionate or aloof. Traits like those define the personality of a character, and before you ask, no, a catchphrase is not a replacement for a personality.
It is very important to remember that, much like a real person, a character needs to have more than one defining trait, not only to make them interesting but also so you can actually tell them apart from the other characters. An important thing when you have a cast with more than one of those.
There is a point to be made about how the main characters of YPC5 are all based on basic archetypes, which is absolutely true once you consider the extensive Super Sentai influences this show has, but the beauty of having simple characters is that it’s quite easy to make them unique. Also, it is very important to note that just because a character is simple it doesn’t mean that it is bad; the trick to writing a good character is not to give them too many traits in order to make them complex, but to have traits that complement or balance each other.
This brings me to what I’ve taken the liberty of calling the “Rule of buts.”
If you are the kind of person that spends a decent amount of time on the internet, an internet-monger if you will, you probably know the basic character test: if you want to know if a character is well written or is merely a shell of tropes shaped by the writer’s own perversion (or the plot), all you need to do is describe him/her/it without mentioning any physical quality or its role in the story.
My Rule of Buts (*giggles*) is a simple expansion of this: by simply analyzing the sentence structure of a character description, not only you can tell if it is an actual character, but you can also gauge how well it’s written. All you have to do is look at the adjectives used, whether they are positive or negative, how they relate to each other and most importantly, you must look at the use of the BUT.
There is no better way to explain it than by using shadow puppets, but since I don’t have mine at hand let’s illustrate it using a couple of characters from the YPC5 cast:
Yumehara Nozomi/Cure Dream is idealistic, earnest, clumsy and not particularly bright, but she is extremely driven and surprisingly strong-willed.
For a healthier example, Akimoto Komachi/Cure Mint is a passive, shy girl who is always supportive of others and always tries to see the best in them, but whose wrath can topple the gods.
As you can see, the BUT not only makes those sentences extra cute, but it also creates contrast between the previous sentences, adding complexity to the description, and by extension, the character.
This is grammar at its most basic, BUT if all characters start in a written form, regardless of medium, it makes sense that something as simple as grammar structure can go a long way into establishing a good character. Using several traits to construct a character by describing its qualities and flaws, BUT making sure to create contrast between the ideas is a good way to create depth, even within the simplest of characters.
Of course, this rule won’t apply to every single case, there are after all many valid ways to handle character writing, but whether you’re creating your own character or deconstructing an existing one, this is a very good way to start.
How not to do it.
With 14 seasons and counting, it should come as no surprise that PreCure has an obscene amount of characters, and as such it is not hard to find counter examples to these points. In this particular case there is no better example than… oh no.
I am sorry.
Ommori Yuuko, also known as Cure Honey of the World, can best be described as a kind and cheerful girl.
And that’s about it; her entire personality, character growth, story arc and social security number can be summarized with those two words alone. Don’t take me wrong, I love Cure Honey, she’s super charming and fun, but if you can summarize a main character using only two words, then you probably didn’t have much of a character to begin with.
The worst thing about Cure Honey (it hurt to type that) is not that she barely has a personality, but the fact that she is redundant; Cure Lovely, one of the two main characters of the show, has the exact same personality traits and more, so when looking at the whole cast there really is no need for Yuuko to be there. Remember, when you have a small cast, characters are the opposite of data backups: the last thing you need is redundancy.
It might sound harsh, but while Cure Honey is a fun character to have around, she has so little personality that even when the show is focused on her it never ends up being actually ABOUT her.
In the end, all she’s good for is being cute and feeding Megumi Han.
- Backstory and caped crusaders.
So, you have a character with a personality. That’s pretty much half of the battle, right?
Oh dear lord, no.
Much like in a real date, a personality will only ensure that people will like you, but it won’t make them care about you. That’s when the backstory comes in.
A backstory is, basically, the events that occurred on the life of a character before the current point in time. It serves two primary purposes: establishing the motives of a character and giving them a proper identity. Its job is basically to answer the questions “Who are they?” and “What do they want?”
All that said, the most important thing about a backstory is that it creates a character logic, ensuring that all the actions a character takes within the story make sense and are not simply driven by the plot just because.
For a completely imaginary example, suppose you have a random kid. He comes from a rich family and is as happy as a rich kid can be, which is a lot. Now suppose that, on a fateful night, his parents get murdered in front of him on a back alley by a desperate mugger.
With that kind of backstory, if I told you that the kid grew up to be a vigilante that hunts down criminals in an effort to ensure no one has to go through the same suffering he did, your first reaction would be “oh, that makes sense.”
One of the biggest problems bad stories have is that sometimes, when a character makes an important choice, it is pretty obvious that they are only acting that way because the plot needs to move forward, essentially turning them into plot devices. A solid backstory is a good way to counter this by establishing a character’s motivation to act in a specific way.
There are many ways to handle a backstory; you can do the traditional info dump on a single episode, you can spread it out throughout the main story or you can keep it hidden until the right moment for an epic, dramatic reveal.
As far as YPC5 goes, the way they did it is probably my favorite take: while most characters did had an introductory episode, those rarely explained anything specific about the character; in most cases their actual backstory was slowly seeded using random scenes in any given episode, slowly adding to it without delving too deep, and most of this was done during the first 20 episodes of the show.
Because I simply cannot conceive a better example for literally anything, let’s take a look at how the backstory of the main protagonist, Yumehara Nozomi, was dealt with:
In the first episode of the show we only learn that Nozomi is a girl who goes to an all-girls school and does girly things, usually with her best friend Rin.
Then, in the next episode we casually learn that she’s a single daughter and that her father is a picture book author. And a few episodes later still, we also learn that her mother runs a beauty salon and she’s also friends with Rin’s mom.
It seems pretty standard, but then in one episode we discover that Nozomi is quite adept at drawing, and you think ‘oh, that kind of makes sense, being a picture book author’s daughter and all.’, and slowly all the pieces start to fit together; since Nozomi’s mom is friends with Rin’s mom, it makes sense that they are childhood friends, and since Nozomi is an only daughter it makes sense that Rin acts as an older sister for her.
That is what I find brilliant about YPC5’s use of backstory; it is dealt in a completely organic way where it doesn’t overly explain things to the audience, but instead it gives them enough info so that they can figure it out by themselves. This approach certainly takes its time and it does gives priority to some characters over others, but it succeeds in slowly telling you who these girls are and where they come from without resorting to exposition too often.
Understanding a character’s backstory is crucial, but how you present it can be just as important; backstory gives insight into the thinking of a character, their “logic”, but resorting to cheap tactics like doing an on camera exposition dump or having a narrator explain how they feel cheapens the effect and makes the characters feel less interesting.
Most importantly, by understanding where the character comes from, you can understand them as individuals, relate to them, and maybe even like them. It might sound obvious, but if you like a character, you care about what happens to them, and that is the key to make any story engaging.
Personally, I think that the YPC5’s approach was quite successful at this, even if it was a bit of a slow burn; the first 20 episodes are mostly about establishing characters and backstories so nothing much happens in them, but the end result made it worth it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that all other approaches to character backstory are bad.
They are just inferior.
How not to do it.
If we are talking about character backstories that are a complete wreck, few compare to the writing equivalent of a train collision that is Cure Sword’s origin story, but since I don’t want to go too deep into that mess (again), I will instead talk about the very unusual case of Cure Rosetta.
Yotsuba Alice AKA Cure Rosetta has an amazing backstory; when she was but a child, her grandfather taught her ALL of the martial arts. She then used her skills to defend her friends from bullies, but after wiping the floor with them and realizing what she had done, she decided to abandon the way of the warrior in fear of her own power.
Oh wait, but that’s not all: eventually we learn that, even though she’s the heiress to the World’s (AKA Japan) largest conglomerate, her dream is to run a flower shop…
…and 10 episodes later we learn that back when she was a child, Alice had a weak constitution and was always getting sick, causing her to get sheltered by her parents until she became healthier thanks to the power of friendship.
I am sure you can see the problem here, but since I am not one to bother with nuances I will just spell it out: Yotsuba Alice didn’t really had a concrete backstory, and while two of the ones we got were kind of awesome, they really weren’t consistent with each other, let alone her character.
Remember, the entire point of a backstory is to define a character’s identity, purpose and logic, and while having no backstory is bad, having an inconsistent backstory that does little to actually define a character can be worst: if a backstory only exists to serve the specific plot of an episode but it doesn’t to further expand the audience understanding of a character, then you really have to ask if there was a point to it to begin with.
But hey, at least they didn’t do something stupid like, I don’t know, randomly revealing that our evil-fighting protagonist with an aloof attitude and a penchant for donuts used to be a soccer player, 40 episodes into the show.
- Character dynamics and shopping.
Question: what is the best way to get to know a person?
If you answered anything other than “talking to them”, then you probably need to get out more.
Either way, this simple principle stands true for fictional characters; you can have a great character, but if there’s no one around for them to talk with, then there’re not a lot of ways to know how good they actually are. Think about it this way, if a character is being cool, smart, witty and sexy in the middle of a forest with no one around, is it really a cool, smart, witty and sexy character?
You can have a character with a great personality and give them three novellas worth of sheer backstory, but if the audience doesn’t get to know him/her, then there is no point to their existence. That’s where character dynamics come in.
A character dynamic refers to the specific interactions between two or more characters, which can be pretty much anything; from talking to just goofing around or basically any activity they can do together.
Having a character interact with other characters is a very good way of learning things about them, especially because, when you have a cast of characters with a wide array of personalities, you can see different sides of them by having them interact with each other.
Because I love overcomplicating even the simplest of principles, I have taken the liberty of classifying character dynamics into two neat categories: Group character Dynamics and Individual character dynamics.
Group dynamics are the most common since, when you have a group of characters with different personalities, they inevitable start falling into specific roles, like the leader, the childish one, the responsible one and everyone’s favorite, the smartass.
Individual character dynamics, on the other hand, are the interactions that occur between two characters when they are separated from the main cast. These are usually the most interesting, but depending on the type of show they can be rare since a lot of times it is easier to just fall back into the group dynamics, and even when you do get them it usually devolves into shipping.
Having two types of character dynamics might seem redundant, but I find this distinction to be very important since, depending on the type of relationship (or lack of thereof) between two characters, they sometimes display different aspects of their personality that we don’t usually see in a group setting.
It should not surprise you by now, but given how YPC5 was built upon the Sentai template and the fact that the three previous PreCure series were an exercise on how far can you take the relationship between two girls without making it explicitly gay, this season was exceedingly good at handling both types of character dynamics.
When the five of them were together, everyone had their own role within the group; Nozomi was the easy going leader always running head first into things, Rin was the lieutenant making sure she didn’t get herself or someone else killed, Urara was more than happy to play second fiddle, Karen was one making sure they abide by the rules and Komachi was the kind mother figure with slight sadistic tendencies.
That was fun and all, but it was when they were broken into pairs that you started to see the more interesting aspects of their characters: when Nozomi was with Urara, she usually tried to be more responsible, as a senior would; when Komachi was with Karen, she was more likely to express her worries; and when Rin and Karen interacted in any way, they turned into children.
While studying character dynamics within a show is very fun and all, you must be quite careful not to confuse a character dynamic with a character trait. For example, if character A is kind to character B, that could be the nature of their dynamic or it might just be that character A is naturally kind to everyone.
That is why me and a team of character scientists devised a test to identify characters dynamics and how well they are implemented. We have called it: The Shopping cart test.
The way it works is quite simple:
Take two or more characters and imagine them in a situation where they need to shop for groceries on their own from a specific list of items. Using these parameters and in accordance to character writing rules that I may have just made up, the strength of their character dynamic will be inversely proportional to how efficient they are at buying everything without getting sidetracked.
In other words, the more the characters interact with each other, be it bickering, fooling around or maybe just talking, instead of actually shopping, the better their dynamic will be.
You can probably see where I am going with this, but YPC5 not only aced this test, it also invented it; there is an amazing scene in episode 25 where this exact scenario occurs, and in the span of two minutes they manage to portray every single character dynamic between the characters, individually and in group.
Character dynamics are not only important because they help you discovers aspects of the characters that you wouldn’t see otherwise, but also because, much like a circus monkey, characters with strong characters dynamic are entertaining to watch.
It might be a bold statement, but being entertained is pretty much the main reason why I watch so many children’s shows.
How not to do it.
Given how “teamwork” and “friendship” were two of the pillars this franchise was built upon (the others one being “punching” and “kicking”), PreCure has rarely, if ever, had trouble portraying group character dynamics.
Individual character dynamics though, are a whole other story, and I can’t think of a better example than HeartCatch PreCure.
Before you start picking up pitchforks and throwing bulls to my glass houses, let me say that I do think that HeartCatch PreCure is a great show that found a perfect balance between being a fun, lighthearted show for little girls and being a hot-blooded, heart-wrenching drama also for little girls.
That said, there is one specific instance where the show totally dropped the individual character dynamics ball; while some of the characters are a literal how-to guide on building a good character dynamic, for reasons I cannot explain the characters of Cure Sunshine and Cure Moonlight have such a poorly developed dynamic that it barely exists at all.
Again, this show actually shines because of how well it handles its characters, but that is precisely why this particular case stands out so much; the group dynamic is flawless and all the character are really well done, both in terms of writing and execution, so the void of a relationship these two share stands as the exception in an otherwise flawlessly executed cast.
That is not necessarily a bad thing, not everyone has to regularly interact with everyone else, but when you have characters as good as these two, it does feel like a missed opportunity.
- Pacing, rhythm and the night he came home.
Pacing is a lot like the weather: it’s everywhere, it’s the first thing people complain about, and yet almost no one understands how it really works.
Pacing is essentially the speed at which a plot develops, the rhythm at which events transpire to keep the story moving forward.
Please note that I said ‘speed’ and not ‘time’; a story can take a million, billion years to develop, or just five minutes. The important thing is that the audience who is watching the story must perceive that the plot that they are investing their time in is actually moving, for the moment they think that nothing is happening is the moment when they lose interest in it.
Now, I could go on a really informative and complex explanation about how to use pacing effectively within a story, but since serious and useful analysis are not really my style, instead I am going to illustrate it using the ultimate narrative tool: John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Among the many genres of storytelling, few rely on pacing to create a strong narrative like horror; slowing down the pace of a scene can be used to create tension, and accelerating it can create a sense of urgency. The opening scene of Halloween (1978) it’s basically a text book example of this:
The scenes opens with a POV of a mystery figure stalking a house, a slow and deliberate sequence where almost nothing happens for three minutes. Then, as the assailant kills the first victim of the movie, the rhythm increases in a frantic way and it doesn’t stop until the killer leaves the house.
At this point, we finally see his true identity (a kid) and the pace stops almost to a halt, letting the shot linger so we can process the events that just happened.
At this point you are probably wondering what the hell does a 1978 horror master piece has to do with a 2007 Magical Girl show, which in all fairness is a very good question and I do hope I can come up with a good answer by the next paragraph.
Oh wait, I think I got it.
Yes! Pretty Cure 5 is a show built around character arcs, and character arcs are essentially self-contained stories interwoven with a larger narrative, so it is natural that they have their own pacing as well; how long we spend on a character’s storyline, how often we focus on it and how fast it develops will ultimately affect our perception of a them.
In that regard, YPC5 remains one of the best examples I’ve seen on how to implement multiple character arcs on a yearlong show; by my count, there’s at least nine fully developed character arcs in here, which is particularly impressive when you consider that most shows/movies can hardly develop even one.
Mind you, even other seasons of PreCure have struggled with this since it is very hard to do complete character arcs with a beginning, middle and end using the budget and time constrains a yearly show like this has. In most cases, they resort to giving most of the focus to selected characters and throwing the remaining ones under the bus.
That is not to say that YPC5 execution of character arcs and pacing is flawless, but the approach used was so simple and it worked so well that it is kind of baffling that 10 years later we are still getting it wrong.
The way the formula worked was pretty basic; the show had three dedicated types of episodes, one for moving the main plot along, one for dealing with individual character arcs and one that focused exclusively on the relationship between two given characters.
If you have ever watched media aimed at little kids, and if you follow this blog I am fairly certain you have, then you are probably familiar with this pattern. Yes! Pretty Cure 5 does stick to it pretty closely, but with a small-yet-fundamental difference; while characters got their specific episodes focused on them, their storylines actually bleed into other episodes through small scenes and dialogues. That way characters got the chance to advance their arcs even when the focus was on another character.
It sounds like a very basic thing to do, but the end results speak for themselves; even when the spotlight wasn’t on a specific character, it never feel like their story stopped happening and when we did get back to them, you felt that there had been some progress even if it was not stated explicitly.
Of course, the execution was not entirely flawless, as I mentioned before the first 20 episodes or so are dedicated almost exclusively to establish the characters, which means that the bulk of the character development and quite frankly the best writing in the show happens during the later portion of the series.
This choice was not a bad thing in itself since you still got a fun cast of characters to fool around with, but in terms of pace and rhythm it does mean that the first half of the show feels mostly uneventful while the most memorable moments in the series are in the back half of the show, an argument that is nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse for me to post this picture of Cure Aqua.
How not to do it.
Kira Kira PreCure Á La Mode, or Kiramo as the cool kids call it, has a very specific and rather stiff rhythm to it; first you get a focus episode for each character of the main cast, then you get a couple of filler-y episode, then a few plot heavy episodes and after that we go back to the character focus episodes in an eternal cycle of animals and pastries.
In theory this should be a great approach since it spreads out the character and plot development with scientific precision, but the execution of this format came about with an unexpected flaw: since the character episodes focus exclusively on one character and there are no real filler episodes to spread them out, characters essentially stop existing the moment the spotlight is not on them.
While previous PreCure series have had similar problems, the case of Kiramo is particularly notorious because some of its character arcs are actually really good, but since each of them exist solely within a group of episodes and are scarcely mentioned anywhere else, the moment the episode ends the featured storyline goes into pause and only resumes when the next batch of focus episodes comes around.
For a creative analogy, imagine you were reading a really good story, but once you reach the end of a chapter you have to wait weeks, if not months, to get to the next one. That’s essentially what Kiramo character arcs are like.
A good pacing ensures that important moments feel important, it keeps them relevant by showing the audience the events are, indeed, happening. As I said before, the worst thing that can happen to a story is that the audience feels nothing is going on, and that’s precisely the problem with Kiramo’s character arcs; the writing is pretty solid, but once one episode ends all these great story arcs completely cease to exist until the next time they are relevant.
This is another point that is so simple and obvious that I wasn’t sure about including it or not, but I ultimately decided to add it because I would fail as a writer if I didn’t have at least one David Bowie reference in one of these things.
To cut to the chase, for a character arc to be successful, by the end of it a character needs to change in some way or at the very least the audience’s perception of the character must change.
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily apply to EVERY character. In some cases a character exist simply to serve either the plot or the development of other characters, and as such they remain the same until the end of the story.
That said, one of the worst things that you can do to one of your main characters, especially in a series where the cast is the focus of the show, is to give them focus, development or even involve them on important story arcs, and then having them remain completely unchanged by the end.
As to what constitutes a `change` in a character, it can be almost anything; maybe they are stronger than before, maybe they found a purpose in their life, maybe they achieved something they were working towards or maybe they just cut their hair.
I could go on and on, but the point is that by the end of the story there must be a fundamental change to the status quo of the character; they simply cannot be the exact same character they were in the beginning.
Because when it comes to writing I am essentially a one-trick pony, there really is no better example I can think of this than YPC5’s protagonist and the child of our hearts, Yumehara Nozomi.
Naturally I won’t go into details about her character arc because it’s one of those things that are better experienced firsthand, but suffice to say that when the show started she was just a girl with a positive attitude, no purpose in life and an infinite appetite for fried eggs, but by the end she had become one of the most inspiring leader figures I’ve known in my lifetime.
How she got there? The usual way: she meet new people, tried new things, fought giant monsters, fell in love, experienced several hardships, made the best friends she could ever wish for and then lost some of them.
Leaving my constant gushing about Nozomi aside, for the next paragraph at least, I must point out that just because your character changes during the story it doesn’t mean that it is well written; a change cannot be arbitrary, you cannot flip a switch, make your character a different color and call it a day.
While there’s a few of guidelines, it is very important to remember that change must be congruent; the character change must be consistent with the logic of the character itself, or must have a reasonable cause within the story. Personally, I often find that a change works better when a character simply becomes a better version of who they already were.
Another thing to keep in mind is that change can’t be instantaneous; one of the best things about Nozomi’s character arc is how her growth is so gradual it’s not immediately obvious. Unlike the other characters whose development you can practically chart during the series, Nozomi’s change is only evident when you look at the positive effect she has on the people around her and the effect they have on her.
That is probably one of the main reasons why I love/worship her character so much. While there are some pivotal moments for her in the series, her evolution as a character is not outlined by her changes as a person but by the relationships she forms with the other characters; through her unshakeable belief and strong determination, she managed to bring out the best in others, and in turn they brought out the best in her.
And really, isn’t that what friendship is all about?
How not to do it.
I am really struggling to come up with an example here.
PreCure has always been good at character writing in one way or another, so even at its lowest point it has never mishandled something as fundamental as this.
Really, I cannot even think of a single case where a character was so poorly written that it remained static for the entire season. I mean, I guess I could bend the rules and take a cheap shot at Love Live, but I kinda already did that a few paragraphs ago and while I am not above making fun of Idol anime, I certainly am above doing it twice in a single article.
So basically what I am saying is… watch PreCure, not Love Live.
- Bonus round: Conflict.
Yes, I know I said that this would be a five point guide, but you know what they say about five person teams: when the sales decline, add a sixth.
Moving onto the actual topic, this ties into the previous point; if you want to character to change, evolve or grow 50 meters, one of the best way to do it is to face them with a conflict, the more dramatic the better. Remember, conflict is the heart of drama, and you can’t have a plot without drama.
Creating drama in a story is a relatively easy thing to do; kill someone, reveal a character was evil all along, or just throw an old fashioned nuclear bomb into the mix. When it comes to characters though, I find it that the most interesting conflicts are not born out of external circumstances, but from having characters question their ideals and world view.
Given how the original five season of Pretty Cure were in the same vein as 90’s shoujo anime but with a shonen twist, it should come as no surprise that YPC5 completely mastered this type of character driven drama. There’s dozens of examples I could list, in fact one of the show’s most famous arcs, the mid-season climax, forces our heroines to face their deepest, darkest thoughts, but I would rather not go into that because it would spoil the show and also it was freaking terrifying.
So instead of going into that Nightmare, let’s talk about what is probably one of the most interesting and well known character conflicts in PreCure History: the introduction arc of Cure Aqua AKA Karen Minazuki.
The Cure Aqua’s introduction arc is essentially a micro cosmos of all the things we’ve talked so far; the basic traits of the character are established, a backstory is developed, initial character dynamics are laid out, and she is faced with a personal conflict that results on a definite change on her persona. Most amazingly, all of this is done in only two episodes.
The premise of this mini-arc is quite simple; having gathered four of the five members of the Pretty Cure 5, Nozomi decides that the last member should be Karen, and she plans to convince her the only way she knows how to: by befriending her until she yields.
A bunch of things that may or may not include home invasion happen, and soon the girls must face the monster of the week while Karen watches helplessly. Of course, at this very moment the magic butterfly with the power of Pretty Cure appears and grants Karen the power to transform into Cure Aqua… except not.
The butterfly vanishes leaving the other girls to fend for themselves while Karen is left alone to be haunted by her failure to become a PreCure.
Part two of this arc then delves into Karen’s backstory and the specific reason why she failed to transform; being from a wealthy family and having been raised by her butler after her parents were murdered went on tour around the world, she grew up to be self-sufficient and relied only herself, which is a cool thing if you are an adult, but turns out that’s not exactly the best way to become a magical girl.
As any PreCure scholar will tell you, one of the rules of the franchise is that any girl that has the conviction to protect others can become a PreCure, but unlike all the characters before her, Karen’s determination to fight wasn’t born of a wish to protect others, but from her deep seated belief that when push came to shove, she was the only person she could truly rely on.
Of course, this being a franchise about friendship, punching and kicking, she eventually understood the importance of having people you can trust and care about (i.e. she changed her world view), and even risked her own life to protect Nozomi and the others, earning her the qualification she needed to become Cure Aqua.
I know I went on a bit of a tangent there, but I really wanted to illustrate how facing a well-established character with an ideological conflict can spur the change needed for them to grow into better versions of themselves. Cure Aqua’s development didn’t end there, but her introduction episodes are still an excellent outline on the basics of good character writing, all of it without having to resort to a random 7,000 plus words guide someone put on the internet.
How not to do it.
You know, the hardest part about writing these ‘how not to do it’ bits is that sometimes I have to badmouth characters I love in the name of science, which is a noble goal and all but it doesn’t prevent the guilt from keeping me awake at night. Case in point, let’s talk about Aida Mana.
Aida Mana is one of those characters that a lot of people don’t like because she is absurd and overpowered, but that I adore because she is absurd and overpowered. Haters gonna hate, you know the drill, but I do concede that since the point of her character is that she is selfless and great and perfect, she is completely devoid of any kind of real conflict to really make her interesting… at least until the final episode of the show.
As she is about to finish the final boss, she goes into this odd speech about how she is sometimes selfish (she’s not) and not invincible (she is), but all of that is part of being human and it’s normal if you want to grow as person. That is a nice way to wrap up the show in theory, but in practice it is completely incongruent with her character up until that point.
Essentially, the show tried to retroactively cram a conflict at the last possible minute to end the show with some sort of cathartic lesson about selflessness, but they did it using the one character for whom that conflict didn’t work at all. Seriously, they had at least two characters that could have pulled it off, but instead they gave the speech about selfishness to the one character who is so selfless that it actually creates conflicts for other characters.
I appreciate the attempt, but it felt so out of place and was so unnecessary that they were better off not doing it.
Okay look, I know I over did it a little, but Yes! Pretty Cure 5 is so good you guys.
I actually re-watched the whole thing before writing this because that is how I operate, and I was still surprised of how tight the character writing is even though the show is 10 years old by now. Mind you, there have been a lot of PreCure seasons since then and many of them also had some great writing (*coughs* *shouts ‘Go! Princess Precure is amazing!!!’* *coughs again*), but none of them have been as consistent and comprehensive as YPC5 was; even the comic relief side character, Masuko Mika, got a complete character arc with a heart-wrenching, wholesome and quite frankly terrifying climax.
Of course, the show wasn’t perfect, most of Cure Lemonade’s development got famously pushed back to the second season, but even then it still goes to show you that good writing, strong basics and careful planning can beat even the gaudiest of collectable toy gimmicks.
As I said at the beginning of this mad, mad journey, Yes! Pretty Cure 5’s has been my standard of character writing for years, and I don’t say those words lightly; I’ve watched a lot of shows, many of them produced by Toei, and very few of them have had character arcs that are as well established, flawlessly executed and ultimately rewarding as YPC5’s were. If you have somehow read this far hopefully you can now see why, and the next time you watch a series or movie maybe you’ll have a better idea of why that character you don’t like is, in fact, the worst.