When I wrote this piece originally it had been on my mind for awhile. The idea that fiction is a fairly distorted way of experiencing reality. Not saying that’s a bad thing, by distorting certain aspects of what is real other points can be more easily framed and foregrounded. Complex emotional ideas that usually get swept under the rug in reality can take centre stage or we can just enjoy the fact that our heroes are all but indestructible due to plot armour.
However one way that fiction consistently distorts is that regardless of the medium stories have this tendency to lead the audience into thinking the problem (whatever it is) has a solution. It isn’t that every fictional problem is always solved neatly or easily, but there is almost always a forward motion in stories and usually this is built around characters advancing towards that final solution whether they ultimately achieve it or not.
And while certainly a non-defeatist attitude or a desire to be proactive might be admirable personality traits, hopeless optimism that everything could be solved is probably not. When we think about some of the situations anime protagonists are faced with and yet mostly they still say cheesy lines like:
I mean, they are wonderfully inspiring quotes that make you feel you can get out there and accomplish anything you put your mind to. But they don’t really deal with the reality most people face everyday. Changing things is sometimes not a matter of having courage but one of opportunity and those are few and far between.
And sometimes you could try as hard as you like but without others being on board you may not succeed. Also, sometimes you don’t have endless chances to try once more. Sometimes you’ve tried and failed and that ship has sailed off into the sunset when you were not on board (I do mean a metaphoric ocean going vessel here and not a relationship).
That isn’t to say that there aren’t characters out there expressing a more down to earth view of things.
However, that is why Kunikida is not the main character of Bungo Stray Dogs. He can’t be a main character with that kind of attitude. He exists to be a voice of logic or reason that others (those who will be the main character of their story) fight to overcome. In truth, he is directly positioned to be seen as unhelpful and negative at times and as the person who has a defeatist attitude. Comparing him to Atsushi (who is actually the main character of Bungo Stray Dogs for some reason), Kunikida is smarter, more focussed, and infinitely more talented. And yet it is Atsushi’s never say die and charge into the den of your enemy approach that ultimately saves the day in the final fights though there is a lot of giving up at smaller challenges earlier in the season (what exactly did Kunikida do for the entirety of season 2?).
Then we have Hachiman from My Teen Romantic Comedy SNAFU. From a casual observation he flies in the face of every other protagonist out there. He is the star of his show and carries with him a negative and self-destructive mantle that he absolutely refuses to change.
He doesn’t want to change, he doesn’t see his personality as a problem, and has more or less given up on expecting anything from the world. Yet then we look at the plot structure of this story. Almost every episode (or arc as some go over multiple episodes) deal with Hachiman having to address a problem and solve it. He may whinge, drag his feet, and act indifferent but even though his solution is unconventional and usually leaves him burned, the fact remains that he continues to act on behalf of others to bring problems to a solution.
The one problem that he refused to address is the problem everyone else in the series is forced to address and that is his own anti-social attitude which as he points out probably isn’t that big of an issue given he’s hardly the first teenager to go through high-school without friends. It becomes an issue though when it becomes apparent that a lot of what he says is an outer facade rather than his true feelings.
And then of course we have Kirito from SAO who faced a problem so extreme that even with a never say die attitude and you never know until you try still couldn’t win so broke the game. While there might be a touching message about the power of emotions and desire the reality of that situation wasn’t just distorted it was completely thrown out the window for narrative convenience. Of course, any other ending wouldn’t have really worked at that point so we’ll just go along with it.
Fiction is a mirror for the world but it isn’t a true reflection and this is seen clearly in this idea of solving problems. Some things once broken can’t be fixed. Others require a work around, acceptance, or sometimes a tactical withdrawal (otherwise known as running away with purpose). And while all these ideas appear in stories, the overwhelming majority of fiction has a protagonist confronting a problem (regardless of what that problem might be) and in some way dealing with that problem (even if the protagonist ultimately does not succeed).
What do you think about fiction and how it constructs reality? What are some of your favourite quotes from anime protagonists as they go to confront overwhelming danger? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.
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BUNGO STRAY DOGS – SEASON ONE
21 thoughts on “Friday’s Feature: Problem Solver”
Very interesting topic. I like it! Well, fiction is not reality. Period. But like you said, it provides a mirror to a specific part of reality. Not really a mirror, more like a telescope. It hyper-focuses on just that part of reality. The beauty of fiction is that it can be an inspiration to find our purpose in life and to work really hard in pursuing it. It may not go the same way in fiction in reality, but the important thing is that we tried and we can try again…or watch another/read another fictional story and get inspired again. Interesting post. Cheers!
Certainly this types of story can act as an inspiration, though sometimes I think some people feel a bit more helpless because they can’t get a random power up and solve their real world problems.
Still, you’re point about being able to try again or find another source of inspiration is well taken.
I think there is a balance to be found. Personally, I also think we, as humans, need stories of victory to inspire us, but we do also need stories of failure to caution us.
That’s probably a fairly valid point though I think stories of victory are probably far more prolific than failure at the moment.
Well, yes, usually. 😛
Great post, and a very interesting topic. I remember a quote from a Dragonlance novel that I read years ago, that was so incredibly cool. In that novel, the fantasy world on which the story took place was all but destroyed by an ancient being that returned after millennia. It said to the few remaining heroes that were trying to stop it ” Your Gods are dead, your world is dead, so what do you have left?”. And one of the heroes replied ” Each other”. I really thought that was such an amazing quote, and it always stuck with me.
I think it’s natural for heroes to want to save the day, and throwing inspiring quotes around while they do it. But some problems just can’t be solved so easily, no matter what quote the hero says.
I have never really had a problem with it though, I just think it’s a part of the story telling medium, and a part that I honestly have always enjoyed in the medium. 😊
Wouldn’t it be nice though if an inspiring quote was all it took to save the day.
I do remember the Dragonlance novels had some great quotes but also had some pretty dark moments as well. I probably should re-read some of them at some point as its been years since I picked one up.
They really are great books, and some of the best fantasy novels that I have read in my life. It would be seriously cool if an inspiring quote were to save the day 😊 Imagine what the world would be like if that were to be true 😀
This is an interesting topic for discussion and one I really haven’t though about before. Guess I always take it for granted that the people in fiction will face some kind of problem and will find some way – often impossible ways – to solve it. That said, this post does remind me of a few tragic tales I’ve come across where there is no solution but they’re very rare. 1 in 100 maybe? Hell, we have movies where people save the world by having drillers take on an asteroid or things equally preposterous. Solutions are the norm, clearly.
It’s kinda fascinating and wouldn’t it be cool if life was like that.
Personally, I like to see characters climb over all adversity and triumph over whatever. I just finished Lord Marksman and Vanadis, and the way everything turns out for the best in it borders on ridiculous at times but it was still a highly enjoyable watch.
But the hopeless optimism you referenced usually just annoys me because that makes it very hard to see the character as anything but an immature dunderhead.
I don’t think I’ve said anything of importance in this comment, just word-vomited my thoughts on the subject. Oops.
Thanks for the comment.
Yay, someone else watched Lord Marksman and Vandis (I really enjoyed it but it is one of those rarely discussed anime).
Find it funny you took a swipe at drillers taking on asteroids, my non-anime example of problem solving getting ridiculous would have been The Core where they go to jump start the earth’s core by drilling to it and setting off a chain of explosions. Now that is preposterous.
I remember you mentioning that you liked it. It’s been on my watchlist for a while and finally started it this week. I was kinda expecting a typical harem but got fun fantasy political intrigue instead. I liked it.
Oh man, I’d forgotten about that movie. No, really, all I remember is some of the visuals towards the end. You’re right though, it definitely tops the asteroid drilling.
The harem vibe is definitely there in Marksman but there’s enough other stuff going on that you can kind of just go with it. I just kind of wish there was a part two because I’d really like to know what happens next.
In fairness, we could probably put any hollywood disaster movie into this post and make the point.
Interesting thoughts. I think context is always key when defining character motivations. It’s probably not the same for all, but for those that are at least thoughtfully constructed, they can be pretty much consistent with the authorial tone of the work.
I was amused that you mentioned Hachiman, because he was precisely who I was thinking about when you opened with some quotes. It’s very easy to quote him out of context because he serves as a useful anti-thesis to the heroic protagonist, often invalidating his own role. But his cynicism only works in so much as it points out the foibles of reality. Without any character movement, he basically becomes the anime equivalent of a rambling WWII vet in a nursing home.
But it’s thanks to his character movement where his own cynicism makes him realize his desire for genuine human connection. It’s the same movement that pushes characters like Kyon to engage more sincerely in their own roles as protagonists, which in effect allows us to see their progression as a movement towards “success” as far as the plot is concerned.
But going back to the topic, I think that’s the point of fiction, really. I sometimes wonder if action sequences like those seen in movies like Lord of the Rings could actually happen – I mean, it’s just one arrow shot away to totally ruin the story. But I guess that’s where suspension of disbelief comes in. We willingly suspend our own disbelief to engage in a story with the hopeful trade-off that we gain something in return. Whether or not it was worth it depends on how well the story ties in its characters with the overall point of the story — something I think only a handful of shows are able to achieve.
Suspension of disbelief is definitely needed. I am big on fantasy and very much like my fiction to be fiction, but for some reason I find this need to solve a problem frustrating at times, particularly when the characters who act on the problem probably shouldn’t be the ones to deal with it. Proabably this is because in reality we come across so many unsolvable problems and fiction does not prepare us for dealing with things that just cannot be solved.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
Coming from the viewpoint of a scientist, I guess that’s somewhat similar to how experiments are just snippets of reality. Similarly, fiction gives us a sense of reality and ways in which we can approach it, but we can’t expect all fiction to answer all problems. That’s just the limit of the medium, I guess.
I guess it requires some effort on our part to constantly question the content we consume. I really like how you mention that certain characters probably aren’t best suited for a given problem, but the mere fact that they’re given that problem and we feel that there are better solutions for it at least shows that the fiction got us thinking.
True, and that’s probably the main role of fiction. To open our minds and get us to think through the possibilities (or at least that’s how I’ve always taken fiction).
This is pretty interesting, and something I think most don’t normally think about.
A large majority of fiction is usually centered around some kind of conflict or overcoming an adversity. We have a hero because he does something. He beats the bad guy or solves a problem. Even with slice of life shows there is something that requires the main characters to change in order to move forward with their lives. Progress of some kind is thus an essential part of a story.
Shinji Ikraki sums up the necessary attitude for any would be protagonist in such stories with his repeated quote “I mustn’t run away!” He’s expected to face a problem and try no matter how hopeless the situation is, and people hate him when he doesn’t.
I can’t think of any anime I’ve seen where there was no solution to be found, and where a practically thinking hero who is just trying to survive until the end is the protagonist.
Tragedies, I think, come closest to this kind of setup, where stories are often aimed toward some loss on the part of the protagonist. In this case, trying and failing, without a second chance at success, might be the centerpiece of the narrative.
Shinji’s a great example because even though he doesn’t think he can overcome the problem and even though in the end the world isn’t saved, he still tries (and everyone else tries) to convince him that he must face the problems head on and not run away from them. Given the reality of most people running from one problem or another or putting things off or asking someone else to deal with them (generalising as I know some people do take every issue head on) its interesting that so few fiction stories deal with characters that don’t avoid problems.
I just think that we got to the point of mixing fiction into reality rather than replacing, let alone construct it. Most of the time we end up with half assed philosophy of the protagonist telling us to never give up while going about showing the result in a very unrealistic way.
Let me just take the most notorious example, Naruto, into the context.
The fiction is pretty much everything in the anime. The reality is Naruto’s state of loneliness – anyone on Earth can be like him. In fact, Naruto is lonely because he is alienated by others. On Earth, being alienated is far more than not being able to make friends.
What we cannot be are the power that has been hidden inside him the entire time. Not all of us are awakening our ‘powers (in the real world you can compare it to money, health, etc.)’ hidden within ourselves. Though, in the end I’m just generalizing because there have been real cases where people overcome their issues in a way many would have find it impossible otherwise.
When confronting danger I go by Emiya Shirou’s lost in translation quote.
“People die when they are killed.”
I actually get what he meant, though.
Please don’t take me seriously on this one. 🙂