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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

When You Read Manga, Everyone Wins

Whether you’re a reader or a reader/writer, reading manga is almost always a win-win: a win for the author, a win for you, and a win for your would-be audience as a writer if you are one.

Manga, for those who are unaware, are Japanese graphic novels. As you’ve probably guessed, America doesn’t exactly have a colossal collection of manga, which is sad. 

On a happier note, there are some places where you can find fairly good collections: in stores like Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, and other chain bookstores; big-city libraries; and sometimes—sometimes—local libraries will have small-medium collections. In addition, you can find certain titles online (manga that haven’t been licensed yet).

Like any other genre, manga isn’t for everyone—but you’ll never know if you don’t try it, right?

As readers (and writers with a reader’s eye), we generally want to read things that are enjoyable, interesting, and informative…which is why manga is such a good choice! 

Alright, maybe manga isn’t exactly what most would call ‘informative’ unless we’re investigating slightly-out-of-the-norm Japanese culture, but it’s easy to read, hilarious, and undeniably quirky—which, to me, is interesting.  

As writers, we want to read things that are all of the above with a particular bent toward craft. After all, one of the most important components of developing our craft as writers is reading. Reading everything. (Although, now that I think about it,  “everything” is a bit intimidating…)

Anyway, most authors recommend a wide array of novels inside and outside of your typical genre—along with short stories/nonfiction shorts, poems, and screenplays. Authors also tend to recommend watching movies and noting what directors have placed in settings to create ambiance, plot/character movement, etc.

But reading manga is rarely recommended…which is why I am recommending it for us now. 


1. Laughter is good medicine that manga can serve in large doses

2. Manga makes for a quick and easy read (still true for mega series that have reached 500+ chapters…it just requires good pacing ^_^)

3. Manga tends to open up new and invigorating worlds of ‘strange’, which is wonderful if you’re looking to read something ‘different’


1. Manga tends to feature 3D villains, which helps us to create them, too

Japanese artists have an uncanny knack for creating and displaying villains that are complex, well-rounded, and have a considerable sliver of humanity for readers to connect and empathize (or at least sympathize) with.  In short, their villains are 3D—and this is exactly what we want our villains to be. 

After all, what are the things about a villains’ characterization that annoy us the most?

I propose that  we probably aren’t as annoyed about a villain’s ruthless tactics and love of bloodshed as we are about the author’s failure to present a compelling and believable backstory that causes *or, ahem, inclines* him to act that way.

No one wants to encounter an under-developed and unconvincing villain whose motivations are questionable at best. We want to get inside the villain’s head and try to understand why she does what  she does. We want to see a glimmer of her humanity shining through the darkness…and reading manga can help us to create these shiny 3D villains that both disturb and fascinate.

One of my favorite examples of excellent villain characterization in manga is Naruto by Masashi Kishimoto. 

In this manga, we are presented with several ideas about how to make villains seem more like humans who are grappling with moral issues or their pasts and less like monsters through major and minor characters like Zabuza and Haku, Pain, Madara, Orochimaru, and Kabuto. AND, these same villains have reasonable motivations that stem from their background. See? Win.

2. Mangaka capture the unique flavor of each of their characters

Some aren’t very good at this…but I feel that the majority are.

We need our characters to be distinct. When readers encounter our characters for the first time, we want to give them an impression that lasts throughout the story.

J.K. Rowling is one of the best authors at this kind of distinction I have ever read; whenever I pick up a book from the Harry Potter series, I almost instantly have a grasp of who a character is. Her characterization is so rich I can taste each distinct flavor she brings out in each of her characters, major and minor.

We want our characters to be like this, and reading manga might be able to help us enhance our characters’ flavor(s). Writers can learn from manga by noting a character’s facial reactions, clothing and living style, emotional reactivity (some people are extreme about a crack in the sidewalk, and other people aren’t moved by a tornado), food preferences, etc.

3. Manga can be great for craft practice

Manga panels can be very useful for practicing your craft—you can take a panel or two and change the medium to a written scene in a novel. This is not about honing in on mastering plot arcs (if that wasn’t already apparent…), but on refining nitty-gritty descriptors.

In a panel, expressions, dialogue, plot, and setting are already laid out for you in pictorial form. Your job as a writer would be to translate that picture into words…and see how well your words match up to the picture.

At the end of the exercise, ask yourself if what you wrote accurately describes what’s in the panel.

Some titles I recommend*:

Naruto, Masashi Kishimoto
One Piece, Oda Eiichiro
Hana Kimi (Hanazakari no Kimitachi e), Nakajo Hisaya
Skip Beat!, Nakamura Yoshiki
Kimi ni Todoke, Shiina Karuho

The format may initially frustrate you (it takes some getting used to the whole upper right to left approach), but once you get used to it, reading manga is a blast. And some titles are just plain cute:


*Um, on a more personal note…I’m not espousing these manga or the content therein. While I do enjoy One Piece, for example, I don’t agree with everything in it (mildly put).

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