This is the second post in the “realism in fiction” series. In the first one I tried to describe the effect of having your story be as real life-like as possible, which is the most literal meaning of “realism”. I also talked about how breaking this sense of connection with real life in takes away from the feeling of the story. Here I want to talk about something different. I’ll focus on characters’ life goals and hopefully I’ll be able to make a convincing argument that this is directly linked to how realistic a story is.
I chose One Piece for this post because it is such a good fit for this topic (nothing to do with the fact that the manga is celebrating its 20th anniversary in a week, I swear!). The manga is very long and rich in detail for both the world and the characters, and it is well written too, allowing a meaningful discussion. Also it is a good excuse to feature Oda’s art on this blog ^^/
Okay, let us start with simple examples, looking at the first members of Luffy’s crew. Luffy himself is famously going to become the pirate king, that is his motivation. It was rephrased as wanting to be the person with most freedom, which is supposed to clarify it, but it doesn’t. The “pirate king”, the “person with most freedom”, they are both completely abstract ideas. And it is very fitting that to become the pirate king Luffy seemingly needs to find One Piece, the McGuffin of this manga. You can easily wave all of this away as just an example of lazy writing. So how real is this motivation? Well in fact, it is very real. Almost anyone either experienced it or can understand how it feels, I think. “I want to become a great scientist!”, “I want to be famous one day!”, “I want to be a rock star!” and so on, all of those goals are almost as vague as Luffy’s. When you are a kid and you feel a desire to become something, you don’t necessarily imagine it in realistic (if any) detail. Neither does Luffy. He goes one step further though, refusing to learn what awaits him in the future (I am referring to the scene where he refuses to accept information about Raftel or One Piece from Rayleigh). In a way, his mindset is similar to that of a school boy who haven’t yet decided on his future occupation but is still thrilled about it and works hard to make it happen. So, on emotional level at least, Luffy’s goal is realistic and relatable.
Next is Zoro, the guy who wants to become the best swordsman. That is a clear and easily understood goal. It is similar to what an aspiring athlete would have. If you think about it, it is still a vague goal, at best it means something like “to defeat everyone who I think is stronger than me”. What matters for us though, it is very realistic and understandable.
Now we go to Nami. Her original goal was to get rid of Arlong. After Luffy granted this wish she joined him, and her official goal became to map the whole world. In reality though, she just seems to share Luffy’s dream of making him the pirate king. She also seem to enjoy the ride, same as the rest of the crew. Same story with Usopp, Sanji, Franky, Chopper and Brook. I’d argue their motivations are realistic too though. True, they might not be pursuing any real personal goals, but being part of Luffy’s crew, making miracles happen wherever they set foot to, seeing the world and having fun all the while, that seems like a worthy occupation. They are also all wanted people, so their options are limited.
Okay, enough with the easy examples, let me start with real ones. First in is Edward Newgate, the Whitebeard. His life goal is to have family, as simple as that. This extended to having hundreds of people he called his sons and took care of, while not limiting their freedom. Point is, he had achieved this goal way back when Roger was still alive and Luffy hadn’t even been born. So, it is fair to say that he had no further goals, he just enjoyed his life. What about his crew though? I talked about how Luffy’s crew is kinda just in for the ride, they want to be a part of this grand adventure and to make Luffy the pirate king. Whitebeard did not had an ambition to become the pirate king, and everyone on his ship knew that. Knowing their leader’s history and abilities, Whitebeard’s crewmates couldn’t help but see that the main reason the Roger’s throne still is vacant is because their old man did not care to take it. At least that is what we know so far, of course there might be more to it.
With all that said, I don’t think Whitebeard’s crew could operate the same way Luffy’s crew does. Whitebeard doesn’t do anything, his existence had been in stagnation for years. It is fine for him, and, sure, it is fine for those who just want an easy life free of worries. But his children are all fighters, they are pirates who had chosen to go against the government; it is hard to believe no one of them would have personal goals or ambitions of any kind. Or rather, it is hard to believe they could be satisfied living with no ambitions or goals. A famous example of a person who wasn’t satisfied is Teach, the arch villain of the series. He did have his own ambitions, and he realized them, which consequently made him an enemy of the Whitebeard.
Another example of Whitebeard’s crewmate who had goals was Ace. His goal later in life was to hunt down Teach and make him pay for his crimes. That is a goal, and it also went against the desires of Whitebeard, although Ace still had his way. Ultimately this lead to the destruction of the whole crew and the death of Edward Newgate.
I feel this is an example where the story makes good use of the realistic life goals and their clashes. The motivations of every party involved in this conflict are clear and relatable, and you can see why it was inevitable, why it makes sense. You can’t achieve your ambitions while riding with a captain who has no goal, which is why Teach and Ace had to leave his ship (they did it in a different manner, of course).
Let me give you a few more examples of this sort. Remember Donquixote family? Or Big Mom pirates? Or even Baroque Works? What strikes you about those pirate groups, compared with Strawhats? Among many things, the number of traitors those groups have spawned. The reason is that the goals of the leaders of those groups, as well as the means of achieving those goals, aren’t always supported by all their members. But, the people who disagree don’t necessarily leave those groups, in fact sometimes they can’t (as a reference, see resigning procedures that Big Mom installed). Same thing with the navy. Garp, Akainu, Sengoku and Fujitora all have very different goals, yet they are still working in the same organization. It doesn’t mean that they necessarily are going to betray each other, but that is a possibility.
Now we come to the point I wanted to make. Writing the story this way, where the personal goals of supporting characters matter and play into their actions, it is not just about realism, it is also useful for storytelling. It allows the reader to speculate about the actions of certain characters, making long term predictions. For example, you can speculate that Fujitora would eventually raise against the current navy/government system, in particular against the most inhuman practices (such as slavery, above-the-law position of celestial dragons, shichibukai system). You can predict that Garp and Sengoku would join him only if Fujitora will show clear intent to preserve marines as defenders of justice, otherwise they would fight against him. You can predict that Boa Hancock would be willing to side with the government against Fujitora, as long as she can keep government’s protection for her island. It is easy to assume that the Revolutionaries might aid Fujitora, while Stawhats might stay away from the conflict untill they are being dragged into it. All of this follows from the goals of those parties and their leaders. It might (and probably will) be all different in reality, the conflict might never happen at all, but it is still fun to speculate, being able to back up your ideas. This realism in how characters act on their goals is breathing life into the world, making it feel as if it has some internal laws to it that you can see if you look close enough. Compare it with, say, Bleach, where characters don’t really have realistic and meaningful goals, and when they do it feels like just another feature of their personality, rather than the driving force behind their actions. And, coincidentally it had been way harder to make meaningful long-term speculations about plot twists and character actions in that manga.
So, this is great and all, but I didn’t mean this post to be just a praise of Oda’s writing. Let us talk about the Red Hair pirates. What are their goals? What is Shanks’s goal? Does he even have one? He seems to be in the same position as Whitebeard, a pirate who made it and who is not looking for any new progress. He seems like a person in stagnation, who does not aim for anything. Remember that scene, where Shanks is drinking on some island and Mihawk visits him to tell him about Luffy’s new bounty? I found that to be very depressing, cause it conformed what I thought about Shanks and his crew – they have nothing to do, they are wasting their time drinking because there is nothing else they need to be doing. That is a very sad life if you think about it. It is ironic that out of all yonko the nicest and the most likable one would be also the only one whose life goes on this depressing way. I can’t even imagine someone wanting to join Shanks’s crew at this point, cause they would have nothing to offer.
I don’t think that was the intent when Shanks was written, but there isn’t much that can be done about it. Oda will have to invent something huge to provide a meaningful goal for Shanks. And, if Oda doesn’t give him a goal and doesn’t address the fact that he has none, then it would make for a substantial hole in his writing. This is a consequence of the realism I talked about earlier, it can easily backfire like that. On the other hand, this aimless existence contrasts Shanks with Teach, who had been supercharged with motivation and goals, similar to Luffy. Maybe Oda can exploit this contrast somehow, who knows. Would be really interesting if he creates this battle of motivations, where Shanks would represent balance/stability/preservation and Blackbeard would stand for change/progress/conquer.
Same with Kaido’s crew. So far they all look like ruffians from Hokuto no Ken or something. Oda will have to come up with something to give them goals and motivation. The way he handled it for Big Mom pirates was rather cleaver and unique, but it would be harder with Kaido.
Before I finish I want to add one last bit. Of all the things Oda will have to deal with in his story as it progresses, one of the hardest things to write is going to be change in Luffy’s goals (and consequently, in the goals of his crewmates). When he finds One Piece his main goal will be fulfilled. But being the protagonist he can’t enter the state of stagnation as Whitebeard and Shanks did. Instead, either the series will have to end or he would need to acquire a new purpose in life, or maybe both. And, it would be way better if this process happens gradually, so the readers can see this change coming and feel that it is natural. The manga had been slowly shifting from the personal adventure of a rubber boy and his friends to a grand world-wide epic, which deals with practical aspects of justice, good and evil and oh so many other things. It would be natural to expect Luffy’s goals to change and shift too. But, writing it in a manner that would make it feel natural is going to be a challenge, the high standards of realism that Oda had set up will be haunting him. Let us see how he does. Till the next time, see you!