One Charm of Trigun: Walking Contradictions
Remember when I did those posts on Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood? I talked about how to create complex characters through contradictions by looking at Ed. Trigun creates a lot of interesting characters by giving them contradictions. I mean, just look at the protagonist, Vash the Stampede.
- One of the best gunman on the whole planet
- He has a $$60 billion bounty on his head
- He's demolished two of the seven cities of Gunsmoke
- He's an outlaw so dangerous, he's been dubbed a "natural disaster" in insurance policies.
But he's also
- A pacifist
- A cry baby--probably crying more than any character I've encountered
- He's never killed anyone
- He's a lighthearted goof-off
How can such a skilled outlaw be against violence? How can a man who has demolished two whole cities never actually kill anyone?
Well, that's where you get some of the complexities of Vash the Stampede. That's where you get the whole underlying story of Trigun.
The contrast between Vash's awful reputation and Vash's true character is what makes him so interesting to begin with. He's hated and hunted by people. Bounty hunters try to kill him. But as we spend time with him, we realize like Meryl, that Vash doesn't fit his reputation. We realize, he's trying to save people, not destroy them. I love how we get to see how Vash touches so many lives for the better while seeing how so many people try to kill him, simultaneously. I love even more that Vash uses his bad reputation for good, using his murderous persona to save lives. It's such an fascinating contradiction.
For Writers: Give you characters contradictions. It creates complexity and lends itself to rich dynamics you can touch on and explore in your story. It can also lend itself to humor, like it does in Trigun. Also note the cool contrast between Vash's reputation, versus the face he actually shows the world, versus his inner self. You can explore those in your own stories to add depth and complexity.Every great character has to overcome weaknesses, and Vash overcomes at least four, that I found.
Can a character really grow in four areas in only 26 episodes? You better believe it. One thing Trigun goes to show is that you don't need a long story in order for it to be a complex one with round characters. When you start picking apart this series, you'll find some killer storytelling talent--all condensed in less than 10 hours.
For Writers: Length does not equal complexity. If you condense your story, you can give it multiple layers of meaning, like Trigun does. By the end of my post series, you'll see just how complex a short story can be. Condensed stories lend themselves brilliantly to re-reads and re-watches, because the audience picks up on new things every time.
Vash's Character Arcs
Introducing Character Arc 1
In a writing class I took by New York Times bestselling author Brandon Sanderson, Brandon talked about character growth and how characterization has these three components:
He explained that each of these categories are like dials that you can raise and lower for each character. He said that villains are usually low in "likability" but high in "proactivity" and "competence." Katniss Everdeen is low in "proactivity" but high in "likeability and competence." Sherlock in the BBC show is high in "competence and proactivity," but low in "likeability." If all three categories are "low," your dealing with an anti-hero.
Your character's arc (character's growth) over the course of the story is your character strengthening whichever he is weak in.
Thanks to Brandon, I've been diagnosing characters ever since. Vash the Stampede is very competent and likable, but he's not very proactive. He's proactive in saving people, but that's about it.
Through most of the series, Knives is the character who is being proactive, not Vash. Vash is just reacting. He doesn't want to deal with his real problems. He evades them. He would rather spend his days goofing off, playing with kids, and living a mundane life. It's the Gung-Ho-Guns who have to seek him out, and when things get really bad, Vash goes into hiding--running away again--under the alias "Eriks" until Wolfwood can talk him into taking up his real identity again.
Pretty much the only way to get Vash to be proactive is to put someone in danger, which is what Wolfwood emphasizes when bringing Vash out of hiding. He talks about how people have completely disappeared from a town. Translation: they are in danger and Knives is behind it.
Vash realizes, though, on some level, that a lack of proactivity is a weakness of his, and he needs to do something about it. He knows he needs to step up and hunt the villain Legato himself. We see Vash in a bar trying to talk himself up to it, but he's scared and can't bring himself to actually seek out the guy. Vash also says he needs to find Knives, but he doesn't actually look for him.
He's not proactive.
He's not proactive.
Introducing Character Arc 2
Vash also lacks independence and often leadership. On the SEEDS ships he relied heavily on Rem. Her beliefs are his beliefs. Then after the crash landing, even when Vash knows Knives was the one who killed the whole crew, and Rem, and most of the human race, Vash follows Knives' lead. He becomes dependent on Knives. Knives is the leader. He's also the independent thinker.
The series pokes fun at Vash's dependency throughout, by having people call him a "momma's boy." Knives is also aware of Vash's dependence; he points it out to him when he gives Vash his revolver. Vash refuses to help him kill humans, and Knives says, "Then why did you wait for me to come back? Because you're helpless on your own."
Completing Character Arcs 1 & 2
It isn't until the second-to-last and the last episodes that Vash finally fully overcomes his weaknesses. Now that he understands what he needs to do with Knives, he's ready to seek Knives out. For once Vash is the one approaching Knives, and he's doing so without provocation. Meryl points out to Vash in the second-to-last episode, when he's resting in a little town, "You can stay here as long as you like." Her line is important, because it shows that Vash has another opportunity to live the easy, peaceful life, to disappear, but ultimately he chooses not to. He overcomes his weakness and becomes proactive.
Vash goes and battles Knives once and for all. After he defeats Knives, he says, "Rem, I will continue to believe in you, but from now on I'll let my own words guide me," and he casts of his red coat, which was, by extension, symbolic of Rem. By doing these two things he finally claims full independence. He's ready to be his own guide. I love that we get a close-up of his first footstep after he says this because it's the first step into a new life and a new Vash. With Vash being left to care for his wounded brother, he also gains leadership. So he grows as a character, overcoming these weaknesses in the last two episodes.
So far his character arcs look like this:
Lack of proactivity ---> proactive
Dependence ---> Independence
Bonus Easter Egg
Okay, stay with me. Are you still with me? Cause this next thing is trippy! If you watch the SEEDS episode, you will hear Rem say almost the exact same thing about Alex that Vash does about her. Rem goes through some of the same character arcs as Vash! She says she made mistakes and that someone taught her to let go of them without judgement and move on (like how Vash learned to forgive himself and move on after killing Legato, which he learned from Rem), and then she says "then I lost him and realized I'd have to do it alone, but I wasn't afraid to make mistakes anymore. I believed I could point myself in the right direction without looking back." Woah.
Okay, so while Rem dies when Vash is still a child, he doesn't really lose her on an intellectual level until he shoots Legato, because he believes once he's killed someone, he's really lost Rem. And just as Rem had to learn to point herself in the right direction, so does Vash at the end of the series. "From now on, I will let my own words guide me"--he relies on himself.
So cool. So crazy!
But there's even more! Next time, be prepared for character arc three and four.
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