2D Characters, 3D Projection

by eternal on January 18, 2010


As you might know, I’ve been reading through Kanon, the famed visual novel that sparked many a moe enthusiast’s fandom. All things considered, it’s not a bad game – it shows its age, and I think Itaru Hinoue’s skill has increased significantly over the past decade, but it’s definitely not bad. I could say a bit more about it, but since I’m only now finishing the trunk, I’d rather keep the rest of my opinion for the final post.

More importantly, amidst the chaos of Umineko and the distinct lack of Key over the last few seasons, Kanon is a breath of fresh air. It’s my first “normal” visual novel in a while, a reminder of why I enjoyed the medium in the first place. The endearingly generic characters, the forcefully surreal dream sequences, the cheesy synths of Last Regrets – everything that you could say to insult it, I could spin to defend it. That’s always been the law of visual novels. On top of that, its familiar galge tropes got me thinking about something I haven’t thought about in a while: the art of making 2D characters feel 3D.

If you define 2D complex as an obsessive, exclusive interest in the two-dimensional world, then that isn’t quite what this post is about. However, if you use the term more leniently (or pick another word that you feel comfortable with), it can be a quick and easy way to describe the attraction that virtually every moe fan feels toward their favourite characters.

Following my own definitions again, for simplicity’s sake, I’m looking at moe as a simple combination of physical and mental traits that character designers and writers use to let their creations earn the seemingly real affection of viewers. Despite this straightforward definition of moe, it isn’t necessarily easy to write a good moe character; if it were that easy, there would be nothing special about shows like K-on and Kannagi.

Now for the tricky part: aside from the “basic” attraction that every anime fan is aware of, there is occasionally an attraction that delves just a bit further. These are the few girls who earn “waifu” status among select fans, the characters who earn the exclusive right to a person’s avatars and profile pictures. Of course, this attraction is purely subjective, and it can vary from person to person, but it’s usually a result of more than just appealing character design and a clever combination of tropes. The question is, how can one write a moe character to make her stand out among the sea of blobs?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is as vague as anything to do with subjective opinions. There is no black-and-white secret to manufacturing moe characters. That said, there’s a reason this post came to mind while playing Kanon, and it’s not just because of Shiori.

Okay, fine, I suppose it’s mostly due to Shiori, but don’t mistake my point for bias. True, I’m biased toward a specific character, but the theory can be applied to anything.

In a nutshell, I think Kanon’s greatest strength is its dialogue. Yuuichi is clever, and he’s a fun set of eyes to look through, but the game really shines in its presentation of its moeblobs.

And no, that sentence wasn’t meant to be sarcastic.

In reality, what is a moeblob? A miserable pile of tropes? In a sense, yes – fans will always be most attracted to the set of tropes that is most, shall we say, relevant to their interests. However, there is a difference between any dojikko and your dojikko, any sickly girl in snow and this Shiori. Dialogue is the key aspect in Kanon: it’s true to the characters’ personalities. Plausible or not, the characters are consistent, and they portray their charms accurately and effectively. Just as I find Makoto annoying, a Makoto fan would love every block of text she receives. Fundamentally, this is the key to visual novel writing: portraying each of the characters at their best, so that the reader can “naturally” fall for whichever set of tropes appeals to them.

Following that logic, we return to the original point: moe is subjective, but successful moe characters need more than just tropes to become popular and adored. In Kanon’s case, the aesthetic sense and overall ambience is a huge plus, symbolic of everything that I love about Key – and when you add the dialogue to that, everything falls into place.

My personal reaction while playing the game is literally tied with my opinion of the characters: Makoto is more annoying than cute, Mai is dull, Nayuki is adorable in a blood-related little sister sort of way, Ayu is endearingly eccentric… and Shiori is sincere. Yes, this is my bias, but it’s a result of the game’s writing. In a mediocre visual novel, Makoto wouldn’t be annoying, Mai would be plain rather than dull, Nayuki would be your average childhood friend, Ayu would be more stupid than eccentric, and Shiori would be engaging in poetic monologues from a hospital bed. The fact that I like some characters and dislike others is simply because I don’t like the tropes that some of the cast portrays. Some fans would hate Shiori for the very reason that I love her; Mai’s stoic gaze could make her fans’ hearts stop, but it only puts me to sleep.

In that sense, only the writer can bring a 2D character to life, and it requires the same skills that any character archetype does. Moe requires the participation of the viewer: 2D complex is nonexistent if the player is interacting with Naoki Hisaya’s Book of Tropes ~sad girls in snow edition~. Moe does not require realism, nor does it require a Frankenstein-esque amalgamation of things that were never meant to be put together (the guys from Welcome to the NHK already proved that one). The truly heartwarming, surreal sensation that sells galge and funds anime adaptations can only be found in characters that are created and backed by a skilled writer. Finding the balance between cut-and-paste clichés and forced realism is the secret to taking a 2D character and projecting them into the viewer’s heart – no cover-ups, no direct pandering, no frilly skirts and childhood promises. Give us a sincere representation of our personal attractions, and we’ll suspend our disbelief as necessary.


{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

mefloraine January 18, 2010 at 9:57 pm

Making 2D characters have the effect of 3D characters is the same as a book having its effect on the audience, I think. It has to be done with balance, careful planning, and attention to what most affects the reader or it won’t work.


phossil January 18, 2010 at 10:14 pm

I think the secret to manufacturing moe characters is a good color scheme and combination. We are attracted to moe girls with blue hair or green eyes or nice clothes. Well that and good drawnings. ^^


Ryan A January 18, 2010 at 10:32 pm

To make moe, don’t set out for moe. Forced moe is not becoming, and I think it’s a bit like genius in that it may “just happen.”

This is similar to girls (or guys I guess) trying to act cute, but failing. What does this bring us to? Acting, and when we are dealing with 2D characters, there is little difference from physical acting and rendered acting at the core of intent. It is almost entirely about convincing*… and it is that which allows the translation from 2D to 3D in my opinion.

*Given the generation of a convincing portrayal between film/stage/tv and animation can be very different, but they carry similar intent.


Hyr0 January 18, 2010 at 10:53 pm

This is, for the most part, the kind of thing I’ve been trying to explain to people in my various writing and art classes. Some people get it and some don’t. It’s hard to explain. It’s one of the reasons people are so interesting and capturing those differences in characters is hard. When it’s done properly, though, the results are amazing.


Nazarielle January 18, 2010 at 11:43 pm

Auu~ y u hate on Makoto? T_T

I think you really nailed why I watch what are otherwise mediocre and sometimes downright bad shows: the characters. Usually a specific character that’s managed to hit all or at least enough of my relevant interests to keep me watching. Like you, I can suspend my disbelief or ignore the flaws of the show/game, as long as I get enough satisfaction from seeing my favorite character. :p


gaguri January 19, 2010 at 6:19 am

I wrote a post similar to this before (about characters in bakemonogatari and toradora) in a reference to Martin’s post on the magic of falling for 2d characters (like senjougahara and murakami’s characters).

I won’t link it but my basic point was that, like you say, anime don’t really need realism to capture you. Not just moe/galge/harem like Kanon, but things like mecha/shounen/shoujo you name it. Not just the writing, but with appropriate animations/art/voice acting/direction/soundtrack etc. You do it right and connect with the viewer, and the characters and world they see in front of them becomes more than just moving pictures, then at that moment that’s the only realism that matters.

One more comment. As much as I love Kanon 2006, I do think large portion of the show was direct pandering and forced, but that’s just my perception (although I’m sure many others feel the same way).


Aorii January 19, 2010 at 8:43 am

Fundamentals of dynamic character design isn’t it?

There’s realism, and there’s “realism”. Character design never has to be truly realistic, although sometimes it does help when the audience can look at a character and claim ‘I knew someone just like this’. Most of the girls from galge are simply too innocent, too nice, that it’s impossible to believe they’d be that way at high-school age IRL, but most young people aren’t going to fault that (though I’ve met plenty of middle-aged adults that do). However, there are realism aspects that should never be thrown out the door, like consistent and logical behavior. I don’t mean that the character has to think logically, but if one of their decisions leave the audience dumbfounded and unable to see why that just happened given circumstances and their personality, something is going down.

(more *rage* at “Mai is dull”)


ETERNAL January 19, 2010 at 8:44 pm

@ mefloraine: That’s the basic idea. It’s a little tricky when you start dealing with stuff like galge, in which the goal is to provide a pleasant escape from reality that the reader can willfully believe in, but the concept is the same. I think that’s one aspect of moe that a lot of people miss, especially the non-fans.

@ phossil: That’s the secret to drawing a moe character, but you wouldn’t pick a “waifu” based solely on character design. Of course, character design is still a huge factor, and it’s the most visible one (and thus the one that most people notice first).

@ Ryan A: Agreed. I can’t remember your opinion of K-on, but one of the things I liked about it was that the characters never tried to act moe. The intent of KyoAni and the source material is obvious, but the characters exist within their own universe, and their “cuteness” just comes naturally. We call it pandering because we know the industry and the fandom, but if you view it in isolation, it’s innocent. And it’s definitely convincing.

@ Nazarielle: I don’t care for the auu~, but I think Kanon’s biggest strength is its ability to “showcase” the charms of each of the girls. Like you said, it’s character based. If a moe character is portrayed well, it can make all the difference, and I think Kanon does all of its characters well – they’re just not all relevant to my interests.

@ gaguri: This post was from the perspective of a moe fan (i.e. evaluating Kanon’s success at being good at pandering as opposed to bad at pandering). It’s forced from the perspective of plot, but within the context of galge/moe fandom, I think its characters feel natural.

That said, you can definitely apply this basic concept to any genre, or even any medium.

@ Aorii: A bit tangential, but that’s true. Looking at it this way, it’s not that different from the whole concept of building a fictional universe in that realism is less important than consistency.

(I explained my statement about Mai in the post and in response to Nazarielle, but I understand your rage :P)


Shin January 20, 2010 at 5:19 am

How could I fall in love with 2D? I mean, I could have sexual desires but just because it simulates a 3D body without too much detail that some would consider unaesthetic. But falling in love? You mean the character’s personality? In that case I would fall in love with the character designer, which by the way is 3D.


ETERNAL January 20, 2010 at 8:00 pm

“Falling in love” isn’t the way I’d put it, but I definitely think there’s more to moe than character design. That’s the only way galge makes sense, considering the ero scenes are few and far between. It’s funny because I always looked at it from the opposite perspective: lots of things can be sexually attractive, but moe is one of the only things that can go past that.

Anyway, this reminds me of something I was supposed to write for a while, so I’ll probably toss together a post in a couple days. Moe theory FTW.


Ryan A January 20, 2010 at 4:44 pm

@ETERNAL I didn’t really have much opinion on K-ON! aside from whatever I social-blogged on Melative, but it was only a few episodes. I’m just now working through the rest of it, albeit very slowly. It’s decent characterization, and a tad moe at times, but I don’t find it overwhelming. Things like Mio crouching in a corner trying to not be scared or whatever, that seems kinda lame (perhaps forced, but mainly… it’s gimmicky). Will have to continue to see where it goes.


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