When you think of Shōnen anime, what stands out to you? Is it the characters? If so, what is it about the characters that actually stands out? You could say it’s their personality, but these characters have been pretty similar across different shows for a long time now. In which case, how can they stand out if they’re all just clones of each other? This is where Izuku ‘Deku’ Midoriya comes in. It’s really refreshing that he’s so different in an anime that is supposed to be the perfect shōnen show.
Izuku is a great character to really get down and have a look at for any writer who wants to use cliches without just becoming like any other story in their genre. Deku breaks away from other protagonists like him in a lot of really subtle ways. He also has a lot in common with them, too. That’s what makes Deku so unique! He really feels natural without going overboard with his differences. It just goes to show that you don’t need to change every detail about them to make your character stand out!
Let’s be honest: we can never make something truly original, but you can change up the tropes that are already there. ShanniiWrites has mentioned the ‘unique selling point’ in her post about writing for Episode Deku is a great example of a unique selling point. Sit back, relax, and I’ll tell you why!
What is a Typical Shōnen Protagonist?
So, it might be a good idea to tell you what a shōnen protagonist actually is. Well, for starters, they’re the main characters in shōnen anime! Ah, but what is shōnen anime, I hear you ask. Well, it’s not a difficult question. Shōnen is Japanese for ‘young man’, or ‘boy’, so obviously, it’s going to be stories aimed at young men and teens. For example, fighting, mecha, fantasy adventure. Anything that would draw in a teenage boy! That’s not to say that it just appeals to young men, though. It’s one of the most popular genres in the world for a reason!
The main characters of these stories are going to have to appeal to young men too. When My Hero Academia came out, the most popular shōnen protagonists were mostly very strong, brave, hot-headed, impulsive and they always start off very independent. I can’t be the only one who’s pretty tired of them all having the same kind of manliness. You don’t ever really see them showing their soft side very often, if at all! If you ever do see them cry, it’ll be a massive deal. Most of these main characters will turn to anger instead when faced with really tough situations. None of this really applies to One Piece, since Luffy probably stands out even more than Deku as a character. Generally speaking though, you’ll probably find this true of most shows.
Some of the Typical Protagonists
Even if you’re not very familiar with shōnen anime, you might have still heard of a few of these characters.
- Yusuke Urameshi from Yu Yu Hakushō
- Eren Jaeger from Attack on Titan
- Rin Okumura from Blue Exorcist
- Sōma Yukihira from Food Wars
- Jonathan Joestar, Joseph Joestar and Jotaro Kujo from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure
- Son Goku from Dragon Ball Z
- Ichigo Kurosaki from Bleach
- Naruto Uzumaki from Naruto
- Kenshirō from Fist of the North Star
- Natsu Dragneel from Fairy Tail
- Yugi Motō/Yami from Yu-Gi-Oh
- Asta from Black Clover
None of this is to say I dislike these characters! In fact, some of these shows are my all-time favourites. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a trend here. These characters were brilliant for their time, but they already exist now. Some of them are decades old! Kenshirō is a legend in anime for a reason, but we always need something new. We got that in 2014, with Kohei Horikoshi’s My Hero Academia (MHA).
Typical Shōnen Story Tropes
A lot of these tropes can be used well, but it’s usually when the trope is overused that it will start to make a story feel bland. I’ll go over a few here. Just remember, though: shows that use these aren’t necessarily bad!
- The main villain is almost always more physically powerful than their enemies. This isn’t too bad, but where are all the tactical geniuses?
- The main character always needs a rival that is their complete polar opposite in every way, right down to clothing colour.
- The main character always has more ‘determination’ or ‘willpower’ than anyone else, letting them win fights they otherwise couldn’t.
- Differences are always settled with punching. The characters’ opinions don’t matter in the end, only who can hit harder.
- By the end of the show, a character’s original motivations and goals can become unclear, or just completely disappear.
- Heroes tend to have really random solutions to their problems. There’s always some weird explanation to match it, too.
- The hero may not have one at first, but by the end of the
storythey will always have an ability, technique, or weapon unique to them.
- The hero will almost always lose to the villain the first time they meet them. This forces our hero to train!
- The worst one is definitely that no matter how gruelling or brutal a fight is, the hero will always make a full recovery with no lasting effects, other than maybe a small life lesson learned.
If you only follow these tropes, you might find it difficult to make your character stand out. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them, though. Horikoshi loves to use these tropes in fun and interesting ways, especially in the way he writes Deku.
Now that we know what a typical shōnen hero is, we can talk about how these tropes can be changed. Some authors like to just reverse every trope, tear down what you know about the genre and characters as they stand now. ‘Deconstructions’ like these are pretty common in anime and manga nowadays, and these characters definitely stand out.
Deku doesn’t reject the heroes that came before him, though. He has a lot of aspects taken straight from them. He’s very determined and strong-willed, he has a natural work ethic that helps him a ton with training, and he has the strange ability to draw people to him. He starts off powerless but gains a unique and powerful ability quite early on and he even has a bitter rivalry with his complete opposite: Katsuki Bakugō.
That being said, he has a lot more differences to the other heroes than similarities. Deku isn’t brash, or hot-headed. In fact, he’s cool and calm even in intense fights. He may sometimes go a bit too far, breaking limbs just to fight harder, but he never really loses his head because of this. Deku also starts the show happy to receive help from others and grows to become more and more independent as the show goes. The complete opposite of most shōnen hero arcs! The show handles friendship a little differently to most, though.
The Power of Friendship
So, basically, the “power of friendship” trope is when a character draws all of their strength from their friends. This is a really nice message for shows targeted at younger audiences, and even adults to be honest. Your friends can help perk you up on a bad day, and they can be the cause for a good mood. Friends are definitely important, and the way shows present this is very interesting. Most shows will have the protagonist struggle massively against the villain in their final battle, only to think of their friends and all of the adventures they’ve had to pull out the win. Sometimes the friends will be present but knocked out, sometimes they don’t even need to actually be there. There are variations, but not many.
To talk about the power of friendship, I’ll just focus on the show that did it the best: the Persona series. Persona takes this trope and leans into it even more. The main character’s bonds with friends and family (even villains in a few cases) directly make his Jojo’s Stand-like powers stronger. This makes sense, given it was an important part of the game series the anime was based on. So, the stronger his bonds, the more powerful the emotional climax will be at the end! Building the trope into the story like this is
My Hero Academia tackles it very differently. Challenging the notion like few others have before it. Deku’s friendships, in particular, flip this trope on its head completely.
Everyone in My Hero Academia has interesting relationships with the people around them, honestly. The show takes its time going into how each character feels about their classmates, teachers and even the villains they meet. You don’t see this kind of character-focused writing in shōnen anime that often! This can transfer quite nicely into other genres too. Good character writing like this can make any story stand out, not just shōnen battle romps!
Let’s get back to Deku though. Everyone in MHA may have fun relationships with each other but almost every character in the entire show as it stands has a connection with Deku. It’s probably why he’s the main character, I suppose. You don’t need to do this, in fact, a lot of writers would say you really shouldn’t. It can sometimes seem like the main character is the centre of the Universe, which I guess does make them stand out in their own story. It also makes them really boring though! Deku doesn’t fall into this trap, though. He does get support from his friends, and teamwork is definitely stressed as very important, but Deku doesn’t rely on this help. That’s the big difference: Deku is more than capable of solving his issues on his own.
More than that, each character in MHA is just as capable as Deku, which makes their teamwork that much better. They aren’t simply there to support Deku and act as his strength. Being friends and supporting each other makes everyone in the show stronger for it.
The way I think MHA really flips this trope, though, is with the idea of friendly rivalries.
Kohei Horikoshi is a very good writer, especially when it comes to character writing. All of his characters are written as driven, competitive and strong in their own ways, standing on their own. This is what I feel makes MHA and its characters stand out from other shōnen battle shows. Most of these anime will have a tight-knit group of friends with only one main rivalry, the main character and their literal polar opposite. Think Naruto and Sasuke, or Goku and Vegeta. MHA is very different. Every character has at least some form of rivalry with each other. It’s made clear quite early in the second season, that while Midoriya’s bonds with his friends are incredibly strong, there is also a healthy competition between them all.
This really sets MHA apart, since usually, a shōnen show won’t do much to change up the rival trope. At the most, you’ll see little changes here and there to make the rival more interesting, flesh out their character a little or not make them a villain like most shows do. Nothing has ever changed this up like MHA does though. How Deku and his friends treat each other is very fresh and interesting, and it’s definitely something to take on board when thinking about character writing!
Let’s go over a few of them, and how they interact with Deku in particular, and have a chat about this really unique take on rivalry.
Ochaco is the first student of UA high school that Deku interacts with on the school grounds. Something as simple as catching him before he faceplants on the concrete stands out as hilarious, but also gives a great insight into both of their characters. Ochaco instantly comes off as outgoing and friendly, while Deku can’t even manage to string together a basic thought, nevermind actually say a word. It gives us a pretty good base for what is quite clearly the shows main love interest. Yes, love interest. It moves very slow, we’re now about to start season four and we’ve only had a few hints that they even like each other!
They do become comfortable around each other quite quickly after their awkward first meeting, and at the start of the UA Sports Festival, Ochaco is one of several people to state Midoriya as her ‘rival’. It’s a unique and very cool dynamic for a romance story to have. Ochaco is a more than capable hero, and can definitely be counted as an equal with some of the shows best fighters. A particularly emotional episode shows a fight she has with a fellow classmate: Bakugo. (Who will definitely be covered later, in his own section). She is able to go toe to toe with him, despite him proving over and over again that he’s the best fighter in the class.
I love that this mutual rivalry and admiration brings Ochaco and Deku much closer together, as teammates and maybe much more! It’s a very unique relationship that I can’t wait to see fleshed out even more.
Iida is a fan favourite character for quite a few reasons, he has a lot of depth as a wise best friend trope, essentially. This is going a little into animation territory, but his wildly expressive gestures really breathe life into him. He seems to be a stern almost older-brother figure to Deku at first, though this also becomes clearer as it goes. The two of them have a healthy respect for each other, and a huge amount of trust. This is especially true around the halfway point of the second season. A certain series of events leaves a very deep mark on Iida, Deku
It could be said that Iida is Deku’s best friend, though there are a few others I’d say fit that role. It’s impressive, as well, that Iida goes from suspicious and dismissive of Midoriya in the first episode to have a deep admiration and respect for him by the fifth. This never comes across as rushed or lazy, either. It’s always clear that no matter the situation, the two of them will always be friends.
I’m excited to see where this goes, it’s rare for such a close friendship to have lasted so long without intense drama (Or one of them becoming a villain, Sasuke!). Iida’s heroic ideals are actually an inspiration for Deku at the moment, just like Deku was for him.
Speaking of standing out, this is the character I’ve been waiting to talk about! This post is about Deku, of course, but we can’t talk about Deku without bringing up one of the characters who helped shape him into the hero he is!
This will need to go into slight spoiler
If you don’t mind spoilers, or if you’d like a more in-depth look at one of the best fights in the whole show, this is a great video! What’s important is that they never really stop being rivals, it’s only the bitterness that leaves the relationship. After this defining moment, they become good friends, and they get closer and closer as the show progresses.
Todoroki has shown a deep trust in Deku. This has shone through in many battles and life-threatening events in the more recent arcs of the story. It’s quite refreshing, actually, that Todoroki kept everything that made him as cool as he was when he was first introduced. He just has a new appreciation of his friend and classmate now due to their epic clash!
This is probably the most interesting and maybe even the most important relationship Deku has in the show. All Might acts as Deku’s mentor, his teacher, and even his father figure. Though, Deku is also All Might’s successor, in a few ways. He is in the process of inheriting All Might’s quirk (superpower): One for All, a powerful strength-based quirk. Deku is also tasked with inheriting the mantle of ‘Symbol of Peace’ for the whole world. The number one hero, the strongest and most respected. One person, tasked with serving and protecting all. While this can sometimes be too much for young Deku, All Might is always there to pick him up and cheer him on.
The other characters I’ve covered so far didn’t think much of Midoriya at first(With the possible exception of Ochaco). He had to win them over individually, each more difficult than the last. This even includes All Might himself, Deku had to prove himself before All Might considered choosing him. This is important, the admiration and respect that Deku has earned from his peers all ties back into his relationship with All Might. This kind of trust is shown very clearly as Deku’s first steps to becoming a true Symbol of Peace. Everything he does pushes him further along in his goal of becoming the world’s greatest hero, even when he doesn’t know it!
All Might is a stand-out mentor figure in a lot of ways. He pushes Deku to reach his full potential at every turn, but he even goes above and beyond. He mentors many of the students, though he is very good at not showing favouritism. His relationship with Deku and his fellow classmates are one of the best on-screen teacher-student bonds I think I’ve ever seen!
Only as Good as his Villain
I’m sure whoever said ‘a hero is only as good as his villain’ is very proud of themselves! It’s a great quote, and it applies very nicely to Deku. Over the course of the past three seasons, Deku has come up against quite a few villains. Some more menacing than others. Though each taught Deku something, or at the very least added to his world view. This is important to remember in a villain, the hero shouldn’t come out of an encounter having learned nothing!
The way Deku is written even goes a little further than that. Not only does every villain he meet teach him something, or change his world view in some way, he sometimes ends the encounter with more than that. Several villains have left very obvious marks on Deku, physical and otherwise. He has permanent scars on his hands and arms and he feels real, crippling fear whenever he thinks of one in particular (That I won’t mention here, trust me, the main villain of the first three seasons is very good). This is the kind of writing I admire. Every encounter is important, they all have a lasting effect in some way. I’ll go a little deeper here, and talk about a few of the villains who really stand out to me as characters themselves.
Tomura Shigaraki seems to be shaping up to be the main villain of the series, but he’s also a very clear antagonist and rival to Deku specifically. Every meeting they’ve had has increased the rivalry between them by a huge amount, and the tension is palpable whenever they’re on screen together! Shigaraki has grown a lot as a villain, and as a person partially due to Deku. It’s one of the realities of being the Symbol of Peace, there are people who will stand against you just because they can. Even just to prove they can. Shigaraki didn’t really have that motivation to begin with, but it’s been forming for the whole show now.
It’s a very unique relationship between the hero and
Again, I may need to give away a few tiny plot details, but I’ll stay fairly vague. This is one of the best arcs of the show, and I’d hate to ruin it for anyone interested in watching it!
Hero-killer Stain is the main antagonist of the second arc of season two. He’s only present for a handful of episodes, but this was enough to cement him both in and out of the show’s world as one of the most threatening villains the heroes have met. As the name suggests, he is a murderer of heroes. His world view is fascinating, though. I won’t go too far into it here, as it’s really deep, but
Where it gets very interesting, is that his combat style is the same as Deku’s as well. It’d probably be better to say his style is what Midoriya’s could be if he focused on brutality and effectiveness.
In the end, Deku is able to win over the hero-killer, due to Stain recognising that Deku is a true hero. Stain even goes as far as to save Deku’s life to preserve this spark, giving us yet another incredibly unique interaction unlike many in the genre.
Yeah, with a name like ‘Muscular’, you’d better be pretty threatening. Well, he is, to make it short. Muscular isn’t as skilled as Stain, and he doesn’t have Shigaraki’s terrifying ability to turn anything he touches into dust. Muscular is just a very strong guy with big muscles, basically. This isn’t really the important part, what’s important is the situation in which Deku needs to fight him.
In all of Deku’s previous fights with real villains, he’s had help of some kind. No matter how strong they are, a fourteen year-old boy is going to need help against a fully grown murderer! So, the fight with Muscular is what happens when Deku doesn’t have that support. He fights Muscular alone, and on top of that he needs to protect a child at the same time. This is pretty much Deku’s first real test as a true hero.
I probably don’t need to tell you, Deku’s fight with Muscular is tense. Not only that, it’s brutal and almost hard to watch at times. Spoiler alert: Deku does win the fight. It takes everything he has, but he does barely manage to scrape out a win, even if it leaves his arms permanently damaged.
This is a good fight to learn from. MHA shows with this fight that the more desperate a fight is, the more lasting the damage will be. After this fight, Deku isn’t able to use his arms as effectively as he could before. But he won, and more importantly, saved a child’s life! That’s what’s more important to Deku, and I think that makes him way more likeable.
A Softer Manliness
Wanting to save people just for the sake of saving people isn’t exactly original. The idea that a hero saves people because that’s ‘just what heroes do’ has been before, even in shōnen anime. So, how does Deku break this mould?
Often, to try and make their characters stand out, shōnen writers will go in the opposite direction, trying to give their character a reason for saving people. It can be deeply personal, or to do with revenge or something similar. What’s important is that very few shōnen shows played into the idea of the main character simply wanting to be a hero, and to save people. Again, Luffy from One Piece is an interesting exception, but he’s an exception in almost all regards so he doesn’t count.
This is where the idea of manliness comes in. To a lot of writers, it seems childish to want to be a hero. Men apparently need reasons to help people, or sad backstories to set them on this path. Deku doesn’t. He really stands out from other shōnen characters in this way. Deku is not feminine, that much we can agree on, but he is very vulnerable at times. He shows all of his emotions openly and he has a lot of realistic insecurities a teenage boy would have. His only reason for wanting to help people is that he wants to be like All Might, that he wants to be a great hero.
Deku is caring, thoughtful and friendly. of course, he’s also awkward, insecure and a bit weird. This is a wonderful mix when taking his determination and grit into account too! He’s a dynamic and deeply interesting character all round. I guess that would make his opposite very interesting too, wouldn’t it?
I feel very strongly that Bakugo needs his own section when talking about Izuku. Bakugo, in many ways, can be attributed to moulding Deku into the hero he is, for a few reasons. Of all the rivalries in this show, the most intense is Bakugo and Deku.
Right from episode one, we can see that Bakugo has had a profound effect on shaping Deku as a person. Izuku’s mild-mannered nature could well be partly a result of bullying at Bakugo’s hands. Though it is clear that they were once good friends, as well. This complicated relationship eats away at both of them. Bakugo bases his superiority on Deku’s ‘uselessness’, while Deku’s inferiority complex comes from him thinking that he’s weaker than Bakugo. It all comes to a head as early as episode six of the show.
Although, it doesn’t even stop there! Tensions between the two get tauter and tauter as the show goes on. It even gets to the point that it seems Bakugo may switch sides many times. I won’t spoil how these events end up, I’d just like to point out that Bakugo is the second most interesting character in the whole show, in my opinion! His interactions with Deku are almost always aggressive and menacing, while Deku’s confidence always seems to waver around Bakugo.
This dynamic was the same for the majority of the show, until certain developments recently that I would hate to spoil. Let’s just say it’s something people were waiting for for a very long time! This is easily the relationship I’m looking forward to seeing developed the most!
So, What Can We Take From Deku?
If I’ve done my job properly here, Deku probably seems like a great main character for his genre. I’d just like to point out that what makes Deku special doesn’t only need to apply to shōnen battle anime! These small changes to the tropes used for main characters within their own genres can be used in any field. The important part about this style isn’t that every trope is challenged, or even changed. Horikoshi chose to take the tropes he thought made Deku more interesting and make changes to make him seem more realistic as a teenage boy. Then he went further to help make Deku stand out as a character, making him an emotional, friendly, polite kid who strives to be independent. Who wants to save people simply because that’s what great heroes do.
Just have a think about that, sometimes it’s good to use the tropes defining your genre as a base to make fun and interesting characters! You don’t need to write a deconstruction to be different. Especially now that deconstructions are the norm. Deku, and My Hero Academia in general, prove that you can use what came before and still have your story feel fresh and new!
Thanks for reading, and happy writing folks!
If you’re interested in watching the show, click here.