When we are first introduced to Araragi Koyomi in Bakemonogatari, what do we know about him?
He’s a highschool student who got bitten by a vampire once and now with the help of a weird middle-aged dude, he’s back to normal, except for the fact that he has super-human regenerative powers.
And that’s Araragi Koyomi. That’s all you know about him. Not really that interesting. But that’s part of the magic of The Monogatari Series. And now if you think of every other character in the show, they all are introduced in the same way, only coming with the information we need to understand what’s going on, but nothing inherent to their personality. The Monogatari Series builds itself up from that with a ”show, don’t tell” way of doing it. That term seems wrong when we are talking about a show that’s famous(And infamous) for being incredibly dialogue driven, having conversations that last entire episodes, but if you think about it, it totally makes sense.
This show’s characters seem incredibly flat at the beggining of Bakemonogatari, but when you get to Hanamonogatari they feel incredibly real, and it already seems like you could call them your friends, because of their incredibly dense stories and personalities. That’s because you’ve know them for the same time that Araragi has, and really, everything that you got out of them, was something that you could get from normal people. The character development here works like the progression of a relationship between friends.
One of the biggest reasons for that working so well is the flashbacks.
”But aren’t flashbacks the cheapest form of storytelling?”
Not always. And certainly not here. A cheap flashback is when you use it just as a convenient way to explain something that just popped up and would have not made any sense in the story if not for some bullshit made up thing that happened in the past coming up just now.
But in The Monogatari Series they are done right. Here are the reasons
1- The facts told in the flashback never affected the story in a major way, but still, they weren’t invisible until just now. That is, those are facts that already happened in the past, and they sure had their effects on the present, but never got in it’s way. Basically put: There are no plot-holes, the narrative remains consistent.
2- These facts are not just told as a way of explaining something. The past is treated the same way as the present, and even though the presentation might not be the same most of the times, it is never simply the past that we’re seeing, those are stories from the past . Those are not just events that justified other events in the present, but their own particular events that take place in a older time from now.
3- When characters narrate, they speak in the same way they would if they were just telling a personal story,but in a calmer time. They are never in a rush to do it, they just tell it in a serious way, but also bringing character to the narration, as in the especific character telling the story. That way, characters are never neutral and narrating from an objective standpoint, therefore, making it a lot more interesting.
Now, another reason why the character development works beautifully, is the speed in wich everything happens. As I already said about the flashbacks, the rest of the story is also treated calmly with no rush to ever get to the next point of the narrative. That way, we get a slow build from the ground up of these seemingly uninteresting characters untill they become amazing people. That is one of the advantages of having a ”standart”, ”default” character, if it is simple and empty, it means you can put a lot more into it.
”But if it is such a good thing, why don’t we see it being done so well all the time? Why doesn’t everyone just write ”blanc” characters so that anything they say will be interesting?”
That is because it would be boring. Just trying to do that for the sake of doing it as a gimmick would have the opposite result. You would get characters that are literally being written in front of the audience and that would be pretty weird and as I said, boring. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like you can’t write anything on the go and make it interesting, you just have to know where you’re coming from.
Nisio Isin cracked the code for how to do it: Small arcs introducing new characters that upon the ending of them result in their small appearences in other arcs while each of them having their own in every book. That makes it refreshing and new, while being able to develop characters a lot more slowly and patiently without ever having to ignore them. It also works because the series is about conversations,and if you’re going to have characters talking constantly, you might as well make them interesting through what they say. Make them have interesting thoughts and ways of expressing them. That way you can grab the viewer’s interest on the characters.
And there’s also the change in hairstyles that give a bigger sense of progression, especially with Kanbaru’s hair, that only grows longer as the story progresses.
The anime makes it even better. If you’re not interested in every beggining of every each arc, there is still some inventive Shaft directing that complements that dialogue and keeps you entertained for every bit of second that you’re watching it. (I enjoy it at least,but for the ones that dislike the visuals, it might be harder to be interested in the characters if you are not already interested in the narrative).
And that’s how The Monogatari Series manages to bring the characters closer to the viewer, making them some of the most weirdly believable characters of all time.