On Archetypes and Heuristics

One of the major criticisms of moé is how common and endemic archetypes are to it. Anti-Moé Brigadiers argue that the prevalence of archetypes is shallow and that archetypical characters are built only to pander to otaku fetishes. Archetypes, however, might be a much more natural development than the self-proclaimed intellectuals of the Anti-Moé Brigade would have you believe. I’ll explain.

A heuristic is a technique used to aid in learning, problem-solving, and discovery. They’re based in experience and we often use them unconsciously. To illustrate, allow me to explain what’s called the “Gaze Heuristic.”

The vast majority of human beings cannot do the math necessary for accurate predicting where something will land when it is thrown. Instead, a person will look up at the thrown object, lock their gaze at an angle, and move to keep the object in their view with their gaze locked at that angle until they can catch the object.

A key element of heuristics, however, is that they are often inaccurate. Even the gaze heuristic can’t guarantee a catch. The only thing a perfectly-followed gaze heuristic can guarantee is the object hitting the person in the face. It still comes down to the person to make the decision to go for the catch. Likewise, other heuristics are very often inaccurate when applied to individual cases. Heuristics are helpers. They aid us in making decisions and solving problems, but cannot make decisions or solve problems for us.

Where do character archetypes fit into all this? Easy. Character archetypes are part of a heuristic. They give us a baseline from which we can begin to think about a character. If I were to say that Taiga Aisaka is a “tsundere,” then we already know that she is initially hostile toward the protagonist, but eventually warms up to him. If I were to call Selnia Flameheart an “Ojou-sama,” then we already know that she fancies herself a high-status person and expects to be treated like royalty.

The Anti-Moé Brigade might see these distinctions as shallow, but think about it: If we had to begin every conversation about a character by describing the basics of said character, we’d spend all day describing characters and would have no time for discussion. This is the same reason we have genres. We know that a mecha show will be focused on giant robots, so the conversation can start from there rather than needing to explain the particulars of a show’s mechs.

Categorization is a natural part of human thought processes and, as such, archetypes are constructed by the viewers as categories for characters. Archetypes do not preclude characters from being deep or complex. As a heuristic, the concept of character archetypes is, by nature, not accurate, which is why the conversation about characters doesn’t end at a character’s archetype.

Again, think about it: Kotonoha Katsura is a good cook, has homemaker-type hobbies like knitting, and will truly do anything for Makoto Itou. By this token, she fits into the “Yamato Nadeshiko” archetype. That is, until she loses her sanity and eventually snaps and kills people. That doesn’t break the heuristic, however. Now, she’s a “Yandere.”

Claiming that heuristics are shallow is just as useless as arguing that genres are useless and should be abolished. The fact is we know that characters are more than just archetypes. We’re not dumb. In fact, the use of archetypes facilitates higher-level discussions about these characters because it helps us not get bogged-down in semantics and lets the discussion start from a point of mutual understanding.

Suddenly, it seems like the only people who are making archetypes into a big deal are the Anti-Moé Brigade.

Stay frosty.


6 thoughts on “On Archetypes and Heuristics”

  1. Wonderful post. I already explained myself in my blog about how moe characters aren’t as shallow as one might think, but I think this post further explains why such assumptions can be inaccurate. I don’t think it’s necessarily what a character’s personality is that determines whether they are one-dimensional, but rather how the character is portrayed within the show. If a character doesn’t have a unique trait that distinct them from other characters with personalities, then yes, it can be quite obvious that this character’s personality was just used for a gimmick and can be one-dimensional. But did these Anti-Moe Brigade people ever consider that maybe the creators of these shows weren’t even thinking about archetypes when they wrote for them? Or what if they just enjoy the archetypes and just wanted to use them in their own way? This is why I wouldn’t agree with the notion that if you’ve seen one tsundere or dojikko, you’ve seen them all.

  2. JP from Redline archetype-greaser poser with who drives an eyesore of a car to impress a lady and stop the generic 80’s cartoon villain that all ends in a predictable kiss.

  3. Very well executed. Everyone enjoys and uses genre’s (or Archetypes) in virtually every corner of geekdom. If paid TV critics or a group of fan girls on a blog want to discuss “The Walking Dead” or “True Blood”, one could almost bet they will all paint the characters with a similar brush – starting with the baseline Archetype and commenting accordingly.

    Harem anime’s in particular are excellent sources for a fan of anime to learn, digest, & discuss the widest spectrum of commonly used Japanese personality types. While some fans enjoy the “service”, some fans enjoy the wide range of characters that now interact in situations that normally wouldn’t allow such collections,

    My favorite example of how archetypes are useful are the TCSM Anime review vids – This one video is like a “Harem’s Made Easy” lecture boiled down to 3 minutes. Even if you’re a complete novice or a pro at Japanese Anime, you instantly follow the “motivational core” or personality type of a character just base on these simple fast and elegant examples given. They used “IS- Infinite Stratos” as their example and it covers everything so smartly. Behold it’s brilliance: http://youtu.be/hD-7DKx3bBo.

    Anime has always had archetypes and it always will. The “Old School 90’s” crowd seem annoyed because they possibly feel out of touch with the modern Archetypes. You could set “Haruhi Suzumiya” or “Infinite Stratos” in the 90’s (art style even) and I bet it would’ve seemed interesting and modern then. I just think the Anti-Moe Brigade are jaded. They hate that the stories and subjects are not reflecting they’re former concerns.

    People on the ANN podcast (like Zac & Justin) have admitted that they enjoy gritty complicated existential soul searching (stuff like “Penguin Drum”, “Polar Bear Cafe”, and “Princess Jellyfish”)- The really wanted “Kids on the Slope” to be something that it eventually wasn’t (just based on the creators previous works)- They want the “Old Rush” or a “Newer more complicated Rush”- they want Anime that reflects their tastes. Lucky for the modern Moe fan, we don’t live in HELL.

    They don’t understand Moe’s appeal, message, fanbase, or soul – This doesn’t make them bad people, just woefully inept at reviewing a genre they can’t hope to appreciate because it’s not in their Geek-DNA. I personally love 3-D females being Moe or cosplaying as 2-D characters. I don’t have a 2-D fetish but I don’t look down on those that do. I don’t play Hentai Eroge games but I spend a decent amount of time interacting with live pin-up/webcam models & cosplayers because I like live females – I can meet the 2-D crowd halfway even though I don’t have their interests, I can find the common ground: We both like females of a certain archetype within Japanese culture.

    One can easily uses Moe rules & fanbase stats to accurately predict the appeal & fanbase reaction to J-Pop Idols (like AKB48) because as you already said- Archetypes. Whether it’s 20 girls on a stage or 20 girls in an Anime – there’s always types and girls who stand out and we as fans Japanese cuteness get joy out of following and cheering on their adventures, 2-D or 3-D. It’s ALL Moe and it shows a healthy interest in how females act and think. Perhaps we’re searching for out “Female selves” in our favorite Moe queens? This is too deep for Zac to understand.

    I’ve always been partial to Asuka from “Evangelion”. She’s so driven, intelligent, fragile, opinionated, vulnerable, mysterious, gutsy, and inspiring as a female. Shakesbear, Dickens, & Victor Hugo (even Niel Gaimen) would be fascinated by Asuka’s adventures. She’s so complex and so Moe!

  4. Archetypes aren’t the problem, its just the hypocritical BS of preferring one archetype over another. And acting like an elitist douche because of your preferred archetype. I know some posters on ANN that think they’re “mature” because they prefer women like Mikoto from Ghost in the Shell. Thus looking down on men who prefer more “cuter” archetypes.

  5. As difficult and complex as that heuristic topic may seem at first, that’s actually a well thought out way to describe moe archetypes. Without these character archetypes, how would we connect with the characters in the show? Me being a fan of the dojikko archetype, these characters (i.e. Lynette Bishop, Suzu Tanahashi, etc.) immediately connect when they first appear on screen. Though it is not to say that they are alike. Granted they share the same archetype, but in the end, Lynette and Suzu are extremely different, yet enjoyable characters.

    To add to this discussion about character archetypes and character development, take Wakaba Saegusa from Vividred Operation as another example. At first glance she seems like the typical tsudere-like character who’s athletic, hates losing, has that samurai-like spirit going on, etc. At the same time, she has an affinity for fashion and cute things. I love both of those traits as part of her character. Those are things that tickle my moe senses a lot.

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