The Question at the Heart of Every Good Story – Code Geass, Others

Code Geass animeEvery good story, nay, every story, has a question at its heart. A question that the story revolves around, a question the story not only seeks to answer, but presents itself as an answer to. Every story, except some ;)

Understanding this question can often shape the way you look at a story. Things that you did not understand their “Why?”, the reason they occured, and that had seemed meaningless, are suddenly seen in a new light. You construct the story and give it a theme, of answering the question, of resisting the question, and so on.

Most interesting is the analogy of coloured glasses, or a point of view. Many people see a different story being told, a different theme. And in many cases, there are many “legitimate” answers, and switching from one question to another can help you consider the story from different directions.

An anime I absolutely love is Code Geass. Many people have found Code Geass, and especially its second season to be lacking, in some way. I try to get them to look at this “question” that the series poses as its theme in order to help them see the series as I see it, and hopefully appreciate it as I do. The question Code Geass poses is this, “At what cost victory?”

The first season is quite light-hearted, in a way. We see what Lelouch is willing to do, who he is willing to quash, what he will do in order to secure victory, and the world he is looking to establish. The second series is where the question which the protagonist thought he answered decisively in the first season returns, and the protagonist is told that his answer is unsatisfactory, his resolve untested, and that he must demonstrate further conviction.

And so, the second season has Lelouch meet with hardships at every turn, and Lelouch suffers losses. The second season asks the same question, and shows us what Lelouch is not only willing to inflict upon others, but what he is willing to give up in order to win. The second season is all about “At what personal cost victory?” and Lelouch finally answers decisively, in a way that cannot be ignored.

Mai-HiME animeLikewise, Mai-HiME, an anime that I love, has a relatively unsatisfactory ending, I agree. It might also feel like the first half of the series and the second are not in accord, but I disagree. The question this series poses is “What will I do for the sake of Love?” You can also pose it as “Which love is stronger, for my friends-comrades, or for my “Dear Ones”?”
Once you look at it like this, it’s pretty clear that the first half of the series is there for a very real purpose – not “just” so we’ll care for the characters, but so the conflict the question generates will be meaningful – if the choice is obvious, then the story falls flat.

In this case, the first half of the story serves as build-up for the characters to care for one another, and for us to care if they will sacrifice their relationships with one another. Thus, the ending, with Mai fighting her close friend, is part of the answer to this question. That they all end well, and previous “costs” are wiped away cheapens it, but the nearly-ending does fit with the story until that point, according to this question.

Yes, that’s another word for “Question” in this sense, “Conflict”. The question both drives the conflicts in the story, causes the main characters to clash with themselves, with their friends, and with the society that surrounds them, and is the engine that drives the story forth. If there is only one answer, it may be futile to resist, and the story can be about resisting the inevitable. If there is only one answer, and choosing it costs the character nothing, then there is little interest in the story.

Shigofumi, and “Science Fiction”, could be seen as having a big question, “When people die, and they get to send one letter from beyond death, what will its effects be?” Now, this is a situation. In the case of Shigofumi, it’s the premise of the story, but not the question the story answers. Being more of an episodic series, the series poses different questions every arc: “You’ve found out you have cancer,” or “You are bullied.” The original situation is the background of the series, and we see the issue explored, but it’s not the story’s question. Well, according to me.

Finally, if the paragraph above seems weird to you, as the “Questions” posed within Shigofumi are not questions, that’s because you can simply append “What do you do?” to them. A question need not be something we ask, but a situation that is present, demands action, and cannot be ignored.
Slice of life or SitComs also have such questions. We face questions all the time. What is “SitCom” if not a series where we have a “Situation” or “Question” (often two) in each episode to generate interest and friction?

In the end, stories are (almost) always about people.

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8 comments on “The Question at the Heart of Every Good Story – Code Geass, Others

  1. […] blogging schedule should resume by this weekend. And you should really read the previous post about the question at the heart of every story. I think it’s a really good one Categories: Editorial, Guy's Life Tags: […]

  2. Reltair says:

    People have found Code Geass lacking? I personally thought it was great.

    “At what cost victory?” – Victory no matter the cost. Defeat is unacceptable.

    • Guy says:

      Well, words are cheap. “Show, don’t tell” is an important quote when it comes to media. And the anime does just that, show it to us.

      Yeah, I’ve seen some people who found the series lacking, especially the second season. I agree with you.

  3. lovelyduckie says:

    I haven’t seen season 2 yet…but I REALLY liked how Code Geass season 1 ended. Half the reason why I haven’t seen season 2 yet is because I kind of wanted to end on that climactic note. But you’ve renewed my interest in season 2, maybe I’ll watch it sometime soon.

  4. beep says:

    Confession: Yeah I’m one who’s actually thinking that CG lacked.

    I don’t get your “at what cost victory?” – is that even english?
    Was that supposed to be the question which price is acceptable to pay to reach your goal?

    At least I think the real question around the plot started with: What price is to pay for your ambitions while impaired with a giant ego?
    For some EP’s I really liked the diverging plotline, but somewhere in the middle, it became twisted in another way. For me it looked more and more like the plotline of reactions was written first, and after that, they began to create some hopefully fitting actions around it to justify the reaction.
    Wasn’t the main lead supposed to be able to think more then one step ahead? Why would someone like him sink so low, that he would simply go for an all-or-nothing aproach instead of thinking ahead and taking precations against the most obvious dangers/moves?

    CG had the potential to become much more and they had, at least from my point of view, disregarded it for some two-bit rollercoaster ride where the driving question became more and more replaced by the “need to twist/surprise is key to success”. Instead of following the lead to find his answer to the question, the writers themselfes became victim to their own ambitions – no I would even say obsession with the need to surprise yet again. While calculated ambition might be acceptable, obsession is not. If you raise the question in the first place, shouldn’t you at least try not to fall victim to the very same setting?

    On Mai-HiME we seem to both agree to the driving question, but while the first 2-3 Episodes really were raising a lot of interest, it soon became lacking on impact. It somehow put too much value in the shounen part, and the resulting plotline became too monotone, too straightforward – too flat. Not that both series were bad, but they could have been much more then just a better-then-average or entertaining series.

    Actually I even rewatched Mai-HiME even though it’s lacking, but I couldn’t bring myself to rewatch CG at all. Somehow I even surprised myself in beginning to rate Mai-HiMe higher then CG at least in that regard.

    • Guy says:

      1. How is CG lacking? It can lack in many ways, and while I agree on some and will elaborate lower, you should explain what exactly it is that you mean by that phrase.

      2. It may not be super correct English, I’ll cop to that. Yeah, “Success at what cost?” – what are you willing to give up for the sake of success?

      3. He may have under-estimated one more course of reactions – his own emotions.
      I think about the deductive/predictive nature of many “mystery” shows – referring to the solutions provided by people such as Lelouch or Light Yagami, where we often can’t predict them in advance due to them being borderline deus ex machinas – it’s a matter of taste. I really enjoy watching such shows and expecting to be surprised by original solutions.
      Indeed, like you it wouldn’t surprise me if sometimes they have the riddles and solutions to some of the issues and then construct the story around it, I’m sure Death Note has plenty of that – but I usually like it, so I’ll chalk it up as a matter of taste.

      4. I have a long post about Mai-HiME, to put it succinctly I believe they set up the routine of the first half of the show so the 2nd half would be able to shatter it. You can’t shatter a routine without there being one to begin with. They also needed relationships that they can break later on, which meant spending time building the relationships within the show.

      5. I think Code Geass might be “better”, it’s certainly deeper. But good does not mean entertaining, good does not necessarily mean engaging (though engaging and entertaining do mean “good”). Code Geass, beyond the first half of the first season goes into a much slower pace, and is a lot less exciting to watch.

      6. Lelouch does suffer from megalomania. He’s a villain, and the protagonist, the two are not mutually exclusive. The over-dramatization he uses is one of the reasons I think he’s such a splendid character, and why I originally didn’t like Fukuyama Jun’s voice-acting but then grew to understand it fits his nature perfectly.
      Lelouch doesn’t go for twists for their own sake, but in order to accomplish his goals. The authors’ goal is to make us engaged, and in that way they are similar – they use the twists to keep us watching, but you’re right – people often fall in love with their own cleverness.

  5. Guy says:

    Note to self: The emperor exemplifies the very same question as Lelouch – his pact with V.V. – they had a goal, now you see what he’s willing to have lost for it, and only part of it that we see now – his brother’s humanity, his brother, his own humanity, his wife, his children, going to war against the whole world. All for his goal of ending the existence of a world with war, of lies, of God.

  6. […] once more we’re all on the same page again. What is interesting is the question itself. I’ve gone on record before to say stories contain questions, and often the narrative is about tackling these questions. But before we can even answer the […]

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