Writing Lessons from Death Note

Spoiler Warning: I’m assuming that if you’re nerdy enough to have clicked on this post, you’ve either (a) watched Death Note to completion or (b) just love to read everything I write. For the sake of those who fall under (b), if they exist, I will try to keep spoilers to a minimum because YOU SHOULD WATCH THIS SHOW. However, it’s hard to discuss Death Note at all without giving away minor spoilers about certain episodes, so You Have Been Warned.

I have recently fallen into the black hole known as Death Note. For those of you who aren’t aware, this anime’s about Light Yagami, a brilliant student who discovers a notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name is written inside it. He decides to use it to judge the criminals of the world, quickly attracting the attention of the police force and a mysterious detective known as L. Infuriating mind games ensue.

While watching this show, I felt alternatively disgusted, angry, depressed, awed…and yes, in the end I was satisfied. (I suppose that’s a minor spoiler but really if a show isn’t going to leave you feeling satisfied in some way…why bother?) You may notice that most of those emotions are negative. Why would I watch — and furthermore, recommend — a show that made me feel this way? Well, that brings me to the first writing lesson from the unique storytelling style within Death Note.

  1. Writing must produce emotions. Any emotions. But they must be STRONG.

That doesn’t mean you should have your readers weeping in despair or dying of laughter at every scene. But in my experience, the stronger the emotions a story produces — even if those emotions are negative — the greater my drive to finish the story. And, if the story pays off in the end and leaves me satisfied, I’m much more likely to proclaim its brilliance to the world, even if while I’m watching/reading I feel like this most of the time:

My response to pretty much everything Light does

A common pitfall when trying to achieve this goal is melodrama. Never once did I feel like the creators of Death Note were trying to FORCE me to feel something. The feelings arose naturally from the situations the characters were in. In fact, that leads me to point number two…

  1. Your protagonist DOESN’T have to be likable.

WHAT? Faith!! You’re contradicting the oldest writing rule known to humankind! Well I’m SORRY, but when I spend the majority of the show flat-out hating the protagonist and yet still loving the show as a whole, I’ve got to investigate.

Yes, it’s true. Light is arrogant, narcissistic, manipulative, has a godhood complex, and considers human life to be of no value once that human has broken the law or opposed him. His only winning features are his intelligence and his good looks (which I think was a devilishly clever choice on the part of the artists — gives him points for both types of fangirls). And yet I love this show.

Be warned with this piece of advice: it can backfire. There actually was a point where I considered stopping watching the show because he was making me so angry, but at the same time I knew I had to continue. The plot was so gripping that I HAD to find out what happened. I took a short break from the show to cool down, but unlike most shows that I take “breaks” from, I remembered to come back.

The key to this is control. The writers were fully aware Light would turn some (most) people off at some point. My hate of him actually spurred me to keep watching, because I needed to know if he got what was coming to him. (Did he? I’ll never tell.) It also made me feel deeply conflicted, because as a protagonist I had initially bonded with him, then recoiled when he started murdering. It made me ask: would I do the same in this situation? Who would I kill?

When a writer wants their character to be likeable but they aren’t, that’s a problem. When you know that most readers will probably hate your protagonist, and this decision is purposeful on your part, you can really twist this to your advantage.

However, I really might have stopped watching the show if it hadn’t been for this next piece…

  1. Write boss minor characters.

I ADORED so many of the minor characters, from Light’s family members to L himself to the adorkable police force member Matsuda…even Light’s self-proclaimed girlfriend Misa, although the “fangirl” characters aren’t usually my favorite. With the exception of Light’s mother and sister, each character had a well-rounded personality and backstory. Even without that, I didn’t feel Mrs. Yagami and Sayu Yagami were lacking. They had the amount of development they needed…nothing more.

I think we need to talk about Matsuda, even though his role is downplayed throughout most of the series. While everyone else is super intense, Matsuda is more laid-back and plays the part of comic relief extremely well. He also has a real need to prove himself, a motive which (in my opinion) makes him even more adorable. And of course, because of this, he gets into shenanigans. My favorite. (I also may have a fan crush on him but shhh.)

If you decide to go with an anger-inspiring protagonist like Light, make sure your supporting cast is extremely strong, and that at least one of them is likable to some extent. There should be balance between intense characters and people who are good for a laugh…and don’t be afraid to switch things up, either. L has his comic moments while Matsuda has his serious ones.

  1. Then kill those boss minor characters.

I absolutely refuse in any circumstance to tell you which of these characters die. Some do. That is all you’re getting. After all, a show about a notebook with the power to kill anyone wouldn’t make any sense if, you know, it didn’t kill someone we CARE about.

Which brings me to this: don’t be afraid to kill characters. Be ruthless. As a contrast, I’m going to pick on the Star Wars prequels for a moment. (I know, I know, they have it rough already. I’m sorry.) When the famous Order 66 comes along, no one we care about die. It’s like George Lucas is screaming “LOOK AT THE BIG BAD KILLING THINGS!!! ISN’T IT SAD??” But unless you’ve watched Clone Wars (which, may I add, was made after the prequels) and recognize a few of the deceased…it’s hardest to care. The worst part is when (spoiler) Anakin kills the younglings, and that’s only because they’re children. We don’t KNOW anyone. Not even that kid that manages to hold his own against a stormtrooper for several minutes. Seriously, who is that guy?

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Spoiler: It’s Zett Jukassa. Can we just have a moment of silence to appreciate that Star Wars has a name for every. Single. Minor. Character?

Oh right, this is about Death Note. Sorry.

The Death Note kills people. Obviously. And when it kills people that we actually care about, we know that literally anyone could die, which ups the stakes dramatically. And, it makes us angrier at Light and more anxious to see his demise.

Do we get to see that? I’ll never tell…

  1. Don’t be afraid to pull out the big guns whenever you want.

After the first few episodes, I thought I had a pretty good idea of where the show was going; how it was going to end, who would die, etc. Why would I think I could know such a thing? Well…I do have a writing blog. It’s kind of my thing to try to find stereotypical plot points and predict what happens next.

Well, Death Note didn’t let me do that. There were several elements I had been sure would come at the show’s climax that showed up before the show was halfway over. I was flabbergasted. If this is happening NOW…what will happen NEXT?

Death Note is also a pro at giving you just enough info to let you THINK you know what’s going on, but do you? Bwahahahaha! NO!

The danger with this, of course, is that if you pull out the big guns too early, you might not have anything left for the climax. On the whole, I think Death Note did well with this, although I was a bit skeptical of a few characters who showed up to fill voids left by our deceased friends. If you choose to use this element, make sure you’ve planned everything out to a T. Or to an L, I suppose. (What? I tried.)

Finally, Number 6.

  1. Let your readers make their own choices.

When I watch Light Yagami heartlessly write hundreds of names in the Death Note, I feel slightly sick, but I’m not sure if everyone watching feels the same. I’ve seen evidence on the Internet — whether it’s a ‘would you rather’ style button asking if you’d murder someone for immortality or a quiz on if you’d side with L or Light, there’s always a percentage of people who choose Light’s side. True, usually the minority, but they’re out there. Personally I find that scary, but the anime doesn’t discourage this behavior. In fact, I think it encourages it.

Although Light is the protagonist, the other characters — particularly the police force — get a lot of screen time. More than your average minor character and even more than your average villain. I think the writers did this on purpose in order to give the audience a fair chance to choose between Light and L. And even after the climactic ending (which I will not reveal), the show never announces its own opinion on the subject. Sure, we know what the CHARACTERS think, but it’s what many of them have been saying all along. The show doesn’t come with a clear-cut message. And while that may seem like a downfall, I prefer it.

So many stories, especially Christian fiction, come prepared with anvils to smack their viewers/readers over the head. While this might be enough to convince some people, I think it’s more effective to let your reader actively think about your story. This will provoke deeper consideration of your story question than if you just whacked them with your prescribed answer.

The risk, of course, is that they might not come to the same conclusion you have.

While I know I’ve been pushing y’all to watch Death Note like there’s no tomorrow, I admit the show might not be for everyone. Because it’s so intense and doesn’t have a clear “good guy,” it would be very hard for children to watch…or even teens who don’t yet have firm-set beliefs. (Who does that remind me of? Oh, right. Me.) In my opinion, Death Note definitely falls under the psychological horror category, and you’ve got to be ready for that. In particular, Light starts proclaiming that he is god, and numerous characters begin to follow him, which I found very disturbing. Also (this one is a spoiler, so quickly skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want it), the story world does begin to improve due to Light’s actions — crime rates dropping and such — which makes the watcher question if Light’s philosophy might actually be beneficial.

Definitely a challenging show, but worth watching. The writing, art, and voice acting are all phenomenal. I haven’t read the manga, but I’d like to someday.

Oh, I almost forgot #7!

7. Cake.

Faith out.

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