So You Want To/Write a Yuri Manga
"Yuri", also known as "Girls Love", is a Manga and Anime genre about romantic relationships between women. The following is not a general guide to writing Lesbian Romance fiction, although some advice offered here may be helpful in writing both it and other forms of romance.
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
- 7 Extra Credit
You will need a lesbian Alpha Couple. They will be the centerpiece of your story and failing to introduce them early will unnecessarily frustrate your readers. "Girl meets girl" comes first; everything else (boys, families, rivals, etc.) comes later.
Note that your main girls don't have to be in a committed relationship from the start. You can do that, of course, but simply introducing them and dropping a few hints at a future Romance Arc does just as good a job of setting them up.
The original yuri mangas of The Seventies were all targeted at the Shoujo demographic, but the genre has since expanded to appeal to older demographics of Seinen and Josei, as well. Shonen yuri is nigh non-existent, owing to the demographic's traditional disinterest in relationships.
Shojo yuri tends to be drawn in the distinct thin-lines-big-eyes-impossibly-perfect-bodies style and to feature setups similar to the much more prominent (in that demographic) Boys Love Genre--but that is in no way a universal rule. Seinen yuri tends to feature more Bishoujo-style art and to become Long Runners with complex plots and Loads and Loads of Characters--but, again, works on the other ends of artistic and narrative spectrum have been published for this demographic. Josei yuri tends to be the most experimental and, simultaneously, most realistic when it comes to lesbian relationships (e.g. it's the only yuri category where you will likely find genuine Butch Lesbians, as opposed to Bifauxnen)--but in the end of the day, what decides your target demographic is mainly which magazine signs up to run your story.
The first thing to do before starting on a manga concept is to determine your personal preference in tone and mood in yuri. In the wake of the classical "Write What You Know" maxim, the equally important "Write What You Like" tends to be forgotten. In fact, the number of successful male writers of lesbian fiction can be seen as a testament of the precedence of WWYL before WWYK (and, accidentally, of how much the Yuri Genre has to do with lesbian relationships in Real Life). So, writing in the tone and mood of yuri that you prefer to read yourself is the best starting point.
There are three main axes along which each yuri story can be situated. Before you begin, you should decide where you and your story are placed on them, according to your personal preference and the expectations of your readership. They are:
- Drama. This axis is characterized by the prominence of Gayngst, Dark Secrets, Dark and Troubled Pasts, societal barriers and stigmas, UST, personal and external differences, etc.. In short, everything here is Played for Drama.
- Comedy. This axis is dominated by Romantic Comedy tropes, wacky everyday hijinx, Super-Deformed panels, Innocent Sexual Innuendos, Obliviousness to Subtext, etc.. In other words, what the Drama axis takes seriously, this one Plays for Laughs.
- WAFF. This axis is defined by feel-nice, trouble-free romance with lots of hugging (but rarely kissing--too dramatic), quality time together, Sleeping Cute, etc.. This axis is responsible for most of the Healing Manga (and not only in yuri).
It is important to understand that no axis is "more significant" or "more commendable" than others. It is all a matter of preference, and great yuri mangas have been produced on each of the three extremes. The best policy is to choose your favorite dominant axis and stick with it, distributing the remaining page space equally among the other two. That said, some elements mix better than others:
- Drama as the dominant axis tends to overshadow the other two. If Comedy moments are present in a dramatic series, they should become rarer towards the end. WAFF is easier to sneak in, particularly as heartwarming Woobie moments.
- Comedy as the dominant axis mixes well with WAFF but it is equally possible to keep hugging-and-cuteness to the minimum. Unless you are really subtle, mixing equal doses of Comedy and Drama is likely to produce epic Narm.
- WAFF as the dominant axis mixes well with Comedy but can also be spiced up with Drama. The trick to the latter is to never let your readers doubt even for a moment that that a good, well-timed hug won't solve everything.
Abruptly switching from one primary axis to another, particularly from Comedy or WAFF to Drama, is a common cause of Mood Whiplash, so consider it very, very carefully.
What yuri manga is not is an accurate depiction of lesbian relationships as they occur in Real Life--for much the same reasons that vanilla romance fiction is rarely a faithful reproduction of everyday personal relationships between men and women.
Because of its cultural roots in the pre-World War II Japanese education system (see Class S), a lot of yuri mangas produced in Japan these days are set in an Elaborate University High or a One-Gender School. Consequentially, a vast majority of lesbian couples in yuri manga are in their late teens to mid-twenties. While you are in no way bound to this setting and age range, you may find it easier to come up with subplots and reach your readers if you stick to the classics.
Other popular settings, especially for adult heroines, include their professional environments (office, or wherever their job usually takes them) and outright Fantasy settings. For some reason, Science Fiction yuri mangas are few and far in-between.
The first thing to know is that yuri couples are defined by their contrasts. In any form of romance fiction, couples that are perfectly attuned to each other and share same interests and outlooks on life are the most boring thing ever. Therefore, a good fictional (!) romance is the one fraught with differences, misunderstandings, and clashes. In the classical vanilla romance, the good ol' gender contrast is responsible for more than enough tension between lovers. Lesbian romance doesn't have such an easy way out, so the contrast between the female leads should be very carefully considered and balanced out to both keep them apart and, paradoxically, keep them together in the end.
On the other hand, your main couple does need some things in common. The second important thing to remember is that while the opposites do attract, it's the similarities that create lasting bonds.
Keeping your story's positioning on the three axes in mind, a rule of thumb is that the more Comedic and/or WAFFy a yuri story is, the more alike the female leads will be; conversely, the more Dramatic the story, the larger their differences (and the bigger the payoff). The following list offers a limited selection of common contrasts in yuri manga:
- Physical appearance:
- Reserved — brash
- Detached — empathetic
- Collected — airheaded
- Level-headed — passionate
- Stoic — lively
- Dutiful — egoistical
- Elegant — klutzy
- Concentrated — easily distracted
- Determined — unmotivated
- Easygoing — perfectionist
- Aggressive — passive
- Dominant — submissive
- Manipulative — trusting
- Possessive — possessed
- Protective — defenseless
- Extraverted — introverted
- Self-confident — insecure
- Perverted — innocent
- Open about her love — ignorant of it
- Promiscuous — chaste
- Comfortable with sexuality — afraid of sex
- Sexually liberated — easily embarrassed
- Sexually promiscuous — committed to monogamy
- Light feminine — dark feminine
- Social standing:
- Mental capacities and abilities:
While some of these traits go naturally hand in hand, virtually any combination of these is possible for each of the leads. As tempting as it may be, however, refrain from cramming too many items from this list into your concept; in practice, you won't be able to keep track of them all, anyway. If you want a guideline, 6 to 12 for the main girls are most common. But even with a few traits, it is advisable to keep them diverse, rather than centered around a single theme. The latter tends to produce Flat Characters, and that's not what you want for your main girls (refer to So You Want To/Develop Character Personality, specifically the passages on multifaceted abilities, unpredictability, and theme characterization).
As you may have noticed, some trait pairs above do not cause friction per se but instead complement each other (e.g. dominant -- submissive). It does not mean, however, that they cannot be milked for drama or comedy: if one of the partners doesn't know the other has the complementary trait, much angst or hilarity ensues. Alternatively, one girl can be in denial about her own traits for whatever reason, and growing to accept them through The Power of Love constitutes a nice Character Development.
The power dynamic between the lead girls is one of more interesting aspects of the yuri genre, which is free of the Unfortunate Implications associated with power balance in heterosexual couples (e.g. "the woman must submit to the man"). Said dynamic is another function of the contrasting traits: a classic recipe, for instance, is the reversed contrast in personality and social standing, e.g. a mean servant and her ineffectual lady; or in personality and appearance, e.g. a Tiny Tyrannical Girl and her wise Huge Schoolgirl lover. The power dynamic is often fluid and will shift or even invert depending on circumstances, such as whether the two interact in public or in private.
Apart from the traits, you should consider the main couple's relationship and circumstances before they hit off:
- Straight-up (though not that kind of "straight") Girl Meets Girl. The leads meet without previously knowing each other. In school settings, one of them is usually a New Transfer Student in the other's class. Otherwise, they Meet Cute at work or under more unusual circumstances. Optionally, they have had fleeting contact before but only now get to know each other for real.
- Just Friends, one of whom suddenly realizes she is falling in love with the other or was secretly in love with her for some time when the story begins. Since this is, at least initially, an Unrequited Love, much angst can be expected, especially if the other girl does not swing that way or does, but is not into her best friend's type.
- The leads are already committed to each other in a romantic way from the onset. This setup lends itself best to Comedy and WAFF-style stories and Beta Couples (see below). In a more Dramatic variation, the girls have dated each other before but dismissed it as mere Romantic Two-Girl Friendship and "moved on" to heterosexual relationships, only to discover that they are still in love with each other.
Consider also the previous relationships, such as current or ex-boyfriends (or girlfriends) of one or both lead girls. Special attention should be paid to engagements and the threat of Arranged Marriage (particularly when one or both of them belong to the upper-class society). Read more on this below.
Last but not least, the sexuality of the leads must be clearly defined from the onset: while lesbianism is understandably common in a yuri manga, heteronormativity is still order of the day in most parts of the world, so the question of deviating sexual identity should at least be addressed. The two most common justifications in many, many yuri works are Sitch Sexuality (especially in ones that take place in a One-Gender School) and Single-Target Sexuality.
When it comes to Love Triangles in yuri, pretty much every kind of Triang Relations (see reference chart on the right) is acceptable... as long as the third wheel is another girl. If it is a guy, the relationship must feature a strong attraction or even commitment between the lead girls; otherwise, the story runs a high risk of turning into vanilla romance, which is a no-no. Here is a rough breakdown:
- Type 2 always works, regardless which corner of the triangle is male.
- Type 8 never works with a guy involved.
- Types 1, 3, and 7 don't work if A is male, since there is no lesbian attraction in those cases. All other permutations are workable. Ditto types 4 and 5 if B is male.
- Type 6 is tricky: it works if A is male or a bisexual girl. The latter is a very gray area unless her attraction to the other girl (B or C) is much stronger than to her boyfriend.
- Likewise, type 9: it doesn't work if A is male, and when A is a girl, the other girl (B or C) should be considerably more successful in her advances towards her than her boyfriend.
- Type 10 only works if A is male.
- Type 11 is very tricky since it is so close to type 8. Any permutation of it can theoretically work but it's definitely not for a beginning writer to tackle.
- Type 12 works unless B is male. In that case, while technically yuri, the story no longer has the lesbian couple's relationship in the focus.
- Type 13 works unless C is male, in which case A's unrequited crush on B may not be sufficient to make it a yuri story.
An important factor when working with a girl-girl-guy triangle, particularly one where one girl has to decide between the other girl and the guy, is the notion of heteronormativity: dating a guy is socially acceptable, an expected norm; dating a girl marks her as an aberration and, in the Japanese cultural context, an immature person clinging to adolescent romantics. Unless that factor is not present in your setting, it can and should be milked for dramatic tension and dilemmas.
Coming back to an all-girl triangle, any variation of the Triang Relations is workable but some are easier than others. The reason for this is that just like with the lead girls, you have to give the third girl enough traits that are contrasting, complementary, and similar to her object of attraction to make her an interesting and believable rival. This is obviously easier if she is an actual rival of one lead for the affections of the other, in which case she needs traits similar (but not identical!) to the former to be a credible threat. If the third girl has it in for both leads... then the notion of Polyamory draws very close, with all the Unfortunate Implications about homosexuals it brings along.
Regardless of their gender, it is best to introduce the rival early on if you want them to be the co-star of your story. If you introduce them much later, after the leads' relationship has already been established, the Driving Question "Will the rival snatch one girl away from the other?" changes to "How much damage to their relationship will the rival cause before failing?" Both are valid plot points, but it is important to be clear about the rival's role in the story. Of course, nothing prevents you from having two rivals, one for each girl, introduced at different points in the story to explore both paths. That, however, will take you one step closer to a Love Dodecahedron.
One last note on the leads' relationships with other characters before the start of the story. A previous commitment is a great source of drama, especially if it is enforced by societal expectations. For instance, if one girl already has a boyfriend or a fiancée, such bond will be a lot harder to break in order to be with her loved one. In a particularly difficult case, upper-class girls (as well as any class girls in Japan, really) run the risk of Arranged Marriage, wherein they are pressured by the society to abandon their "immature" love and to commit to a guy they have no feelings for.
The Beta Couple in the yuri genre is a supporting lesbian couple, usually slightly older than the lead girls and much better adjusted both to each other and to their sexuality. They are introduced fairly early on and represent what the alpha couple will become in due time. Additionally, in this particular genre, they serve the unique purpose of showing the leads that happy lesbian romance is possible, despite what everyone would have them believe. Their second, less obvious purpose is to reassure all the Yuri Fans who live in constant fear of Bait and Switch Lesbians Syndrome that yes, your manga is, indeed, bona fide yuri and is not about Romantic Two-Girl Friendship.
When writing the beta couple, have them largely mirror the leads' relationship, traits and contrasts, only projected a few years into the future. It is OK if they don't have the same edge and depth--they are not the main characters, after all.
In Real Life, neither "All Women Are Prudes" nor "All Women Are Lustful" is true. In fact, between these two extremes, the vast majority of women are neither sex-obsessed nymphomaniacs, nor absolutely asexual--but a healthy, fulfilling sexual life is desirable for both heterosexual and homosexual women alike, especially young women who love and are loved. On the flip side, very few readers (and certainly none among the Yuri Fans you are writing for) would object to the notion that Girl-On-Girl Is Hot, so a tastefully done lesbian lovemaking scene will be a great treat for both your characters and your readership. There are a few examples where it was done right.
However, there are so many ways in which a sex scene can go wrong, that you should only attempt it if you are really, really certain you can pull it off (goes double for male authors). Be sure to familiarize yourself with Common Hollywood Sex Traits if you still want to try. If not, a suggestively framed Sexy Discretion Shot (possibly focusing on their Intertwined Fingers) often works just as well.
- Rule Number One for modern yuri mangakas: Do NOT kill off one of your main heroines in the end, no matter how tragic and dramatic such ending may appear to you. It has been done so often over the years that nowadays it's just tasteless. If you really, really want a Downer Ending, kill both of them, but let them be Together in Death.
- Rule number two: Do NOT make them break up in the end and have happy vanilla marriages. While it certainly defuses the challenge to heteronormativity posed by your work, it somewhat misses the point of the genre and is usually treated as a cheap-ass way around breaking the first rule above (heaven help you if you break both). If you want a Bittersweet Ending that badly, please take the Star-Crossed Lovers route with an unspoken promise of the leads getting back together in undefined future.
- Make it look like you are building up to a Dead Lesbian Syndrome or Bait and Switch Lesbians ending, then subvert it in the last moment, preferably in an Earn Your Happy Ending way.
- The ways you can subvert the reader's expectations by mixing and matching the main couple's traits (as outlined above) are infinite.
- Introduce an openly-lesbian violently-insane character whose insanity turns out to have nothing to do with her sexuality, and, in fact, a fulfilling lesbian relationship is the one thing that can keep her stable.
- A Coming Out Story needs not to be climatic: after all the secrecy and Gayngst, the actual coming-out can be met with a Shrug Take or a Milholland Relationship Moment from every character who matters.
- The Power of Love is always a good choice, as well as its derivatives: Love Hurts and Love Heals (the latter being particularly favored in lesbian romance), Love Makes You Evil (but beware of the Psycho Lesbian trope here, as well as in Love Makes You Crazy) and Love Redeems, Love Makes You Dumb, etc..
- Flower Motifs. The original meaning of "yuri" in Japanese is "lily", so white lilies are a instantly recognizable motif in yuri manga. You don't have to stop there: many great yuri series used flower symbolism extensively, with roses being close seconds.
- Meaningful Names, especially of Floral Theme Naming variety. Playing on the lily symbolism, names like Yuu, Yuria, Yuri, Juri, Julia, etc. are popular for Japanese girls. Lily, Lillian, Lilith, etc. are equivalents for Westerners.
Generally, refer to Romance Novel Plots and Romance Arc pages. A lot of yuri mangas out there are either short (one-shot to a single volume) single-arc pieces or longer (multi-volume) episodic or arc-based works.
- As been mentioned above, there aren't many Science Fiction yuri mangas, so why not try your hand at Girls Love IN SPACE! (well, not literally in space) or Macross WITH LESBIANS!? An aspiring Space Fighter Ace Pilot is taken POW by a Green-Skinned Space Babe enemy captain but accidentally freed by a wacky Space Pirate Girl. Foe Yay and Planetary Romance Across Battlelines ensues. Or opt instead for a more Star Trek plot or Mobile Suit Gundam or what have you. Ilivais X or Iczer are examples on this wiki you can look for.
- A girl going Sweet Polly Oliver at an all-boys school to find her love discovers that her mysterious Bishonen crush is a cross-dressing girl, as well. Hilarity Ensues (or drama, however you want to play it).
If you are going for a high school setting, you will need an Elaborate University High with all the trappings that usually come with it. Otherwise, consider the lead characters' homes (home, if they are already living together) and everyday workplace, e.g. the Office Ladies' Office, the Teen Idols' agency, etc., etc.. In a fantasy setting, let your imagination run free and use whatever epic and romantic landscapes come to mind.
What props you will need depends largely on what kinds of subplots and arcs you are planning to write, such as chocolate hearts for the Valentine's Day arc, gowns and lanterns for the festival arc, presents for the Christmas arc, etc., etc..
And just in case you have decided to write a lovemaking scene and wonder what kind of "props" your girls should use, there are much better specialized educational websites out there for such questions than This Wiki. All The Tropes:Strong Language Usage Rules doesn't allow such details, anyway.
Again, if you are going for a high school setting, you have to design relatively unique yet appealing uniforms for your female characters. Just like your main couple themselves, their clothes should be instantly recognizable by your fans.
That said, make sure that the entire female cast wears clothes that emphasize their beauty, even at the cost of some practicality. It doesn't have to be Pimped Out Dresses for everyone, but the general impression should please the reader's eye.
This part is only relevant when you've made it all the way to an animated adaptation.
Unless you are doing an epic fantasy or sports series, you won't see many stunts being done.
- Shiroi Heya no Futari. The manga genre launcher.
- Kannazuki no Miko. While a bit heavy-handed and often confusing, the anime adaptation was among the first openly yuri televised series and highly influential on all that followed.
- Girl Friends is a reference for Drama-style yuri.
- Ditto Strawberry Shake Sweet for Comedy-style yuri.
- Ditto Wife and Wife for WAFF-style yuri. Also, Miyabi Fujieda's yuri mangas.
- Aoi Hana is another, generally well-received, example of Drama-style yuri.
- Hanjuku Joshi is a dramatic love story with a not-so-subtle criticism of the Class S idea.
- If you wish to do Porn with Plot, Shoujo Sect strikes a good balance between the two.