Ruby Rose is one of the characters I’ve seen get the most heat over the years for having no character development, but my argument in this video is that.
Ruby’s character development is a great example of how good the writers of RWBY are at the art of Show Don’t Tell.
The rule of Show Don’t Tell is a key device in the story telling art. Most creative writers know of it, of course, as that slightly obscure Rule No. 1 of character creation that eludes us for years before we finally fully comprehend it, but Peter Barry describes it very well in his chapter on Narratology:
Mimesis’ is the ‘show telling’, in which what is done and said is ‘staged’ for the reader, creating the illusion that we are ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’ things for ourselves. By contrast, ‘diegesis’ means ‘telling’ or ‘relating’. The parts of the narrative which are presented in this way are given a more ‘rapid’ or ‘panoramic’ or ‘summarizing’ way.
(Beginning Theory 223)
In other words it’s the difference between:
“I am going for a walk,” I told her. (Mimesis/showing)
and “I told her I was going for a walk.” (Diegesis/telling)
“But, Louie,” you might say, “animation is shown already so isn’t your point moot?”
Well, yes and no.
A good example of “show don’t tell” in animation would be Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpieces. Miyazaki has a philosophy that his narratives shouldn’t need dialogue to tell the story; that the narratives simply enhance what the audience is already feeling and experiencing from the imagery and music on their own. His backgrounds and landscapes, for example, are a reflection fo the state of mind of the character, and not just there to create a setting. In other words, he respects the emotional intelligence of his audience and expects them to be able to know the story even if they’re not being told directly what’s going on.
Western animation, by contrast, has been criticized for often assuming that its audience will only be children, and that those children aren’t intelligent enough to understand what’s going on. It’s a general, often criticised issue with American popular stories for children that is also reflected in children’s novels.
And because Hollywood tends to spread its claws far beyond the reaches of the American border, and its stories tend to decide what is normal, we end up watching especially English language animation with the expectation that the story is supposed to hold our hands and tell us everything we need to know.
However, RWBY, following in the tradition of Japanese animation, is good at avoiding this trap, and here’s why:
First of all, Ruby isn’t your typical shounen anime main character. She doesn’t fall into the two primary categories of
Stupid and reckless, but loves a good fight, who has to learn to think before they act
Or intelligent, insecure and a coward, who has to learn how to utilize what abilities they already have so they can do what they believe to be right
(Of course, all of them know exactly what they’re fighting for.)
Instead Ruby falls somewhere in-between; she’s already courageous and reckless, and she’s extremely intelligent, but she doesn’t have anything to fight for.
Ruby grew up on Patch. It’s an island outside the kingdoms where an idyllic peace exists, so long as you don’t go looking for trouble. Even after she starts attending Signal there’s a hint of her being sheltered from the dangers and distractions of the world, as the school is located in the middle of Vale, a walled kingdom, and therefore far from Salem’s influence.
Beacon works much the same way, with trained huntsmen and huntresses protecting the school, and (Spoiler alert~) a massively ancient wizard sitting at the top of his tower, watching over his students.
And it’s that particular wizard who first notes what Ruby is lacking, where her character development is going:
It’s been bugging me for years. Why did he frown in that shot? What was bothering him? I mean, it’s fairly standard for the main characters of action/adventure series to have a temper, and for YA mains to not want to interact with the people around them at the beginning of their stories.
Well, Maria has the answer.
When Ruby asks how she can laserbeam monsters with her eyeballs , Maria responds by hitting her over the head with her scythe, and says:
First, you stop thinking like that!” She urges Ruby to think, and Ruby’s response is:
“I wanted to protect my friends.”
“Precisely,” Maria says. “It is the desire to preserve life, which fuels the life inside you. And make no mistake; it is light. Preservation is an extension of creation. Or at the very least an enemy of destruction. The Creatures of Grimm were made by the god of destruction, but your light comes from his brother.”
Silver Eyed Warriors need to love humanity, to want to preserve life. They have to be surrounded by people they care for, have fun with, and would risk their lives to protect, so that when they are faced with grimm they can draw on those happy memories.
But what does Ruby say:
I’m just fine on my own!
The nature of the Silver Eyed Warrior is the key to Ruby’s character development. She’s smart, she’s skilled, she’s dangerous beyond reason, but she doesn’t know how to care for people.
That’s why Oz places her as leader of team RWBY. That’s why Weiss becomes her best friend; somebody whose approval she has to fight for, struggle to obtain. That’s why she had to become friends with Penny, why she needed to be late to stop the fight.
Through the first couple volumes she becomes increasingly better at caring for and protecting her friends. She advises Jaune, she leads her team, she has fun and she messes up. But she’s still sheltered.
The Fall of Beacon changes that; she sees two of her best friends killed before her very eyes, and it has the most significant effect on her character development in the entire series:
I am scared. But not just for me. What happened at Beacon shows that Salem doesn’t care if you’re standing against her or not. She’ll kill anybody. And that scares me most of all. Pyrrha. Penny. I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t hurt, that I didn’t think about them every day since I lost them, that I didn’t wish I had spent more time with them. If it had been me instead, I know they would have kept fighting, too, no matter how dangerous it was. So that’s what I choose to do. To keep moving forward.
Of course, that all sounds like your basic action/adventure hero 101 speech to the new member of the team. But Pyrrha’s mother explains to us why it’s not:
[Pyrrha] is [standing here]. She understood that she had a responsibility to try. I don’t think she would regret her choice. Because a huntress would understand that there really wasn’t a choice to make. And a huntress was what she always wanted to be.
A Huntress puts herself before others. A huntress knows that her duty is to the people. And she doesn’t give up just because the path ahead is a road of mud.
That’s also why Oz, who influenced that mentality, acknowledges, Ruby so whole-heartedly.
Of course, it becomes a lot clearer in vol 6, I’ll give the critics that. With her taking charge, stepping out from under the protection and guidance of the adults more thoroughly, and standing up to Oz, Yang, Qrow and Cordo, it’s very obvious, and she’s suddenly behaving more like a masculine hero; that is, what we’re used to seeing.
But Ruby’s always been like that; she’s never cared about the rules. She’s never cared whether or not the adults approved of what she did. It’s just that, with Oz holding his hand over her at Beacon, it wasn’t as great a risk and therefore not nearly as noteworthy.
Ruby’s character development is one that starts from ignorance of what to fight for, to having a clear-cut path, to having a goal but no path. And through it all, she’s guided by what she is and who she wants to become; a Silver Eyed Warrior, a person who always chooses the right path, a fairy tale hero with light and love in her heart.
But we’re never told that. It’s all shown to us through meticulous planning and careful preparation. And that’s why I only have praise for the writers of RWBY. No matter what critique is thrown in their way they didn’t back down from this premise, this narrative strategy, and it wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding for the audience if they’d given in to the unfair critique of their main character.