We begin with an oddity: why would a stereotypical man with usually stereotypical male interests and tastes be writing about art geared to women? Good question. I didn’t even know this comic existed a couple of weeks ago. So how did I find the True Beauty Webtoon / Comic and why am I writing about it now? Why should you give a shit? The short answer is that first, because it’s a manifestation of an area (and platform) that’s exploding in popularity right now (culture creators, take note). Second, because it’s an example of excellence in execution in storytelling, something you rarely find these days. I’ll now go into further detail.
How I Came Across True Beauty
There is a bookstore in midtown, the Kinokuniya bookshop, across the street from Bryant Park. Kinokuniya is Japan’s biggest bookseller, so when you go in there you’re bound to find some rarities that you won’t find elsewhere. Since mainstream, corporate-produced Western pop culture is in a dark age and Asia is exploding, I always like going in there when I’m nearby to not only look, but learn about what’s trending.
Actually, when I was there a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t looking particularly for anything from Japan. I was looking to see if they had The Fall of Numenor and whether it was worth checking out. They didn’t wind up having it, but I found a different sort of treasure.
A woman I took a liking to was browsing around. Naturally, I took my chance to speak to her when the opportunity presented itself. As we talked about some series we liked, we eventually came across something that got her excited. True Beauty was in hard cover on the shelf. She was happy with this and said I should read it. My instinctual reaction was one of humorous skepticism (she knew by that point that I enjoyed Ghost in the Shell and other sci-fi and cyberpunk series the most). A different series in the same section, The World After the Fall, looked much more interesting to me, but she insisted, extolling True Beauty.
When I got home, I decided to find out what the fuss was all about, and it went beyond the most natural reaction of just wanting to have something to talk about with her. I stopped playing such games long ago. So here are some of the facts:
- True Beauty has 948 million views on Webtoon as of this writing.
- The Webtoon platform, which I had not known before then, is a place where independent creators can publish their comics. The platform has a readership of 15 million a day and 55 million a month
- The comic was adapted into a TV series in South Korea in 2020 and 2021.
- Other series on the Webtoon platform also have tens or hundreds of millions of views and have been adapted into other media as well.
- I’ve even found a True Beauty line of cosmetics on Amazon! Not a bad gig for the creator.
I kept those facts in mind and saw the potential rewards to be reaped on the Webtoon platform for an independent creator. After all, True Beauty’s author, Kim Na-young, penname Yaongyi, did not have a contract with a big company. The comic was an organic success from a first-time creator. Naturally, I wanted to know why the comic and its author succeeded so much. So I dove in.
Concept and Execution
The True Beauty webtoon does not have a unique concept. If I were to present the concept, I’d do it like this:
What if an ugly duckling who learned how to disguise herself with makeup got caught in a love triangle with two guys who are out of her league?
So pretty much your typical female romantic fantasy. Naturally, this concept is interesting for women, but since it is not unique, we must look at why True Beauty succeeded where many another such comic and webtoon did not. The artwork is good, but not good enough to explain its success. The key is in the execution of the storytelling in this comic. Kim Na-young comes close to genius when it comes to maintaining tension in her narrative.
In going through True Beauty, I see that many of the precepts in Wired for Story are followed.
First, the story’s protagonist, Jugyeong Lim, is well-constructed. Her background and motivations are well-established in the first two chapters. She is oblivious to her being at the bottom of the social ladder until she runs into a guy that shares many of her interests. It is only when she is on the verge of asking him out that she realizes he already has a girlfriend, a pretty one, and that she has no shot no matter how many interests they share. So she turns to makeup, masters it, and looks pretty, but only when it’s on.
That’s how you effectively present your main character. She’s easy to root for.
The author, however, doesn’t make life easy for her. When one thing goes right and she seems to be progressing, another goes wrong. Each chapter in True Beauty ends on a cliffhanger. Not all of these cliffhangers lead to anything important, but they keep the reader coming back. Conflict is a constant in this comic.
True Beauty also pays close attention to its narrative. There is plenty of foreshadowing and nothing happens without a reason for happening. For example, in one of the chapters, Jugyeong runs into her future boyfriend Seojun when she’s out without makeup, scrambling to make sure that he does not see her real face. The reader is unsure whether he recognized her that time as their relationship begins, which creates tension in the later chapters.
I’m still not done with this comic, but True Beauty has an advantage over the stories I typically enjoy (and indeed, create, like The Fall of the Fated Queen). Namely, the webtoon does not need to rely as much on world-building. Because it takes place in the world we all live in, it can do its main job of getting right into the heart of the characters’ struggles. Authors in the sci-fi or fantasy genres need more exposition to let readers make sense of the world their characters struggle in. Sauron and his Ruling Ring can’t be dropped out of the sky in Lord of the Rings. Neither can Genom and its Boomers in Bubblegum Crisis, or for that matter, the psychometric security state in The Fall of the Fated Queen’s sequel. These things profoundly affect the characters and their struggles, but the reader needs to be able to understand these settings and the risks they present. That requires some kind of display or explanation and naturally, a storyteller needs to handle such things delicately or risk breaking the illusion. If if feels like you’re explaining, you’re losing. Works like True Beauty get to skip that part of the process.
However, there is a price for such a shortcut. It also means that True Beauty needs to quickly establish a rapport between its narrative, characters, and audience. It does not have a unique concept or villain to sell it, which means that its characters have to connect with audiences on their own merits quickly. Goku might not be the most interesting character out there, but audiences know that if he fails to defeat the likes of Frieza and Jiren, bad things will happen to his universe. Likewise, the protagonists in The Fall of the Fated Queen’s sequel (which we will still call The Red War for now even though that is not its true title) have a detailed villain and Earth’s psychometric dystopia to grate against.
Such tension is not readily available in stories like the True Beauty webtoon. The story does meander somewhat in its middle parts, with a few tired cliches. There are also some problems with time. Nevertheless, the author took a concept that is not unique but made it work through sheer presentation and narrative technique. The proof is in its success.
Will I make reading things like True Beauty a habit? Probably not. Still, it is important to learn from successful pop culture creations and to expose yourself to things you don’t normally do. I’ve usually found that it’s wise to follow the twists that fate gives you, so I did this time. Doing so not only gave me the comforting knowledge that I’m on the right track with what I’ve learned about storytelling, but the Webtoon platform which may be lucrative for me and my own legendarium in the future.
It also doesn’t hurt to see what’s popular with women as a reflection of how they think.
The print version I found in the store is here, in the unlikely chance you want it.
Join my email list if you want to stay up to date with my work.