I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with isekai. On the one hand, I love the whole idea of the Portal Fantasy/Trapped in Another World scenario. Witch World, by Andre Norton, was one of the first books I ever read that used this setup, and I’ve had a soft spot for them ever since.
But Witch World did what a lot of modern isekai fail to do; it set up the main character of Simon Tregarth as a very specific person, with certain history, skills, and good reasons to abandon Earth as we know it for something… other. A WWII veteran, in fact, who’d fallen into the black market, had run for his life, and was prepared to die fighting until someone made him a very surprising offer.
Most modern isekai don’t do this. The Main Character is simply summoned to another world, or hit by Truck-kun, or wakes up reincarnated some other way. Their past life is left mostly vague and unspecified. They’re Joe Average EverySalaryMan (or woman), and with the exception of using past accounting skills to run a duchy or adapting programming to create spells, who they were in the past and what they did to get by just… doesn’t matter much.
I get that’s usually intentional, so the reader can easily imagine themselves in the MC’s place. Yet I think this is a flaw, and makes a lot of isekai so much less than they could be. You don’t empathize best with an Average Guy, you empathize with a specific person. Even if they’re very unlike you. A unique person is a human being, and believe it or not, by nature humans are predisposed to like other humans. (As long as they’re not swinging something sharp and pointy your way, at least.)
More, if you don’t know what a person was like and doing pre-transfer, how can you get the full Awesome of the new world? And how can you get the full Awesome of someone learning that new world and what to do in it?
I ran across a YouTube review on an isekai (specifically Ya Boy Kongming), on which someone left a comment that a lot of isekai “burn out” because they go for the next fight instead of character development and an evolving story. (YBK made sure to weave all the characters’ stories into solid arcs, so it dodged that bullet.) Which ties in, because if you don’t have a starting base for your character, how can you develop it?
…And yes, this relates to a story idea in my head, because it seems to want to be an isekai, but I have solid characters for everybody except the isekai’d guy. Very frustrating.
Working on it, though. Library research ahoy….