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About this blog

Orgling is the sound a male alpaca makes during mating, but different from what the blog's name suggests, it won't be about me trying to initiate intercourse in the most dignified and beautiful manner Mother Nature has to offer. Instead this is where I plan to write up my thoughts about VN related stuff that doesn't really fit the main forum.

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alpacaman

In my previous blog entry I talked about protagonists in fictional media by comparing their ability to advance a plot vs. how much they actually do in their respective stories. With the model I came up with I identified four archetypes (in the meantime I remembered a possible example for “useful idiot” characters, which I edited into that post, in case you missed it). This time I'm going to focus on visual novels and why they seem to produce mainly “weak protagonists” by my metric (which doesn't say anything about how interesting they might be as it doesn't really account for blandness). There certainly is a cultural and psychological component to this, but I think I'm not enough of an expert on Japanese society to talk about the former and the “self-insert”-aspect is kind of obvious and also something I already talked about in the last post in the paragraph about Harry Potter. So instead I'll try to focus on the unique way many visual novels are structured from a narrative standpoint and how this in my opinion often makes choosing a weak protagonist kind of the logical choice from the writer's point of view.

I think there are two main aspects to this. The first one is pretty obvious solely from looking at game mechanics. Most VNs have a choice system, and the character the reader makes these choices for should be able to believably carry them out in-game. A writer either needs a lot of very good ideas about how to bring the protagonist into situations where they could go either way without breaking character, or let them have a personality that's just bendable enough to always do what the plot requires them to.

The second aspect is a bit more complex and has to do with most VNs being multi-route. This poses a great challenge to a writer as it's not that easy to tell several stories from the same setup without them ending up too similar. And even if the plot of each route is completely different, chances are the protagonist's character arcs are still going to end up more or less similar. A route feels incomplete if the main character's central personal struggle isn't resolved to some degree. The most common workaround for this is centering the routes themselves around a supporting character, usually a hero(ine), and giving the protagonist just a minor character arc, often in the veins of something like "love gives me the determination to achieve every goal". This basically means creating subplots where the overall protagonist isn't the literal main character anymore as entering someone else's route means also entering their story and character arc most of the time. These characters' development would be diminished though if the protagonist just went along and solved the respective heroine's problems for them, as for the development to be believable the character going through it has to do the substantive part of the emotional work (this is why white-knighting isn't just problematic from the viewpoint of gender roles but it's bad writing as well). 

In other media the protagonist most of the time either isn't present during most of the subplot or at least not involved too much. In visual novels both of these options in general aren't viable as from the point of entering a route the subplot becomes the narrative focus and it would be pretty weird if the protagonist just disappeared or at least decided not to interfere in the third act and climax of a playthrough, especially since the choices leading up to a route usually involve the MC trying to get closer to the character it revolves around. The fact that routes are often based around romance and the necessity to include a justification for H-scenes involving the MC further complicate this issue.

As you can see, a capable protagonist is incredibly hard to employ under these circumstances. They have to fall in love with a hero(ine), yet shouldn't get so involved with them too such a degree that they decide to essentially rob said love-interest of their character arc. In many cases there is no proper solution to this dilemma. And this is where the weak protagonist comes in handy as them not becoming proactive once they have a reason to act can be justified by them simply not being able to. This setup also already has an inherent starting point for the aforementioned minor character arc for the protagonist.

I don't want to imply that weak protagonists are always the best choice (or ever), but they often are the most viable compromise imo when a VN main character has to be so passive that they don't outshine the supporting cast but at the same time be a justifiable lead character. The most important feature in a VN protagonist in general simply isn't being proactive, as their main purpose is a structural one, namely to connect the game mechanic aspect of making choices to access new parts of the story with the way these new segments are set up from a narrative standpoint. This sounds kind of convoluted, but I hope by now you get what I'm trying to say. Of course the points I made don't apply to every visual novel or even every genre of VN, but I think they cover a reasonable share of weak protagonists out there. And of course this doesn't excuse bland MCs, but many of the things I pointed out don't exactly make it easier to give them colourful personalities.

alpacaman

Protagonists perceived as weak seem to be something a lot of people reading VNs complain about, and as this is an interesting topic imo, I've been spending some time trying to organise my thoughts on it and write them up in a way that's not completely incoherent. In the process I started reflecting on main characters and their role in fiction on a more fundamental level and came up with a very basic way to categorise main characters, by comparing their personalities to how much it advances the plot in their respective stories. I even made a very professional looking diagram to explain my thinking:

protagonist0jkqo.png

As you can see, the y-axis is supposed to be a measure for the MC's personality, while the x-axis shows how much they actively influence the plot. As each quadrant marks a certain general category of protagonist, I also named those in a way I found fitting (in italic) and added a few examples from VNs I read.

The measure for personality I chose is a mixture of a protagonist's general determination to face problems head on and to which degree they are actually able to solve the ones the plot poses. I know this is kind of a soft category but this whole thing isn't supposed to be a scientific essay and I couldn't come up with anything better so it will have to do. On the top end of this scale you would have someone like Superman, on the bottom end probably Bella Swan.

The question about how proactive a protagonist is at least in this metric boils down to if they mainly react to plot points happening or if they themselves make plot points happen. This category also isn't perfect though. For example almost any character arc involving a protagonist in the "weak" category is about them turning stronger. In my opinion this doesn't make a character more proactive though as this is usually driven by plot necessity.

In this metric you can define four broader types of protagonists. The weak protagonist is someone who usually stumbled into his situation and mainly goes with the flow. The strong protagonist makes his own destiny. The observer is someone who isn't getting too actively involved in the things going on around him, either by their own choice or some external reason. As for the fourth category, I don't know if there actually are protagonists that combine being incapable or weak willed with being proactive. I used Phoenix Wright as an example as you could at least argue that he's only getting by through luck while he always keeps fighting till the end, but that should also move him further up on the personality scale.

You will probably also disagree with other choices I made about where to put certain characters. So as you can see, this is more of an orientation to think about characters and their roles in fictional media than an objective measure. It also doesn't tell us anything about how well a character is written. There are bland action heroes as well as super well developed wimps. I still thought this self-made graphic might be an interesting thing to share. It might also turn out to be a good place for me to reference whenever I might think about writing something about an MC. At least until someone comes along and completely destroys all of my personal theories I based this on.

 

edit: I thought I'd add and explain a few examples for each category (except the useful idiot as I can't confidently name any) from other media so people who don't know any of the guys in the chart or find my explanations too abstract or incomprehensible can get a grasp on what I mean. But first to give an example of what I mean by proactive vs. passive, because just doing a lot of things is not the same as being proactive: Imagine a story where someone dear to the protagonist gets murdered. If this turns into them killing everyone responsible, the MC is extremely proactive. they could just wait for the judicial system to prosecute the bad guys and testify as a witness, but his thirst for revenge drives everything happening from then on. A passive protagonist in such a scenario might be someone who struggles with the loss and is overwhelmed by everyone else not caring and instead fighting over the inheritance. But now for the protagonist types:

Weak protagonist: Harry Potter - Although everyone in universe talks about how special he is Harry Potter doesn't have that much of a personality, does he? The Sorting Hat talking about how he would be a good fit for any house is true (except for Slytherin as that's basically the Hat telling you you're a bigot) as he shows reasonable degrees of bravery, intelligence and blandness. He doesn't have the magical skills to beat the most powerful wizards either and more often than not gets bailed out by his mother's love or whatever. His personal struggles are always pretty similar to what any kid his age goes through and rarely impact the plot in any major way. In most books he either ends up as a part of the main either through witnessing certain events by chance or because the bad guy plots to get him killed. And most times he gets a "becoming a stronger person and beating the bad guy" arc without him actually groing as a person that much. Harry Potter is also a good example of why a weak protagonist isn't necessarily a bad thing. When the world around the main character or the plot are the actual star of the story, a too strong protagonist could take away from that. The role the protagonist fills is basically to  go through the world with the same sense of wonder the audience would while providing an "everyday person becoming a hero" arc. Which is probably the reason why people who don't like the Harry Potter franchise in general are usually the ones complaining about its protagonist. Frodo would be another example for this kind of protagonist. As mentioned above I'm going to write another blog post about why I think weak protagonists are very common in certain types of VN and why they often seem more annoying than in other fictional media.

Strong protagonist: James Bond - While his stories always start out with him getting a mission he certainly approaches them in a very unique fashion. I don't know if I have to write a lot more about him. Most iconic action heroes fall into this category.

Observer: This type of protagonist seems to be more common in Japanese than in western media. Stories with this kind of protagonist usually have them coming in contact with the plot through either coincidence or their line of work and often involve them providing some kind of service while the narrative focus is on the ones the MC comes into contact with and these side characters tend to have the biggest arc. To name an example in western media Mad Max (at least from the second movie on) is pretty good at surviving in the post-apocalypse but he doesn't have some higher goal beyond that. In Fury Road he might be the main character, but the plot is driven by Furiosa's goals and he just happens to help out as it aligns with him trying to flee from the same people. He still helps out a lot, but technically it's just not his story. Which is why he just leaves at the end. As for Japanese Media Gingko in Mushi-Shi might be the prime example. The anime has more than 40 episodes and three specials, still we learn next to nothing about him. Every time he walks into someone else's story, helps them realise their respective arcs without ever getting too personally involved, and leaves again. Violet Evergarden also fits the description for the major part of the anime. She is a killing machine and apparently quickly becomes very good at her new job as well, yet, while there are episodes focusing on her, in most of them she just helps someone else come to terms with their emotions through providing them the service of writing a letter. Violet Evergarden also shows that it's possible to develop protagonists in episodes not focusing on them.

 

edit 2: So I managed to come up with an example for  a"useful idiot" (although I don't really like that name, I couldn't think of a better one): many characters in movies by the Coen brothers fit this category. While the protagonists themselves usually are straight man characters, the plots (especially in Fargo and Burn after Reading) often revolve around how bad decisions by incompetent characters lead to catastrophies.

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