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A halfhearted defense of weak protagonists in VNs



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.


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