What makes a good protagonist


So its been 2 weeks which makes it time for me to write a blog post. According to what I planned, I would have written a post on whatever anime/book/etc. I’d recently finished.
Unfortunately none of them were impressive enough for me to feel like writing about them right now so I had to think of something else to make a post about.

Anyway since I can’t exactly postpone writing a blog post literally just after announcing end of hiatus I decided to write about whatever topic came into my head. Which… as you may have gathered from the title, ended up being what makes a good(interesting) protagonist.

The importance of a protagonist
For me personally, for me to enjoy any piece of fiction I need to find it interesting. Now that is actually easier than it sounds. Take anime for example, as long as I am still interested in any aspect of the show (e.g. setting, any individual character, writing, soundtrack, directing, general quality) then I’ll probably keep watching.

Of course if I was only watching the show for a single thing it probably wasn’t worth watching it even if I did enjoy it. But the point is, for me, having a protagonist that I like isn’t necessary for my enjoyment. For other people however, not liking a protagonist can basically make them instantly stop watching a show.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. The protagonist is usually the center of the show so having a likable protagonist is definitely preferable. Also life is too short to waste time on something you aren’t enjoying.

So… What makes a good protagonist?
This question is tricky because the word good is a subjective term. Sure there are plenty of examples where there are legitimate reasons where you could objectively claim a character(protagonist) is bad. (An obvious reason being poor writing e.g. if they aren’t kept consistent.) But even then, if someone does like that character then for them that character is a good character.

Different types of protagonists
Since it basically comes down to personal preference I figure I should talk about the different types of protagonists commonly used in fiction.

Shounen protagonist
I’ll start here since it’s probably the most east to understand. Basically I mean the type of character who is the protagonist of a shounen battle manga. (For example Naruto(Naruto), Luffy(One Piece), Ichigo(Bleach), or the more recent examples Tanjirou(Kimetsu no Yaiba) and Deku(Boku no Hero Academia).
These characters are generally–well the word I was thinking of was バカ正直 but that doesn’t really work since it isn’t an english word. Basically they generally have a single stance that they work towards above all else, for example Luffy wants to become the king of the pirates.

Now it is pretty common to hear people say they don’t like shounen protagonists. I feel this is often due to length making it hard to commit to getting into it and giving it a try. Then again the length itself being so long it often happens that people who were big fans of a show say 2 years ago change their interests and don’t like it so much anymore.
But as their immense length implies, these series remain very popular. And the reason behind this is can be heavily attributed to the main character, as character polls show, the protagonist in these series are almost always in first place.

So what is it about shounen manga protagonists which make them popular? Well in my opinion what makes a shounen battle manga good(interesting) is the story itself, and for a good story, good characters are essential. At the very least characters which are a good fit for the story being told. And obviously for a series you want to continue being serialised for years you want the protagonist to be someone the readers will like.
Obviously there is the length advantage, it can be easy to get attached to a character when spending so much time with their series. But ironically, it isn’t actually that important the get the character part right for these protagonists. As long as the visual design and the abilities/powers are impressive everything usually works out fine.

Harem protagonist
Harem anime is definitely not as popular as it used to be. At least not like they used to be anyway. Traditionally infamous for having protagonists being incredibly indecisive and dense–and therefore unlikable by many.
There still are some good ones which come out occasionally though. I liked Bokutachi wa Benkyou ga Dekinai, and if I remember correctly 5-toubun no Hanayome was well received.

These days despite what I just said, harem anime, or at least what became of it is still strong today. Most of the light novel adaptions each season fall into this category. Some of these, esp fantasy/isekai fall more into the shounen category (for example SAO), but even then they are often harem-like.
If you compare the formats of manga and light novels it is pretty easy to see why light novels can do harem settings easier. Manga having such short chapter lengths means that so the reader won’t forget about characters, they have to cycle around the characters more often, and if the protagonist actually decides on a girl the manga ends. Whereas in light novels, there is much more room to fit all the characters in each installment(volume). And you can easily have the character chose a girl to get in a relationship early on (for example SAO again), easily getting rid of the protagonist being indecisive. (Although since there are still other girls it doesn’t stop the protagonist being dense.)

Finally there are the more extreme ecchi anime (i.e. containing nudity), usually with a protagonist just as dense. The popularity of these haven’t changed much, but as you can imagine most people couldn’t care less about the protagonist for most of these shows.

I guess harem protagonists are a good example of how having a likable protagonist is important, judging from the reactions people had to them as well as their declined popularity.

Shoujo manga protagonist
Shoujo manga adaptions aren’t that common compared to more male-aimed shows because, well, anyway they just are. I’ll skip explaining all the factors because it would get me way off topic. But because of that, the shows which do make it to anime usually are higher quality (assuming you like the genre).

Anyway in general, I’ve found that a common complaint of shoujo manga protagonists are that they are boring. This is usually explained by saying that they are purposely designed that way so the reader/viewer can self-insert into the character easier. (This is also argued for harem protagonists.)
I’ve seen plenty of comments by people saying that because of this reason they refuse to touch either genre, which again shows the impact liking or disliking a protagonist can have on a reader/viewer.

Now personally I’ve always disagreed with this. Partly because I don’t understand the concept of self-inserting, why would anyone want to do that? One of the best things about fiction is you can experience things from different perspectives than your own. Sure it’s cool when a character says or does something which you can relate to or that resonates with you, but that can happen with anyone, even characters the complete opposite of you.

The other reason I disagree with it is because I don’t believe it to be true most of the time. In shoujo manga sure the protagonist is designed to be a relatable ordinary girl, which coincidentally does make it easier for people to self-insert, but I do think that being able to relate to someone and self-inserting are two entirely different things.

Also for me, a lot of these “blank slate” protagonists aren’t quite as blank as people claim. I think people often only look at what they are directly are told. A lot of the time in these shows, if you look at a character’s actions and words and think about their thought processes, often there seems to be a lot more than what we are directly told through dialog.

Sure this isn’t always the case, but a usually when a creator is writing a characters actions, so I think that reading between the lines is something people should do more with fiction. Of course you need to already be enjoying the show, there is no point in trying to read into something you aren’t enjoying.

Self-insert protagonist
One that topic however, it is worth mentioning there seems to be a lot of demand on playable protagonists in games where you can fully customise the main character including the gender. Now I can sortof understand the merit of self-inserting in games, even if it isn’t for me.
But I also have to criticise the concept, because the less information you have in your protagonist–the center of the story–then the less interesting you can make your story as a whole, unless you completely ignore the protagonist’s existence, in which case why are they even there.
So if the game is just a grindy rpg with no story, then that’s fine. But since I specifically choose games for their story, I probably won’t be interested. (Sure if the gameplay is fun enough I would consider it but likely it would never make my radar.)

Visual Novel protagonist
This is probably the reason why I thought of writing about this topic today. So my brother occasionally mentions to me how he thinks visual novel protagonists are boring and therefore doesn’t think playing them is for him. Which is fine. We share completely different opinions about what makes a character interesting to us. Which is also fine.
He came to me a few days ago and mentioned it. Now honestly, I think a bigger reason why he can’t get into visual novels is because he isn’t used to reading in general. I’m pretty sure my reading speed in Japanese is faster than his reading speed in English.

Anyway back on topic. I think that visual novels in general actually may be one of the best mediums to have a good protagonist. Visual novels have the advantage that regular novels have, being able to include thoughts and narration of what is going on from the protagonists point of view, but also have the extra information from visuals and sound that books can’t have.

I mean just look at Cross Channel, Baldr Sky, and Utawarerumono 2/3. All of those for anyone who has read them will know have great protagonists. Then there is Subahibi, which has 3+ really well portrayed protagonists. Granted, than doesn’t mean everyone will like them however.

(Almost forgot to mention–this is probably important–while visual novels do have the potential to have great protagonists, most of them don’t.)

And on the topic of polarising protagonists we have White Album 2 and the Rance series. Actually all of these examples except Utawarerumono show what visual novels can do that other mediums can’t. Rance is actually a lovable protagonist, which anyone who has played multiple games in the series would probably agree to (assuming from 6 or higher). Most of the others would never work in any other medium (not to mention it’s unlikely anyone would agree to publish them). They wouldn’t be the same without the extra perspective from the other routes.

In conclusion
I guess like I said at the start a good protagonist basically depends on the reader/viewers opinion. And then I sortof just ranted.

Anyway that is the end of this post. Hopefully next time I actually have a anime or something to write about.

About FabledHunter

Novice Anime Blogger. ask.fm/AnimeAtaraxia

Posted on November 16, 2020, in Misc, Reviews and Impressions and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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