March 6, 2013

The Curse of the Protagonist?

You know, I’ve been thinking.  (Cue hellish organ chord and stroke of lightning here.)

I think I might have a problem -- one that only seems to become more prevalent as time passes.  It’s probably because I play a lot of video games, but I don’t think my “affliction” is linked to just one medium.  Movies, TV, books, what have you -- time and time again, I find myself wishing things were different.  That things were more to my tastes.

All too often, I find myself thinking that the main character is kind of boring -- and wishing that one of his friends was the story’s focus.

Take Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy 13 for instance.  Now, I will confess with great honesty (and pride) that I absolutely HATE FF13 and everything related to it…which should be obvious by now if you’ve spent more than eight seconds on this blog.  Plenty of people seem to like it and can argue towards its high points, and that’s fine.  But I personally can’t stand it; I’ve written an inordinate number of blog posts either focused on what went wrong, or managed to work an example of what FF13 did wrong into a discussion (though sometimes it’s more to make a joke…sometimes).  It’s way too early to decide whether or not LR will be any good, but even if it is -- even if it’s the fabled Final Fantasy that will restore Final Fantasy’s credibility -- I’m not sure if I want to get into the game.  Ever.

I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll go ahead and say it again: I think I’d like FF13 and its little brothers a lot more if not for Lightning.  Others think that she’s strong and cool and tough, and I respect their opinions (inasmuch as I can smile and nod politely and not think of certain jingles); I think that she’s petulant and wooden and outright boring.  Looking back, I wish that anyone else in the cast was the star.  Snow was your typical hot-blooded idiot, but he was at least (trying to be) driven and charismatic and optimistic.  Why couldn’t he be the leader?  Or why not Sazh?  Surely someone with the unique perspective of a father could add a lot to the game; would making the leading man black be THAT much of a problem?  Why not make Hope the star, and give a chance to improve upon his character by cemented development?  Why not Vanille, not only because she’s the narrator but because she has a deep connection to the past?  Why not Fang, who has Vanille’s critical knowledge (minus the kookiness) mixed with Lightning’s toughness (minus…well, everything else)?  That’s not to say that any of the characters are fantastic, or that the game would automatically be better if it followed one of them; it’s just one of many possibilities. 

That’s the key word: possibilities.  Stories and characters are a means to explore possibilities -- what would happen if a world had Element X and Qualifier Y, or what Hero Z would say/do in the face of Adversity Q.  It’s a chance -- a procedure, even -- to scoop up the building blocks of a character (or world, or plot, or any other story convention), mix them, shake them up, and serve on the rocks in the hopes of creating something that won’t lead to a night of puking and remorse. 

But more often than not, I find myself suspecting that the procedure sometimes goes undone when it comes to a protagonist -- you know, the most important element in a story -- in exchange for familiarity and functionality.  In the context of a video game, that’s likely a big factor both story-wise and gameplay-wise.  In the interest of not picking on FF13 any longer, I’ll use Tales of the Abyss as an example.

I’ve gone on about the game in depth, but Abyss really does serve as a fantastic example of a main character’s effect.  Its leading man is Luke fon Fabre, a midriff-bearing noble who lost his memory seven years ago; in the years since, he’s been confined to his manor, receiving teaching to re-learn everything (and I MEAN everything) he forgot, and his primary hobbies being lounging about and training in swordplay.  Inevitably, he’s transported out of his comfortable lifestyle into the wilderness of an enemy territory, and thus his journey -- and typical progression into a world-saving expedition -- begins.  Luke’s amnesia and sheltered nature means he doesn’t know anything about the world; it’s a chance to have the world’s mechanics explained to him, but more importantly to the player.  And at the start of the game, he only has one special move (and a poor one at that); a nice little touch is that he only gains access to his super move after he starts reading and practicing to control his hidden power -- and well after that, the moves he learns start to take on magical properties.

Now, as I understand it, Luke has gotten a lot of flak over the years.  He’s whiny, he’s emo, he’s a wannabe martyr…all legitimate complaints.  I’m pretty tolerant of things like that when it comes to JRPGs, but Luke skirts the line between being a thoughtful, contemplative character and just being an annoying brat who loves showing off his midriff.  It’s an uncomfortable position, and it’s likely that I’m being too favorable as it is.  But you know who isn’t in an uncomfortable position?  You know who I like seeing in action, and preferring over the lead?  Luke’s best friend Guy, a servant who’s infamous for his fear of women, but more importantly for being level-headed, smart, a charmer, a tech junkie, a skilled (and cool) swordsman, and most of all a nice guy.  (Incidentally, I feel like his character development involves him becoming unafraid to call his master an idiot -- likely a mirror of more than a few players’ wishes.) 

The same goes for princess Natalia; I didn’t put much stock in her in my first playthrough of the game, but I’ve recently found her to be more engaging than ever, and certainly more than Luke.  Her defining characteristic is that she’s a princess, and while that role would usually make her the designated kidnapping victim/love interest, in Abyss she carries political clout and a self-determined sense of duty -- one that rightfully earns love and respect, makes her a pivotal part of the game, expands the scope of your worldly activities, and offsets the fact that she’s kind of a haughty idiot.  And Jade?  Well…Jade is Jade.  That is to say, he’s undeniably awesome.

Don’t get me wrong.  Even with all the annoyances, silliness, and plot-related idiocy, I still like Tales of the Abyss.  But I can’t help but feel like it’d be better (and better-received) if Guy or Natalia or Jade had the leading role instead of Luke.  The main character is the lynchpin of countless stories; shouldn’t he/she be the most interesting of the lot?  I know there’s a difference between thinking a main character is cool and thinking that the main character’s buddies are cooler -- and subsequently, thinking that the main character is worse by comparison -- but it happens with such frightening regularity that I’m starting to wonder if there’s an underlying issue.  Are main characters, in spite of good intentions and a wealth of solid ideas, inherently less appealing than the other cast members?  Is there some sort of curse that plagues them?

Well, yes and no, I suppose.  Not every main character in a game is boring; speaking in terms of the Tales series, Vesperia’s Yuri Lowell is compelling and interesting; even though I prefer the “old man” Raven, I still think Yuri’s innately cool. Same goes for Graces f; the game and its ideas -- and its plot, and its resolution -- wouldn’t work if anyone besides Asbel was the main character.  God of War wouldn’t work without Kratos, unsavory as he may be.  Assassin’s Creed II wouldn’t work without Ezio.  Bayonetta wouldn’t work without…well, Bayonetta.  Mass Effect wouldn’t work without Shepard -- a special case, in that your input ensures (in theory, at least) that your interest/investment never wanes. 

But for every example I think of to support main characters, I can think of three times more to decry them.  Think about it: what if Dom was the star of Gears of War, not Marcus?  It wouldn’t automatically make the franchise a masterpiece, but it would offer an interesting new perspective.  Between the two, Dom is the nicer, more emotional, and more empathetic soldier.  If Marcus as the lead is largely responsible for the series’ gruff, callous machismo, would Dom as the lead inject some humanity and    spirit?  Alternatively, what if Cole was the star?  There was a glimpse of what could have been in Gears 3; what if we had a full opportunity to examine his inner workings?  Barring that, what if we had his fiery spirit searing its way out of every pore of the game?  Wouldn’t that be an absolutely perfect mirror of the players, many of whom are campaigning to create their own highlight reels out of their adventure?  I suppose it’s a bit late to wonder now, but with Gears of War Judgment roadie-running ever closer to us, one can’t help but wonder what comes next.

I’m reminded of a Zero Punctuation video (as I usually am) from a while back that had a tangent dealing with the same issues.  What would Mario games be like if Luigi had a more prominent role?  In recent years, Luigi’s evolved into a sort of fast-talking coward, and a plumber who has his fair share of negative emotions.  Why not give Luigi a chance to shine?  Why is it so easy and rewarding to envision alternate possibilities?  What if you played as Zeke instead of Cole?  What if you played as The Arbiter instead of Master Chief?  What if you played as Auron instead of Tidus?   More importantly, why can’t I help but envision alternate possibilities?  


Ahem.  I’m not so bold as to proclaim that all the main characters I’ve named (and more) are automatically lame.  But I want to try to understand why I constantly feel this way -- why I’m constantly more invested in the stories behind the second, or third, or fourth or fifth banana than in the first.  I can come up with a few reasons.  Maybe it’s because I’m a little brother; as Yahtzee suggested, there’s a sense of camaraderie and appeal.  Maybe it’s because I’m usually playing the 2P role; in the case of Abyss, I used Guy while my brother used Luke, so it’s only natural I’d connect with the former.  Maybe it’s because I put so much stock into ALL characters, and see what they contribute to the game -- like a jigsaw puzzle, or a band.  Maybe it’s all in my head.  Maybe I’m the one who’s cursed.

Or maybe it’s them.  Maybe the main character is bland, and too closely-knit to certain stereotypes.  Maybe their need to be comparatively normal and safe and functionally-sound limits their potential and impact.  Maybe they’re annoying, or mopey, or needlessly angry, or stupid, or just plain boring.  Who’s to say, really?  And rightly so; one man’s hero is another man’s hemorrhoid. 

I once heard the argument that JRPGs are supposed to cater to the tastes of Japanese players -- that is, the angst, melodrama, and histrionics are supposed to be “releases” of sorts for their players.  He suggested that the Japanese social climate is one full of repression, and seeing something like, say, Tidus screeching about his father is supposed to be a stress reliever.  Vicarious living, of sorts.  Not being a native of Japan or too well-versed in the culture, I can’t say for sure if what he said was true, or just a theory of his.  But…jeez, wouldn’t that just make a crap-ton of sense?  I mean, there’s creating a character by way of creative vision, and then there’s just pandering to tastes and expectations.  That’s not exactly ideal, in my eyes.

But in the eyes of others, maybe that is ideal.  Maybe some protagonists -- some, not all -- are crafted to be appealing and normal and natural to the audience.  Or more appropriately, maybe they’re supposed to be “welcoming.”  The audience surrogate is a well-worn idea in fiction, so it’s only natural to have those running around en masse to help make those sprawling, complex worlds a little more digestible.  That I don’t have a problem with (well, not as much).  I think the problems start to come in when the protagonist is ONLY there to cater to the tastes of the audience.  I’ve mentioned in the past that the three things I -- and others, no doubt -- like to see in a character are A) being interesting in some capacity, B) having a genuine effect on the plot, and C) developing so they’re not the same at story’s end.  Point B is easy enough to handle for a protagonist, but I’m willing to bet there are plenty of times and ways for A and C to go wrong, along with any number of minor elements.

Now, this is probably more of an issue with video games (though there are exceptions) than anything else, but it seems to me like the more a lead character is geared toward being identifiable to/with the player, the worse off we get.  It’s a delicate balance, to be sure; how do you reconcile role-playing with the role that needs to be played?  Where do you draw the line between pandering to an audience and alienating them?  Going back to Luke, I can’t help but wonder if the problems people have with him stem from him misaligning with the player’s wishes and will.  Luke is wealthy and cushioned, and starts off as a whiny, immature, obnoxious brat; even if he appeals to Japanese audiences, in the eyes of westerners he’s a stark departure from what’s acceptable.  And then what do you do?  You’ve got a bad lead character (on the surface) that immediately drags the game down with him. 

A lot of people will point to certain characters in a bid to name “blank slates”.  And that’s a viable complaint with some protagonists -- a certain Spartan super soldier well among them.  In cases like that, it’s the same problem as Luke, albeit on a different axis; rather than a protagonist who offends with every action, there are protagonists who offend with their inaction.  It’s hard to imagine a character as anything but boring when they refuse to react to anything.  Meanwhile, you’ve got characters surrounding him/her who not only bring new ideas to the table, but act and react in plenty of exciting ways.  How are we supposed to care about these protagonists if they don’t do anything to deserve it?

I guess the “compensation” is supposed to come from what they do, not…well, what they do.  Hear me out on this: we’ve all heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words” at one point or another, and that’s certainly something to be valued.  Valued, but not prioritized -- again, what I want to see from a protagonist is more than a show of spectacle or theatrics.  And I sure as hell want to see more than just the all-too-common slide from whatever title they held before into the role of Jesus Christ.  Taking on the job of being a messiah isn’t automatically a problem, but it’s something you have to be wary of.  It’s been done many, many, many times before, and requires its own stylistic imprint from its creator.  More importantly, there has to be something more than just going from protagonist to savior (if at all).  If there isn’t, then the end result is less than perfect.  If the intent is to make a character that’s identifiable with the audience, and said character is lacking in even basic qualities, yet they’re supposed to be counterbalanced by things like being either an unstoppable one man army and/or a saint who makes the pope look like a street thug, don’t you think that comes off as a little disingenuous?

Maybe it’s just because I don’t buy into this whole “look how badass you are!” mentality of video games.  I know I’m not a badass, or a saint, or a messiah, or a one man army, or any of that.  And I don’t want the character I’m playing as to blindly hammer that idea into my head.  The games I like the most aren’t MY story; it’s theirs.  And I want the characters -- the lead, especially -- to act accordingly.  I want them to stop trying to make me feel good and do what’s right for them, the cast, and the story at large.  I’ll gladly play the role of an advisor or observer, but in exchange a protagonist should pull their own weight.  Be a man/woman in their own right.  That’s not too much to ask, right?

Now, let’s be real here.  I’m not asking for every protagonist in every story to have their kookiness increased by eighty percent -- that’s only going to do more harm than good.  But what we can agree on is that the main character -- by virtue of, you know, being the main character -- is THE most important part of the story.  He/she needs to be more than just a means for vicarious living, or ticking off boxes in the plot checklist.  I need them to be something better.  Something substantial.  Something more.  And the stories that do are ones that, I’d argue, are the ones destined to be remembered most fondly.

But then again, I could just be talking out of my ass.

And that’s where you all come in.  Let me know what you think in the comments.  What do you think of protagonists?  In general, are they good or bad?  Ever find yourself wishing that one of the other cast members had the leading role?  Why?  Why not?  Do you think there’s some problem that side characters don’t have?  I want to hear it, whatever you have to say, whatever you may feel.

As for me…well, that’s enough ranting for now.  I think I need to go see a gypsy or an exorcist or something.



  1. I think that perhaps the problem with being a main character is that a lot of personality is often gutted so that it's easier for the audience to step in and take control. Even with Luke, you mention that at the beginning he's unlikable and pompous, but he's also an amnesiac, so that leaves some background for the player to fill, something to make the player go "oh, he might not have been like this, but how I would have imagined him to be".

    Since I've been thinking a little about Deus Ex: Human Revolution lately let me use Adam Jensen as an example. Even though I believe that his actions and dialogue throughout the game make him a very good character and show him to have a personality even as the player is controlling him, I don't really have much doubt that if we were viewing Adam's story through another character's eyes that he would become an even better character (assuming of course that the writing and development remained to the same level).

    This is simply because his actions wouldn't be dictated by our responses. He would perhaps spend time out of the spotlight, enough for us to begin to wonder what he might be up to. His actions could take on a greater myriad of meanings because we don't have control over them, and since we would spend time talking to him rather than talking through him, we could develop an even greater sense of his personality.

    As another example; look at Raiden. Even as someone that didn't mind his inclusion in Metal Gear Solid 2, I, like most, only really appreciated him as a character when he showed up in four. Not just because he was a badass cyborg ninja (although that certainly didn't hurt), but in two he was intentionally created as a blank slate. The largest problem I had with his character in two is that so much was sacrificed so that he could come off that way, far too much in my assertion.

    Take the revelation that Raiden was a child soldier for example. I know that it's been attributed to the fact that he suppressed the memories, but even in game he says that he's pieced together most of the facts by the time it was revealed to the audience. I felt that revelation took most, if not all the sympathy from Raiden's representation in that game, because instead of being a rookie that was in way over his head, he was instead a hardened child soldier that could have brought a completely different perspective to the narrative, but didn't. It was a major opportunity lost.

    Maybe I'm looking at things wrong, but that's just how I feel about the matter. Some games do allow greater depth of character, RPGs being among the top of that list of course, but I still think that the main protagonist often suffers just for the fact that they are such, rather than due to outside factors.

  2. Whoops. Sorry about the MGS2 spoilers in that case. Also, I believe that given some of what's been discussed in the past on this blog that you'll appreciate this picture:

  3. "Some games do allow greater depth of character, RPGs being among the top of that list of course..."

    Maybe that's precisely why I enjoy those so much. Not to sound redundant, but in my eyes the main character does so much for the sake of the story. Why remove elements from him/her just so the audience can be made happy? It's a silly move, IMO.

    Silly, but I guess it's defensible. I see what you mean when it comes to your Deus Ex example (while reminding me that I really need to grab a copy of that game one of these days) -- player action and control is something developers have to keep in mind. I guess when it comes down to it, making a good lead character comes down to more than just keeping the player in mind or creative intent (though those help); giving a character a little something extra can work out in the long run.

    "Even though I believe that his actions and dialogue throughout the game make him a very good character and show him to have a personality even as the player is controlling him..."

    And that's all I really want when it comes down to it. I don't mind if a protagonist is absolutely controlled by or pandering to the player, as long as they manage to offer up SOMETHING more than just being a tool for exploration. If there's one thing I hate -- under the umbrella of bad writing, at least -- it's wasted potential. If there are possibilities that can be tapped, they should be tapped, right?

    ...I really need to play Deus Ex. And MGS2, now that I think about it.

  4. Eh, no worries. I watched my brother play through MGS2 from start to finish, so I know what goes down there. It has been a while, though, so I'm a little hazy on the details.

    And I saw that picture on YouTube somewhere. And now that I have it here...well, my gut instinct was to set it as my desktop wallpaper.

  5. Well, as said before, the hero is often kept bland so that nothing prevents the player to identify themselves with it. Also, the hero is quite often quite bland because, well, they're heroes : morale says that they shouldn't appear with too many bad qualities but be an example for others.

    More interesting is that this fact is true not only in videogames but also in quite a lot of different kind of fictions. The best/worst example of that would the heroine of Twilight. And so to entertain both the creator and the viewer/reader/player, much more vivid characters appear next to the hero. In Batman movies, the villains are much more interesting than the Hero. Tintin, the perfect boy-scout, was soon accompanied by the alcoholic, cursing, easy-to-anger captain Haddock.

    But these side character are also useful to make the plot advance by doing some acts that the hero can't do, for example sneaking up on their arch-nemesis and killing them traitorously without giving them a chance to defend hemselves. This probably because the hero's main role, save XXXX from YYYY, is a reaction, not an action. By essence, the hero is passive, not active, hence its blandness.

  6. "The best/worst example of that would the heroine of Twilight."

    Just hearing that title makes me cringe a little. I saw (most of) the first movie on TV a while back, and it made me so frustrated that I got a headache and had to sleep it off. Quality!

    But seriously, though...I hear you on the whole "hero is passive" bit. I guess part of the problem is that the villains are the movers and shakers, while the heroes (more often than not) are just trying to restore or maintain the status quo. Outside of one or two examples, I can't think of anything too extensive in terms of a hero making the first move. I admit that I've dabbled in making a more "proactive" hero, but the fact that he's a borderline villain doesn't inspire confidence that it's something done well -- or at least keeping that squeaky-clean veneer.

    Now, I will say that being heroic and moral aren't exactly flaws in their own right. Captain America's a good example, I think -- his ideals and beliefs are tested by a world (or era, at least) that's long since left him behind, and there's a lot of interesting development to be had as a result of him adapting. And there's some potential t be had in making a hero a pillar of noble ideals...buuuuuuuuuut in order for that to work, he/she has to have some other savory qualities. Not that they're exactly easy to pin down, but the possibilities are always there.

    In any case, thanks for the fresh perspective.

  7. Bonnet has pretty much said it best. There are many, many main characters/heroes that react to the events in a story. Which might explain why many of my favorite characters tend to be in the supporting cast somewhere.

    But even if a hero is reactive, sometimes there is the problem when the guy has no personality at all.

    This might be a bad-ish example, but there have been only a few main characters I actually liked. Take Naruto. As much as he is hated for being a stupid idiot ninja in a bright orange jumpsuit, he had moments when he would get up, call someone stupid, and knock some sense into them. Being a typical protagonist, nearly everyone is touched or saved by his all-powerful niceness, honesty, and blah, blah, blah. At least until he could not stop Sasuke from leaving their home village. It showed that Naruto will not always succeed, no matter how much heart he musters. In fact, there was a quote early in the series when someone says that being a ninja is a dangerous job and anyone and everyone can fail or die. Naruto not being able to save Sasuke fit that theme very well.

    And then Part 2 happened. But I digress.

    Another main character I liked was Lucy from 'Elfen Lied'. As much as I could not relate to an orphaned girl with telekinetic powers and a split personality that would lead humanity to extinction, the nearly everything in the story tied back to her. It might have been because she - intentionally and accidentally - was the source of most of the pain and conflict the characters faced. All she wanted was to be a normal person, but not being able to fit in due to her mutation AND her inability to control her powers (and her psyche), it becomes obvious that her story will end tragically. It did... but it was a satisfying story emotionally. There are tons of writing problems and Lucy can come off more as a colossal, unlikable monster, but she was a main character I actually enjoyed.

    Why do I like these guys? Maybe it's because it felt like they had an unavoidable presence. Their characterizations risk isolating the audience from giving a crap, but at the very least, their roles make sense in the world they live in. They "react", but they react strongly by spreading a mutation that slowly wipes out humanity or by rising up to be a beloved leader and friend despite being as smart as a brick.

    But I also think it's because - at least with 'Naruto' - they have their weaknesses and the story actually recognizes that. I stopped following the series mainly because Naruto cannot stop bitching about the fact that he could not stop his friend from pursuing his dark obsessions. The guy has earned the love and respect of his peers after three years of hard work... and he's miserable that one thing did not go his way. *Sheesh*

    There is a lot of rambling here...

    If anything, I feel as if we want our protagonists to be as blank-flated as possible so that the audience can feel "one" with the fiction. Or we just want out protagonists completely blank so that they cannot be hated (ironically, this backfires quite often.) Video games can be especially guilty of this when some games are known for having main characters that are silent or have to be molded by the player. These are fine, but when a character is neither, there is no excuse. (Desmond Miles was one of the first to pop in my head, and you happened to have his pic up too.)

    I'm not sure about you, but I feel emerged in a story when the characters interact together in a way that it makes sense in the universe they live in. Having other characters explain to an ambassador about the politics of own his country is insulting. That character comes off as an incompetent idiot and we are less likely to have respect for him.

    Hopefully some of what I said makes sense...

  8. Yeah, I get what you're trying to say here. Naruto (the series) is an interesting case; I admit that I don't really follow or care about it as much as I did in the past, since I feel like things have gone off-the-rails for Part 2 -- and in more ways than one. Still, it has a lot of strong points, and I'd argue that the character is one of them...for the most part. He has a personality and effect on the plot, and more specifically he has an impact on the ideas and themes of the story in general. Of course, I could argue that Shikamaru should have been the main character...but that's neither here nor there.

    Anyhoo, I've been thinking about this whole "the reader has to insert themselves into the story" business, and I have to admit that I'm understanding that mindset even less than before. I mean, think about it -- in the grand scheme of things, what is the point of being able to insert yourself into a fictional world separated by (at a bare minimum) a TV screen or sheets of paper? If I'm talking to my friend and he's telling me about a trip he took to the store, I don't feel a need to insert myself into the story, or live vicariously through him. If he's telling a good story, his character(s), misadventures, and technique are the things that should matter more.

    I guess that's what makes Assassin's Creed so baffling to me. I could argue (as plenty of others have) that Desmond Miles and his future-tense timeline are completely extraneous. There are plot threads through the games that connects the different time periods beyond just the Animus system, and people play the games partly because they want to see those worlds of the past fully-rendered and ready for exploration. So why go to Desmond if he's so bland and forgettable? Just think of the actual assassins; people complained that Altair was boring, and in the next game we got the largely-beloved Ezio -- someone with an actual personality. And then they went with Connor for ACIII, and people have cried foul of him being bland. (I wouldn't know, because I couldn't bring myself to play one more minute of the prologue with the remarkably-bland Haytham.)

    This really isn't a hard concept, is it? Main character = best character (at least by design; there's no telling who'll become the most popular by day's end). If you're going to write a story, do something with your lead, people.