Life's Great Mysteries: Protagonists

Well, it's probably a bit obvious why I'm approaching this topic (cough Shu). Basically, the topic for today is what makes a good protagonist. I know that it's impossible to approach this sort of subject objectively, so I will instead propose my opinions for a good protagonist and my opinions for a bad protagonist, then open the floor for everyone else to chime in.

What do I look for in a protagonist? Honestly, I prefer to watch someone who's calm, brilliant, and incredibly confident. Lelouch Lamperouge, Light Yagami, and Akagi Shigeru are some examples of this. I'm not looking for a perfect character, as flaws are necessary for a protagonist.

Physical ability doesn't mean so much to me because I believe that the most intense conflicts can happen in just a battle of the minds. Bluffs, predictions, tactics: all amazing things to watch unfold in a show. This doesn't mean I can't enjoy a good sword fight or something, but I just really have a thing for the psychological style of things.

What's a bad protagonist? Simple in my eye. Someone who's a complete wimp is just painful to watch. Why would I want to spend all of my time watching someone run from battle or push some naive idealism forward to justify his actions?

Also, I dislike the idea of some random person suddenly being endowed with amazing power. This sort of scenario makes it seem so much like it doesn't matter who gets the power. I like the idea of power being given to a protagonist that's perfectly equipped to bring out the best of it. I feel like this creates the sense that the character must be designed correctly to fit the story.

Maybe a protagonist that melds into the background is good in that it draws attention away from himself to focus on other characters. I suppose there are some shows that feel like there are many protagonists that each contribute to create a powerful effect. I think for the purposes of this topic, we should ignore that aspect.

This brings to mind a separate question: What influences what we like in a main character? I'm sure there are those that disagree with me, and I want to approach the reasons for this. Unfortunately, these reasons are far too numerous for me.

Perhaps I like the characters I chose because I enjoy the larger than life persona that they present, as they represent some sort of ideal or model for the type of person I want to be. Perhaps I choose them as a simple reflection of my true personality.

Alternatively, I can understand the need for a protagonist who is down-to-earth and somewhat tangible, so to speak. Basically, someone who gives the feeling of "Hey, that sort of thing could happen to me." However, I feel like that's not what I look for in anime, but maybe in other media or games or something.

So what do you think? Why do we choose the characters we choose to be our favorites? A pretty face (cough like someone I know)? Reflections of ourselves? Who we wish to be? Do we want to admire the character or pity him? For me, this seems like a tough question to find what about a character I truly like. But maybe it's simpler for others.

Posted in: Editorials

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  • AceRailgun

    Dec. 28, 2011, 2:40 p.m.

    You almost shot yourself in the foot there when you said you don't like characters that suddenly gain a superpower. Lelouch Lamperouge and Light Yagami both gain a superpower suddenly. But I can stand up for you and say that before they got there superpowers they still had incredible intelligence, arrogance and motivation which made them unique in their respective worlds. Gaining a super power was a gentle nudge to get them to act on there ideals.

    Any personality in a protagonist that isn't naive wimp or yandere generally sits well with me. Some of my favourite protagonists have wacky or mysterious personalities. Mugen and Jin from Samurai Champloo were great. So were Tiger and Bunny from Tiger and Bunny even if Bunny was a bit whiny at times.

    Some of the new protagonists in the upcoming spring anime season should be good too if they stick to the manga they are based on.



    Dec. 28, 2011, 5:47 p.m.

    I'd also say that Toori was pretty good too despite being pretty carefree


  • hogart

    Dec. 28, 2011, 3:03 p.m.

    You can wax idiotic about it all day pretending you have a "real" answer, but in the end the best I could come up with was: does the protagonist offer a good window into their universe and story, and do they play their role in the story effectively?

    But that's a very technical way of looking at it, and misses another aspect that might be just as important: do they pull you into the story? For all I know Shu was a technically brilliant "protagonist", but I had no desire to watch Guilty Crown after 3 episodes of seeing him. Does that make him a failure? I doubt it.. to me, that makes him "good", because it informed me that Guilty Crown wasn't my kind of anime.

    So now I've thought myself into a corner.. the definition of "good" is just too nebulous in this case. Is he likable? I'd argue that doesn't matter.. there are protagonists that I don't like at all, but they are central to making me like the rest of the anime by proxy in some way.

    And arguing about what makes some of them "likable" is probably just as nebulous.. I loved Sunred, and hate NisioisiN's protagonists.. I'm sure most of otakudom would write me off as strange for those choices, but that doesn't make their anime any less likable to me.

    And now I've thought myself into a corner... I suppose we could focus on specific characters and what makes them "liked" in terms of popular opinion?



    Dec. 28, 2011, 5:50 p.m.

    That's an interesting way of looking at things...I never really thought about a technical way to qualify protagonists. Still, I feel like making a protagonist more likable is a bit more important than trying to make a "good" protagonist. With that sort of definition of a "good" protagonist, I'm not sure what would qualify as a "bad" protagonist



    Dec. 28, 2011, 7:27 p.m.

    Well, to continue my thoughts (now that work's over), this is the benchmark I've come up with, though it's technically unfair in some ways. Basically: how "replaceable" is the protagonist? How much would the story change if it was someone else in their position, and is it really the character who is the protagonist, or some ability or other plot device?

    For example, if you gave any dude Imagine Breaker, would they turn into Touma? Personally, I felt the protagonist was the Imagine Breaker more than Touma. You could replace him with another character entirely, because his reasons for being in the story were flimsy at best. Heck, one can argue that Biribiri even fell for the Imagine Breaker, and not Touma (even after two seasons of Index it still feels that way). He's what I would call a weak protagonist.

    But on the flip side, could you imagine anyone ELSE being Craft Lawrence? Take any aspect of his character away and the story falls apart. He wouldn't put up with Holo, she wouldn't fall for him, he wouldn't have a reason to take her home, etc. You can't just plop in another "selfless male lead", although you might think so at first glance. By my unfair criteria, he's what I would call a strong protagonist.

    But of course this is a really dry and academic way of looking at things, and completely misses the "likability" of the character and such.


  • Yerocha

    Dec. 28, 2011, 4:08 p.m.

    The most annoying thing with any main character is if it doesn't feel like they have any control over the story. When they're weak and get dragged along the plot with no real input, it quickly becomes hard to feel for them because it's hard to see why the person should matter at all.



    Dec. 28, 2011, 4:27 p.m.

    That really does seems true at face value, doesn't it? But then why should Luke Skywalker be appealing (to go with a non-anime example?) I think that the problem you're talking about is whether the plot actually ends up showing them learn what their purpose is, and fulfill it.

    There is something eminently satisfying about seeing a shlub become someone important, or at least better themselves in some way during a story.. you can't always get the same effect starting with a "special" character.

    But then, anime (and even Hollywood) seem to have a tough time with this in recent years. Anime seems to forget that we have to want to identify with the character.. maybe we're too used to the old tricks now for this formula to work without them trying harder?



    Dec. 28, 2011, 5:59 p.m.

    I guess that's what I was trying to grasp at. Although it would seem that the rags to riches sort of story would be more effective, it just isn't. So you maybe right that the same old tricks are being used too much for it to have the same effect.



    Dec. 28, 2011, 5:56 p.m.

    I think control is important in my eye. I just think that a strong and confident protagonist makes a play at grabbing the audience immediately whereas the more weak protagonist is something that develops over time


  • BeldenOtaku

    Dec. 28, 2011, 4:58 p.m.

    I agree with AceRailgun, you had me going "But wait, good sir!!!" when you said you didn't like the protagonist suddenly gaining a superpower after just mentioning your favor for Lelouch Lamperouge. But, really, Lelouch was planning to overthrow Britannia to start with, Geass just sped up his plans. I think a good protagonist can be, as you say, a "complete wimp", but only at certain points. Seeing a hero rise from a zero is classic plot frame. Although, it must be done carefully, if the protagonist stays "wimpy" for too long (as I imagine you say Shu has), it becomes frustrating that he's not making progress.



    Dec. 28, 2011, 5:53 p.m.

    I wonder if maybe the "hero from zero" is too much of a classic plot frame that I've become maybe a little jaded to it. Or maybe I never liked it at all. For some reason, it doesn't quite appeal to me as much as it seems to do for others. Maybe I'm just strange


  • feal87

    Dec. 29, 2011, 2:29 a.m.

    Mhn...the protagonist I like? Definitely Toori-like characters! Cheerful, emotional, smart, pervy...etc...:D

    And definitely he is not either my reflection, nor what I want to be. But hell he's funny, that's what I search in an anime series generally...:P



    Dec. 29, 2011, 6:36 p.m.

    yeah...that's nothing like you at all >.>


  • Sandybell

    Dec. 29, 2011, 8:53 a.m.

    Nice post, man. I agree with a lot of your points, but not all. I feel it's weak writing to design a protagonist specifically to fit with the story.

    My favorite protagonist is someone with his own desires and agenda. He isn't one to go with the flow easily like most shonen characters do. So, when his interests coincide with whatever life-changing event that starts the story, he will develop into a multi-dimensional character, whose personal goals will conflict with whatever "greater" cause there is.

    Or better yet, that person BENDS the world's will to his own. When Lelouch and Light got their powers, CC and Uruk had NO idea what they were about to do. In fact, CC had no guarantee that Lelouch would fulfill her desire. Yet both of these protagonists used their power to change the world according to their own vision.

    Compare Ichigo from Bleach, whose goals and desires strangely are against every villain of the week ever. It's absolutely uninteresting.



    Dec. 29, 2011, 6:35 p.m.

    I think those are great points, but the trouble I have is where those sorts of feelings come from. I'm curious about why we like those things or what makes those things appealing. Maybe there just isn't an answer.


  • tsurugiarashix

    Dec. 29, 2011, 6:20 p.m.

    It's okay, Marth. We all hate Shu deep down inside :D

    I really do not have a preference on protagonist leads as long as he/she is not constantly whiny or wimpy throughout the story and hardly ever to change. It is nice for character growth later on, but as long their is some actually change from it. The fool archetype I am willing to stand after being introduced to Toori from Horizion, but not exactly someone I like to see in every single series. In addition to that, I do not want a Mr/Ms/Mrs. Know-It-All either like Alice from Kami Memo or Dalian from The Mystic Archives of Dantalian. More partial to the average Joe protagonist that improves with its own work ethic type. Too bad they hardly exist...



    Dec. 29, 2011, 6:32 p.m.

    Shu makes me cry inside T_T

    I think Toori was the fool type done right, which is why I'm okay with him. I've always had trouble with the average Joe type, but maybe that's just because no one ever does it right


  • minterfresh56

    Jan. 2, 2012, 9:38 a.m.

    When Alice from Kami Memo was mentioned above it made me think of the protagonist from that show. I forget his name, but I liked him. He was the zero to hero type that I think was done well. Through each of his experiences, from getting a job to meeting friends, to helping Alice with her detective work he learned more naturally. His growth was very gradual and realistic while also being interesting. Oh, right, his name was Narumi (I looked it up). A particularly memorable part was near the end when he asked the big guy to teach him to punch. Even though it wasn't his mastering this amazing new technique, it was perfect for where his character was and why he wanted to learn it.
    So yeah, I though that show was done well.



    Jan. 2, 2012, 5:20 p.m.

    you know, I was okay with that show too, but I think the general consensus in the blog world was that Narumi was a terrible character...I didn't really mind him so much, but I'd have to say he wasn't the type of character that made me really excited to watch. I can see how you would enjoy watching someone like him, but I just never really seems so interested in that type of character


  • John Sato

    Feb. 7, 2012, 11:51 a.m.

    The way I see it, there are two kinds of protagonists; the ones we look up to, and the ones we relate to. I'm gonna use Break Blade as an example of this, because it contains both character types. So basically, Girge is the type of character we look up to. He's like the result of someone opening up a can of bad-ass and making a character from it. We want to be like Girge as he flawlessly, confidently, and expertly mows down the opposition. On the other hand, we have characters like Rygart, the "main" protagonist. We can really relate to Rygart. He's kind of an average joe, with confidence issues, a possible inferiority complex, an aversion to fighting, and a lot of inner conflict. We can really relate to him as a character and a person. We want to see him overcome the odds because we see a part of ourselves in him, and, in a way, him winning is tantamount to us achieving victory ourselves. Now, which kind of character is better? Well, one is not intrinsically better than another. It depends on the kind of story being told. For example, you would use an awesome, cool, super soldier if you wanted to make a story about fighting evil. The soldier, taking down the evil hostage-taking terrorists without fearing them or second guessing himself, is the kind of person we can look up to. We want to be like him, fighting competently for a noble cause. On the other hand, if you were making a story about a kid who stands up to a bunch of bullies and fights them, you would use the other kind of protagonist. If we didn't relate to the character, we wouldn't care if he beat the bullies or not; he's just some kid who gets into a fight. However, suppose the kid is down on his luck, average, deals with a family that doesn't really understand him, lack self-confidence, or whatever else. Something that makes him a person we can relate to. Then, we care if he succeeds or fails. We want him to stand up to the bullies, not because he's fighting evil, but because if he does, he wins an internal fight within himself (e.g. forcing himself to stand up for himself despite being scared). We can understand him, the fear he has, and the feelings he has. Now, like i said, neither of these characters are necessarily better than the other. Say you put the kid up against the terrorists. We don't really care if he finds a part of himself by fighting the terrorists, we care if he rescues the hostages and saves the day. Of course, there can be some overlap; the soldier could be a war veteran who questions his principles and finds them by choosing to fight evil (and, as such, being a character we can relate to), and the kid could become a martial artist who goes on to fight bullies for other people (thus becoming someone we look up to). Also, there are also some truly unique protagonists (like Kino, who seems to exemplify both types at once, while not truly belonging to either, or Ginko, who is not so much even a character, but is almost like a plot device)...but the vast majority of characters will usually have a focus on one of the two types. So as for what makes them a "good" character...I feel that it actually depends on the story you're trying to tell.

    ...Oh my. That's a lot of text.


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