Handling the typical bland protagonist

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TheJerminator15
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Handling the typical bland protagonist

#1 Post by TheJerminator15 » Tue Aug 08, 2017 12:27 pm

I'm thinking of a way to potentially handle the generic bland protagonist that we see in many visual novels. Everyone who plays VNs will have almost certainly had a run in with one of these, the guy made too relatable, with no real defining characteristics to them apart from how bland and lifeless they are.

So, my main train of thought at the minute has been, how do we handle them and make such a character good? Or, at the very least, interesting enough to the reader? According to research done by a member of this forum (I apologise profusely for forgetting your name, master of the stats) the audience in general prefers developed and fleshed out protagonists, but we still see a lot of these heavily relatable but dull protagonists.

An idea I threw together in my head was to begin by actually giving the character a reason to be this agreeable and generally dull, at least initially. My idea revolved around the main character becoming so dull and agreeable due to an even in their past. In this instance, it would be them giving up boxing due to family pressure which they then choose to acknowledge and hang their gloves up. As boxing was what they poured all their passion into, losing it made them lose purpose and as such, by the time the game starts he simply goes through life with no motivation and just simply acts agreeable to everybody (in the same vein as the typical bland VN protag). After this, depending on his interactions with the characters and thus which route he takes, he will develop differently.

This is a very simple idea I had, but I think it adds a dynamic layer and actual understandable tenets to what is at this point a trope in of itself.
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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#2 Post by bluebirdplays » Tue Aug 08, 2017 1:11 pm

I don't feel like I have a problem with writing protagonists or having them turn out dull, if only because I spend a LOT of time figuring out backstories before the main event even happens! I like daydreaming about what my characters have dealt with that makes or defines who they are now, but allows for plenty of room to grow and develop throughout the story. I think you can gain a lot from brainstorming the history of your characters, much like your boxing example.

In my short gamejam VN, the main character is distant and unwilling to open her heart to anyone because of a tragic event that happens in her past. She gradually begins to show love and caring (or not, depending on the choices being made), and by the end is either the same or completely changed. Just having little possibilities like that adds a lot of spice to character development as a whole :>

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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#3 Post by Dovahkitteh » Tue Aug 08, 2017 3:15 pm

I personally really dislike bland/passive protagonists. Out of the various VNs I've played, my favorites are by far the ones with witty or active MCs. Even if they're not super relatable, giving them a particular personality or set of unique quirks/idiosyncrasies really makes the game feel more alive. Badass protagonists in particular I find really enjoyable because they don't just moan about the various events that happen to them.

Now, I think there's a difference between a quiet or calm protagonist and a bland one. I guess if you're making a dating sim where it's literally supposed to just be an "insert yourself here" thing, it's fine, but for a story-based VN I think they need some kind of quirks. Even if you're rationalizing a bland personality through a lack of motivation in life, every person still has their own quirks and particular tastes, no matter how little a sense of purpose they have. I think your idea could work in a way, but unless this dispassionate MC has some kind of aspect that makes him unique or feel like more than a blank canvas, it doesn't seem to me like you'd really be setting him apart from any other protagonist.
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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#4 Post by Mammon » Tue Aug 08, 2017 4:44 pm

I asked the same question to the forum a few months back here. It should portray my own thoughts about this sufficiently enough, no need to pester you all with a wall of text. ;)
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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#5 Post by PMscenarios » Tue Aug 08, 2017 8:13 pm

But why? Why does the character have to be agreeable and dull? Why can't they have agency?


I can't write characters without exploring their backstory and what happened to make them who they are today. With my head stories it just comes naturally, they tend to start in medias res and then get an explanation as the story develops, while when I write for an established concept I sit down and write out the backstory and some spesific happenings in their lives - even if I'm the only one who'll ever see it.

And all my characters - involuntary or on purpose - always have a little bit of me in them. Something I can relate to - even if they're a murder or a rapist.
They need to have motivations and their own justification for why they do what they do/who they are.
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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#6 Post by Katy133 » Tue Aug 08, 2017 8:18 pm

I think you should think about good bland protagonist you like and ask yourself why you like them.

For me, I really like Tintin. He's the protagonist from the graphic novel series The Adventures of Tintin. There's a good wiki page about Tintin as a character, but I'll quote some snippets below to make it more digestible. I'll also insert my own footnotes in [square brackets] below:

Personality:
As observed by Michael Farr, "Hergé created a hero who embodied human qualities and virtues but no faults. The Adventures of Tintin mirror the past century while Tintin himself provides a beacon of excellence for the future." Harry Thompson said Tintin is "almost featureless, ageless, sexless, and did not appear to be burdened with a personality. Yet this very anonymity remains the key to Tintin's gigantic international success. With so little to mark him out, anybody from Curaçao to Coventry can identify with him and live out his adventures.
Tintin's personality evolved as Hergé [the creator of Tintin] wrote the series. [Tintin is generally polite, but also has a trickster streak; there's a scene where Tintin smiles as he outwits a villain by shooting a lightbulb to escape.]

Assouline described [Tintin] as "obviously celibate, excessively virtuous, chivalrous, brave, a defender of the weak and oppressed, never looks for trouble but always finds it; he is resourceful, takes chances, is discreet, and is a non-smoker." [Tintin also refuses drinks.]

Michael Farr deemed Tintin to be an intrepid young man of high moral standing, with whom his audience can identify. His rather neutral personality permits a balanced reflection of the evil, folly, and foolhardiness that surrounds him, allowing the reader to assume Tintin's position within the story...

To the other characters, Tintin is honest, decent, compassionate, and kind. [His travelling around the world makes him very open-minded as the series progresses.] He is also modest and self-effacing ... and is the most loyal of friends ... The reporter does have vices, becoming too tipsy [he accepts a drink in an early story, against his better judgement] ... By turns, Tintin is innocent, politically crusading ... If he had perhaps too much of the goody-goody about him, at least he was not priggish; Hergé admitting as much, saying, "If Tintin is a moralist, he's a moralist who doesn't take things too seriously, so humour is never far away from his stories." It is this sense of humour that makes the appeal of Tintin truly international.
Skills and abilities:
Tintin's pretty skilled and can be described as The Ace on TV Tropes, good at almost everything.
  • Tintin is an investigative journalist, but acts more like a detective: Solving crimes and mysteries rather than just writing about them.
  • He is adept at driving or fixing any mechanical vehicle.
  • He is a crack shot.
  • He is also an excellent athlete, in outstanding condition, able to walk, run, and swim long distances. He can also punch, knock out, and defend himself from a person twice his size.
  • Is a quick thinker and an effective diplomat.
  • He can speak multiple languages.
Appearance and Description:
  • Tintin is a Belgian young man (around the age of anywhere between 15 to 27, though Hergé described him as 17 at some point) who is small (around 5 feet tall) but muscular.
  • He usually wears 1930s plus four trousers, a blue vest over a white shirt. Sometimes, he wears a trenchcoat.
  • Has red hair with a quiff hairstyle.
Even though Tintin can be described as a "flat character," he still (like any "blank" character) inevitably develops some basic, clear personality from his actions in the story.

This analysis goes the other way round too; Think about a bland protagonist you DON'T like and ask yourself why you like them. Take those traits from your answer and avoid those.

Hope this helps!
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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#7 Post by Zelan » Thu Sep 07, 2017 5:32 pm

Your idea is good, but the thing is that it really doesn't seem like a "blank" protagonist at all, because you've now given them a backstory. They seem more like a depressed character than anything else.

I like what Dovahkitteh said about a quiet or calm protagonist versus a bland one; your character seems to lean towards the former.

On the other hand, if you really want a blank, passive protagonist, you could always rewrite The Stranger by Albert Camus. (Although even Meursault isn't truly blank, especially in the final chapters of the book.)

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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#8 Post by Twoflower » Thu Sep 07, 2017 10:11 pm

The way I'm handling it is to have a GENERALLY bland protagonist, but with two major exceptions.

One, your background is defined. You have such-and-such a family history to deal with, along with a few friends already in your social roster, and some mysteries that get gradually revealed to the player. (Things the protagonist knows, but doesn't like to talk about, and doesn't.) But...

...two, after the game starts, I leave development of the personality and making decisions up to the player. How they deal with their backstory, how they react to it and how it defines them is up to the player.

This way, we get best-of-both worlds. You have a nugget of backstory to work with so you aren't a total cipher, but you have enough room to maneuver to be the character you want to be.

I think this could work even in a game without a heavy roleplay element. Having "just enough" defined background and leaving the rest wide open gives the player some freedom to see themselves in the protagonist, without leaving them a tabula rasa.
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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#9 Post by ArcialIntegra » Mon Nov 13, 2017 5:00 am

I mean, if you want to make a blank slate character who isn't dull... Simple: During the prologue, give them a backstory, friends, family, a lover. Then, give them amnesia. Throughout the game, depending on what event flags are raised, they can learn more about their past while also deciding how to handle their present situation and preparing for the future with the possibility that they may never remember anything more about themselves and having to come to grips with that possibility. This keeps the character, early on, a blank slate while at the same time introducing them to the player with interesting aspects and traits that can come back based on the player's choices. This will allow the memories that resurface and any skills relearned to be a better fit for the player allowing the way the character develops to be a better reflection of the player than a constant true blank slate.

I hope that made sense. I'm a tad sleep deprived. lol

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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#10 Post by Katy133 » Mon Nov 13, 2017 10:41 pm

ArcialIntegra wrote:
Mon Nov 13, 2017 5:00 am
I mean, if you want to make a blank slate character who isn't dull... Simple: During the prologue, give them a backstory, friends, family, a lover. Then, give them amnesia. Throughout the game, depending on what event flags are raised, they can learn more about their past while also deciding how to handle their present situation and preparing for the future with the possibility that they may never remember anything more about themselves and having to come to grips with that possibility. This keeps the character, early on, a blank slate while at the same time introducing them to the player with interesting aspects and traits that can come back based on the player's choices. This will allow the memories that resurface and any skills relearned to be a better fit for the player allowing the way the character develops to be a better reflection of the player than a constant true blank slate.

I hope that made sense. I'm a tad sleep deprived. lol
A brilliant example of this being done in a video game is Planescape Torment.

Spoiler of one of the great moments utilising this near the end of the game:
The player character, the Nameless One, can eventually learn their name. They then get 2,000,000 experience points (this is an RPG game), which is an astonishing amount of exp, as well as a lovely piece of narration: "You suddenly remember your name... and it is such a simple thing, not at all what you thought it might be, and you feel yourself suddenly comforted. In knowing your name, your true name, you know that you have gained back perhaps the most important part of yourself. In knowing your name, you know yourself, and you know, now, there is very little you cannot do."
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Re: Handling the typical bland protagonist

#11 Post by ArcialIntegra » Tue Nov 14, 2017 5:03 am

Katy133 wrote:
Mon Nov 13, 2017 10:41 pm
ArcialIntegra wrote:
Mon Nov 13, 2017 5:00 am
I mean, if you want to make a blank slate character who isn't dull... Simple: During the prologue, give them a backstory, friends, family, a lover. Then, give them amnesia. Throughout the game, depending on what event flags are raised, they can learn more about their past while also deciding how to handle their present situation and preparing for the future with the possibility that they may never remember anything more about themselves and having to come to grips with that possibility. This keeps the character, early on, a blank slate while at the same time introducing them to the player with interesting aspects and traits that can come back based on the player's choices. This will allow the memories that resurface and any skills relearned to be a better fit for the player allowing the way the character develops to be a better reflection of the player than a constant true blank slate.

I hope that made sense. I'm a tad sleep deprived. lol
A brilliant example of this being done in a video game is Planescape Torment.

Spoiler of one of the great moments utilising this near the end of the game:
The player character, the Nameless One, can eventually learn their name. They then get 2,000,000 experience points (this is an RPG game), which is an astonishing amount of exp, as well as a lovely piece of narration: "You suddenly remember your name... and it is such a simple thing, not at all what you thought it might be, and you feel yourself suddenly comforted. In knowing your name, your true name, you know that you have gained back perhaps the most important part of yourself. In knowing your name, you know yourself, and you know, now, there is very little you cannot do."
It sounds interesting. I might check it out. I haven't actually run across anything that makes efficient use of this method, so a project I am making was going to. I may see how Planescape Torment plays with this idea. I have seen an anime that used this:
A Certain Magical Index
, but the character still came across as quite dull because who he was before he lost his memory played no part in who he was after. It didn't help that he was originally a pretty dull character, but, to his credit, I don't think the story would have been as enjoyable if he wasn't a bit on the dull side. I found myself wanting to drop it because of the bad writing, but I couldn't stop watching because I enjoyed the characters. I would love to make something that makes efficient use of this idea though.

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