[Guest Editorial]: Visual Novel Protagonists and Their Self-Insert Natures

This week I would like to present a post written by Kai of Deluscar, who has just celebrated his blog’s fifth anniversary! A massive Congratulations and Thank You to Kai!
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Greetings, Kai of Deluscar here, and today I’m on The Geek Clinic to analyze and dissect visual novel protagonists. But before I begin, I would like to point out what I say here doesn’t necessarily apply to ALL visual novels, but enough of them feature this type of protagonist to allow one to decipher a pattern.

A visual novel has a structure similar to reading a picture book, and is an incredibly immersive medium. But another one significant reason that contribute to it’s immersion is because of visual novel protagonists and their self-insert natures.

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Black hair, black eyes which are concealed most of the time and the only character without voices — most visual novel protagonists.

 Most visual novel protagonists don’t have much of a personality. They are mostly dull and bland, but with adequate moral behaviors so that you don’t really hate them (which is also a big reason as to why heroines love you, because you’re SO KIND, apparently). Some visual novel protagonists can be pretty dense too, almost to the point of idiocy. Though that’s a bit hard to fault the medium with, since you can say most visual novels are set in harem situations (what with the multiple heroines and all), and in such tropes, a dense protagonist almost always goes hand-in-hand.

Personality aside, their visual designs are usually boring as well — black hair, black eyes, very standard hair designs and so on. They are designed to make them look like your everyday ordinary guy, and when the heroines are designed so flamboyantly, the contrast is just plain to see.

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Indeed, most visual novel protagonists are designed to self-insert, which is exactly the reason for their rudimentary designs. As you might expect, this is also something fairly common with light novels as well; both visual novels and light novels have strong first-person narratives so designing their protagonists like that is definitely a good idea for immersion and self-insertion. Though in visual novel’s case, having a dull protagonist means you, the player, will also be the one to define his personality through the many choices presented in the story — some visual novels do this and it really makes playing other routes worthwhile.

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But let’s look at the disadvantageous side. For one, it makes relationships unrealistic sometimes-most heroines would love you and get all doki doki just because you’re oh-so-kind, despite having a personality of a rock. Well, not like I’m trying to say you shouldn’t be kind, just that in fictional romances I always desire context, or at the very least some sort of relationship dynamics and some visual novels I read have neither. Protagonists like these are especially common in most moege. Visual novels with more large-scale, and ambitious storytelling at least have a little more substance and tell us motivations and reasons as to why characters act the way they do, and more importantly how that reflects his relationships with the heroines.

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Okabe Rintarou, one of my favorite visual novel protagonists.

This is precisely why I actually like visual novel protagonists whose morality is a little in the grey area — anti-heroes. I feel a main character actually has more personality when they have a little villainous depth, this is the reason why I like Kyousuke from G-Senjou no Maou. Hell, you can already get me interested if your protagonist reacts just a little different in otherwise, stereotypical situations — Yuuji’s nonchalant expressions when stumbling upon lewd moments for one, and even Okabe’s exaggerated, over-the-top demeanor.

What do you feel about visual novel protagonists and their self-insert natures?

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About Silvachief

I'm a Gamer that dabbles in a little bit of everything. I'm big on Video Games, Visual Novels, Anime, Books and TV Series, but there's more to me than just those!
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15 Responses to [Guest Editorial]: Visual Novel Protagonists and Their Self-Insert Natures

  1. Lazarinth says:

    Has Kai Fata Morganad yet? Because Michel is definitely not your usual VN protag.

  2. Kai says:

    Reblogged this on deluscar and commented:
    VN protagonists — some of them have such bright personalities even a rock looks more interesting than them. This mostly allude to VN protagonists and their self-insert natures, and is something I covered in this guest post of mine for The Geek Clinic.

  3. Revaryk says:

    When it comes to VN Protagonists, I feel that some improvement could be made. Even VNs I personally like suffer from the Self-insert problem. I feel that you can create a work with just as much immersion without a self-insert. Case in point, Phoenix Wright. Even if he’s a bit on the dumb side, he still is a protagonist with personality, backstory, and motivation. And he’s not a completely nice person, with his inner snark and remarks, and his personality in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney.

    I feel VN protagonists should be just as important as the other characters in a Visual Novel. Okabe is an excellent example of that.

    • Kai says:

      It’s not like all VNs face this problem, but yeah, enough to notice it. Though tbf, Ace Attorney is so good it’s pretty much a beast of it’s own :p

      Yeah, aside from having an unique personality, this is another thing I really like about Okabe, he feels important to the story. In fact, his choices pretty much effects the fate of the entire world.

  4. Immersion is a lie. Making choices “as if you were the protagonist” is a conscious choice in itself and, even then, you can’t help but wonder what the story wants you to choose or guess what will the consequences be given the circumstances. There will always be a barrier between you and the game – this means self-insert protagonists are meaningless by default.

    • Silvachief says:

      While i’m not one of the people that identifies with self-insert protagonists I strongly disagree. Whether or not the barrier you mention exists, immersion is something that exists in the mind of the reader; if they feel they are making choices from the perspective of the protagonist and that makes them feel more involved in the story being told then that barrier is essentially meaningless, rather than the self-insert characters which facilitate that kind of immersion. I’ve encountered a significant number of people that love choices and self insert characters for that reason.

      That all said, immersion for me is more about a story’s ability to grab and fully hold onto my attention for extended periods of time and interesting protagonists / kinetic VNs work better than bland ones for that.

      • I’m one of those who likes to feel like I’m the actual protagonist. My first run is always blind. And yet, I noticed doing this in itself is a choice one must always reassert, because it’s impossible not to take notice of the mechanisms by which you’re choosing.

        Immersion is a flickering state that demands some actual and real effort from the player – so it’s not something the game can be accounted for, not an inherent property of the VN. So self-insert protagonists aren’t something you need to make, so they’ll always be a waste. You COULD put some personality there and still have the players immersing themselves by their own accord.

  5. chinjianxiong says:

    I don’t think this is a flaw specifically to Visual Novels though. I bet the bulk of bad books out there, like the trashiest chick lit or blatant power fantasies, will have this problem. The difference is, of course, that in this case the player has the illusion of choice & perspective. So when you have a bad or dull character, you’ll use ‘self-insert’ rather than bad. Whereas if you saw a character like that in a book or anywhere else it would merely be a bad character or you’d say it was a self-insert/Mary Sue of the author (e.g. Twilight etc…). One-track protagonists (the young hero who saves the world etc…) are a staple of all bad writing – no matter whether VN, LN, pulp fiction, chick lit etc…

    It all boils down to writing – and I agree that too many people take a gaming perspective when dealing with Visual Novels. It’s better to approach a VN like a body of text where each route is like a short story in itself to contribute to the whole. But I don’t think that a person who escapes that perspective can immediately start writing good characters. You might forget that Okabe Rintarou is only one shining example in a long line of shouting eccentric Chuunibyou archetypes, just as Kyousuke is one shining example in a long line of the ‘straight-man’ sarcastic archetypes. They are both stereotypes written better – which turns them into archetypes.

    Okabe-type characters: Suizenji from Iriya no Sora, Kurosu Taichi from Cross Channel, Akashi Wataru from Sakura no Uta, arguably the infamous Subaru from Re:Zero, The Doctor from Dr Who,

    Kyousuke type characters: Most Key protagonists, Hikigaya Hachiman from Oregairu, Haruki from White Album 2, Kenichi from Sharin no Kuni, Araragi from Bakemonogatari

    These are probably the better examples (except Subaru & some Key protagonists), but there are tons tons more that are lesser versions of these – like Takashima Kei from Special A. You can probably just find many of this type of character if you looked it up here: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/DeadpanSnarker/AnimeAndManga. If you had a guy who acted like Kyousuke but his dialogue wasn’t funny, there’s no saving him as a character.

    A self-insert character placed in the hands of a very good creator can probably become something else altogether – such as the player character of Undertale, whose personality-less nature is used to extremely good effect. Shinji Ikari is also a person that has a purposely rudimentary design & maybe even a kind of dull personality, but becomes a lot more psychologically deeper when placed in the scenarios he’s placed in.

    That’s why saying that people should write character with different & better personalities is about as good a piece of advice as saying that people should cook using better & more ingredients. Even if you give an amateur chef Wagyu beef, they’re still going to set it on fire. On the other hand, give Gordon Ramsay the stuff you find in your kitchen and he can probably make something masterful from it. Simply put, everyone knows what you’re supposed to do, but no one actually knows how to do it – because the how is so much harder. It requires you to analyze how past authors have done it, as well as how people function in real life as well.

    There’s also the issue that you’re only talking about the currently translated Visual Novels & LNs – which is either going to be action focused or erotic/moe focused – so looking at the English output is not a good indicator for the entire market. Hopefully people will start getting more of those other stuff out there. Sadly, I don’t think that this will happen if people keep blaming the medium as a whole – when they’re not able to access the better stuff in the market – or they’re getting translations that don’t make the cut.

    I wish more VNs had that kind of black hair black eyes but realistically Asian type of art that someone like Inio Asano can draw though.

    • Kai says:

      Not going to reply everything here as some of the examples you mentioned are something I haven’t experienced. But yeah, I do get what you are tying to say here. In the very end, it all comes back to whether or not the character is well-written, even if that same character is just one norm among the thousands — just better executed all around.

      Okabe is a good eccentric chuunibyou character because not only is his personality bright and colorful, his character also has reasons to act the way he does, likewise with Kyousuke and his straight-man sarcastic personality. I guess in the end, that’s my definition of ‘well-written”, especially in a serious story, characters need to have motivations to act the way they do.

      “Well-executed” archetypes when done right, makes it so that I don’t even mind Gary Stu characters which are among the most common type of characters to receive such flak. I mean, despite all the shitty memes and jokes, I’m actually one of the guy who actually thinks Shirou’s character is deeper than people give him credit for. Though like you said, “well-executed” sounds simple but perhaps the hardest to pull off.

      “VNs had that kind of black hair black eyes but realistically Asian type”
      something something Innocent Grey

      • chinjianxiong says:

        Thanks for the reply! Yeah, Innocent Grey is really something – although generally it seems like horror & mystery stories will have a more normal kind of style. Nitro+ horror stuff like Saya no Uta especially.

        Shirou’s character is extremely one-track probably because Nasu was trying to critique the hero archetype in the form of Archer. So he made the standard shounen hero archetype and placed him in a brutal mage game where all the rules were constantly being flouted. But, I think that Nasu generally has a problem with characters and he’s better off at creating settings and psychological ideas.

        On the point of motivations – that may not necessarily be the case all the time, although it certainly helps. Definitely, it a work like Re:Zero – you have heroines randomly falling for the main character for the flimsiest of reasons, and something like that is a sign of bad character development.

        On the other hand, I’m sure there are some works where a generic back-story was tacked on simply to give a person some kind of reason for his vengeance or something like that – when it would have been better to make his motives and mystery, with subtle hints that could imply many different kinds of motivations. To be honest, I felt that Okabe being Chuuni for Mayuri’s sake because her relatives died was kind of melodramatic – and if they had taken that out then he would be more like a normal quirky guy stuck in a bad scenario trying to stop a random tragedy. To me, that might make him more empathetic overall.

  6. Yashima says:

    I’ve found that wish fulfillment audience surrogacy’s are getting more popular by the year, maybe that’s just because the increasing volume of anime releasing for every season, but it’s certainly annoying to see that writing style sell so well. I kinda dance around that a little in my evangelion review, but thinking of the common themes then-to-now, at what point did the 90’s anime self betterment themes turn into todays escapist pandering…
    at least we have Mob Psycho 100 doing the medium a service.

    • chinjianxiong says:

      Every era has had it’s escapist works. Of course we never hear of them now since they’ve gone into the trash bin of history.

      For example, George Orwell wrote this when he wrote an essay about running a bookshop:

      “Our shop stood exactly on the frontier between Hampstead and Camden Town, and we were frequented by all types from baronets to bus-conductors. Probably our library subscribers were a fair cross-section of London’s reading public. It is therefore worth noting that of all the authors in our library the one who ‘went out’ the best was — Priestley? Hemingway? Walpole? Wodehouse? No, Ethel M. Dell, with Warwick Deeping a good second and Jeffrey Farnol, I should say, third. Dell’s novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists. It is not true that men don’t read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel — the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel — seems to exist only for women. Men read either the novels it is possible to respect, or detective stories. But their consumption of detective stories is terrific. One of our subscribers to my knowledge read four or five detective stories every week for over a year, besides others which he got from another library. What chiefly surprised me was that he never read the same book twice. Apparently the whole of that frightful torrent of trash (the pages read every year would, I calculated, cover nearly three quarters of an acre) was stored for ever in his memory. He took no notice of titles or author’s names, but he could tell by merely glancing into a book whether be had ‘had it already’.”

      And I’m sure that early Anime had just as much trash as today, except that it was pandering to a different type of audience with a different set of values. Akira was beautifully animated but the characters were paper in their psychology. Now we have stuff like the Monogatari Series, and even though it’s full of fan-pandering, it’s also full of psychological insight – which just goes to show that it’s not about the era but the creator of the work.

  7. Yashima says:

    This is definitely not limited to VN/LN material and their adaptions, looking at so many anime original ‘trapped in a video game’ releases every season.

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