Do your protagonist or leads have to be relatable?

Relatability is thrown around a lot in discussions about what makes good and bad fiction. If you’re creating any kind of fiction, it helps you get and keep an audience if they have some prominent character at least to connect with in the story — someone who’s sympathetic or is going through a relatable experience.

I thought about this recently when I read through the first few volumes of the manga Ijiranaide Nagatoro-san, officially published as Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro. This manga caught my attention because 1) it’s been getting a lot of talk ahead of an anime adaptation planned for sometime in the near future, and 2) it’s apparently extremely divisive, with some readers loving it and others dropping it almost immediately. To me, something so divisive has to be interesting, so it’s probably worth checking out even if I end up not liking it.

And I can see why someone might drop this manga after reading a couple of chapters. Nagatoro-san is another one of those high school romantic comedies that are so common, but its sadistic element sets it apart from the others. Title character Nagatoro is a popular first-year student who fixates on a nerdy loner art-loving second-year, known only as “senpai” throughout, because of how strongly he reacts when she makes fun of him. People have compared it to series with similar setups like Teasing Master Takagi-san, but Nagatoro cranks the mockery level way up. Of course, as in that series, there are strong hints that she’s only messing with him because she likes him; we see later on that poor Senpai is the only guy she treats this way, usually only in private, and when her friends try to get in on the action and mock him a bit too much she gets pissed off and stops them.

After getting past the initially harsh, hard-going couple of chapters, I ended up enjoying the rest of what I read, I think partly because of how well I could relate to the Senpai character. All this guy ever really wanted was to be left alone to paint still lifes of fruit and draw his wish-fulfillment fantasy comics with his self-insert character. Shortly after Nagatoro wedges herself into that peaceful loner life he’s living, she asks him why he doesn’t fight back when she messes around with him, and his answer is telling: he says that when he’s bullied, he just closes up his heart and ignores it until it goes away.

Of course, again, the reason Senpai doesn’t just ignore Nagatoro in the same way is that he likes her too, and this is obviously one of those slow-burn romances where the two main characters will end up together, but will take a hell of a long time to do it because of their clashing character quirks (see also the now-infamous Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!) But the way he handles all the other bullying he deals with, that really hit me in the gut. I shouldn’t project any of my feelings onto the author, but it reads just like it was written by someone who’s gone through the same sort of thing, or at least by someone who was a close-up witness to a lot of that treatment at school.

I’m in this manga and I don’t like it

The fact that the protagonist of Nagatoro-san is so relatable to me helped me connect with him and get into the story, which does get quite a bit lighter and nicer when it starts to become clear that Nagatoro is trying to help out and get closer to Senpai, albeit in her own weird, aggressive way. However, it also raised that question of relatability. Does relatability always have to be there to connect with your protagonist and leads?

I’d say it depends on what sort of story you’re trying to tell. A romantic comedy of this kind definitely needs some relatability, since it’s presumably trying to build an emotional connection between the main characters that it wants the readers to get invested in. To use an example from a very different sphere of fans/viewers, the US version of The Office did the same thing with Jim and Pam, two relatively normal, nice characters who many fans wanted to get together. These two were probably more relatable to most than a lot of the other weirdos working in that mid-sized Pennsylvania paper company branch, so it was easier to get invested in the story through their perspectives.*

However, there are works I’ve liked, and even loved, in which the protagonist was totally unrelatable, or in which he was even a complete asshole. For an example of the former, check out Mahjong Legend Akagi. The title character isn’t a bad guy at all, but not because he’s exactly “good” either. In some sense, he rises above basic ideas of “good” and “bad” in the course of his story. As a genius gambler, he knows how to utterly crush his opponents without remorse, and he does so, but what he’s really looking for is a challenge in which both he and his opponent put everything on the line, up to and including their lives. Other characters in the series, almost all crooked cops, shady fellow gamblers, and yakuza members, come to fear him and refer to him as a “demon”, not because he’s evil but because of his sheer talent and just how different and how much more terrifying his ways are when compared with those of the money-driven underworld.

This is a teaser for a future deep reads post, by the way. There’s a lot to say about Akagi, both the character and the series.

Even having an asshole or a plain old criminal for a protagonist can help make for great fiction, however. Up until it started to get stale around the fourth season or so, the US Netflix production of the political crime drama House of Cards did a great job with this, casting excellent actor and now-accused real-life criminal Kevin Spacey as the ruthless, coldblooded House Majority Whip Frank Underwood. Underwood is so ambitious that he’ll do anything for power, and he does a whole lot of evil things to achieve that power up to and including committing multiple murders. There are a few sympathetic characters who take part in the story, and most of them end up crushed and sometimes even killed by one or another of Underwood’s schemes.

While I watched the show, though, I was all in for Underwood. I wanted to see how he would make it to the Presidency, and then how he’d fall from that high office and end up ruining himself. Underwood’s occasional asides, addressed directly to the viewer, helped create this connection. But that’s not quite enough; you also need a compelling story to make this kind of evil protagonist work, and House of Cards managed that for a while at least. Underwood wasn’t relatable, at least not to me, but I was riding along and wanted to see how his ruthlessness and cruelty would play out.

The fact that the character Underwood ended up ruined because of illicit acts his actor was accused of having carried out is quite a weird thing in itself (and the subject for an entirely different post, and really a different sort of blog than mine) but it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality where that story could have played out much more effectively. I have heard that the original UK version of House of Cards told its story in a more effective and compact way, and it had a proper ending too. I might check that out one day myself.

All the Spacey stuff was obviously a problem, but I think the writers had stretched the show out way too long and kind of fucked it up by that point anyway. (Image source)

So when does a protagonist or a central character fall flat or annoy me to the point that I have to drop a series? If the work is trying to portray a shitty, or even a simply unremarkable, character as someone amazing but we the audience don’t see it, that’s when I get genuinely pissed off at it. To me, this is one of the hallmarks of lazy writing: “I want a cool protagonist but I don’t know how to effectively depict one, so all the other characters will say how amazing they are and the reader/viewer/etc. will see it too!”

But it doesn’t work that way. On the contrary, the harder a character like that is pushed without properly establishing why we should like them by showing and not telling, the more I’ll hate them. It’s part of that “Poochie Effect” I wrote about a while ago. Though she has her fans, Marie from Persona 4 Golden was an example of such a character for me. She didn’t really hurt the game, since she was more or less a side character, but the way the game tried to push her was a bit annoying — the temperamental teenager act came off as simply grating, even if there was a lot more behind the character than was evident at first. At the very least, I didn’t feel too compelled to learn about what was behind Marie until I was forced to by the game, and a big part of that had to do with her irritating character traits that I was apparently supposed to find endearing. Or maybe I wasn’t and Atlus are a bunch of sadists too.

So as you can see, I’m no expert. I’m a shitty hack writer myself, so I have to try not to make the kinds of mistakes I’m talking about here when I’m working on fiction. So please tell me if you feel like it: what kinds of characters can you relate to, and what do you think makes for an effective or ineffective protagonist? Do you need to be able to relate to the protagonist or at least to someone in the story to enjoy a work? Do you think this was just an excuse for me to post a review of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro while pretending I wasn’t doing that? I’m interested to know your opinions. 𒀭

* Kevin is still my favorite character, though. At least before they changed him from secretly smart to just plain stupid. It wasn’t quite as bad as what The Simpsons did to Homer, but still noticeable.

Mystery Blogger Award Double Feature

Time for a break from all the serious analyses and reviews and complaining about the world (well, not that last one — I’ll never stop that, I swear.) I was lucky enough to receive Mystery Blogger Award tags from both Fanfiction Anime World and Extra Life! Many thanks to both animeandfanfiction and Red Metal. They both have excellent sites that you should be following, by the way. If you like anime, films, or video games at all (and if you don’t, how are you reading this post?) give them a look.

I’d normally break this into two parts, but I decided to just write one massive post answering both of their questions, which add up to 16. So I hope you’re ready. First I’ll take on animeandfanfiction’s questions, since those have been pending for a while now.

1) If you could make any fictional character real who would it be and why? What would their relationship be with you? ( best friend, enemy, stranger, partner etc.).

I’ve addressed this sort of thing once or twice before, but I’ll take a different angle this time: I’d want to have a mortal enemy/rival but with enough mutual respect between us that when one of us dies, the other will be disappointed that we didn’t manage to defeat him and make him an ally instead. I’m thinking of a rivalry from Legend of the Galactic Heroes that I won’t say any more about because it would be a spoiler, so I won’t specify a character, but if you’ve seen LOGH you may have some idea of who I’m talking about. Have you watched LOGH yet? You really should.

It’s a very deep show

2) If you could choose to have any power from an anime what would it be? (Examples, jojo stands, my hero academia quirks, etc.).

It might just be because I’m playing Persona 5 Royal, but I would go with the power of Persona. Since the modern Persona games got anime adaptations, I’ll say that counts. I suppose it is similar to a JoJo stand, though. The idea of having an alter ego that’s a reflection of your true self or however that works, I really like it. Though I wonder who my Persona would be. Are there any historical or mythical figures cranky and embittered enough to fit?

3) Is there any blogger on here you’d like to get to know better and be friends with? If so, feel free to tag them and share your honest thoughts!

Here’s your expected cop-out answer: everyone in the community. I really haven’t come across someone in the general anime/game-fan circles here on WordPress who I haven’t liked. That’s certainly not something I can say for creators on other platforms like Youtube, though to be fair I don’t move in that exalted circle. Some big Youtube revenue would be nice, but there also seems to be a lot of drama and poison that goes along with it. I can do without that.

Anyway, I’d be happy to have a dinner with all of you, a rowdy one. After the massive health crisis is over, of course.

4) What anime theme/opening/ending is one of your favorites right now? Is it because it’s catchy, fun or emotional for you and why? (Example easy breezy because it’s fun to dance to).

Well, I don’t/can’t dance, but I’ve always liked the openings to the Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei series. Especially the first one: it has a real title but people just know it as “bure bure” for reasons that are obvious if you listen to it. It’s nice and aggressive with plenty of despair in the lyrics and tone. I know this one is pretty old at this point, but I still love it just that much.

5) Is there anything not animated yet that you’d like to be? It can be a manga that hasn’t been, a video game, a tv show, etc. Possibilities are endless.

Moby-Dick in anime form, only all the characters are now cute girls. Tell me an entirely genderswapped Moby-Dick wouldn’t be popular. It’s not like that would be going too far — they’ve already turned World War II naval ships into girls, twice in fact. My idea is actually less extreme than that. I just think it would be fun to have an insane lady Ahab yelling about killing the White Whale. Hell, make the whale a girl too, why not. You’d also get the yuri fans on board with the ambiguous Ishmael/Queequeg relationship. Now I really want someone to do this.

This Touhou fanart is the closest I could find to what I’m thinking of. (source: Wool, pixiv)

And now, Red Metal’s questions:

1) What is the most unusual work you’ve ever experienced?

I’ve listened to some weird music — Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica or anything at all put out by the Residents. I’ve seen some strange films as well, though they’re popular in their own niches even if some people don’t “get” them (stuff by David Lynch, David Cronenberg, guys like that.) The most unusual work, though, would probably be The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade which I checked out just out of morbid curiosity back when I was a student. To be fair, I didn’t read anywhere close to the whole thing; it’s extremely slow going and still just as shocking as it probably was back when it was written. But de Sade also deserves credit for writing material that got him thrown into prison and insane asylums many times throughout his life — he wrote this work while imprisoned in the famous Bastille a few years before it was broken into by the French revolutionaries.

Not that it makes 120 Days any easier to read, with characters relating how they committed horrific acts against other characters, who themselves mysteriously heal or even come back to life for no apparent reason other than the story being kind of a mess. It’s a godawful work that I don’t really recommend to anyone, but the history surrounding it and its author is interesting and worth studying. It should be noted that although his literature got him into legal trouble, de Sade was also thrown into prison for committing murders and other horrible acts in real life, so he wasn’t exactly the “pure artist imprisoned for expressing himself” type.

2) What is the best work you have experienced that no one else seems to know about?

That depends on what set of people I’m talking to. I have friends and family with pretty different tastes in art from mine, and they haven’t experienced or even know about most of what I’ve written about on this site. But among that other set of friends, they know stuff like Shin Megami Tensei and Disgaea very well. So once again, it’s hard for me to pin down one single work that I can say is very obscure that I liked. The closest I can think of is something like the album H to He by Van der Graaf Generator that I wrote about a while back. The band definitely has some fans around, but I’ve never met anyone else in real life who’s heard of this music.

3) If you could go back in time and go to the premiere of a classic film, which one would you choose?

Psycho. Aside from being a great movie on its own, the stories of people being terrified by an actual movie in the theater are really interesting — it would be fascinating to sit in with a 1960 audience and watch them lose their shit.

4) If you decided to write fiction, which genre would you choose?

I’ve already started a few stories (not that they’re necessarily ever going anywhere, but they are started) and they’d mostly fit into the science fiction genre. Modern-day realistic settings are too boring, and historical settings require a lot of research that I don’t feel like doing. I find it easier and more entertaining to create my own world. As far as the contents of the stories themselves go, if there’s a genre called “depressive contemplative fiction”, I guess most of it would be in there.

5) What is the most disappointingly predictable plot twist you’ve ever experienced?

This is a spoiler for Grandia II… but shit, that game’s been out for 20 years now, and you’ll see this twist coming too if you play it now for the first time anyway. The big twist involves the Catholic-esque Church of Granas. This massive church organization recruits the main character, the mercenary Ryudo, to escort the nun Elena as she seals pieces of the Devil away so they can’t go around causing a bunch of havoc and killing innocent people.

Well, this is an organized religion in a JRPG, so how do you think that will end? It would have been a far more shocking twist if the Church of Granas had turned out to be completely honest and transparent. While the simple priests and sisters like Elena are well-meaning, their Pope reveals himself to be a mad tyrant who actually wants to steal the power of the Devil to become a living god on Earth. The guy is even named “Pope Innocentius”. How could a character with that name possibly be a good guy? And the game also drops all this material near the very end, as if we’re supposed to be shocked by it. Grandia II is still a great game and a childhood favorite, but even as a kid reading the manual and seeing this guy’s character profile I knew he’d turn out to be a villain. Not much of a twist.

Official Grandia II promo art. The Pope is the guy all the way on the right.

6) What do you consider to be the strangest title for a work?

There are plenty of light novels with stupidly long titles, so any of those might qualify, but since that seems to be an industry standard for light novels none of them stand out. So my answer is the title of the album I mentioned in answer #2 above: the whole thing is H to He, Who Am the Only One. The first part refers to the hydrogen to helium fusion process that the Sun is constantly working on, so at least it makes some kind of sense, and one of the songs is about space travel so I’ll give them that. But the second part of it makes no sense at all. It’s not even grammatical. “Who Am”? What the fuck. I know it’s a dumb cliché but I have to assume some hallucinogenic drugs were involved and the title made perfect sense at the time. There’s no other reasonable explanation for that.

7) Where in a theater do you prefer to sit?

Near the back, but not all the way back. The last movie I saw I nearly got a neck sprain looking up because we were stuck in front and all the other seats were taken. I like to get to the theater early, but not everyone feels the same way (i.e. one friend who insists on doing everything at the last possible minute.)

8) Do you have any graphic novel/manga series you’re currently following?

I don’t usually go in for those, but I have been reading a manga series called Forbidden Scrollery, which as far as I know is the only officially translated and published Touhou Project manga series around. It’s pretty fun, and about what you’d expect from a Touhou manga adaptation if you know the series — cute girls drink tea, solve supernatural mysteries, and threaten to shoot each other with magical bullets and lasers.

I like it, but if you’re not familiar with the setting and background of Touhou before going in, I imagine Forbidden Scrollery could be kind of confusing because it does not really bother setting any of that up. If you’ve played one of the games and know something about the series, though, it’s worth looking up. It’s written by series creator ZUN himself, though the art is thankfully done by Moe Harukawa, who unlike ZUN can actually draw. She has a cute style that fits well with the light mood of the manga. If you like the idea of a slice of life/fantasy mix set in an Edo-era Japanese village, you should check it out (or just check out Touhou in general.)

9) When it comes to reviewing films, which do you feel are more effective – traditional, written reviews or video essays?

This is a hard one, because I have a natural bias as someone who writes reviews (not film reviews, but the bias is still there.) I like the written form of review better in general just because there’s less spectacle — it’s all words on a page, maybe with a few screenshots thrown in. There’s nothing to distract from the analysis itself. I do get why a lot of people prefer to watch a video review on Youtube, and there are a couple of reviewers there who I think are pretty effective. However, I think the aforementioned Youtube drama bullshit can draw attention away from the basic review/analysis element, which is the whole point in the first place. Not that that’s necessarily the fault of the creators themselves. Maybe it’s just an issue with popularity fomenting drama regardless of the medium.

10) What aspects of old-school game design do you wish would make a comeback?

The aspect where you’d get a full, complete game when you bought it without having to buy DLC. I’m not talking about cosmetic DLC, of course — that stuff is fine with me as long as it doesn’t affect the experience in a significant way. No, I mean having to buy the ending to a game separate from the base game itself. Or having to buy the 18+ scenes in a visual novel at the same rate the base VN sells for, making the full version double the price of the all-ages version. I get that we all like to make more money, but fuck these practices. To be sure, ripping players off has been something the game industry’s been doing since the 80s, so it’s not like this is a new problem, but it is a relatively new form of the old ripoff.

11) What aspects of old-school game design are you glad went away?

Cheap difficulty. That hasn’t totally gone away, of course, but it seems to have been a lot more common in the 80s and early 90s. I’m fine with a game that’s difficult because it presents a true challenge that can be worked out through strategy; that’s great. But a game that presents you with a complete crapshoot of a challenge that takes pure luck to beat, or one that barely even gives you a chance to learn the controls and layout because it only gives you a couple of hits before it kills you — that game is just a piece of shit. Sure, we had GameShark back then and Game Genie before it, but if you have to break a game with cheats to make it playable, its developer has failed.

***

Now it’s my turn to ask a question. But here’s the twist: it’s one multi-part question, and it’s one that I want to pose to everyone reading who cares to answer it. No specific nominations this time, because everyone is nominated.

Do you think the current worldwide health crisis will permanently affect the way people get their entertainment, or will we return to the “old normal” after it’s over? And do you think it would be a positive or negative if people decide in the future to stay home and play games or stream shows or movies instead of getting out to the theater or to concerts? I don’t think it would be a great loss, but I’m not the best person to ask about that because I’m a severe introvert who has no problem being shut in for days or weeks at a time. I have to force myself to go out and socialize, but I know that’s not the case for most people. Well, it might be more the case in the anime/game fan circles, but I don’t want to generalize too much. What’s your opinion?