An overwhelming majority of visual novels are first-person narratives. Fewer than 1% of visual novels on VNDB are third-person narratives, and their influence is incredibly minimal. Some visual novels do occasionally shift narration to give the reader information about story elements outside the protagonist’s viewpoint, but the main storytelling approach chosen by most visual novels is for the reader to experience the story through the eyes of the protagonist.
Part of this is by necessity and the nature of interactive storytelling. In many cases, the protagonist functions as the reader’s sole means of interacting with the story. Overwhelmingly, the reader’s influence over the story’s direction is limited to controlling the actions of a single character. Giving the reader multiple points of influence over the story is tricky business, and can lead to situations where the player interacts with himself more than the world of the storyteller.
Setting aside concerns of interactivity, the “protagonist as proxy for reader” would appear to have advantages from a narrative standpoint as well. By treating the reader as story participant, rather than an observer, a piece of fiction can become more visceral and immersive, or so the argument goes.
The modern approach to building the protagonist’s character likely has its roots in eroge, where the main selling point is the love interest(s), not the main character. Traditionally, the goal of these works is to create a protagonist that is nothing but a proxy for the reader, achieved my minimizing characterization of the protagonist. Often, this protagonist is faceless, both in the literal artistic sense and in the figurative story-focused sense.
It’s pretty hard for a story to be interesting and compelling when your “main character” is the most boring character in the story.
The main character, arguably, should be one of the most interesting characters in the book because we have the unique ability to see inside of his head. We’re exposed not only to his external behaviors and attributes, but also have the ability to read his inner monologues and see what he thinks. More importantly, the main character, as the reader’s “eyes” for the story, can provide us insight into his own character in less explicit ways as we are exposed to the manner in which he presents the world and events of the story. Most of us have had the opportunity to observe real-world examples of this: the man who constantly complains about his wife is in many ways telling us just as much about himself as he is about his spouse. When the character tells us about the world and narrates the events of the story, he also shows what kind of character he is as we are exposed to his presentation.
The first person perspective, seen in this light, actually has two advantages: it can present more information, and it can present it in fewer words. Narrating the story from the main character’s perspective makes it possible to develop character and plot simultaneously. Having a protagonist without character squanders that opportunity.
Saya no Uta (warning: wiki page contains spoilers) is an interesting case study because it breaks many of the unwritten rules governing visual novel protagonists, perspective, and storytelling. Addressing a point made earlier, Saya no Uta narrates from multiple perspectives. It has a “main character” or protagonist in Fuminori, but in its later acts certain portions of the story are told using third-person narration, mostly limited to Kouji’s perspective. One interesting part of this approach is that the reader actually controls actions from two different parties. The visual novel is written such that the reader’s ability to influence the direction of the story does not undermine the conflicts inherent in the story, large by limiting the degree to which the reader interacts with the story (there are only two decision points from start to finish).
Saya no Uta also has a very abnormal protagonist. Fuminori’s warped senses are interesting because of the perspective that they give us. We are presented to the world not as it is, but as Fuminori sees it. Important to note is that Fuminori is not the reader. He is not a stand-in or proxy for the reader; he is his own character with his own separate motivations that the reader must identify ways to sympathize with. However, the fact that the reader is not an active participant within the Saya no Uta does not prevent it from being incredibly immersive. On the contrary, Saya no Uta is highly visceral, almost to the point of excess.
Perhaps one of the most surprising things about Saya no Uta is that despite how uncanny Fuminori is (both in what he is and the actions he takes), he still remains emotionally engaging. Even in his most horrifying moments, Fuminori feels more human and real as a character than the majority of visual novel protagonists.
I am not advocating that all visual novels become Saya no Uta. Saya no Uta is a story that is centered on perspective, and the main character’s aberrant nature is so pivotal to the plot that the story wouldn’t exist without it, making it relatively unique. However, it does teach a valuable lesson on how narrative viewpoints can be used to construct an effective story.
It is still possible to achieve popularity and commercial success with a bland protagonist, as many bishounen-style visual novels continue to prove. Fortunately, despite the cliche of the boring, faceless visual novel protagonist, there are many visual novels that have demonstrated the triumphs of creating a unique and compelling protagonist (many Type-Moon works tend to fall into this). Those seeking to evolve the medium and disrupt the market would do well to remember the valuable tool that an effective protagonist can represent.