The strengths of LitRPG

LitRPG, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a literary genre combining the conventions of RPGs with science-fiction and fantasy novels. While some readers are attracted to the genre by the “game-like” aesthetic, one of the things that seems to keep pulling those same readers back to the genre is the fact that LitRPG, by utilizing the conventions of games, is able to do certain things more easily and often more reliably than other forms of written fiction. Here are some of the things that LitRPG seems to do particularly well, especially relative to other gernes:

LitRPG tends to have more consistent systems

In fantasy, the author’s use of magic usually falls somewhere on a spectrum between “hard magic” (where the magic follows rules that are defined and usually explained directly to the audience), or “soft magic” (where the magic is mysterious and characters’ magical abilities aren’t always well-defined). Lord of the Rings is more on the “soft magic” end of the spectrum: it’s not really clear what Gandalf’s exact powers are; we just know that he’s a really powerful wizard. On the “hard magic” end of the spectrum, we have authors like Brandon Sanderson, whose Mistborn series defines “allomancy” as a set of eight powers, each tied to a specific metal: tin enhances your senses, iron allows you to pull metal objects toward you, and so on. When we find out that a character is a “tin-eye,” we know exactly what powers this gives them access to.

LitRPG tends to be closer to the “hard magic” end of the spectrum. There are some LitRPG with “softer” magics where the rules aren’t clearly defined, and LitRPG itself exists on a spectrum between “crunchy” LitRPG (which is strict about quantifying how the characters interact with the universe’s “game rules” with things like damage numbers and notifications about status effects) and “creamy” LitRPG (which is less strict), but LitRPG by default tends to lean much closer to “hard magic” than it does to “soft magic.” We don’t know what kinds of magic Gandalf is capable of using, but in a LitRPG, finding out what kinds of magic a character can use may be as simple as just glancing at their character sheet, something that authors will frequently provide for at the end of chapters.

This is one of the things that tends to be least consistent about the genre (like most kinds of speculative fiction, it exists along a spectrum between “hard” and “soft”), but fans of “hard fantasy” will probably find themselves more at home with LitRPG.

One of the main benefits of having a consistent system is that it allows stories to be honest and consistent about characters’ abilities. When two mages face off in a duel, shooting each other with energy blasts, who wins? Different types of stories handle it differently. Some stories (unsatisfyingly) see the fight through to its conclusion without really communicating why a particular character triumphed over another, instead focusing more on how cool the attacks looked, or what kind of dialog was exchanged during the battle. (Older shounen manga series are often particularly guilty of this. Sometimes, characters will be described in terms of their “power level,” but oftentimes this will be nebulous in terms of what exactly it means: can a character with a high “power level” take a lot of hits? Do a lot of damage? Some combination of both?)

LitRPG usually at least tries to have an explanation for why one character beat another: both characters have hit points, each attack does damage, and one character managed to reduce the other character’s hit points to zero before their opponent did the same thing to do them. Usually, the story will have (or pretend to have) rules governing how much damage each hit does. For example, certain characters may be weak against (or have resistances to) certain kinds of magic, and thus might take more damage from a fireball than from an icy blast.

Other stories can do this too, but LitRPG tends to much more heavily lean on specific tropes that often appear in RPGs (like elemental resistances, or certain types of armor being more resistant to magic vs physical attacks), and then often tries to be more consistent about them. Systems like these allow characters to come up with specific solutions to “game the system” and take advantage of the world’s mechanics. For example, in LitRPG, it’s much more common for characters to come up with solutions that feel “video game-y,” like “this enemy I’m about to fight uses lightning attacks, so I should go do this sidequest that will reward me with a wizard robe that will resist lightning.” LitRPG is also much more likely to quantify these kinds of things by saying things like “This robe improves lightning resistance by 30%,” instead of defining it in more nebulous terms.

These traits might not necessarily appeal to all readers, but for readers who like reading about universes that play by a consistent set of rules, these can be big draws. Different LitRPG stories tend to play things differently, but they all tend to have one thing in common:

LitRPG has explicit “hit points” (and that makes tracking fights easier)

A lot of movies treat their characters like they have “HP bars”: they can get a certain number of times, until they’re unable to continue fighting. LitRPG tends to be honest about this fact, and you can often measure (roughly) how close a character is to defeat (or victory) by looking at their HP bars.

Most fights in the real world are brutally short. A single wound inflicted by a knife, gunshot, or even a well-placed punch can be enough to incapacitate someone to the point where they’re no longer able to offer an effective resistance.

Fictional stories usually don’t end so quickly: we tend to like our fights drawn out. (Of course, there are exceptions, like the famous movie moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones shows why it sometimes pays to bring a gun to a sword fight, but this moment is played for laughs.) We generally don’t like our victories (or losses) to feel fast and arbitrary, and having the good guy and bad guy trade punches for several minutes often makes the result feel more “earned.”

Some stories do this well, by showing the impact that each blow has on a character, but done poorly, a movie fight can often feel like it’s two action stars just trading choreographed blows that lack any sense of real impact: the more hits there are, the less decisive each hit feels.

In the same way that levels allow LitRPG to clearly communicate the power level of characters, hit points allow LitRPG to clearly communicate the relative strength of different types of attacks. We intuitively know that a kick does more damage than a punch, but how much more? Look at the damage notifications (if you’re reading “crunchy” LitRPG that has all of the numbers laid out), or look for language that the author uses to communicate the relative amount of damage each attack is doing.

Some LitRPG stories still manage to flub this part, and some non-LitRPG stories manage to do it well by using descriptive language (or in the case of film, visual language) to communicate how “hurt” different characters are during a fight, but it’s often much easier for LitRPG battles to give a sense of progress.

Of course, LitRPG sometimes gets to bend things a little, such that the strength of one blow doesn’t allow you to cleanly predict the damage of the next: maybe they figure out a way to “aim for the weak spot” and inflict a massive amount of damage. Maybe they get lucky and score a critical hit (hopefully in a way that doesn’t feel like it cheapens the outcome).

Hit points are one way of showing the amount of “progress” that has been made during a fight, which is just one example of the following point:

LitRPGs (often) offer a clear sense of progress

One of the most important things that tends to keep readers engaged in a story is a clear sense of progress. Readers like to feel like they’re getting closer to a goal. Most stories achieve this in a variety of ways: for example, a mystery novel might begin with the detective considering a list of suspects, and each time they eliminate a suspect as a possible perpetrator, they get closer to finding the real culprit. (Detectives can also “make progress” by gathering more clues, talking to more witnesses, and so on.)

Of course, protagonists aren’t always the ones who are making progress and moving the story forward: in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one character sets out with the goal of collecting six “infinity stones,” and we can see him gradually get closer to his goal as he collects more and more of his stones. Looking at the current tally of how many infinity stones he’s collected allows us to roughly quantify how close he is to his goal, and with each stone he collects, we feel ourselves getting closer and closer to the story’s conclusion. Likewise, in a “time bomb” plot, there’s a sense of urgency that moves us through the story, which each bit of time that passes leading us closer and closer to the conclusion.

Some fantasy stories provide a sense of progress by following a travelogue plot and putting a literal map in the front of the book, so that when the characters announce at the start of the book that they intend to travel to the Lonely Mountain to collect the treasure that awaits them there, the reader can get a rough idea of how close to (or far from) they are from their intended destination by following their progress on the map.

There are a variety of methods that stories can use to provide the reader with a sense of progress, and some are more subtle than others. (For example, in a story about a character learning to become more empathetic, each time they commit an act that exhibits empathy, they leave the reader with the impression that they are getting closer to the goal of becoming a more empathetic person. Even if “become more empathetic” might seem like a nebulous goal, it allows us to define what kinds of behavior from the character move us closer to that goal, and which behaviors move them further from that goal.) Stories that fail to provide that sense of progress tend to elicit a common complaint: “Nothing is happening.” “The characters are stuck and not going anywhere.” “They haven’t accomplished anything.”

LitRPG offers a clear form of progression: characters are constantly “leveling up,” and each time they “level up,” they become better equipped to take on the next challenge that they encounter. And because LitRPG tends to follow the conventions of RPGs, it feels much more common in LitRPG for characters to acquire new equipment and “upgrade” to a better sword or armor midway through a story. Likewise, characters are often learning new skills, or unlocking new classes: all of these are ways that a character can feel like they are making progress toward a goal — even if that “goal” is never clearly defined to the reader!

Of course, it’s still incumbent on the author to create a story that allows the characters to progress in ways that are interesting. But LitRPG seems to have a much higher floor when it comes to giving the reader a sense of progress: if the numbers keep going up, the reader will feel like the character is getting closer to their goal, and this can work even in cases where the plot isn’t particularly well-crafted. There are all sorts of ways that the author can undermine this: for example, if a character goes through the equivalent of a “training montage” and gains 10 levels off-screen, it can risk trivializing the sense of progress that readers get from a level-up. But LitRPG is a genre where authors frequently give readers that must sought-after sense of progress with each chapter, even when they’re not consciously aware that they’re doing it.

In some genres, a “side quest” might run the risk of feeling useless (especially if the main character spends a bunch of time doing things that don’t actually give them progress toward their main goal), but in the context of a LitRPG, every side tangent at least provides the characters with exp which gives them measurable progress toward the goal of “leveling up” and becoming stronger and better-equipped to take on the challenges that await in their “main quest.”

LitRPG is (usually) more honest about power levels

A lot of speculative fiction is shockingly opaque when it comes to power levels, particularly in the superhero genre that has achieved massive popularity in the past few years (largely thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe).

I generally enjoy MCU films, but allow me to pick on it for a bit: it’s kind of silly that The Avengers (2012) frames Thor and Black Widow as peers on the battlefield. Thor’s powers include the ability to control lightning, and he can crush Iron Man’s gauntlets about as easily as most of us would crumple paper. On one occasion, he allowed the energy of an entire star to pass through his body because he just happened to be in the way. By contrast, Black Widow’s most combat-relevant power is the ability to fire a gun really accurately, and her weapon of choice is the same Glock 26 that you’ll find in the hands of thousands of real-world police officers. (The Glock 26 is an effective weapon against unarmored humans, but The Avengers are in a line of work where they frequently come into contact with non-human enemies, many of which are capable of shrugging off 9mm rounds.)

That’s not to say that Black Widow is useless. Far from it: she’s skilled in subterfuge and the art of disguise, and when it comes to killing bad guys discreetly, she’s probably a much better choice than Thor. When it comes time to interrogate Loki, they rely on Black Widow, not Thor. And it’s no coincidence that some of Black Widow’s best moments in the MCU happen in Winter Soldier, a spy movie where her abilities as a spy predictably come in handy. But when a portal opens above New York and the city is being invaded by aliens who aren’t likely to be fooled by her clever disguises, it’s a bit silly that the movie frames the two of them in a shot that treats a spy who can aim her gun really well as a peer of a Norse god. (Black Widow isn’t the only one who seems out of her league next to Norse gods and a Hulk who managed to survive an impact with the earth after falling from a height of several miles — SNL did an entire sketch about how Hawkeye is hero who’s only real power is that he’s an archer who can aim really well, and how he might not be the most helpful hero in that very situation.)

The Avengers gets away with this basically through lies of omission: it can show both Black Widow and Thor in the frame looking equally cool, and essentially tricking us into thinking that they’re both contributing equally to a fight. It’s easy for the film to make Black Widow’s action scenes look just as interesting as Thor’s, and in the midst of that, we might forget just how wildly mismatched their power levels are.

LitRPG, for the most part, doesn’t hide its power levels: it tends to play with them face up, and quantify them as a literal “level.”  A level 80 knight can be assumed to be more powerful than a level 60 knight or a level 30 knight, and you can make assumptions about the relative power levels of characters based on their levels.

Some books handle this differently — for example, some LitRPG worlds have linear power scaling (wherein one level 40 character might be twice as strong as a level 20 character, and thus potentially contribute less to a fight than a group of level 20 characters fighting in tandem), while others have power levels that are logarithmic (in which case a single level 40 character might be able to completely shrug off hits from a duo of level 20 characters).

Of course, characters are more than just their power levels: some characters might be able to cleverly outsmart or outwit higher level opponents. But when the underdog wins, quantified power levels allow us to see just how much of a gap they overcame.

These criteria (mostly) define a target audience

While the above points summarize some of the “advantages” of LitRPG, none of these are explicitly “good” traits. Some people like reading stories with clearly-defined power levels and prefer fight scenes where they can track exactly how close each character is to being knocked out of the fight, while other people might dislike LitRPG for exactly the same reasons. That being said, LitRPG, as a relatively young genre (the term “LitRPG” itself not seeing use before 2013), has seen explosive growth in online web fiction, and it seems to have tapped into an audience that really desires stories with these traits.

Over the past few years, I’ve had a number of chats with authors who have asked the question: “Should I be writing LitRPG?” It’s hard to come up with an answer that doesn’t sound tautological, like “You should write LitRPG if you like the genre.” I hope that the above points do a better job of communicating the appeal of LitRPG: if these “advantages” of LitRPG sound similar to the traits of stories you enjoy writing (or reading), then maybe LitRPG is a genre where you might feel at home.

Also, you may note that this section (like many of the sections before it) has a header that contains a qualifier: LitRPG mostly appeals to a certain type of reader, and tends to be written in a certain way, and usually follows certain conventions, but as with most things, these are tools more than rules, and if you want to experiment within the genre, no one is stopping you. (However, if you write a story labeled as “LitRPG” that fails to contain many of the elements that are core to most readers’ enjoyment of the genre, you probably shouldn’t be surprised if those readers have a hard time enjoying the story you’ve written.)

The flippant master and the enthusiastic apprentice

In fiction, one trope I see come up that I’m rather fond of is the young neophyte in search of a mentor who inadvertently impresses a master by fulfilling some sort of unreasonable request that was made in jest.

In this trope, a enthusiastic neophyte finds a seasoned veteran who is an elite practitioner of the field they wish to train in. The following exchange ensues:

Neophyte: “Please train me, master! Let me be your apprentice!”

Master: “I get that request from a dozen kids like you every day. Why should I spend my time training you, a complete neophyte with no experience?”

Neophyte: “Just give me a chance to prove myself!”

Master: “Fine. You should…” (The mentor proceeds to describe some impossibly cumbersome, laborious, and tedious task, presuming this will scare the neophyte off and deter them from asking again.)

The next day…

Neophyte: “Master!  I did the impossibly cumbersome laborious tedious task, just like you asked!  Can you train me now?”

Master: “Wait, you actually did that?  I just said that so that you would leave me alone. Most people get scared off when I tell them that’s what it takes. But…I do feel a bit guilty about the fact that my flippant remark caused you to go to all that trouble, and given that you’ve just demonstrated your willingness to go above and beyond what any reasonable human would do in order to achieve your goal, maybe you have what it takes to make it in this challenging field.  Fine, kid.  I’ll train you.”

This seems to be pretty common in sports manga/anime; it was a notable part of the early chapters of Hajime no Ippo, and I most recently encountered it in Ballroom e Youkoso: Fujita, the protagonist and would-be-apprentice, asks master dancer Sengoku to train him to become a professional dancer. Sengoku laughs at the idea that young Fujita, immediately after learning about professional dancing, would have aspirations of becoming a pro. But master Sengoku decides to humor the boy: Sengoku teaches Fujita the basic box step, and tells him to practice just doing that move.  “For how long?” asks Fujita. “Until I say to stop,” says the cynical teacher.  Sengoku checks out for the night, leaving Fujita to take his words literally, staying in the studio overnight and practicing the move until the sun comes up and the floor is covered with his sweat and there are blisters covering his feet.  Sengoku returns in the early morning to find young Fujita still practicing and incredulously asks, “What are you still doing here?” Several conflicted minutes later, Sengoku begrudgingly admits that maybe Fujita is serious about wanting to be a professional dancer and deserving of being trained.

Why I am I so fond of this trope?

Pixar’s first rule of storytelling comes to mind: “You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”  It’s hard for our young protagonist to succeed in a field where he has no experience, but what he lacks in competence he makes up for in effort.

Brandon Sanderson has also made the observation that there are three traits that tend to make us like a character: how competent they are, how sympathetic they are, and how proactive they are.

When a character is first starting the long journey to become the best, it’s hard for them to start off at a high level of competence: a lot of their development will be toward making them more competent at their chosen skill, so it makes sense that their skill level would start off low.  The “over-enthusiastic neophyte” trope compensates for the protagonist’s low “competence” level by cranking up their “sympathy” and “proactivity” levels: our main character is willing to take the initiative to go to extreme lengths that no other trainee would be willing to go to.  The protagonist’s willingness to go through a self-inflicted ordeal makes us sympathize with them — even moreso because the fact that the main character was willing to go to such lengths after hearing what anyone else would have taken as a sarcastic remark implies a sort of innocence and naivete. When you see a hard worker with that kind of childish optimism, it’s the kind of thing that makes you want to root for them.  (It also makes it feel all the more imperative that the teacher agree to train them, because such a hardworking-yet-foolhardy person could easily be taken advantage of.)

Perhaps the same traits that endear the audience to the neophyte who goes above and beyond are the same traits that make the master decide to take the neophyte under their wing, so it makes narrative sense as well that these traits would lead to success. The fact that the master is experience what the audience is experiencing causes the scene to have a sort of double resonance: not only do we sympathize with the neophyte, but we empathize with the mentor, which endears us to both of them — we like the neophyte for trying hard, and we like the mentor for doing them a solid and giving the neophyte the opportunity that they so obviously deserve.

How to hire a house cleaner (or accountant, or lawyer…)

One of the things I see coming up is a class of young adults who 1) have money that they would like to exchange for goods and services, but 2) aren’t really familiar with the process of exchanging that money for services. For example:

“People keep telling me I should hire an accountant because I’m an artist and all of my income is from freelancing so my taxes are super complicated, but I don’t know how to hire an accountant.”

Or, most recently, an example I encountered today of someone who wanted to hire someone to clean their home, and was willing to spend money to make it happen, but didn’t take the steps to make that happen because they were unsure of things like whether they would have to provide cleaning supplies, and whether they would have to be home during the house cleaning.

The following advice assumes you’ve already gotten past the step of doing a Google search for “Chicago housecleaning services” (adjust this search query as needed depending on your location and the service you are looking for), and have the names and phone numbers of several local businesses that purport to offer the service you are interested in. Perhaps you have also read some Yelp reviews to see which of the businesses you’re considering are most liked.

In nearly every case, if you’re not sure how to hire a business, you can phone the business in question and they will happily spend any amount of time answering your questions. This applies to hiring house cleaners, accountants, lawyers, personal trainers, birthday clowns, and nearly every type of service-based business.

Most of these businesses realize that part of their clientele will be “first-time customers who have not participated in this kind of transaction before,” and they will not be surprised if they receive a phone call from you saying, “I am interested in the service that you offer, but I don’t fully understand how it works, could you please explain it to me?”  Many of these businesses spend tons of money on advertising to acquire people like you as customers. When you did a Google search for “Chicago housecleaning services,” you were probably shown advertisements from companies in Chicago who offer housecleaning services. Those businesses spend a sizable amount of money each year to show ads like that to people like you. If they’re willing to spend money to advertise to you, you can be reasonably assured that they will gladly spend 15 minutes talking to you on the phone to acquire you as a customer. (Acquiring you as a customer represents a value far beyond the immediate sale. If they successfully sell their housecleaning service to you and the first cleaning goes well enough that you decide to hire them on a monthly basis, and if that relationship continues for the next 10 years until you move to a new city, your lifetime value as a customer is measured in tens of thousands of dollars. Smart businesses, which are generally the ones you want to do business with, understand that your willingness to spend many thousands of dollars on them over the next 10 years is largely contingent on whether the person that you speak to on the phone is helpful and willing to guide you through the process of becoming their customer.)

Businesses want to make it easy for you to give them money. If there is some barrier like “I would give you money but I don’t know how the process of hiring a house cleaner works,” they will gladly spend several minutes knocking that barrier down in order to make it easier for you give them money.

This is why so many businesses offer a “free consultation,” which sometimes entails things like sending a person out to your home to give you a quote for housecleaning services, or setting up an appointment for you to talk to a CPA at the accounting firm because the assistant who answers the phone doesn’t know the answers to all of your accounting questions. Look at it from the business’s perspective: you have just called them on the phone and said, in effect, “I am thinking of hiring you, can you spend some time explaining to me why I should hire you, and how I should go about hiring you?” Of course they will be willing to take you up on that opportunity. (The reasons for why businesses are willing to spend the time to “sell themselves” to you this are similar to the reasons why you, when offered a desirable job, are willing to put on a suit and travel to an office to spend an hour talking to an interviewer about why you are qualified for the job they’re considering you for. Most people do this without worrying too much about “wasting time” that they aren’t getting paid for; it is simply a part of doing business.)

Another question I sometimes see people struggling with is not knowing how to ask questions of a business or professional because they don’t know all of the jargon. You can explain your situation to them using normal words and they will figure out what exactly is needed to assist you. This is part of their job. You probably have done some version of this if you have ever worked a customer service job. At Walmart, there is an area of the store that employees will sometimes refer to as “FDD” (Frozen-Dairy Department). Walmart customers don’t walk up to someone with a Walmart vest and ask, “How do I get to FDD,” they say things like, “Where’s the ice cream section,” or “I’m looking for cream cheese.” (Walmart employees, for the most part, will not seize on this as an opportunity to condescendingly say, “excuse me, what you’re referring to as ‘the ice cream section’ is in fact, the Frozen-Dairy Department, or as I’ve recently taken to calling it, ‘FDD.'”) It’s okay if you, as a customer, don’t know all of the lingo associated with the thing you are asking about. Part of the reason that they have a job is that they have information that the customers don’t, and it not every customer who walks in the door is going to know all of the jargon.

If an accountant mentions a 1099 and you don’t know what that is, you can ask. If you’re hesitant to ask a question because you’re not sure if it’s relevant, say to them, “I’m not sure if this question is relevant, but…” and then ask your question. The same applies for providing them with information: If your grandparents just gifted you a large amount of cash as a college graduation present and you’re not sure if your accountant needs to know about that in order to do your taxes, you can just say, “By the way, my grandparents gave me a $2500 check as a gift, does that affect my tax situation? Do I need to tell you about stuff like that?” (The answer, if you’re wondering, is “You can receive up to $15,000 gifts per year without having to pay any taxes on those gifts,” but no accountant will think you are dumb for not knowing this; most people don’t know it, so why would they assume that you would know it?)

Note that all of the above is intended to describe local service-based businesses, and if all of this is new and strange to you, it’s probably because most of the businesses you’ve interacted with so far operated by selling goods with relatively low margins: that is the business model that Walmart, Best Buy, McDonalds, etc. operate on. As stated before, if you have a good relationship with a house cleaning service and decide to keep hiring them over the next 10 years that you live in your current apartment, they stand to make many thousands of dollars, and will be happy to spend 15 minutes on the phone talking to you in order to make that happen. This is probably not true of e.g. Walmart: if you call Walmart to ask about the features of a $60 gadget they are selling, Walmart stands to make maybe $10 from that sale, and thus is considerably less interested in paying (and training) their associates to spend 15 minutes talking with you on the phone explaining all the features of the gadget you are calling about; the employee you talk to at Walmart is probably interested in ending the call as quickly as possible. Your local big box retailer has a business model that is based around performing transactions with thousands of customers per day and maybe half a million customer interactions per year, which can sometimes lead to a feeling that you, as a customer, are insignificant and easily discarded. It would be a mistake to assume that all businesses operate like this: your local CPA is almost the complete inverse of Walmart, as they have a business that operates on working with several hundred clients over the course of an entire year (maybe several thousand clients a year if they are a firm with multiple tax preparers).

Intelligent characters and the “brains vs brawn” fallacy

There’s a huge audience for stories that involve characters who solve problems using wit and intelligence rather than force and physical strength, particularly in written fiction. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with the fact that the audience for written fiction mainly consists of people who enjoy and spend time reading books, which is usually seen as an intellectual pursuit. People who read books for entertainment are usually the kind of people who identify more with Bruce Banner than with Hulk. We’d like to solve our problems by being clever and adroit, rather than transforming into a giant green monster and solving our problems by smashing them.

We have an easier time empathizing with characters who are like us, and a story about character who solves problems using the same skills that we possess feels validating. The issue is that there are a lot of situations where Hulk is better at solving problems than Bruce Banner, and if you want to construct a story where every problem can be solved with wit (and no problem can be better solved with brute force), then you’re going to have to warp the events (and sometimes the logic) of the story in the service of that goal, because that’s not always the way the real world works. And a lot of times, this has the effect of making stories more about using a very narrow idea of intelligence, rather than actually approaching problems rationally.

One of my favorite examples of this comes from a scene in the movie Sneakers (a delightful 1992 thriller and heist movie about cryptography and espionage) where Robert Redford’s character goes to steal a cipher device from a researcher’s office. After socially engineering himself past the front desk, he finds his caper brought to a halt when the door to the office is protected with an electronic keypad. He radios the guys in the surveillance van and says, “Anybody remember how to defeat an electronic keypad?” Because this is a thriller about computers and cryptography, we expect them to come up with some kind of backdoor solution to breaking this lock, the cyberpunk equivalent of “recite this magical incantation and the lock will open for you.” The audience waits in tense silence as Robert listens to the voice of the computer guys speaking into his earpiece and mutters to himself, “Alright, that might work.” And then he takes a step back and kicks down the door.

This is what actual intelligent problem-solving actually looks like. In this scene, the crew identifies the fact that when snooping around in an old academic research building, it’s easier to kick an old wooden door off its hinges than to try and defeat an electronic keypad. They do the smart thing, which in this case is to use physical force. And I (and most viewers) are delighted by this moment, in part because you see the thought process behind it: Robert Redford encounters a problem, asks the computer guys to solve it for him, and they realize that real problem is not “How do I hack this electronic keypad,” but “How do I get to what’s on the other side of this door.” This moment of hesitation is important, because if he had just marched up to the door and kicked it down without taking the time to consider the optimal solution, he would feel less like a smooth operator executing the perfect heist, and more like a Jack Bauer who just charges into situations and resolves them with force.

It can be easy for stories to fall into the trap of breaking things down into a dichotomy of “brains vs brawn,” as if any energy spent doing physical tasks subtracts from the energy that would otherwise power your brain, but in fact a lot of the times the smartest thing to do is to punch the bad guy, or kick down the door.

The dichotomy of “brain vs brawn” suggests that these two are somehow mutually exclusive, and it feels like an example of a common fallacy where people see real-life skills and talents like some kind of tabletop RPG stat sheet where you have a finite number of points to distribute, which means that any points invested into things like charisma and strength necessarily subtract from stats like wisdom and intelligence. In reality, “talent” is not an evenly distributed thing; at best, it seems like athleticism and intellect are orthogonal, as plenty of people seem to have both in great abundance. (At my high school, the class valedictorian was also a star player on the high school baseball team.) There are also lots of smart people who have realized that investing time in their health and fitness is a smart use of their time, and usually the most fit people are the ones who treat optimizing their health as a worthwhile undertaking. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that physical fitness and mental performance are positively correlated in a number of ways: for example, cardiovascular health affects brain function, and so engaging in physical exercise increases your mental fitness, rather than draining away a finite number of stat points from intelligence to boost your physique.

Kicking down the door may be intelligent, but it does not always live up to the romantic ideal of intelligence, which is less about actually making the best choice in any given situation, and more about believing “reading books is a better use of your time than sports, scientists are always better at solving problems and winning conflicts than linebackers.” This partly feels a bit like concession to the fact that the crowd of people who read for recreation tend to be the same kind of people who spent much of their youth indoors reading books rather than flipping tires on the football field, and people like reading stories that serve and flatter their own sensibilities. But to be charitable to this line of thinking, it is true in the aggregate that people who engage in intellectual pursuits tend to do better: education is correlated with things like higher income, longer lifespan, most of the things that we’d define as “higher quality of life,” and more generally, “winning.” The issue is when you take that general idea (“the person who had a good SAT score tends to have a better life outcome than the person who spent high school playing sports associated with head trauma”) and try to apply it universally to every situation, you wind up in bizarre situations where people would rather try to hack the keypad instead of kick down the door.

The convenient thing about fiction is that the author can simply fail to introduce the sort of problems that would be best solved by a well-placed kick. (If you want to have a story about hacking the electronic keypad lock, just make the door out of some kind of reinforced material that can’t easily be kicked down.) In fact, it’s possible for an author to create an entire setting based on the idea that people who are more intelligent (here defined as “reading lots of books”) always win. I suspect that a major reason why “kid goes to wizard school” is so popular as a trope of fantasy that is that it’s essentially created a genre where studying and reading books makes you more capable of dealing with violent conflict. In general, bookish and studious people rarely intersect with violence, and when they do they tend to find their skills poorly matched for dealing with violent conflict, but a wizard school setting allows for a logically consistent story about a character who is a brainy academic who also solves their conflicts with with superior force. In this case, we don’t have to choose between being Bruce Banner or being the Hulk. The wizard doesn’t have to trade their intelligence for strength; the wizard becomes a powerful combatant by burying their nose in books.

The issue with a character who solves their problem just by studying is that when they acquire that skill and then apply it to solve a problem, they’re not really demonstrating intelligence, they’re demonstrating expertise. The wizard’s power appears to be the triumph of brain over brawn, but this is true only in the most superficial sense of what is meant by “brains.” A wizard who defeats his enemies by throwing fireballs at them is not really showcasing his intelligence, even if his method for learning to throw fireballs involved reading a lot of books.

Intelligence is powerful because it transcends expertise within a single domain. It’s also narratively useful, because it would feel unrealistic for a character to be an expert on every single problem that they encounter. You can mitigate this somewhat by creating a story about an ensemble cast of experts who are capable of dealing with anything that comes at them (which is the level on which heist stories like Sneakers operate), but there’s something about the ability to solve a problem in a simple and elegant way that just sings to us, precisely because it bypasses the need for expertise. You could spend hundreds of hours studying this field to become expert enough to overcome problems in the conventional way, or you could be clever, think outside the box, redefine the problem into terms that you’re equipped to deal with, and kick down the door.

Response to “Why do fantasy novels have so much food?”

Last week, Atlas Obscura published an article by Anne Ewbank titled Why do Fantasy Novels Have So Much Food?  This article provides many interesting examples and discusses the role that food can sometimes play in fantasy, but I don’t feel like it really answers the question posed by its title: why do fantasy novels have so much food? I’ll offer my own answer: immersion.

As a fantasy author, I am constantly looking for ways to provide description that engages all five senses. In most fiction, the vast majority of description is focused on what characters see, but if you really want to place the reader in a setting, it needs to feel tactile. When a character walks into a boggy marsh, I don’t just want to describe the tepid pools of water; I want to describe the pungent stench of rotting wood, and the texture of the soggy ground underfoot. It’s one thing for a character to remark on how hot and humid it is; it’s another to describe the feeling of the wet, vaporous air as beads of water are condensing on your skin and coalescing with your sweat.

Food is great at engaging all five senses. Not only is it one of the few places where you get to talk about taste, but food gives off aromas. Eating food is a tactile experience: you can feel the stickiness of a sweet jelly as you lick it off your fingers. Food has a texture that you can feel on your tongue, and it feels different in your mouth depending on whether you allow it to slowly slide down your throat or stuff your cheeks with it. And kitchens are full of sounds that add richness to the setting: you can hear the crackling of a fire, the sizzle of a piece of meat dropped onto an iron cooking surface, the delightful shing of a carving knife being sharpened. You hear things at the dinner table, too: the delightful crunch of biting into a cracker, or the clattering of cutlery on plates. A baked pastry will make different sounds when you bite into it depending on whether it crust is hard or thin and flaky.

Fantasy is often viewed as one of the most immersive genres, largely because it spends so much time on providing detailed description that not only tells you what is happening in the world, but giving you a sense of what it feels like to live in that world. This often means that fantasy novels are longer and slower paced, but one of the reasons that many people enjoy large fantasy tomes is that they enjoy the feeling of being transported and immersed in another world.

Some thoughts on Death Note (2017)

I just watched the Netflix Death Note movie.  Some thoughts (spoilers for both the movie and the manga/anime included):

If you were expecting a faithful adaptation, there’s a lot to take issue with. The movie is more about emotions and revenge, rather than logic and justice as the manga/anime was. “Light” and “L” are definitely not the characters that people were expecting coming from the anime/manga.

I don’t really consider myself a “purist” when it comes to adaptations, and I would actually be okay with the decision to tell a story about emotions/revenge rather than logic/justice if it were done well, but it’s not. Even when people behave “irrationally” and are driven by emotions, there’s a limit to how much stupidity you can tolerate.  The biggest example is how Light never makes any attempt to hide the death note, even after L just told him face to face that he believes Light is Kira.  I don’t expect Light Turner to be as smart/prepared as Light Yagami (who devised a way to hide the death note in a hidden desk drawer way back in episode 2, before the investigation ever started), but you would think that after L tells Light Turner “you are the prime suspect,” he would at least devote a little thought to hiding the murder weapon.

Plot holes (and other contradictions)

Even the ending of the movie, which I actually liked, has a big plot hole that can’t simply be explained by characters acting emotionally/irrationally.  The ending of the movie culminates with L sneaking into Light’s house and finding a page ripped from the death note with names written down on it.  Then, L picks up a pen and contemplates whether to write Light Turner’s name on the page that was torn on the death note, taking revenge on Light for killing Watari.  While this would be out of character for the version of L we seen in the manga/anime, I think this is actually an interesting conflict for the more emotional version of L we see in the movie, and it also plays with the theme of revenge, which the movie seems to be based around. However, this scene is completely undermined by the fact that L did not know what Kira’s method of killing was.  He finds a paper that has a list of criminals, and a description of how one of them dies.  Okay, that seems like the kind of thing a killer might keep (a “hit list”), but there seems to be no explanation for the fact that L, who knows nothing about the death note or its rules, is immediately able to conclude, “If I write Light Turner’s name on this sheet of paper, he will die.” ((I’m ready to be proven wrong on this if someone wants to tell me why I’m wrong; I only watched the movie once and I have no desire to go back and rewatch to confirm that L didn’t know how the death note worked, although I don’t see how he could have given that the notebook was never in police custody.))

This reminded of a scene from the anime, where the investigation team is watching Higuchi (the Yotsuba killer) as he goes through some files to discover Matsuda’s name (the file he actually finds is a decoy with an alias, planted by the police).  Higuchi pulls out the death note and writes the name down, and the first response of the investigation team is, “Wait, why isn’t he killing him?  Why is he just writing the name down?  Is he just recording his name to kill him later?  But why would he do that when there’s such an urgency to kill him?”  It’s not until Higuchi starts screaming “Why won’t he die?” that the investigation team deduces that perhaps writing down names is Kira’s method of killing.

Another issue, not so much a “plot hole” as a missed opportunity: there’s a point at which Light suggests that he might write Ryuk’s name in the death note.  Ryuk tells him that the last person who tried this died before they could finish writing the name (the implication being, “If you try to kill me, I’ll kill you faster.”)  But the first rule of the death note clearly states, “The human whose name is written in this note shall die,” and Ryuk definitely isn’t human, so the possibility of Light killing him with the death note shouldn’t even be on the table.  (Even if Light did bring up the idea out of ignorance, a better retort for Ryuk would be “try reading rule #1 again,” rather than threatening to kill Light.)

I could go on, and I’m sure that in the coming days and weeks, someone will put together an hour-long Red Letter Media-esque video pointing out all of the various logical contradictions within the movie.  However, I don’t think that the movie is ruined by a confluence of small problems so much as every part of it is dragged down by one glaring problem:

Light’s agency (or lack therof)

My biggest gripe with the movie is how it feels like Light is stripped of any sense of agency.  It was one of manga/anime Light’s defining characteristics.  Light Yagami was smart, ambitious, ruthless, but most of all, he was proactive: the plot of the anime advances at a rate according to his choosing.  It is Light who chooses to pick up the death note after seeing it drop from afar, it is Light who chooses to write the first name down to test the death note’s powers, it is Light who decides to start writing hundreds of names in the death note without any outside prompting, it is Light who decides to kill Lind L. Tailor, it is Light who chooses to kill the twelve FBI agents, it is Light who chooses to turn himself into the police to set things into motion to kick off the “Yotsuba” mini-arc, and so on.

In the anime, Light is a character who does things.  In the movie, Light is a character who has things happen to him.

In the movie, Ryuk basically “chooses” Light by dropping the Death Note right next to him when no one else is around. It almost feels like Light Turner is tricked or coerced into using the death note by Ryuk, who tells him, “Go on, if my appearance seems unbelievable to you and you think this is all a dream…why not try writing a name down?”  Even if Ryuk wasn’t actually trying to mislead Light, consider this: when a supernatural nightmarish being that surely has other powers (such as the power to inflict death) descends upon you and makes a strongly-worded suggestion that you do something, can you really say that you chose to do it of your own volition?  Lest we’ve already forgotten, anime Light started writing names down well before Ryuk showed up.  In fact, when Ryuk does show up in the anime, he’s impressed that Light has managed to fill five pages of the death note, already having killed hundreds of people.

Light Yagami seems barely fazed by Ryuk: Light drives the action, and Ryuk is just along for the ride.  In the movie, it feels like Ryuk is the one who drives the action at the start, and Light Turner is just the person he decided to drag along for the ride.

To put it into Campbellian terms: Light Yagami steps across the threshold entirely of his own volition.  Light Turner is dragged across the threshold kicking and screaming. Literally.



Death Note and Sanderson’s Second Law of Magic

(This post has been adapted into a video essay.)

A few years back, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn, Wheel of Time, Stormlight Archive) wrote a series of essays describing laws of magic systems. In the second of these essays, Sanderson posits that limitations are of greater importance than powers when it comes to effective magic systems.

Limitations are more important than powers

This notion is in agreement with a basic storytelling principle that I think many of us (readers and writers alike) instinctively understand about storytelling: what a character can’t do is often more interesting than what they can do.  Limitations and weaknesses are what drive struggle, vulnerability, conflict, and tension, many of the wonderful elements we love to see present in a story.

As a bit of an aside, I believe that this is why there is some disdain for for “wish fulfillment” and “Mary Sue” type characters, as these are narratives that are often inspired (and defined) by what the characters can do, often to the complete exclusion of any limitation or weakness.

It’s common to define and recognize magic systems based on powers.  A prominent example of this can be seen in the anime/manga series Death Note (spoilers follow).  The main magic present in Death Note is a notebook that has the ability to kill people, and protagonist Light also has the ability to specify the victims’ time and cause of death.  These are interesting story hooks.  But I would contend that Death Note is not a story about the powers of the Death Note as much as it is a story about the Death Note’s limitations.

What are the limitations of the Death Note? For one thing, Light needs to physically write the name of his victim in the book in order to cause death. He can’t just will people to die, or cause people to die by performing some trivial action like snapping his fingers. The Death Note, by its nature, leaves behind a paper trail, and thus represents a liability for anyone under scrutiny of investigation. Thus, when his home comes under surveillance, Light is forced to come up with creative ways to continue to write names in the Death Note while avoiding detection. In a sense, Light’s continued use of the Death Note is requisite, in the sense that if people stop dying when he is under scrutiny, then it becomes apparent to the investigation team that Light is somehow linked to the murders. This limitation of the Death Note represents a manner in which Light may be caught. It’s a source of tension.

The other major limitation of the Death Note is that Light needs a name and face in order to kill. This is ultimately what drives the conflict between protagonist Light and antagonist L, as Light cannot use the Death Note to eliminate L without knowing his name. This limitation of the Death Note also forces Light to creatively to circumvent this limitation, as becomes the case with the Raye Penber arc.

Death Note also provides a good example of a magic that is tied to a powerful cost. Light has access to another magic power apart from the Death Note itself: the “shinigami eyes,” which allow the user to see someone’s name by looking at them. However, this power comes at the cost of half of his own remaining lifespan. Light decides not to trade half his remaining lifespan for the shinigami eyes, which reinforces what we are taught about Light during the series: first, by declining the offer, he is demonstrating a certain level of pride, or confidence in his own ability. The ability to see someone’s name simply by looking at them is a potent power that would greatly advance Light in the pursuit of his immediate goals, but he’s confident that he is skilled enough to defeat his foes without resorting to this costly power.

Second, Light’s decision to decline the shinigami eyes reinforces the idea that Light’s mission to eliminate criminals isn’t ultimately driven by altruism, but by megalomania.  Light doesn’t consider it enough to simply create a “better” world that is free of criminals; he also wishes to preside over this new world as emperor.  Making the trade for the shinigami eyes would allow Light to more quickly overcome the immediate obstacles in his path, so Light is forced to make a decision: does he take the eyes and achieve his vision of a “perfect world” that much sooner?  Or does he decline the eyes and give himself more time to sit on the proverbial throne?  He opts for the latter, and that is a powerful statement about his character and true motivations.

Later in the story, we see other characters who also receive the offer to trade half their remaining lifespan for the shinigami eyes.  And each of those characters, in turn, reveals an element of their character and motivations based on the decision that they make.

The conflict between Light and L is one of the most interesting parts of Death Note, and if Light had the ability to see others’ names, that conflict would end quite swiftly.  However, because the power is tied to a significant cost, it can be included in the story without undermining that central conflict.

Limitations are what drive the conflict of Death Note: Light must continue to write names in the Death Note without alerting the investigation team that is monitoring him, and Light must also ascertain L’s true name. Without these two limitations in Light’s magic power, we don’t have much of a story. With them, we have a manga that has become one of the most successful manga of all time, running for 108 serialized chapters, selling over 26.5 million copies, and receiving numerous accolades.

A story with fantasy elements doesn’t necessarily require detailed rules defining the limitations of the powers that exist within its universe.  But if you want to tell a story that is about conflicts based around magic powers, a good first step would be to consider what the limitations of those magic powers are.

The meaning of “OELVN”

For the unaware, OELVN is an acronym for “original English language visual novel.” However, as an acronym, it is a bit artificial in the sense that you’re unlikely to find the phrase “original English language visual novel” appear in any context other than to explain the definition of the acronym OELVN.  Unlike most acronyms, which are spawned as abbreviations of common phrases, OELVN is actually a combination of two acronyms, “OEL” and “VN.”

The “VN” abbreviation should be relatively common and intuitive for those familiar with visual novels, and it’s common to see it employed for the sake of brevity. “OEL” is a bit of an oddity, though. The earliest usage of the acronym OEL is to refer to “OEL manga,” or “manga written in English (by non-Japanese authors).” However, by commonly-accepted definition of the word “manga,” this alleged “OEL manga” is not truly manga at all. “Manga,” being the Japanese word for “comics,” is used outside of Japan to refer to Japanese comics, and to use it to describe non-Japanese works is misleading. (Non-Japanese comics, according to that commonly-accepted definition, cannot be manga!) However, because “manga” is hip and trendy among younger consumers while traditional western comics have struggled in recent years to reach a younger audience, the fictitious term “OEL manga” was invented so that western comic book artists could market their works to fans of Japanese comics.

Visual novels, however, are different. Unlike Japanese words like “manga” and “anime,” “visual novel” isn’t language-specific. There are visual novels written by authors of a multitude of nationalities in variety of languages, including Japanese, English, Russian, and Korean, just to name a few. There’s no need to divorce non-Japanese works from the term “visual novel.”

OEL is a term that exists largely for the purpose of allowing the use of the word “manga” to describe works that are not actually manga. In that sense, I feel that applying the same qualifier to visual novels actually undermines non-Japanese visual novels, because unlike OEL manga, which is not actually manga, OEL visual novels are visual novels. “OEL manga” and “manga” are actually exclusive terms, but “OELVN” is just a subset of “VN.”

The term “OELVN” becomes especially cumbersome when you consider applying the same qualifier to Japanese visual novels. The idea of referring to Japanese visual novels as “OJLVNs” seems silly, so why do the same with English visual novels?  Moreover, in the context of an English-speaking community, many common uses of “OELVN” become redundant. You wouldn’t announce to your English-speaking friends that you are writing an “original English language novel.”

Another reason to avoid the OELVN distinction for your own work is that it puts you into a smaller pool of works. Rather than being compared to visual novels (including those of Japanese origin), you are inviting users to place you in the same category as all those other projects made by English-speaking devs. For the unambitious, this may not be an entirely bad thing, since the current pool of non-Japanese visual novels is relatively starved for quality, and you may benefit more from a comparison to other works not particularly renowned for their quality.  But do you really want your work to be associated more with the (sometimes negative) connotations that the term “OELVN” may carry?  Do you want people to look at your work and say it’s “good for an OELVN?”  Or do you want people to critique it as a visual novel, without undue regard for the original language?

All that being said, I don’t expect the term “OELVN” to leave the vocabulary of the visual novel community any time soon. At this point, its definition is pretty well-established within visual novel communities, and it’s the most laconic way to refer to visual novels originally composed in English (as opposed to non-English visual novels which were later translated into English).  However, those within the visual novel community may want to consider the connotations the term may carry before using it as the default term to describe certain works, especially their own.

Avoiding verbosity

Technical flaws are often the items that receive the most complaints when a work is checked for quality, because they are the easiest to objectively identify.  Certain kinds of technical flaws are readily apparent: incorrect spelling, bad grammar, poor use of punctuation.  However, we can also holistically look at a brief passage of writing and identify it as “poorly written.”  This is because there are certain usages of language which, while not technically wrong, are still sub-optimal.

One of the most common textbook examples of writing that is technically correct but less than ideal is use of passive voice instead of active voice.  An example of passive voice would be:

The door was opened by the man.

The same idea can be expressed in active voice as follows:

The man opened the door.

There is a preference for active voice in this case because it expresses the same idea with greater brevity and clarity.

Paradoxically, it seems that some writers deliberately avoid brevity, perhaps under some mistaken notion that writing out more words makes them a better writer.  Thus comes the flurry of needless adjectives and adverbs to describe things which need no additional characterization.  Your vocabulary should be a toolbox that you use to shorten sentences, not lengthen them.  For example, take this sentence:

He slowly and lazily walked his way over to the building, looking at the front gate with an expression of boredom and disinterest.

We can express it more succinctly as:

He sauntered to the building, casting a listless gaze at the front gate.

Lower word count, same message.

Adverbs are common culprits in “needless word syndrome,” as they often modify words that need no modification or can easily be replaced with words that provide the same meaning.  For example, in this expression:

She quickly ran outside.

The word “quickly” is meaningless, as speediness is already implied by the word “ran.”  If the word “ran” is not sufficient to describe the extent of her speed, another descriptive word can be substituted, such as “dashed” or “bolted.”  Saying that someone “dashed” outside is much more exciting and engaging than saying that they “quickly ran” outside.

Length versus density

Verbosity and length are not the same thing.  Verbosity refers to writing which is needlessly lengthy.  A better way to describe verbosity would be a deficiency in density of writing, rather than an excess of length.  Good writing is dense, expressing as many ideas in as short a span as possible.  There are two ways to achieve brevity: you can express the same idea in fewer words, as described above, or you can express more in the same length.

Mutli-functional writing

Storytelling can be divided into three main elements: characters, setting, and plot.  Your writing should advance the reader’s understanding of these elements, and you can make your writing denser by developing multiple elements at once.  For example, consider the following passage:

Megan hated working in the park during the summer.  She hated the sweltering, oppressive humidity.  She hated the flies, drawn by the smell of summer barbecues and potato salad and human sweat.  But most of all, she hated the masses of snotty-nosed children who paraded the park, filled with mirth and energy and a desire for the frozen dairy treats she peddled.

Each sentence of this passage is multifunctional in that it develops both the setting and character.  By the end of the passage, we should have a good idea of what the park is like during the summer, and also an awareness of how our character Megan feels about working there.

One way that some passages lose reader interest is by focusing on a single element to the exclusion of others.  For example, here is a passage that describes setting but advances neither plot or character:

I leaned back against the soft snow bank, letting the dry powder reshape itself around my weight. My skin had cooled to match the air around me, and the tiny pieces of ice felt like velvet under my skin.

The sky above me was clear, brilliant with stars, glowing blue in some places, yellow in others. The stars created majestic, swirling shapes against the black universe-an awesome sight. Exquisitely beautiful.

The above is an excellent example of too many words to convey too little meaning.  (You can thank Stephanie Meyer (and her editor) for providing it.)

In your writing, look for ways that you can use certain passages to develop multiple story elements.  (One way to do this is by leveraging viewpoint.) By developing multiple story elements in tandem, you can achieve more in your writing without needlessly extending the length.

The benefits of first-person narration

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.