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.

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.

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.

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.