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Thursday, May 28, 2020

"Normal" Characters

You will notice over the course of this post that I use two different versions of the word--and this is because it's important to distinguish the difference between normal and "normal."

When I say normal, I'm referring to characters with little-to-no defining traits that couldn't be found easily in the average Joe. When I say "normal," I'm referring to a character--usually the protagonist--whose normality is predictably the driving point of the drama / plot. If it wasn't already clear, I don't like "normal" characters.

What's up with normal and "normal" characters anyway, and why are there so many of them? If you guessed "Because they're easier to write," you'd be correct!

Well... sort of.

In many cases, writing a normal character can actually be more challenging than writing an interesting one.

That sounds totally oxymoronic, but allow me to explain.

Writing a "normal" character is extremely easy--just make them agreeable, the "voice of reason" (aka saying completely predictable and bland things at all times, usually stating the obvious). One example of a "normal" character is the (forgettable) Shirou Emiya from the 2006 and 2014 anime "Fate / Stay Night."

He's your typical one-dimensional good guy who fights bad because "bad bad," and brings us brilliant insightful commentary on the world with lines such as:


yeah I don't even have some witty response to that, it's just so bad.

However, writing a normal character--sans quotation marks--is extremely difficult.

Don't get me wrong, writing an interesting character is very challenging, but at least with interesting characters you can give them one or two odd or unique qualities and double-down on those throughout the entire manuscript, but with normal characters that's not an option. What's an example of a normal character done well?

Surprisingly there's a lot.

Some might point to some of the characters from The Office for examples. I say "some" because obviously characters like Michael and Dwight are really bizarre, but someone like, say, Oscar feels like they could be a real person. Same goes for a lot of the characters--Jim and Pam are written like a powercouple who act as a beacon of normality in a strange workplace filled with Dwights and Michaels, and a character like Darryl feels convincing and real too.

Moving to the realm of books, Stephen King writes excellent normal characters. Writing a normal character is harder than writing an interesting character because an interesting character doesn't have to be realistic to be interesting. They can be as bombastic or fatnastical as the creator wants, while a normal character has to convince the reader or audience that this is someone who does or could actually exist. They have to be much more believable and grounded.

The stark difference between a normal character and a "normal" character is that a normal character has motives and interests outside of the fact that they are normal. A "normal" character is just a blank slate with no interesting or unique qualities whatsoever and their entire personality revolves around the fact that they are normal.

It drives me nuts when stories with good plots rely on the "normal" protagonist; while it is true that stories can be either plot-driven or character-driven, you don't have to completely sacrifice character development for the sake of making plotting easier.

And there are stories that manage both.

Agatha Christie's novels are definitely plot-driven seeing as they are murder mysteries, yet while the characters aren't the focus of the story, they feel grounded and realistic. If you could sit down and have a coffee with one of her characters, you wouldn't know that you were even talking to a fictional character because of how convincing they are, a compliment that extends greatly to King's writing. Besides his plots and prose, the thing that made King such a hit to so many people was how he was able to put real people in strange and terrifying situations that also often felt real. It made his stories more palpable because no one was a walking cliche, but they still felt somewhat normal.

Yet normal doesn't mean no personality. Going back to our example with The Office for instance, we could easily look at any of the normal characters and come up with some of their identifying features.

For example, Oscar is sassy and a bit of a smart-ass, while Pam is a bit too agreeable and that's why she stuck around with Roy for so long, both traits that are believable.

There are lots of guys, gay and straight alike, who are annoying know-it-alls, and women in general tend to be much more agreeable than men which makes a character like Pam believable. These are personality traits that make the character fleshed-out while still keeping them normal. Because while characters like Oscar and Pam don't represent literally everyone, they are certainly common enough personality traits to not be seen as anything out of the ordinary.

And while we know that writing convincingly normal people in strange situations is what made Stephen King so revered, it was actually the opposite the made Don Quixote revered. I have to give it to Cervantes for being able to pull off not one, but two incredible feats; he wrote one of the most interesting characters ever written, and put him in normal circumstances.

Most writers will try to put interesting characters in interesting situations, while Stephen King puts normal characters in interesting situations and Cervantes puts interesting characters into normal situations, seeing as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are two extremely strange and memorable characters who are placed in an extremely mundane and normal countryside, causing chaos with their very existence. He managed to write both interesting unique characters with a large ensemble of normal characters for the bizarre traveling duo to interact with.

These principals apply just as much to cinema.

Quinton Tarantino is, without exemption, one of my favorite screenwriters of all time, because he's mastered the art of putting really interesting people into really bizarre situations, but still making both the strange characters and strange situations feel mostly realistic and believable by grounding both. Take Pulp Fiction for example, where we have a couple of really interesting hired guns put into all sorts of outlandish situations, but they're still kept grounded. Game of Thrones does the same.

(Until Season 7 and 8, that is.)

Unfortunately when it comes to books, the YA genre is (unfortunately) saturated with "normal" characters. A lot of the trendy YA books do have some redeeming qualities, like good prose and plots, but there's too many instances of YA supernatural / dystopian books with romantic subplots where the protagonist is just some bland girl. The sin here is that the "normal" protagonist also throws a wrench in the plot too, because if a 16-year-old girl is moody, boring, and extremely average, why are hundred-year-old drop-dead-gorgeous slabs of man-meat perfection fighting over her, and why does the plot get resolved outside of just plain plot-armor?

It doesn't, because that's always what happens. Take Divergent for example.

(I haven't read the book, maybe the book is bad too but it might be good for all I know. I've seen those God-awful movies though.)

Or Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare or any CW show.

And the thing is, that there's nothing wrong with young female protagonists. Mine is 20 but I'm writing a story with a young female lead myself. If a YA story is about a 16-year-old girl who fights demons or something, embrace that. She doesn't have to be a plank of wood. As cheesy as it is, I can at least enjoy something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer with all its corniness for making Buffy relatively well fleshed out. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Buffy is a shining avatar of complexity, there are lots of better characters out there, just that she was more developed and interesting than similar characters in similar books and TV shows.

Now, I don't want to be disingenuous; there is one valid reason why these bland female characters exist (there are male ones too like Shirou, although the trend I've noticed is that "normal" male characters are most common in anime while "normal" female characters are most common in books). And that's simply to be used as inserts.

To summarize what that means, essentially a self-insert is when the writer makes the protagonist--well, themselves, and this is because the writer is more concerned with writing a fan-fiction power-fantasy about themselves as a hero than about making a compelling story, while a lot of these anime series and books with bland protagonists are used so that the reader can put themselves in the MC's shoes more easily.

And there is some value to that.

As much as I hate on "normal" characters, there are some stories where writing a "normal" character actually worked out really well. This is actually the thing that made Neon Genesis Evangelion so damn interesting.

For those who don't know, Evangelion is a story about the psychological trauma experienced by a group of young teens who are expected to save the world by piloting extremely violent and terrifying sentient robots.

Evangelion really fascinates me because it's the only example that comes to mind where the existence of a "normal" protagonist is actually brilliant.

And this is purely because of one subtle but massive difference in focus. We've all heard the story about the teenagers who save the world, it's kind of a dumb and overused trope, but Evangelion did something genius by changing the focus away from the heroism and adventures of the teenagers to trauma. Instead of the teenagers going around killing demons or vampires or whatever the case is with a lot of YA content, it's portrayed as a tragedy.

This is because the sentient machines they control are linked to them biologically, so the kid piloting the thing feels pain in the place of the machine. If the robot loses and arm, the kid controlling it will experience unbelievable pain and trauma as they feel the pain of losing an arm themselves. And not to mention the weight of the tremendous burden on their shoulders; for reasons not entirely explained, the robots or "EVAs" as they are called only respond to youth. If the pilot is too young, they won't be intelligent enough to control the EVA safely and effectively, and any older than 14 or so and the pilots lose the ability to control the EVA. So when the government basically kidnaps these children and puts them in EVAs, it's not seen as badass or heroic. It's seen as barbaric--young teenagers expected to undergo the trauma of war and scarring them with PTSD for life.

I went into this show expecting an epic mecha anime--that is, a show about giant robots fighting other giant robots.

If you've ever seen Pacific Rim, that's what mecha is.

But what I got was something extremely different.

While it does technically involve giant robots, it's shown as this terrifying alternate reality where children carry the weight of the world, experiencing tremendous pain and trauma as they fight "robots" that bleed, making them question the morality of killing these robots without knowing what their motivations are or if they feel pain or not. There's also the fact that the EVA machines are extremely hard to pilot and the tiniest mistakes could kill thousands of innocent civilians, and a couple 14-year-old kids are stuffed into these robots and forced to pilot them.

(I know the "Angels" aren't considered robots, just for the sake of the mecha name I referred to it that way, but they are not actually classified as machines. Pls don't crucifix me.)

The existence of a "normal" character works because the protagonist Shinji is just a kid. He cries out against the adults of the show, begging the government to let him leave because he doesn't want to pilot an EVA. It's not fun or epic, it's terrifying and every time he pilots one, innocent people die or his EVA gets damaged enough to inflict extreme agonizing pain on him that instills constant anxiety and fear in him as the show progresses. And the worst part is that if he wants to quit and refuse to pilot an EVA, he's allowed to but can't. No matter how badly he wants to quit, he can't quit for good because he's one of the only kids able to pilot the thing and if he doesn't do it, odds are no one else will and he has to live with the knowledge that people died because he refused to pilot the EVA. So the guilt forces him back every time.

While most of the show Shinji doesn't have any real interesting characteristics or personality traits, the focal point of the narrative is about what happens to him and what the experience does to his psyche. The audience watches as he goes from this regular, kinda standard kid to this person completely driven to insanity. It's almost like a case study on the effects of PTSD. It's extremely unsettling for all the best reasons. While it's not a horror show, it makes the "normal" character work by exploring existential terror, a brand of thriller-writing that's extremely difficult to pull off, especially in a way that can create the same unease and unnerving discomfort that Evangelion does.

Yet the unfortunate reality is that "normal" characters are almost exclusively produced as a byproduct as laziness, at least when it comes to mediums outside of gaming. In gaming, a silent protagonist can actually be great. In movies, TV and books, "normal" characters don't really work because the audience isn't controlling the protagonist. They're watching them or observing them, so they want to see something interesting.

But with a video game, having a silent protagonist is actually a good thing when done right because the player literally IS the protagonist. While a game like The Witcher 3 can have you playing as some awesome and well-written character, something like Dark Souls can have the same quality while allowing the player to create their own character and play as them. In Dark Souls, you don't say a single word. You just let your actions do the talking, and you do what you want.

In The Witcher 3, you play as the protagonist; in Dark Souls, you ARE the protagonist.

However, that's not the same as having a normal protagonist or a "normal" protagonist. That's just having a blank protagonist, an empty slot where you either create a protagonist or literally are the protagonist yourself.

Metro Exodus is kind of half-way between the two because you play as a pre-written character but he's a silent protagonist, yet because it's first-person and his silence usually makes sense, it's surprisingly convincing and immersive.

In something like Dark Souls, you are the protagonist; in a classic RPG like The Outer Worlds, you create a protagonist that isn't you. They still have lines of dialogue and personalities, but you get to control what dialogue options you choose and what your character's personality is.

So those are the three stages; in The Witcher 3 there's a pre-written character with an already established story and personality, in The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas you create your own character and their backstory, choosing from a large array of different personalities and dialogue options, and in Dark Souls the protagonist is straight-up you.

With the first stage of game protagonists, a pre-written character, making them boring or an insert in an egregious sin. As the player, you are a passenger observing this character's life, so making them boring, "normal," or an insert makes them uninteresting to watch.

With stage-two games like The Outer Worlds, it's a little different. You can't give them a pre-established personality because that takes away the freedom and agency of the player; since the player gets to create the protagonist and their personality themselves, the writers' and developers' job is to make that as easy as possible by writing in numerous different but interesting personalities for the player to choose from, and the more the better.

For example, in The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas you can literally choose your character's intelligence with an intelligence stat--and if you choose to lower this stat, the character becomes dumber and dumber and it unlocks some really funny dialogue where they talk like a moron. The writers had to write in tons of new dialogue for this, but it was a great idea.

But really this all just shows that varying degrees of blank characters work in video games when the player is able to supplement their characteristics either with their own personality or with an invented character in the case of games like The Outer Worlds. With pre-created characters in other mediums--movies, TV and books, normal characters are hard to pull off while "normal" and blank characters do not work. Unless used extremely specifically to explore a topic directly connected to the idea of normality.

In Evangelion the "normal" character only works because it's meant to be watched like an experiment of the human condition; seeing what happens when you put the average kid in a situation like Evangelion's vision of the future.

(Technically past now, since it was a 90's show that took place in 2015, similar to Back to the Future II, but it was a vision of a possible future to them so that statement still stands even though it was the past to us.)

The biggest problem to me really just boils down to intent. Normal characters work in Stephen King books and slice-of-life shows like The Office and Shirobako because they were hand-crafted with the intent of making these characters interesting despite their normality and they serve a grounded purpose in the over-arching narrative.

(Shirobako is the anime equivalent of The Office, but I actually like Shirobako more, which is saying something because I'm something of an Office fanboy, and I've got the Dundie and T-shirts to prove it. I mean how can you not love Shirobako?)

 ^unrelated, I just needed to gush for a second. Including a sorta informal review of Shirobako in my Animation post was actually a bit of a goof on my part, I should have made a separate post about it to get it out of my system. Ah well, it is what it is. A small assortment of screenshots is good enough for me I guess. Just go watch Shirobako, m'kay?

You right now

Anyway, I probably should have gone more in-depth about how to make good normal characters rather than just saying "Stephen King did it," since that's not very helpful to most people, but really I think it just boils down to making them relatable, and I could write a whole essay just about that (probably will) and it's nuanced enough to where it would feel disingenuous to just tack it onto the end of this post, so I'll just cut it here for now.

And as always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

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