art by @Ruttika_Shin on twitter
The drive for the story, the reason everyone keeps going, the heart of the plot and most importantly the core person of our favorite anime: the protagonist of the story.
While in most anime the protagonist is coded to be built a specific way, which we will discover soon enough together, there are certain traits that might differ when looking closely at the different stories at hand.
Why does the protagonist make you feverishly follow his story?
How does a character envelop you into their narrative and keep you invested as a viewer?
All of these questions and more shall find an answer in this post, when we look and analyse what makes a good anime protagonist.
Difference between protag and main character
One might not know, but there is actually a difference between the terms protagonist and main character. Although they are often thrown around, they are not synonymous.
In any kind of story, every character has a role to fulfill behind the scenes.
What does that mean?
It means that especially core characters and even side characters have a purpose and a reason why the author put them into the story. As much as people like to call certain characters useless or inefficient in their pursuit, we should always keep in mind that even the smallest side quest gives you necessary experience points to conquer a bigger boss level.
That said, anime characters serve a purpose that might be unclear at first when one starts watching.
So what are the roles that main characters and protagonists have to fulfill?
Basically, a main character is a core character in the anime that is directly impacted by the happenings of the plot. Someone close to the action or even farther away from it. There is no good or bad here, because main characters come in all sorts of shapes and forms.
If we take Boku no Hero Academia as an example, we could take anyone from class 1-A as a main character, even though that might sound far-fetched. They are still all impacted by the first villain attack in season one, the further rise in crimes in hero society and endless fights because of Toshinori’s downfall.
To sum it up, a main character is someone who gets directly impacted by the plot that unfolds. One might argue now if Mineta is as much of a main character as Shoto, but when we talk about impact we aren’t talking about screen time, popularity or tragic backstory.
We are merely looking at the plotline and determining if the character has been affected by the storyline.
Now that we know what a main character is, what is a protagonist? And why are they different?
Like it was mentioned before, a main character is influenced by the plot, but the stark difference for the protagonist is that they push the plot forward.
What does that mean?
If we keep the example of Boku no Hero Academia, the protagonist would very well be Izuku. It seems obvious enough, but where is the difference between Izuku and any other main character? Isn’t Izuku affected as much from the plot as his peers?
Fair enough, but the core difference is that Izuku is the one who pushes and leads the plot instead of only being affected by it. As he inherited One for All and his perspective is shown in the beginning of every episode, he is the character with the most influence on how the story will progress.
Yes his peers have huge character arcs as well and they develop just as much as he does, but in the end it is Izuku who beats the last villain as he is Toshinori’s successor.
To sum it all up, a protagonist leads the plot and the main characters are impacted by it. A protagonist doesn’t have to be good or bad, and the same goes for the main characters. The definition only bases itself on what the character needs to accomplish.
Different anime has different protagonists
Now it is important to remember that not all protagonists will be the same especially when one considers genre and especially gender in anime.
Genres play a huge role here.
And as such it also plays a huge role in the depiction of the protagonist.
As the protagonist dives through the plotline as the lead, the genre of the anime makes all the difference.
The typical shounen protagonist will have a different set of traits than the cute shoujo protagonist. While individual anime might differentiate itself from the stereotypes, there are often overlapping functions in the writing of certain protagonists that we need to consider.
The genre of the anime sets the goals a protagonist has to accomplish and therefore the drives that need to be implemented into the character.
While the shounen protagonist might need to exceedingly overcome strong villains by the sheer power of friendship, the shoujo protagonist might only have one question on their mind “what is love?”.
Making sure that it is clear that we are talking about the popular stereotypical storylines we see again and again, not more original franchises that might be very different.
If the story is already set in a world ridden by criminals and death like in f.e. Fugou Keiji, the protagonist might have a different interest and skill set than the comedy-romance anime protagonist like f.e. in Ouran Highschool Host club.
The world building alone pinpoints how the character needs to react. Is the world a depiction of our current world? Is it a science-fiction world full of impending doom? How does the character need to accommodate so they can reach their goals?
A character that needs training to push through to defeat someone in the shounen category might react inherently differently and has different personality traits than the protagonist of a slice-of-life anime that merely does the same things everyday.
Despite the genre, there are protagonists that can fall into all kinds of different categories, shapes and forms.
It’s not uncommon to have more than one protagonist or even a whole group if that is possible. As a great example we can look at Haikyuu!! in which Hinata can simply not operate alone but only with his teammates.
Even though the story is displayed with his perspective in mind and he clearly impacts the people around him with his demeanor, it’s a given that Kageyama and him both share the spotlight of the story.
Protagonists can be any gender and aren’t just predominantly male or female. According to the genre it is often so that shoujo protagonists are female and shonen protagonists are male, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
Still, the reason why there are so many different lead characters out there is because each world they reside in needs a specific person and a specific individual to overcome the perils the author has set for them.
Be it world domination from a villain or confessing to your crush on friday, every protagonist is different.
Traits of a “good” protagonist
Now the question begs to ask itself again: what makes a good protagonist?
Before we try to answer the question, let’s make sure that we’re all on the same page here.
Good, does not mean morally sound in this context.
As good and bad aren’t as black and white as one might think, every protagonist can range from good to bad in many aspects and it most definitely relies on the perspective of the moral compass the anime has set, as well as the way the viewer sees it.
Although in this instance when we think about “good” we mean well written and especially relatable as a character.
If the viewer can relate to the character, a huge accomplishment is already made. The more a viewer can see themselves in the actions of the protagonist or try to emulate their feelings, the more emotionally attached the viewer becomes. Whenever the protagonist approaches a huge goal in their life, the viewer feels their anxiety, their fear or their excitement through them.
This is one trait that makes a good protagonist, because as much as we like to see badass and heroic characters, the ones that depict real life issues and emotions can hit us just as hard.
Other traits that we shouldn’t ignore are idealistic natures that the protagonist might exhibit.
Heroism and bravery are especially apparent in shounen anime, in which the protagonist has to push away all of their fear to keep going forward. It’s the innate altruistic nature or the empathy they feel for every person that is hurt on their way that makes them valuable and amazingly written protagonists that push the plot with their emotional strength.
While positive happy-go-lucky protagonists are lovely and often the attention grabbers, there is also a darker side to lead characters.
Some might be driven by bravery and positive feelings, there are others who might not accept the fact that they may need to save the world so easily.
Their fear is what pushes them, the sheer survival instinct that drives them to lead the plot and their sudden involvement in scenarios they knew nothing about before.
Good examples would be Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion or Kaneki Ken from Tokyo Ghoul.
The reason why these characters can entrance the viewer as well is because their strength doesn’t build from a training montage but being severely beaten into the ground by fate to establish their worth in life.
The trauma that pushed them into the scenery or the traumatic experiences that developed in the middle of the plot can be the very reason the characters pull themselves together which is an extremely interesting evolution to witness.
As protagonists push the storyline and leave the people around them with an impact they might not have expected, they clearly play the most pivotal role in their respective franchise.
Now what makes an anime protagonist good is not their achievements or their strength level, it is the fact that they keep going after everything they might’ve been through. The reason we feverishly scream for their win is because we relate to the character and because we understand their goals.
A good protagonist is a character we can understand no matter what their motivations are, no matter if their interests align with ours.
A character that gives you the feeling you can feel close to them no matter what.
That is a good protagonist.