The Challenge of Stoic (Apathetic?) Protagonists.

Foreword: This is my first post for this blog for a long long time. I feel a little rusty. 

A week ago, I watched the first Person 3 movie. I also finished up the first season of Aldnoah.Zero . A common feature these two anime shows share is the casting of a stoic character placed in the lead role. While I plan on reviewing both productions in a round up of my recent activity, I have felt the need to discuss the inclusion of this type of character in the protagonist role. Over the years, I have seen plenty of anime and video games attempt to utilize this persona as their marquee character. And for the most part, I feel like there’s potential in such characters; most often, the attempts fall short and distract from the stories. There is definitely a challenge present to pull off such a character in such a critical role.

An important key of every protagonist I believe is the creation of sympathy for the cause. Most of the time, every writer will no doubt want to have the reader support the main character as his navigates the plot ahead. At the very least, it’s the duty of the writer to convince the reader to become invested in the protagonist’s cause. Sympathy is a easy mean to achieve that goal. However, the apathetic protagonist is naturally unsympathetic. Due to their lack of emotional display, the reader (or viewer) cannot easily empathize. Therefore you have to find other means to muster support for the protagonist. Either by finding surrogate characters to sympathize with, who is aligned on the side of the protagonist or simply have antagonists who inspire abhorrence.

In the case of Alnoah.Zero, the cast surrounding Inaho Kaizuka garner enough sympathy towards his cause that Inaho’s blatant apathy is neglected. The disgustingly underhanded plot by the Martian Knights to sacrifice their innocent princess in order to create a casus belli inspires enough detestation, that by default, most people will be inclined to support Inaho’s cause. I feel like if it wasn’t for the cast or the strong basis of the story’s conflict, Inaho Kaizuka’s indifference would have destroyed the show. I feel like these methods could have helped the Persona 3 movie. In the case of Persona 3, the enemy for the course of the movie is faceless and simply a vague evil. I didn’t find the supporting cast around Makoto Yuuki to be particularly sympathetic.

However, the first Persona 3 movie did have one saving grace that Aldnoah.Zero sadly didn’t have. That is the importance of back story to pull off the stoic/apathetic hero approach. Makoto Yuuki’s back story makes his whole indifferent approach reasonable. He’s an orphan. While orphans are a common clich√© (which is the understatement of the century…), one can derive the emotional distance he keeps from everyone else is a direct result of the emotional trauma he endured from the tragedy. The fact he has no family. The fact he has no home. It is a believable past that would create a character that doesn’t know how to express his emotions or simply doesn’t wish to open up to others. On the other hand, I feel like Aldnoah.Zero failed to establish such a backstory. While Inaho Kaizuka is too an orphan, he has his older sister and he has a home. There is no signs that these two protagonists experienced similar childhoods. He has a support system present and established. As a result, I feel like Inaho should not be so spiritless.

I guess my biggest gripe is the lack of effect the events of the plot in Aldnoah.Zero had upon Inaho for majority of the first season. One of his high school friends died right in front of me, Inaho didn’t blink an eye. I understand Inaho is reason personified, but at the same time this is a kid. Not until late in the season did he show any signs of emotions, as if he is more of a machine than a human. At least in Persona 3, we are there when the plot incites moments of emotions from the usually apathetic Makoto. When it is clear that another character might be in mortal danger, Makoto reacts. We know he’s human and what creates for a good stoic character are the few, rare moments where we see that they truly do have emotions spiraling around inside. It is what makes for a credible protagonist.

One of my favorite animes, the show that introduced me to anime, Gundam Wing had Heero Yuy. Heero Yuy was your quintessential stoic hero, bordering sociopath behavior. However, there were moments where he showed to us that despite being raised to be a human weapon, he still had moments of softness. He couldn’t kill Relena despite the fact she posed a risk to his cover. Gundam Wing had all of the methods I feel are critical to pull off the ‘apathetic’ protagonist. Herro had credible back story to set up his persona. You have those rare moments where Heero showed compassion. But at the end of the day, Heero was just one of five protagonists and the other pilots picked up the slack in the whole sympathy department. He didn’t have the spotlight solely locked in on him. While I feel like Makoto and Inaho both get the prima donna treatment, it is hard for the carry that burden effectively.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed Alnoah.Zero, but I definitely wanted more from Inaho. There were just several key moments that just frustrated me in regards to his character. The same was true with Persona 3 the movie. I guess I have yet to see a such a protagonist pulled off with perfection. Video games are different story because emotionless protagonists have been done regularly, and to some success due to the fact that the player places themselves in the shoes of the main character they are controlling. The lack of emotions allows for the player to assume the role themselves. It is almost as if the character in these games are an extension of the player. This is why Makoto in the video game didn’t have the same impression with me as Makoto in the anime. This is why Squall from Final Fantsy 8 didn’t particularly bother me with his apathetic approach. However, when you are not direct participant but instead an observer, it is the job of the storyteller to create protagonist that pulls you along the plot. Stoic heroes have difficulty in carrying out that responsibility.

A lot of times that I come across this kind of main character, it also seem to be more of a forced decision. Throughout my years role-playing on sites or reading some amateur writing, the stoic character appears to be used because feels cool for the writer to use. Quite often, without having a proper supporting system for such a character, the protagonist seems flat and the plot lackluster. While Aldnoah.Zero and the first Persona 3 movies incited a mixed reaction from me in regards to their protagonists, they had enough to patch up those few flaws.

I’m curious to see if I ever will see such a protagonist pulled off exceptionally. If anyone has an example, please share.