In the past, I have shared my thoughts on why male lead characters tend be weak-minded. Just recently, an interesting discussion about self-insert characters has popped up at AnimeSuki, which intrigued me. It makes me wonder if this is the reason most male characters are portrayed as such in Anime and other forms of media.
So what is a self-insert character? While the term has been around and used as a literary device, it is common in video games, especially in visual novels. It is typically referred to as the featureless protagonist in video games, which is meant to represent the player. Back in the 80s and 90s, there was no such thing as full motion video or voice. Therefore, you can basically name your character whatever you want in most Japanese Role Playing Games. By inserting yourself as the protagonist by using your name allows you to connect with the experiences with the protagonist, which in a sense makes the adventure unique.
As technology advances, self-insert and featureless characters are somewhat rare in Japanese Role Playing Games since most does not allow you to change the protagonist’s name and/or don’t have character customization, although some do like in Pokémon X and Y. Aside from that, it is limited to mostly visual novels, idol simulators (e.g. Idolmaster and Neptune Idol PP) or dating simulations mostly because the protagonist is meant to represent you. In most instances, the player’s character in these games is portrayed as an average person. They are usually voiceless and faceless, which adds to the immersion factor although there are exceptions (Key visual novels are a good example of this, especially with Little Busters since Riki actually has a sprite in the game). In some cases, the player’s character can be completely speechless and not seen at all as seen with Ciel no Surge and Kantai Collection (this is also true with the Anime as the Admiral is never shown).
How do self-insert and featureless protagonists translate into Anime? It really depends on the source material. For video games and visual novels, this is usually the hard part since the player’s decisions usually defines the protagonist’s personality (except for flags that changes the story). Because of this, this is why most are usually portrayed as being average, perverts or complete losers with an average appearance. For instance, the Producer in the Idolmaster franchise are portrayed differently in various kinds of media as seen with the average looking one that wear glasses in the main adaptation while Cinderella Girls’ Producer is portrayed having an intimidating appearance while showing a lack of emotion. As for other source material like Manga and Light Novels, their personalities and appearances are already defined, but are stereotypically portrayed as the same way, especially in harem genres.
So, why are self-insert and featureless protagonists are typically viewed negatively by most viewers of Anime? I think most Anime in the harem genre is blamed for this since these protagonists are tailored to make him/her relatable to a certain audience and reach some kind of self-fulfillment. This is probably why the main protagonist is portrayed stereotypically. Of course, it can be the exact opposite with the protagonist being portrayed as being completely flawless while having good looks and personality, hence a Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu.
Either way, the girls or boys in a harem tend to be focus of the show because they provide a sense of self-gratification. Because of this, I feel that this is one of the reasons why most viewers view these types of characters in a negative way for reasons stated earlier without realizing that there are other characters out there that does not fit these stereotypes. For instance, I feel that Key tends to avoid this for the most part as the main character resolving each character’s problems. Little Busters is a good example of this as Riki becomes emotionally stronger after resolving the hardship for every member in Little Busters while helping Rin do the same so that they can save their friends. To me, I think self-insert and featureless characters’ quality depends more on how the author develops him or her. Even so, I think it is mostly subjective as some viewers might enjoy these types of characters while others don’t.
On the other hand, there are a few instances where introducing self-insert characters to a video game caused outrage in the fandom. From my experience, I saw people rage over the two Neptune spinoff games because they have a male self-insert character in a franchise that usually have an all female cast (besides the villains of course). They also went so far to say that having a self-insert is going to ruin the girls’ love aspect of the game, especially with Chou Megami Shinkoku Noire Gekishin Black Heart. That game received the most rage from some fans over one scene and they vowed to boycott the game. Some got so angry by it that they went so far to say that it is the worst game of the year. To me, I was not bothered by it mostly because the self-insert doesn’t have that many lines in the main plot to begin with. Not only that, Sim-Noire feature is optional, unless you really care about getting all the trophies.
In the end, are self-insert and featureless characters really that bad? To me, I don’t think it is an issue for the fact that there are good self-insert characters that one can either relate to or enjoy while creating a sense of immersion. It really depends on the author’s/creator’s writing, character development and how well it’s executed when the source material is adapted into another medium. While views on these characters will be highly subjective, I don’t think people should make a broad generalization and say that these characters are bad since there are good ones out there. If you do, before you know it, the viewer won’t enjoy anything because most protagonists are either self-inserts or have a relatable quality to it.
What do you think about self-insert and featureless characters? Do you think that they are a necessary evil and that they are just being used improperly sometimes? Or maybe you think differently and believe that they should be abolished completely? Feel free to share your favorite self-insert characters from Anime, Manga, Video Games, etc.
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5 Comments… read them or add your own.
It’s hard to say. As you said, it really depends on the source material.
The Producers are always different characters and at least talk in the iM@S games, so it wasn’t hard to see A-1 pictures doing their own spin with their own producers. With Pocket Monsters, the protagonists have premade designs and canon names, but since they’re nameable and mostly “templates”, the adaptations are all over the place (i.e. some anime/manga use modified designs, Special manga calls the BW protagonists Black/White instead of Touya/Touko, and “Red” is called “Satoshi” in the anime).
For games like KanColle, the admiral is not only featureless, but he/she never has any dialogue. You could say they’re intended to be the players or whoever the players want them to be (so there are fan interpretations where the admiral is a girl, since the players are aloud to choose gender). I’m pretty sure this is why the admiral remains unseen in the anime.
I agree that it pretty much depends on the source material for the fact that video game adaptations may depict the main protagonist. Of course, the Pokemon example is quite obvious for the fact that the main character Satoshi is a completely different character compared to Red for the fact the latter seems to be more incompetent. Not only that, they did change Serena’s age to make her 3 years younger.
But I do agree that the Admiral in Kantai Collection can be seen as not having a defined gender and it’s up to the viewer to decide.
But of course, people seem to look down at these characters mostly because of visual novel adaptations and male leads being depicted stereotypically.
Good article. In the end it depends on how people perceive immersion.
I for one cant really self insert on a faceless or voiceless character, the character must either silent or nameable. Harem protags suffer because you cant really self insert (Or you can but it would take a lot to make it work) because they have defined features and personality while those features are rather weak for those looking for a strong and very defined lead.
In any case self insert characters works much better in videogame format, it rarely works in anime (Only examples i can think are hentai POV animes like the Ishoni H Shiyo series were you never saw the MC face, he didint had a name and he never talked) or other mediums.
Yep, I do agree that it really depends on the emersion factor since most harem shows are geared to focus on a certain fantasy. Of course, harem leads in general in has some defined features that make it difficult for the person to self-insert him or herself into that character, unless the person can relate… Otherwise, I agree that self-insert is really more suited for video games for the full effect since these characters are generally voiceless and don’t appear on screen.
Exactly however it seems that format is popular in japan wich in the end is what those companies try to achieve.