Characters are a key component to most, if not all stories, even if it is only as mere tools to carry the message or meaning. An anime’s main protagonist is the pinnacle of this fact. After all, they are who the viewer will be spending the most time with. If it’s not a good character then what’s to make someone stick around?

But what defines a good character, let alone the main protagonist?

We’ve studied the popularity of antagonists and now it’s time to take a look at the heroes.


What is a “Main Protagonist?”

A silver haired anime character waving at the viewer with a suspicious smile. (Gintoki, the main protagonist from Gintama)
Gintoki, the main protagonist from Gintama.

When tackling any topic, it’s easiest to start out with the simplest definition of what you’re looking at. The phrase main character can sometimes apply to more than one person in a show. They’re the ones most important to the plot and add the most to the story. However, a main protagonist usually brings to mind only one character: the true central force.

The main protagonist is the one the plot was designed for. The whole story will, more likely than not, be built around their need to get from point A to point B. This is why despite what the words protagonist and antagonist might suggest, the leading character does not have to be the “good guy.” This has to do with the first point of any good character.

Motivation

To be invested in a story, we need to be invested in not just the hows or the whats but the whys. A main protagonist needs motivation for the things they do. An anime can show us repeatedly how “cool” and “capable” their lead is, but without a reason behind their actions they risk this character becoming an NPC in someone else’s game rather than the one with the controller.

Hinata and Kageyama from the anime Haikyuu staring each other down against a dramatic white-light backdrop
Hinata and Kageyama meet for the first time, not knowing they would someday be teammates. (Source: Haikyuu)

Motivation comes in a plethora of forms and a main protagonist can also have several of them. It can relate to a character’s ethics or upbringing. It can relate to revenge or wanting to prove themselves, like Hinata’s volleyball dreams in Haikyuu after a sore defeat in middle school. Often it’s brought about by a conscious or unconscious need for change.

Motivation can be as long-lasting as Luffy’s goal to be pirate king in One Piece or as temporary as the day to day odd jobs the Yorozuya is hired for in Gintama. Sometimes a character’s motive is to simply find one. With all the variations motivation can come in, it’s a sorry sight to see an anime skip out on this factor. Without reason, there’s no progress. Without progress, a scene accomplishes nothing for your story or your viewers.

Transformation

As mentioned before, motive can come from need for change. In the process of trying to complete their goals a main protagonist themselves can and should change, even if it means their original plans or intentions are challenged.

A goal is important but an achievement gained without any work or struggle feels meaningless and frankly undeserved. The protagonist should struggle for what they want or need and in turn that struggle should affect them.

A split picture. One side showing Chihiro pouting and hugging a boquet of flowers to her chest. The other shows her standing confidently with a serious expression.
Chihiro started as a moody young girl, but gains maturity as the story progresses. (Source: Spirited Away)

Would we have cared if Chihiro’s parents had left the spirit world the same as they were before if Chihiro stayed the same too? If nothing changes then what’s the point of a story at all?


Likability

We’ve discussed what a character needs to be worthy of front and center stage (or even slightly to the left of the stage). However, what actually makes a character “good” to some and “bad” to others is harder to pinpoint because just like with real people, likability is subjective. We’re still going to give it our best shot though!

The Power of a “Save the Cat” Moment

The term “Save the Cat” was coined by the screenwriter Blake Snyder as a part of what would go onto be one of the bestselling methods in the industry. A decisive moment where the lead does something nice (like saving a cat). It’s something that makes you think, “Hey I could root for them.”

One good example of this is in Bunny Drop when our hero first stands up for the helpless little girl, Rin:

The first panel shows a man (Daikichi) telling a small girl (Rin) "You should say goodbye too." The second panel shows the girl placing a flower on her father's casket.
Daikichi helps Rin say goodbye to her father while the rest of the family had been ignoring her.

Relatability

& The Issues of “The Blank Slate”

A large portion of why a character is likable is being able to relate to them. Seeing the main protagonist go through struggles similar to your own is impactful. A fantastic example is Hachiken from Silver Spoon. He struggles with finding his dream and understanding what that means. He feels guilty for eating the animals he raised. Sometimes he has trouble keeping up with his skilled classmates. Most everyone can understand this, even if they haven’t encountered it the same way. It’s difficult not to feel for him when all this is dealt with so sensitively yet practically.

Hachiken, the main protagonist of Silver Spoon.

A problem does appear on the search for relatability. The main character becomes “normal” and dense to the point of blandness. This is common in harem anime or visual novel adaptations since many times the lead is only meant as a placeholder for the viewer. That’s not true in every case though.

Yamada and The Seven Witches subverts the harem MC expectations nicely. Yamada is neither dense nor the typical nice guy. He’s actually a bit of a delinquent and the show’s all the better for that choice.

Yamada, a highschool delinquent, sits very casually while making a gruff face.
Yamada, the title character of Yamada and The Seven Witches.

It’s true main protagonists with strong personalities have a higher chance of being hated. On the same note they have a higher chance of being loved. Either is better than the inevitable “meh” left from a blank slate.


That sums up our thoughts on what makes a good main protagonist! What do you think is an example of good MC? A bad one? Let us know in the comments.

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