When looking at the generic male protagonist found in light novels, one finds that he usually has some combination of the following traits. First, he’s a guy. Second, he’s Japanese. Third, he has short hair. Fourth, he has a fairly slender figure. Fifth, he has either minor or major otaku vibes. Sixth, he has some trait that speaks towards passiveness, whether it’s an aspect of his personality or some sort of special ability that emphasizes defense or neutralization. Titles that fall along this criteria include Sword Art Online, Ore Imo, A Certain Magical Index, Baka Test, Re:Zero, Rise of the Shield Hero, Bakemonogatari, and so on. In effect, the Light Novel Protagonist plays a similar role to the “gruff brown-haired white guy,” an archetype that has populated mainstream video games over the past ten years.
The Light Novel Protagonist’s appearance renders him the “everyman,” but taken to a kind of extreme mediocrity. His appearance is roughly that of a teenager or early 20s adult who could probably pass for a salaryman if not for his clothing and lack of a stable job. Even though he’s often a “failure” in the eyes of society, he’s ready to show himself as capable if given the right (often nerdy) circumstances. In this way, the Light Novel Protagonist resembles the Video Game Hero in that both reinforce a rough image of masculinity. Where they differ is that the Light Novel Protagonist is often a kind of “bare minimum” of manhood, while the thick-necked rugged white guys of video games are the apex of masculinity in that arena.
This difference is evident when looking at how generic light novels and generic mainstream video games approach the topic of homosexuality. Putting aside a few exceptions from both sides, the protagonists of light novels are more willing than their angry, shooting counterparts in games to dance the line when it comes to gender. Kirito’s video game avatar gets long hair in later parts of Sword Art Online. Hachiman in My Youth Romantic Comedy and Akihisa in Baka Test find themselves attracted to extremely effeminate male characters. However, not only is the possibility of a homosexual ending unlikely, but the sheer femininity of those ambiguous characters’ appearances renders them essentially girls in all but name. As a result, masculinity and heterosexuality are preserved.
Nevertheless, that difference between portraying a masculine world versus a hyper-masculine world seems to be what allows light novels to attract a female audience a little more easily. This is actually something girls have learned to do for a long time, navigate the “boys’ world of entertainment” and carve out their own spaces, but games like Gears of War seem to actively reject any notion of appealing to people beyond their assumed young, male, heterosexual audience. In contrast, light novels pull from the many tropes of anime, manga, and Japanese games, which exist in a complex relationship of pulling aspects of girl-oriented titles toward male audiences and vice versa (e.g. shounen sports being made for girls, magical girls being made for guys).
The irony might be that, while both the Very Japanese Light Novel Protagonist and the Gruff White Video Game Hero are all about protecting their audiences’ masculinity, the two archetypes probably would not get along if they had to interact with each other. The video game hero is an embracing of old ideals of manliness, while the light novel protagonist tends to be a partial rejection of the former. The Light Novel Protagonist is often a “loser,” while the Video Game Hero is more frequently a “winner,” and the active acknowledgement of both might just be two different approaches to dealing with male insecurity.
“The Light Novel Protagonist’s appearance renders him the “everyman,” but taken to a kind of extreme mediocrity”
Thank you for summing up this character type and this particular aspect of why it annoys me so well!
Tying masculinity to homosexuality in any way seems misguided to me, I’d bet there’s a far greater proportion of “bara” Gears of War fan art than of cross-dressing long-haired Kirito, and the internet likes to do a lot of arguing whether “traps are gay” or “reverse traps are gay”.
But I do agree that there’s a trend for generic video game characters to appear more masculine, and I would say such lazy writing stems from the format, where the protagonist of a generic video game serves only as a vessel for the gameplay, and it’s easier to write a big man into a warzone where you can go directly into gameplay (and skip the school arc).
That being said, I think the culture should be taken into account too (perhaps more so than LN vs VG), you should look at them with reference to western/japanese masculinity, by my western standards the protagonists of FFXV seem notably less masculine than, for example, The Witcher, and classic western pulp fiction had notably more masculine main characters than light novels.
Interesting question. Indeed, cultural background is at work when we examine these, but I´d say that there is another difference: Light Novels are only a particular medium of many in the modern Japan, and the Japanese culture also developed the isekai genre to answer , ahem, the more buff and macho tendencies of their readers… which also deems the comparison in the OP ´s case quite moot. If anything, LN´s are more open to diverse readers, while the action videogames in the western culture are likely to attract younger male gamers than female ones. Looking throught, this seems more a case of how Japanese cultural products are less binary and gender defined than the western ones; we either gloss over that (in the case of high fantasy or complex non-fiction novels) or we don´t stop at showing how a hero should be, in almost god like “powerfantasy”. Materialistic, physical prowess is important; it comes from our grecorroman tradition of how “power” or “virtue” is shown. In the case of the Japanese tradition, it is more varied, and also more morally grey; Genji, the hero of Murakami Shikibu´s novels, is almost effeminate in mannerisms, tortuous and flighty, and yet fatalistic in his continous romances. In the other hand of the spectrum, the warrior monk Benkei is loyal to a fault, and brutal in physical prowess, almost an inspiration to isekai LN´s.
Thus, I don´t see the exact “why?” for the comparison, besides the obvious. I think, afterall, the “fake mediocrity” shown in the protagonist of the LN´s mentioned (and by extension, to almost all the otaku culture) is a call up to these readers: otakus are, mostly in low esteem socially from the rest of japanese society; it is not completely wholly accepted as activity (fan conventions non withstanding). A brutal, macho, gunsblazing man on steroids seem to these peers like a completely alien , non-relatable, protagonist for ther phantasies. Also there´s the another gist: escapism. In most cases, the protagonist is inserted into peril and fantasy from the gray background of a lonely, crumby, everyday life in our contemporary society.
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