Where are all the happy protagonists?

How I got to this question today is a little bit dumb. I thought I’d look through Yarny’s blog to see if they’d gotten less disappointing (surprise, they have not) and found an entry about one of their featured writers who had written parody lyrics for “Born This Way”. It’s probably incredibly unpopular for me to say that I find the original to be severely overrated, but I don’t really care. It is, and although I like this particular parody, it suffers all of the problems of the original song. Only the lyrics were available through Yarny, although they did mention that she had recorded the song. I searched Youtube, but not until after I had scavenged for this person’s website.

Apparently she writes an OEM and has an artist called GEIKOU. I guess the all caps generate specialness. The first chapter of this manga is available on that website and… I’m really not impressed. The art is fine, and at first glance the story sounds interesting. But so did Seaborn.

I still have yet to read the Seaborn novel, but I have read a fair amount of the comic, Saltwater Witch, and one if its major problems is that the main character is comically, unrealistically tragic. To the point that I hesitate to use the word tragic. For a long time, angst has been the selling point for a lot of media, and I can’t imagine why it’s so popular.

Okay, to order my thoughts a little… The story I first brought up was that of “Sora”. There is very little of the manga right now, although there appear to exist a plethora of notes on the world, and a paragraph and full body shot for major characters. The story is about four girls who accidentally travel to another world and subsequently have to save it. Not the most original idea, but it certainly doesn’t need to be. Displaced characters who don’t necessarily like each other often make a good story.

The problem is that the first of these characters we see, Jishin Tal, is the centre of a ridiculous amount of hatred. Other students whisper that she should be locked up and send her a note telling her to kill herself.

I was not popular in one of the high schools I went to. I was dragged into fights, humiliated in front of the entire class, and eventually left because I had a panic attack in the car every morning on the way to school. No one ever whispered about me or told me to kill myself. This kind of thing is absurd.

Maybe I’m a hard sell, but this is still something that I know other people are tired of. The character blurb for Jishin reads thusly:

Troubled and sarcastic Jishin locked away her emotions long ago.

This is such a meaningless, stock description, and the worst part is, it’s wrong. She contradicts it immediately. I’ve known people who “locked away emotions”. They were not visibly lonely or sad. They didn’t talk about being all alone. They withdrew and failed to get jokes. At best, she is a sad person who wants to be happy. At worst, and what the writer clearly wanted, she is a Poor Baby who deserves our sympathy because everyone hates her.

It’s like sulking. People do not generally sulk in private, child or adult. The point is to be seen, to have an effect on other people. She is openly sulking and showing how sad she is, not because she hopes someone around her will notice and do something about it for her, but because these kinds of things have no respect for the fourth wall. She is sulking for the readers.

Really. If I’m told that a character has “locked away emotion”, I call foul when she makes a curt speech about being surrounded by people and still being alone. When she openly shows anger and hurt over being mistreated, and runs off to have an angry outburst in private.

To be fair, Seaborn is not any better. The main character Kassandra and Jishin share the state of being orphans (hmm), and they also share stupidly over-the-top persecution and angst. In Kassandra’s case, she is the constant target of attempted murder and cannot cry. Her inability to cry is a plot point, but the fact that the woman who runs the facility that Kassandra lives in wants to kill this teenage girl is just stupid.

As I said, I’ve only read the comic, so maybe it’s oversimplified and also a plot point, but the way it reads in the comic is dumb as anything. Blind villainy complete with hair-pulling and shouting.

This is a recurring theme in lots of media, not just sequential art. Where are all the happy protagonists? It’s like writers think they can’t create conflict without tragic backstories and angsty present situations. Why? Harry Potter could honestly have been just as good if his aunt and uncle had been nice to him in the beginning. In fact, the angst could have come from discovering that their kindness had always been due to fear of what he might do to them if he ever came into his own.

I don’t know. I’ve had happy protagonists before. Even ones with sad stories–Travis from Spin had been kicked out of his home to go adventuring when he was eight years old because he lived in a world governed by the rules of fairy tales, and he didn’t even care. He was the happiest character in the entire book. One I’m working on now is about a couple of kids (with PARENTS wow!) who are on holiday and get along with each other most of the time.

Conflict can come from other negative traits and problems. Lack of money, impatience, disagreement with another character…. If you want your main character to discover that she doesn’t belong in the world she’s lived in as long as she remembers, she does not have to be mistreated by all and feel her lack of belonging so keenly that she weeps every time it rains or some crap like that. Make her abysmally happy and contented, then get your character conflict by uprooting her.

Just don’t turn around and make that more unending “Poor Me” angst.

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