Hi, and welcome to The Combat Report, the development blog for the alternate-history love-and-war mecha VN, Steel Hearts. This is the 7th article–can you believe it? I sure can’t. Anyhow, this week’s article focuses on our protagonist, the one and only Caleb Hartmann.
What Makes a “Pro” Protag?
On VN protagonists in general, I think a lot of writers feel that the protagonist of a non-kinetic VN (that is, a non-kinetic VN being one with branching paths) must be generic or bland in order for 1. the character to make sense narratively and to the player (because there are multiple “variations” of the character depending on what route the player took, and because some choices could make characters act in ways contrary to how the player thinks) and 2. in order for the player to successfully “project” onto the character. Hence, I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of VNs where the protagonist is there as a formality, perhaps a vehicle to get to the H or whatever. Cpl_Crud of Katawa Shoujo fame postulated as much in a recent article, and says that a protagonist in a linear VN avoids these problems, which is true.
Hisao, the protagonist of Katawa Shoujo, does succumb to those pitfalls as expressed by Cpl_Crud. Was it difficult to avoid those? Probably so. However, I believe these pitfalls can be avoided. In a post-Katawa Shoujo world, this is easy to claim, but regardless…
Bland protagonists in branching VNs–they do exist, and it is easy to fall down that hole and write one. However, I don’t think it’s necessary to do so, neither for the audience or the narrative. Two well-received examples stick out to me, Steins;Gate and Grisaia. In both of these, the protagonists are… well, exciting and off the wall. Enough character to fill the room, and then some. Okabe of Steins;Gate is a chuunibyou, over-the-top otaku who likens himself to a mad scientist, caught in a worldwide conspiracy. Yuuji of Grisaia is a womanizing jackass with a heart of gold, and his tragic, difficult past as a soldier/assassin factors into his mannerisms, thoughts, and actions. In addition to having their own quirks and mannerisms, they are also go-getters. Good protagonists, in my opinion, are not just piles of traits, but they also make things happen–the story reacts to them (not to say that the protagonist shouldn’t react to external events, but the reverse is important).
Remember the scene at the end of Lilly’s route in Katawa Shoujo where Hisao makes a fervent, life-risking race to catch Lilly at the airport before she leaves? It’s powerful seeing protagonists get off their feet and do difficult things–even if he was, admittedly, bereft of personality, I think proactive scenes like that would make him more memorable.
Moving on, many protagonists (VN or otherwise) are boring and blank-slate for the sake of relatability. That is to say, protagonists are blank-slates to more easily relate to the reader, thus immersing them more in the story. I reject this–for how many people do you know which are boring blank slates? Is it not easier to relate to someone with experiences, with defined thoughts and feelings? Surely, I would think people would relate more to the likes of the hopes and fears of Frodo, the anger and forgiveness of Luke Skywalker, or the idealism and determination of Emiya Shirou, rather than the blank slates of the protagonists of Fallout 3, Persona 5, Doki-Doki Literature Club, and so on. Even in romantically-inclined stories, defined protagonists like Okabe as mentioned, or Takeru from Muv-Luv seem to strike a chord more with people than the more “generic” protagonists of, say, Hisao from Katawa Shoujo or Semyon from Everlasting Summer.
Forging the Steel Heart
So, with all that said, where does that leave our protagonist, Caleb Hartmann? What sets him apart from the rest of the crowd? One defining aspect is his past–in the VN itself, Caleb attends the military academy of Streiterheim Academy as a decent, good-natured student. Before that, though, Caleb was an unruly, wild child, a delinquent, a bully. His parents enrolled him into the academy to straighten him up–and it succeeded. A combination of the rigid academy, the distractions of modern entertainment like pulp mags and radio shows, and a peaceful life free of war and strife (unlike his parents’) all pacified him to quite an extent, leaving him soft, lazy, passive.
But–the wolf inside him still exists. Within Caleb lies a burning heart, stoked by the flames of his childhood fury and the strength he idealized in his childhood heroes like
Conan Nacon the Barbarian. In another time, Caleb may have been a great knight or warlord, but the comfort and peace of modern life has mollified his dreams and passion.
Caleb accepts his lot in peaceful Volksland as an aspiring student. In the routes, when things get in Caleb’s way, when things are taken away from him, I want to show that other side of Caleb–he breaks the rules, he defies the authority of parents and nobles, he gets into fights, he struggles against the weight of the world.
In turn, Caleb’s nature also precludes him toward any of the four heroines. Juliet is self-explanatory: she’s his childhood friend, after all. With Lisabet, Caleb could be swayed by her romantic nature, influenced by tales of romance that he’s read. Between Hannah and Brynhilde, Hannah’s delinquent, rough nature could remind him of his younger self, whereas Caleb’s present pacified nature might make Brynhilde’s authority appealing. Above all, I don’t believe having a defined character means restricting romantic options. How many of your peers did you envision as romantic partners when you were in high school? Although I’m sure they held commonalities, but it’s probably a diverse group, no?
Returning back to Caleb’s personality: If he holds a heart of a warrior, what happens in part 2, when he actually does go to war? Does Caleb follow orders or rebel? Does he embrace his nature as a warrior, a “wolf”, or does he keep hold of his tender side? I’m afraid I can’t answer those questions. Read the VN.
And yes, “Hartmann” was wholly intentional. It originated as a “placeholder” name, but… it stuck.
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