What Makes The Best Anime Protagonist?

Last year, I wrote an essay on Lelouch, explaining how Code Geass created what I believe to be the best protagonist in anime, and I got a fair amount of disagreement from peers and readers. I mean, it’s a subjective question, but any time I’m confronted by our nature to needlessly debate that which is inherently unanswerable, I’m drawn to how we might answer those questions. Sure, there’s hundreds if not thousands of contenders for the best protagonist in anime, but where do they overlap? Can we define the standards which we hold these characters to?

And then the Crunchyroll nominations went live, and I got more than a little miffed seeing that Eren Jaeger was nominated for both Best Protagonist and Best Antagonist, even winning the latter category. Deep down, I’m a nitpicker, and I can’t stand for definitions to be flouted so carelessly. Thus, I came back to the idea that there’s some chemical process that goes into crafting a truly great main character.

I mean, I review so many anime, and I’ll say that 86 has great character writing, that Evangelion subverts our expectations of a traditional protagonist, or just what makes one JoJo part better than another. If I don’t explain what makes a great protagonist, at least in my eyes, then how can I expect anyone to understand what I mean.

So I’m going to rattle off a few of my favorite protagonists, and distill what makes them great, and see if we can come up with our own answer to what makes the best protagonist in anime.

Let’s go back to where this essay started. Eight or so months later, and I still think Lelouch vi Brittannia is the best lead in anime. If I’m going to compare other characters for their strengths and especially their weaknesses, so it helps contextualize my other contenders by holding up my gold standard.

Two of the greatest American presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jesus, declared that a house divided upon itself cannot stand, and while I don’t think they were referring to Lelouch in either case, it is that fundamental truth that makes Lelouch a compelling protagonist. I once criticized Code Geass for splitting its focus between a gripping war drama and a lackadaisical slice-of-life; my critique stands because the school segments really upset the pacing, but it also demonstrates Lelouch’s internal conflict. He wants to be different people that cannot coexist; he cannot be Lelouch Lamperouge and Zero, and his attempts to hold onto his idyllic school life even as he wages a war against the world’s greatest empire just forces him to hurt the people he cares about.

It would be one thing if Lelouch just wanted to hang out with his friends and get up to hijinks at Ashford, but he was forced to assume the mantle of Zero to defend his sister. That’s just not the case, though. Lelouch isn’t your average reluctant hero who initially refuses the call; he’s an egotistical schemer who derives pleasure from outsmarting and outmaneuvering his enemies. He doesn’t just want to waste his days goofing off with his friends, he simultaneously wants to be the cutthroat strategic mastermind. It isn’t until he enacts the Zero Requiem that he comes to terms with the fact that he’ll never have both.

What we learn from Lelouch is that we love characters who struggle with themselves. Faulkner said, “The human heart in conflict with itself is the only thing that can make good writing and the only thing worth writing about.” People want what we can’t have, and Lelouch seeking both despite that truth doesn’t just demonstrate his proud nature or depth as a character, but the humanity he often seeks to stifle. Step one, complete.

I would be remiss to ignore the most notable protagonist in the last decade of anime. I’ll be referencing the Final Season Part Two, but won’t touch spoilers for the ending or the later episodes of the anime. I don’t know when this essay will go up, if it will come out before or after the end of the season, or even if this season will be the last installment of the series. Even so, I can’t just pass up the chance to talk about Eren.

Prior to the third and especially the fourth season, I would have said Eren was a weak protagonist. He has his moments; the first appearance of the Attack Titan is one of my favorite moments in anime, but Eren just doesn’t get enough to do in the first two seasons. Eren getting kidnapped every season was a meme for the longest time. The cast is held up by the cool factor of Levi and Mikasa, the mysterious motives of the traitors, and Eren is just over here harping on how no one lets him do anything and he wants to kill Titans. He’s one-note, and that brings us to the timeskip.

This is where I will address the foolish idea that Eren is an antagonist. A protagonist is the leading character in a story; the term does not mean that character is a good person. Light Yagami is evil, but we follow his story, he is the protagonist. You could say that for just about any immoral or neutral character.

An antagonist is defined purely in terms of their opposition to the protagonist; it’s often considered a sign of good writing if your antagonist is a good person. It’s not that they’re strictly evil, they merely operate with goals contrary to those of the protagonist. If Attack on Titan has a traditional antagonist, it could be the world, Marley specifically, or Zeke, but that is because their aims conflict with Eren’s, our protagonist.

Eren is first and foremost a great character because he wasn’t before. He was a cookie-cutter shonen boy who pushed forward and overcame through sheer will. Nothing new to see here, but it sets him up to become a more interesting character as he learns about his father’s role in the greater story, the world at large, and the history of Eldia. First, he despairs at the atrocities Grisha commited, both against his own family in Marley and the Reiss family, but thanks to the intervention of his friends, particularly Historia, he reaffirms his commitment to moving forward, no matter the cost.

Unfortunately for the rest of the world, that puts Eren on a direct collision course. Eren’s journey is ultimately a tragedy, having never been given a choice in the matter. Author Hajime Isayama loves playing with the idea of fate, that Eren has simultaneously been influenced by the past holders of his Titan, but has also reached back to influence their past actions. You could say he was only given two choices between the annihilation of his people or going to war with the rest of the world, but Isayama introduces a shadow of doubt thanks to the Attack Titan’s influence over its previous wielders.

What we learn from Eren is that the audience’s expectations are a powerful thing. If he had simply begun as a cold and calculating protagonist, he would ring as a hollow Light rip-off. However, beginning his journey as an archetypal shonen protagonist who is gradually worn down by years of conflict and discoveries that shake his beliefs, he upsets our expectations by not necessarily growing to be a better person for it. Eren in the Final Season cares about what Eren cared about years before, but the world has recontextualized how he must go to protect those things. When writing a protagonist, keep in mind what the audience thinks and expects of them.

And now I’ve come full circle in my journey with anime, discussing the first character who properly blew me away. Ed Elric struck me as a wonderfully written character when I was a much dumber seventeen-year-old, but years later, he is still one of the best protagonists in the medium.

Ed bears the same resemblance to shonen protagonists as Eren, because, well, he is a shonen protagonist. He’s not a subversion of the trope, he is the trope played straight. We get so lost in deconstructions of archetypes that we forget that there’s strength in those basic story blocks as long as they’re executed well. And it works because Ed isn’t just those traits we associate with the typical battle manga hero; he exceeds them as a fully realized character.

What always stood out to me about Fullmetal Alchemist wasn’t the cool fights, fascinating lore, or just how great alchemy is as a shonen power system. Those strong traits I just rattled off actually make for great character writing; FMA’s protagonist is a scientist who fights with his wits first and his strength second. He persists in the face of great adversity, but not with brute force or grit; every fight is about utilizing the terrain, knowing his opponent’s abilities, and basic problem solving.

That makes Ed a competently written character, but not yet a great one. How do you pull that off? Well, he needs flaws to go along with his strengths. Ed is arrogant, quick to anger, and has a soft side buried under his broken glass personality, but more than that, his foremost sin drives the plot. Fullmetal Alchemist loves to deconstruct our conceptions about religion and science, particularly in the disastrous consequences of fanatically pursuing one or the other. Ed commits the deadly sin of pride, of course, as he tries to claim the dominion of God (or in the case of FMA, Truth) by attempting to resurrect the dead.

From the point of his failed human transmutation, Ed is keenly aware of the mistakes he made, but hubris takes many forms, and we know too well he isn’t immune to its seductive line of thinking. It’s why Shou Tucker scares and angers him so badly; the ambition to drive a scientist to better people’s lives is the other side of the coin that allows atrocities to be committed in the name of scientific progress. Ed’s greatest mistake isn’t confine to one act of pride, but that he must continually struggle against his nature that drove him to commit in the first place, represented by the homunculi who reduce human lives to their worth as energy.

What we take away from Ed is that we aren’t just draw to a character’s strengths, but their weaknesses as well. A character’s external struggle should tie into their internal struggle, to organically work their character arc into the progression of the story.

Honorable mentions: Subaru Natsuki (Re: Zero), Violet Evergarden, Legoshi (Beastars), Ken Kaneki (Tokyo Ghoul), Shigeo ‘Mob’ Kageyama (Mob Psycho 100), Thorfinn Thorsson (Vinland Saga), Tohru Honda (Fruits Basket), Izumi Miyamura (Horimiya, Xiaoshi Cheng (Link Click).

So there you have it, everything you need to write a good character. Give them personal desires that may conflict with their goals, account for genre conventions and audience expectations, and work their internal conflict into the plot’s external conflict. You don’t necessarily have to follow all of these rules to make a good protagonist, but one or all are good stepping stones.

So if you liked this post, check out the other reviews and essays the Otaku Exhibition has to offer. You can tell me if my essay on Lelouch has held up by reading it here, or comment down below who your favorite protagonist is. I missed a lot of them, which is why I gave my personal 3×3, but there’s so many I haven’t brushed on, so let me know. Until next time, thanks for reading.

2 responses to “What Makes The Best Anime Protagonist?”

  1. Long white hair and a sassy ass attitude… wait, that’s an antagonist, oops haha. For me, I like wit and broodiness in equal measure, and if they have long hair then I’m even more sold. I don’t particularly care for protagonists that are squeaky clean, lawful good type of folx because I I can’t relate to that; everyone has something imperfect or unpolished in their lives somewhere, ya know? I actually started to love Eren Jaeger after… things changed in the later seasons whereas I couldn’t stand him before the changes. (trying to avoid spoilers)

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I tend to like nice heroic protagonists like Deku from My Hero Academia or Iruma kun from Welcome to Demon school Iruma kun. I’ve always loved fairy tales since I was a little tiny kid, and I guess I still have a soft spot for Prince Charming types.

    Liked by 2 people

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