The Great Carraway: Marvels of the ‘Pants’ Character

Story worlds are cool. Writers all over the world and throughout history have created an endless parade of fascinating and wondrous fictional realms that we as an audience adore to visit, and characters we love and love to hate. Wouldn’t it be the greatest epitome of awesome if we could really get into these places and meet them?

Well luckily, with a certain character type at the wheel, you can! Slip into their shell and walk around the story land as you please. It’s as easy as pulling on a pair of pants.

I’m trying something new these days: I’ve started playing Fate/Stay Night, delving into an adventure of magic, mythology and mayhem, and touching down into the visual novel medium for the first time. A visual novel is, in plainest terms, a complex Choose Your Own Adventure story, with graphics, voiceovers, and a lot of pages—basically you click through the story and are occasionally presented with different options that transform you from reader into player. What will you do in this situation? Every decision could affect the overall outcome of the story. There are different routes you can venture down, making the medium very interesting in terms of its virtually unlimited storytelling capacities.

But before we digress into that territory, let me tell you something I discovered while playing. I’m not very far in since the game is enormous, and that’s not even counting the alternate routes and storylines, so I haven’t been faced with many options yet. If they have come up, they’ve been menial things that aren’t directly involved with the big magical war going on in the shadows the protagonist has not yet stumbled into. For example, the first one you get is in the morning when Our Hero, Shirou, wakes up: does he go and do his normal morning routine, or go and help his friend make breakfast?

Super simple stuff, and I picked the breakfast one (because I harbour a sneaking suspicion that the character involved was placed to fulfil some sort of adorable docile housewife fantasy and it makes me itch. Go and assist your lady friend, Shirou. Look after your ladies. No ladies no life). My reasoning was that I’d hate to be the lazy-ass in that scenario, and you ought to help your friends out, especially if they’re being lovely enough to cook your meals. But then I backtracked and went “Hang on. Was I making that decision as me, or was I making it as Shirou?”

This is the great dilemma with all roleplaying games, in any medium: are you playing as you, wearing the guise and personality of another character as pants as you flit around the world, or are you playing as them? Are you doing what you would do in that situation, or what the character would do? It’s certainly helpful that a lot of game protagonists (and even book ones, but I’ll get to that in a bit) are designed to be Pants Characters, without much personality to speak of so that the player can simply pilot them around the game story. Writing Buddy was telling me (because WB knows extravagantly more about the game world than I ever will. Like, she makes them and junk) that everyone was in a boggle over the playable protagonist of Bioshock Infinite because hang on, he has a personality and motivations and a detailed backstory?

There’s been a shift towards improved storytelling in gaming, I am diligently informed, and towards giving the heroes, previously Pants Characters, more depth and stories of their own. Even in games like Red Dead Redemption, an open-world run-around-and-do-what-missions-you-wish-or-just-push-people-down-the-stairs-it’s-up-to-you kind of situation, the main character John Marston has a history, personality, pathos and motivations that make up a hugely important part of the gameplay experience.

John Marston of red Dead Redemption

More than just a badass, wind-hardened cougar-scarred face

One of the reasons it was so well-received was because the players got attached to this character as they piloted through his story (and were generally distraught by the ending, which is something you’d never have achieved with a Pants Character). There’s a mounting enthusiasm and appreciation for quality storytelling and character development, with more and more games coming out with fleshed-out protagonists who aren’t merely treated as vessels with which the audience treks around the fun of the story.

Because that can be a temptation, I imagine, in both making and playing any sort of game, especially within the visual novel world where a good percentage of the market is occupied by dating simulators. Who doesn’t want to insert themselves into a world where a group of attractive people are in love with them, and they are at liberty to choose which they will romance and end up with? Hell, play through all the game routes and you can have all of them, be they pop idols or exchange students or… pigeons? Yeah, I’m just going to leave that there.

At least Fate/Stay Night’s designated hero has a personality and a past. Sometimes it’s a bit of stretch to even give the protagonist a name, the creators opting instead to leave the space open for the player to insert their own. They are literally putting themselves in the game world (if, of course you don’t abuse this power and name your hero Desu McBoob or something), which takes a lot of weight off the creator’s minds in terms of fleshing out and developing an actual main character. Giving the faceless, nameless protagonist a personality would only conflict with the player’s and make them feel less a part of the adventure.

This isn’t limited to the wondrous world of interactive media, though—it’s also a teeth-gratingly popular trend in literature. Need I mention the dread scourge of Twilight again, in which a blank, fabulously average girl stumbles through a supposedly dreamy relationship with an escapist hottie? This is where I first heard the term Pants Character, but I’ll be shot down in flames if I claim it’s the first time it showed up. Hell, it’s all over our classic literature. Did anyone read The Great Gatsby for Nick Carraway? Nope.

Nick Carraway and Jordan Baker in the 2013 film

“I’ve just heard the most shocking plot point that doesn’t involve you at all”

He’s our audience stand-in, approaching the glitzy world of New York as a blank slate to properly show it to the readers, who were at that point just as innocent to it as him. This works well for giving the actual main characters the appropriate aura of mystery, with Nick’s curiosity mirroring that of the reader’s, but aside from the fact that he was narrating half the time I forgot Nick was even there. There are even scenes, I’m sure (I haven’t read it in a year or so), where he simply sits in internally recording long stretches of dialogue between other characters, making no contribution to the trifle at hand at all.

It’s not called The Great Carraway, is it? The book moves around him, but it is not about him in the slightest. He’s just the audience’s vessel with which to explore the real heroes and villains of Fitzgerald’s world—rather like donning a pair of narrator-shaped pants and taking a stroll through West Egg.

The same applies to Ishmael of Moby Dick, a character not really related strongly to the main plot or the main characters, but providing the reader with a set of eyes as ignorant to the story circumstances as theirs and a vessel to walk alongside as he has things explained to him, thus explaining it to the audience. This was the role that Doctor Watson played in the Sherlock Holmes universe, the one who would exclaim “But what does that mean?” in bafflement and to which Holmes would dutifully roll his eyes and say “It means this” and the reader would be gifted an explanation, and a feeling of involvement in the mystery at hand, they wouldn’t have been allowed otherwise. And it’s not called The Adventures of John Watson, is it? Because he may be our guide and gateway to this world, but the story really, ultimately, isn’t about him despite all his obvious pointers to being the protagonist.

You Google Image search “Fate Stay Night” and you have to scroll through about sixty million pages to even get a glimpse of Shirou. Because the little dork may be your eyes and ears in the story, but nobody begins to claim that it’s about him–he’s simply the vessel we slip into to explore the more interesting characters and the world they reside in. I think using a human character as clothing for the audience as they insert themselves and their fantasies into a story world is a strange tactic, but due to its overwhelming popularity in all circles of media and literature, clearly I’m a minority.

Well, at least I can help him to make good life choices!

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11 Comments

Filed under Pop Culture Ponderings

11 responses to “The Great Carraway: Marvels of the ‘Pants’ Character

  1. takashid

    Great article! I think on some level the self insert character is kind of a weak writing technique, but it does add an interesting level of immersion. I think they shoul have their own story’s though, which is why i really like Shirou. I would disagree that the story of Fate/Stay Night isn’t about Shirou, but i think i’ll let you decide that for yourself once youve gotten further.

    I won’t give you any spoilers, but let me just say that Fate Stay Night does play with/deconstruct the idea of an “empty” self insert character, by taking a closer look at just what it means for a person to be empty like that and how screwed up it can be. If you can make it past the badly written in sexism in the first route (which isn’t there at all in the other two routes, Nasu has admitted that the only real reason he added it in Fate was because he wanted to make Shirou and Saber’s relationship a “boy meets girl” thing, and couldn’t come up with any other way to remind viewers that “Saber is a girl”. He’s mentioned that he regrets it and would write it differently today, but there you are) you’ll find that they do some very interesting things with Shirou’s character in all 3 routes. Anyway, very nice article, looking forward to seeing more of your thoughts on FSN!

    • You’re actually not the first person to tell me that F/SN doesn’t quite fit this formula, which I have to say gives me hope for it! Shirou didn’t seem to fit the mould so much, but I wrote him in as the first example because playing him was what made me consider the topic in the first place–however I am so, sooooo ready for his character development beyond Average High School Boy Caught in a Magical Adventure (who is, so far, little more than patronising to the girl on all the promo material… I’m not looking forward to the romantic element, to be honest, because while I’d love to get into the depths of Saber’s character I kind of wish I didn’t have to do so through a romantic relationship with this blindly heroic dude that acts personally shocked and offended to see a girl holding a sword. If he only knew of his foster family’s history! Ah well, I’ll see how I go :L)

      I have faith in Nasu and am very much looking forward to where this story and it’s characters go from here. Maybe I’ll make a post at some point on VNs and their storytelling techiques, but until then, I have a lo-o-o-o-ong way to go. Thanks for the feedback!

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  9. SlugFiller

    This is often done in action movies as well. For example, Neo from the matrix is noted for being mostly expression-free, allowing any given viewer to imagine that they are Neo.

    In games, particularly in RPGs and VNs, it definitely trumps the alternative. Nothing breaks you out of an experience quite like when your character does something, because it has a given personality, and you yell at the screen “No, don’t do that you idiot!” I’ve seen this happen. A character which you’ve named, customized, dressed up, made choices for, and basically dragged in a specific direction through life, suddenly says or does something that’s completely inconsistent with everything you’ve done so far, that it ends up feeling out of character, despite it being the first show of character.

    At the same time, the trick is beautifully abused and deconstructed in the excellent horror series Silent Hill, particularly in Silent Hill 2. You start playing as a pretty bland character, doing a bit of narration, meeting a bunch of mysterious people. But part of the way through, you hit a bit twist: There’s a little piece of backstory the character neglected to narrate. A small act of denial and, at the same time, a small lie told to the viewer. In an instant, this player character is transformed from a mere avatar to a fully fleshed person. The dissonance this creates with the player that is suddenly yanked out of controlling who this person is, creates the strongest horror atmosphere. After all, true horror isn’t about making people afraid of monsters that disappear back into nonexistence the moment you put down the book/movie/game, it’s about making them afraid of themselves.

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