The Problem of the Super-Serious Male Protagonist

After pulling out of my Dragon Age: Inquisition coma, I decided to return to a genre of game that, out of everyone in the house, only I enjoy: sneaking. At first, I prodded Dishonored (the game where Bioshock and Skyrim had an illegitimate child that they keep locked in an attic). Despite hating the story and all the one-dimensional characters, I freaking loved the mechanics. It’s an odd feeling, like despising everything about a person except their legs.

But even those legs get exhausting, so I picked up Shadows of Mordor — the Arkham Asylum/Assassin’s Creed bastard Ubisoft wishes it put out instead of Unity. This slice of Lord of the Rings fanfic features one snooty elf, one ancient and possessed ruler, and – of course – a Gondor ranger with absolutely no emotions whatsoever.

Not this again!

I’m sick and tired of the super-serious main character. It’s all anyone can be bothered to create. This is an affliction that falls predominantly upon the male species of protagonists, as they are no longer able to summon an emotion beyond brooding, anger, and gas. That’s it.

Gondor needs no doge.

Gondor needs no doge.

The Gondor ranger is named Talion – I think. Shit, I’m almost done with the game, and I know jack squat about him beyond that he has a dead wife and son, because this archetype is as creative as wet tissues at the bottom of a shoe. Because you can’t have SUPER SERIOUS FACE without a SUPER SERIOUS VOICE to go with it, he speaks in such a low bass I can barely hear him as he mumbles through his dialogue with the elf I want to throw off the top of the tower. (When I learned the elf was also voiced by the man who was the Turian council member in Mass Effect, a whole lot of stuff made sense.)

As you can about guess, the one woman character who isn’t dead is just there for my Ranger to drool over. It was the only thing I agreed with prissy elf about; your wife and son have been dead for like a week, rein your boner in! There was a brief moment in all the mumbling and brooding when Talion showed a second of humanity. It was with Ratbag, an orc you help raise to power for your own means. He was probably the best thing about the game too, which is really sad. In trying to get Ratbag to the position of Warchief, Talion kills an Uruk who turns out to have been the warchief’s twin.

Talion tells Ratbag to be certain “to show up to take the place of the dead warchief.”

The orc responds with, “Uh, but the warchief’s not dead.”

And our emotionless leader slips off the humanity-less leash for a moment and shouts in frustration, “I’m going to go kill him!”

That’s it.

Otherwise, it’s brood brood brood, I’m not upset or devastated that my wife, my son, and I am dead. I’m just that background level of angry that gives me motivation but not characterization.

It’s so bloody boring.

The CW’s Arrow is suffering from the same problem. In their quest to make Batman: the live action series, they’ve run into a wall with their main character. Oliver has, at best, one emotion: disappointment. Even when he watches people get gunned down in front of him, even when it’s his family, his response is a blank, “Oh crud.”

They built him up to be an empty robot during the pilot and have nowhere to go. As they tear through his life, giving and taking things away, because of Oliver’s “super serious” status, he can’t react. There can’t really be growth, because there’s nothing to grow from. It’s like planting a seed in concrete. Even after Tommy died, all Ollie did was run back to his island so he could brood and chest-wax in peace.

One could argue that maybe this is the actor’s fault. Except, island Oliver — before he got the full Batman treatment — was actually interesting to watch. He’d get frustrated, he’d joke, he’d be human. Present Ollie is a wooden stick with “serious” carved in it.

And our Gondor ranger is voiced by Troy Baker – memorize that name, you’re going to be seeing it everywhere; you’ve already heard it. That man has voiced freaking everything. He was Booker in Bioshock, he was the Scoundrel in Diablo, he took over for the Joker after Hamill bowed out. (He’s so eerily similar, I doubt most people even noticed). When he’s a companion or villain, the man’s voice is full of emotion, but drop him into the protagonist role, and it’s lights out.

I call it the Mark Meer effect, another talented voice actor I go to the mattresses for because of Baeloth. But due to Male Shep (and people comparing him to FemShep), Meer is smeared with a “well, he’s not very good.” Look at the FemShep comparison again. Because she’s a woman, she gets to have emotions. She can be funny, upset, excited, happy; she can have a real range, while a man who’s a protagonist gets – vengeful? Bioware is better, but even they slap a dampener on their men. They get shadows of an emotion, while women get the full range.

My exception to the rule is Male Hawke, who is flat-out fun to listen to and why I had a nearly even breakdown of Hawkes by genders.

Why are women allowed to have emotions, while guy protagonists must be as deep as a puddle? I suspect the issue is two-fold. One, for whatever reason, media’s decided that super serious = super important. If a character is shot in low saturation and only shouts pithy action lines through a terrible case of lockjaw, it has to be the most epic thing ever, right! Right?

DC, we’re looking at you.

The super-serious character means that actual characterization, the hard stuff to craft, can be bypassed. It’s a cheat for work. I could try to parse out what scares my character, what makes them happy, what drives them – or I could kill their family and make them serious. This is every single Liam Neeson character in the past decade.

Because there isn’t an idea Hollywood can’t beat to death, it was recently announced that a serious and dark Robin Hood movie is being made. No, not that one, a new one. Long gone are the days where a male protagonist can smile, form coherent words outside of a grunt, or even – heaven help us – be charming. A witty repartee is too difficult; how about we have him shout “NOO!” in the rain and call that character development instead?

The second reason for the over abundance of the tabula rasa protagonist is that a lack of emotions makes male insertion that much easier.

Male insertion (ba-dum-tish) is the idea that guys need to be able to see themselves as a character to give a shit about them. It’s a load of bull pushed by a society that treats men and boys like narcissistic toddlers, but — because they’ve been coddled — they’ve come to accept it. It’s why the some people throw a colossal tantrum at the idea of having to play as a woman or anything other than straight white guy. They’re fucking terrified to think past their own navel.

And, because gaming companies, TV shows, and movies are still stuck in a “only straight young white guys have money” mindset, they bend over backwards to court the solipsism. A super-serious, one-note character is easy for someone else to layer on top of. This lets the white guy put himself in the hero’s shoes without having to try. They have nothing in them, so nothing detracts from the badass. But when all you have is badass repeated over and over, across all genres and media, it only comes out stinking like ass.


se zbasnik

S.E. Zbasnik is the author of the Dwarves in Space series – think Tolkien and Hitchhiker’s merged in a horrific transporter accident – as well as a bunch of other fantasy novels. You can find her on Twitter as well as Facebook, and hopefully not standing right behind you.


2 thoughts on “The Problem of the Super-Serious Male Protagonist

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