Understanding Characters: The OP Male Lead

Overpowered characters are nothing new to anime, we all know this.  However in recent years, since the outrageous success of SAO really, the overpowered-as-fuck male lead has become both more prominent and more common.  There is at least one light novel adaptation starring some stupidly OP male lead every season now.  And holy fucking shit is it tiring to see these totally copy pasted OP 15 year old boys, most of whom are swordsmen (I seem to recall that one even had a male lead whose title was like the Fallen Black Swordsman because subtlety doesn’t exist to whoever wrote that particular character).  The appearance of these guys almost universally kills the shows they are in before the show even fucking starts.  This is in part because I rarely find this kind of character appealing, because you know I’m not 15 anymore, but also because their character construction is so barebones and formulaic, because they are designed as self inserts for young boys first and characters second most of the time.  Now that I think about I should write a Raging Rant (and I have, you can find it here) about these kinds of characters but for now I’m going to do the opposite, I’ll explain how to do the OP male lead without fucking it up.  There will be scattered spoilers, you have been warned.

Before I really get going on how to do this character right I’m going to examine one that started promising before falling flat on his ass.  I’m talking about Shiba Tatsuya from Mahouka Koukou no Rettousei, or The Irregular at Magic High School ( if you’re interested in the show I reviewed it here).   I’ve talked about Tatsuya before in a post about badasses, but I do feel what I said there bears repeating.  The biggest issue with Tatsuya doesn’t appear until late in the show, at which point he has snowballed so fucking much his attacks are on the scale of fucking nuke and he’s almost immortal.  Ok technically he was always almost immortal but that isn’t really shown until at least halfway through the show.  Anyway there were a number of reasons he worked for a while despite clearly being OP in comparison to his fellows.  For starters it was established in the very first scene that he has military experience, something other notably powerful magicians have and which would logically give him an edge over classmates without said experience even if it didn’t make him more powerful per se.  In a similar vein Tatsuya deliberately compensates for his weakness in traditional spellcasting (and it is established in no uncertain terms that he is not good at standard styles of spellcasting) by being really good at other things like martial arts or having a strong enough grasp of magic theory and related technology to be more creative in his own spellcasting.  All of these elements, along with more bullshit skills like his eyes that can see magic sequences, culminate in someone who is an experienced and competent fighter, more importantly it results a character who understands typical spellcasting and how to work around it.

What makes Tatsuya so troublesome for most of his early opponents is that, on top of his physical fitness and martial skill, he fights in such an unorthodox style no one knows how the fuck to counter it.  His friends and foes alike are flummoxed by his tactics and attacks because they are so far removed from what everyone else knows.  This is what initially sold me on the idea of Tatsuya, because not only do I find the idea appealing from a dramatic standpoint, it reminds of people who play the clearly unusual characters in fighting games or MOBAs and how hard it is to deal with people who are genuinely good at those characters for the same reason, their skill set is so different from the norm I don’t know it well and thus struggle to counter it.  The final reason that Tatsuya sort of works is that’s made clear he is not a natural spellcaster, his magical abilities were artificially created through a process that changed him at such a fundamental level he can barely feel human emotions anymore.  It’s implied that his more outrageous abilities are the result of him being made artificially into some kind of weaponized spellcaster, which works quite well actually.  It’s unfortunate that the creators just piled more and more powers and skills onto him, because it ruined him for me eventually.  However I do think the positive qualities are worth looking at because I’d love to see more “power fantasy”-type characters that are actually well written and are OP for interesting reasons, like Tatsuya initially was, instead of more fucking Kirito clones.

Another type of OP male lead I like is Ryner Lute of Densetsu no Yuusha no Densetsu, or Legend of the Legendary Heroes in English.  What makes Ryner work more than anything else is that his incredible power makes him a pariah.  As soon as almost anyone finds out about his eyes, the source of his power, they stop thinking of him as a human being.  None of Ryner’s actions ever suggest he intends any harm, but because of how destructive he potentially could be, he’s made into an outcast by default.  Ryner’s power basically comes in two stages, in the first stage he is in total control of himself and he can copy any magic he sees Kakashi style (which makes him an important intelligence threat because each country has totally different magic), in the second he loses control of his power and tears everyone and everything around him to pieces.  Keep in mind he did not earn or ask for this power, he was simply born with it.  Ryner is not a power fantasy character because he hates his power on some level, he want’s nothing more than laze about without a care in the world.  But the world refuses to allow him that peace because of something that is totally beyond his control, being born different.  I’d love to go on and on about Ryner Lute but since this post is primarily about characters who do fulfill a power fantasy, I thought it best to mention him and some of the cool aspects of his character in brief before moving onto the main subject of this post, Layfon Alseif of Chrome Shelled Regios.

For those who have never seen Chrome Shelled Regios, here’s a quick summary.  It’s set in a total wasteland where the atmosphere no longer supports human life.  So people live in these giant moving cities called Regios.  The outside world is populated by Filth Monsters, which are these big monsters that eat people and are really strong, and the Regios avoid them with the exception of Grendan, which is where Layfon comes from.  This is will be important in a second.  These Regios will occasionally battle each other for control of the mines that contain the materials that power them.  The people fighting in these Regios battles are a certain set of people called Military Artists.  These military artists use something called Kei, which kind of works like the early stages of Nen from HunterxHunter albeit way more generic and less detailed than Nen.  Anyway what does all of this have to with Layfon?  Well because of how all the details of the setting work out, Layfon is basically the perfect OP male lead (at least for a character of his age).  Chrome Shelled Regios has a lot of storytelling problems but Layfon is an incredibly well realized character, enough so that he carries the whole show for me.  Anyway let’s dig into Layfon.

For starters what makes Layfon work is that most of the show takes place in the Academic city of Zuellni, while Layfon is from Grendan.  Unlike normal Regios that avoid Filth Monsters, Grendan seems to be actively seeking them out.  This means people from Grendan, like Layfon, have way more experience in battle (and against far more dangerous foes than the enemies Zuellni’s students have ever faced) than any other military artists.   In addition it’s suggested that even among the people of Grendan, Layton is exceptionally talented and hard-working, he has to be in order to survive and help fund the orphanage he lives in, which is why he ends up as a Heavens Blade Receiver, one the 13 strongest people in Grendan.  So when Layfon ends up in Zuellni he’s so many leagues ahead of everyone that he seems irredeemably overpowered.  However it’s also shown in the first episode that he’s not the only Heavens Blade Receiver nor is he the strongest of that group.  It’s also established that even Heavens Blade Receivers have a hard time fighting Filth Monsters that have reached a certain level of maturity.  In other words, Layfon isn’t overpowered at all in the larger scheme of things, he only looks that way in Zuellni because Zuellni’s military artists are so weak.  In this way he can still fulfill the teenage power fantasy most of the time, since most of the time is spent in Zuellni, while still being a believable and internally consistent character that arose naturally from the setting.  More importantly, Layfon is not the type of dude who likes to show his power off.

Unlike say Kirito, or the Asterisks War’s Ayato, who have no qualms about using their ridiculous power all the time and who sometimes go out of their way to show said power off, Layfon is more than aware that is power level is freakish and he has no intention of revealing it.  He ends up doing so pretty early on anyway, but for a significant portion of the show he remains reluctant to get serious.  Layfon even confesses at one point that all military artists are like monsters compared to normal humans and that the Heavens Blade Receivers are monsters compared military artists, making Layfon a monster among monsters, which is an idea I generally like.  In a similar vein Layfon’s outlook on life is both strangely aloof and removed while also exceedingly human.  He is able to the view world and people around him from the position of a total outsider thanks to his inhuman power level, but at the same time he grew up in an orphanage and understands how desperately humans can struggle to survive or protect their home and/or position.  Despite the fact Layfon is the same age Kirito and Ayato he is demonstrably more mature and self-aware than those two could ever hope to be.  He understands his unusual position, how different he really is from normal people, and rather than simply rely on his massive power, he tries to find other ways to grow as a person.  And while I wouldn’t say Layfon despises his power the way Ryner Lute does, he also rarely has any desire to use it because of it marks him out and isolates him.  He understands that raw power and crazy sword skills are not ever going to be able to solve all his problems, so he takes no real pride in them.  Like Ryner Lute, Layfon is someone who manages to be incredibly down to earth while also being an outcast relative to those around him.  However what really makes Layfon one of the best OP males leads I’ve ever seen is the impact he has on the character interactions and relationships of those closest to him.

Like SAO and the Asterisk War, Chrome Shelled Regios has a harem setup, albeit a much more interesting and subtle one than those shows could manage.  In total there are 5 girls who have noteworthy relationships to Layfon.  The first is his childhood friend Leerin who has loved him since before the show started and whose opinion of and feelings towards Layfon remain unchanged throughout the show, so naturally I’m not going to talk about her much.  The second is the female lead Nina Antalk.  I think Nina is the worst match for Layfon from a romantic standpoint, so I won’t talk about that part of their interactions.  Instead I want to talk about how they contrast and struggle with each other.  Nina is one of the most powerful fighters in Zuellni, she’s extremely motivated to win and get stronger, takes a lot of pride in her abilities and military arts, and therefore Nina is always taking things very serious, often too seriously.  So you can imagine how hard it is for her to grasp Layfon’s ideology.  In her mind he has all the power in the world but no drive to use it, he has clearly mastered military arts to level she is envious of but treats that mastery as a mere tool and takes no pride in it, he should be leading the charge doing all he can for Zuellni but instead he hides his powers and only shows interest in winning when Nina basically commands it from him.  Oh and Layfon thinks the practice battles and inter-city battles that Nina is obsessed with winning are ultimately pointless because they don’t mean anything in the face of Filth Monster attacks.

One of the most interesting parts of the show is a short arc that begins around episode 8 where Nina learns about the shadier parts of Layfon’s past and the two almost part ways.  For this arc Nina’s squad has to explore a ruined Regios with another squad.  This other squad is led by a guy named Gorneo Luckens, he’s from Grendan and he has grudge against Layfon for what Layfon did to his anideshi (this word has no concise English equivalent, but it basically means that Gorneo and this other guy, his name is Gahard, studied under the same martial arts master and Gahard was the senior student).  Basically Layfon was participating in underground matches to make money for the orphanage he lived at, Gahard tried to blackmail him about it and the next day Layfon chopped Gahard’s arm off in front of stadium full of people.  This led to Layfon being banished from Grendan, hence why he’s in Zuellni.  When Nina confronts Layfon about this, Layfon doesn’t appear particularly troubled by his behavior and remarks that he did it to survive, this is shortly after telling Nina that he would do anything to survive and make sure the things he needed to protect survived.  Nina, who is proud of military arts, proud to a point beyond what is healthy or mature I might add, is repulsed by this news  and almost kicks Layfon off her squad.  This dynamic eventually falls apart but it’s really interesting to watch because a, I don’t see it often and b, it’s usually not as well done as this one.  Which brings us to the other girls.

The other of Layfon’s squad mates to fall for him is Felli and they make one of the best pairings in the show.  Felli has a lot more in common with Layfon than her other squad mates.  Felli is not a typical military artsist, she is a psychokinesist.  It means she uses telepathy and other psychic power to analyze enemies, coordinate her team and communicate over long distances but does little to no actual fighting.  Unlike military arts, which can be learned, psychokinensists are simple born with their powers and it can’t be taught.  Felli was born and raised in Zuellni but her psychic powers are way off the charts, so naturally her parents and later her brother (who basically runs Zuellni) forced Felli to become a psychokinensist fighting for Zuellni.  Felli resents this and in protest hides her power from her squad mates and never gives it her all.  This is of course her link to Layfon, they are both of them made into outsiders of a sort by their power levels and they come to similar conclusions with regards to their power.  Though they have minor differences here and there, and for a brief time Felli is almost as abrasive towards Layfon as Nina, the two end up complimenting each other really well.

This is shown especially well when Zuellni is attacked by a Filth Monster and directly opposes to Nina’s behavior during that arc where Nina almost boots Layfon from the team.  Where Nina struggles to understand Layfon and butts heads with him, Felli understands him well and the two take solace in each other’s company because of their mutual understanding and similar circumstances.  A lot of the best character dialogue in the show comes from these two just talking to each other with no one else around, which makes sense since these two are the ones who are trying to grow the most and their circumstances are far more interesting than Nina’s.  The two just work well together, as Layfon stated in during the Filth Monster attack, stopping that monster was something only he and Felli could do, and it was that moment that really brought Felli into her own a bit.  She takes a bit more pride in her abilities as a psychokinensist when she’s using them to support Layfon, she starts to open up more as a person and the two begin supporting each other in earnest thanks to their similar circumstances and outlooks on life.  This brings us to the fourth girl, Naruki Gerni.

Unlike the other girls who show a strong affection towards Layfon eventually, Naruki’s attraction to him is much less pronounced.  In fact the show doesn’t come out and say she’s in love with him at all, though a number of scenes suggest she is at least mildly interested in him and may be very interested in him.  Another thing that makes Naruki interesting is that she occupies a kind of middle ground of the girls mentioned so far.  She’s a military artist, and while exact her power level is unclear, she is at least competent enough to catch Nina’s eye.  Naruki isn’t interested in military arts to fight for the school though, instead she’s more focused on specialized applications of military arts to become a policewoman.  Naruki is more laid back than Nina but takes far more pride in her job and skill than Layfon or Felli.  Unlike Nina and Felli, Naruki doesn’t spend a ton of time with Layfon though the two do work together on occasion when Layfon basically does contract work for the cops and the two are pretty close because of this.

This puts her once again, in the middle of the road compared to the other girls, as she understands Layfon’s desire to be useful beyond his abilities as a military artist but also doesn’t understand why he isn’t more proud of those skills and the elite position they have placed him in.  Naruki makes a good contrast to the other girls precisely because of how little she knows about Layfon and how casually she interacts with him.  Their relationship doesn’t have a lot of baggage nor is it as restricted as anyone else’s, so episodes where Naruki plays a big role have a very different flow and feel than those where she is absent, and it also means she and Layfon generally have more interesting dialogue because they can just talk about things like normal human beings in self-contained stories without concern for the bigger picture.  I also find it interesting how she’s the only girl who gets mad for Layfon more than she gets mad at Layfon, it’s refreshing.  And of course any discussion about Naruki would be incomplete if I failed to mention how she’s rooting for her friend, and Layfon’s fifth love interest, Meishen Trinden.

My guess is that a lot of people who have watched Chrome Shelled Regios, or who go onto to watch it, hate Meishen or at least find her annoying (though most of the hate seems to be reserved for Nina).  Meishen is almost like a combination of the worst aspects of Sakura and Hinata, she’s useless like Sakura and gets paralyzed by embarrassment all the time like Hinata.  However while her embarrassment can get annoying, her characterization has a thematic purpose.  For one thing she is supposed to be useless because she’s a normal human, not a military artist, so she has no combat ability nor was she ever intended to.  She’s basically Layfon’s polar opposite, weak where he’s strong, flustered where he’s confident, and so on.  However she’s also the only girl who really seems to be succeeding in achieving her goals unrelated to military arts, which is something Layfon desperately wants to be able to do.  When compared to the other girls Meishen is most like Leerin, but since she lacks a long history with Layfon she gets flustered in his presence.

It doesn’t hurt that Layfon saved her about five minutes after meeting her, which caused her to fall for him.  Now girls quickly falling for the OP male lead is often annoying as shit because, let’s use Kirito as an example, generally the dude isn’t actually doing anything significant for them and they fall for him anyway.  I mean Liz and Silica fell for Kirito even though he treated Liz like crap for most of their adventure and used Silica as bait to arrest Rosalia (Kirito’s a real charmer ain’t he).  But in this case, Layfon legitimately saves her life or at least prevents her from sustaining major injuries as she was going to be buried under a healthy chunk of building, and therefore her affection is more genuine and therefore not annoying in the slightest.  What really sells me on Meishen (it’s here I should admit I think she’s the most attractive of the girls) however, is how she is the character who is furthest from Layfon in every conceivable sense, and yet is the most accepting of him.  He straight up tells her about his deeds in Grendan as well as how he’s a monster among monsters as mentioned above, and she’s the only character that doesn’t flinch from him or berate him for it.  She’s sort of like Layfon’s link to his most human side, she can bring a lot out of him, far more than any of the other characters.  Anyway I think I’ve gone on about the womenfolk long enough, time to bring it back to the subject of the post OP male leads.

Ultimately the biggest issue with a lot of OP male leads is that they aren’t very well written because they don’t have to be.  They exist as self-inserts for young boys and little else.  This lack of attention to detail also manifests in their power, which is so ridiculously over the top in a negative sense, so young boys can pretend to feel powerful and heroic.  This frustrates me a lot, because there are ways to make interesting OP characters, and they are being ignored in a rush to make the next bland Kirito clone.  As detailed above, using the setting to your advantage, giving the hero a unique and difficult to counter skill set, taking steps to make sure there are some negatives to him having this ridiculous power level to balance out the positives, all of these are great ways to make an OP character without breaking suspension of disbelief, without compromising creativity and without breaking the story or world.  You can in fact make fantastically constructed characters in the OP male lead mold, and it isn’t even particularly hard to do.   In my post about perfect characters, I said perfect characters only really worked when the show used the setting, narrative, or themes to account for that perfection, and the same idea applies here.  Take steps to account for the presence of the OP male lead, explain him in some way that makes sense with regards to the setting, story, the dramatic ideas therein, the themes, something, anything.  As long as you do that, then you should be fine, and we might get another OP male lead worth a damn.  Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it, and I’ll see you in the next one.

Advertisements

One thought on “Understanding Characters: The OP Male Lead

  1. A well written post – that deserves a lot more attention. I think you should use some images and text formatting to help break up the long walls of text. That is the only issue I have reading your post. As for the subject matter. Yeah Kirito is just OP and bland as hell – no idea what people seen in that character. He just stands there and gets everything handed to him on a plate. Like Lelouch, let’s not beat around the bush. The guy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He came from a very privileged back ground. Even at his lowest point. His education was that of a middle class high school. Heck even his geass power was handed to him. What did he do to obtain that power?. Nothing really.

    I’ve seen Chrome Shelled Regios, but that was ages ago. So I can’t remember everything about it. But Layfon and Naruki were my fav chars in that anime. Nina was actually okay imo.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s