Dev Blog #15: On Tabula Rasas

Well, this is the first time I’ve posted on the Avitus subreddit, so before I get into this week’s Dev Blog, I thought I should introduce myself, in case there are those of you who don’t know me.

I’m Leaty, and I guess I’m most notable in these circles for some of the fanfiction I’ve written. I came onto the Avitus team in October, initially as an assistant writer for the Sanne team, and more recently I also serve as the junior Co-Writing Director alongside OptionalSauce. Last December, I did some moonlighting on Seeds of Sylvia, both as a general storyboarder and the writer for a couple scenes. So I’ve quietly been around, here and there.

Having gotten that over with, this week I want to discuss something we talk about a lot in the studio, something relevant both to Avitus and to my general writing philosophy as a whole: ‘blank slate’ protagonists.

I guess it goes without saying that in most visual novels, ‘blank slate’ protagonists—player characters with such a tepidly-articulated personality that they barely cast a shadow onto the vivid backdrop of the supporting cast—are basically endemic. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that across the vast majority of the visual novels that exist, such tabula rasa characters are a pillar holding the entire genre together, as if these stories can’t work without a main character who is the psychological equivalent of dollar-store Cheerios.

And believe me, I get it—or, at least, I understand the philosophy behind it, which is that writers want their readers to be able to put themselves in the protagonist’s shoes. That, the theory goes, makes the story more engaging, and, in narratives that feature choices or branches, allows the reader/player to model the character’s personality after their own, so that at the end of the story they are a fully-realized, defined character.

A character who was strongly defined at the outset wouldn’t tell that story as easily. Think of a story as a drop of food coloring disseminating across a glass of liquid; is that more interesting with a glass of clear water, or a glass of grape juice? It’s the former, right? Because in the former, the changes to the glass are so much brighter, clearer, and starker.

So, yeah, ‘blank slate’ protagonists have their place, and nobody knows that more than me, I assure you—my favorite video game genre could be more or less defined as “character creation screen.” Plus, with a visual novel, where the protagonist spends most of their time off-camera because, more often than not, they are the camera, it makes a certain sense for the protagonist not to be as vivid as the satellite characters.

This is the thing, then: we’re not doing that. Our protagonist isn’t a blank slate.

(If only because I’d get bored to death writing him.)

From the very first sentence, Nathan Selby has a strong personality, a complex backstory, and a lot of history with people. He has good traits and bad ones. He’s somebody who’s lived every year of his life. We—the writing team—have put as much work into him as we have any of the characters who’ll enter his life. He’s not some bland everyman.

“But Leaty,” asks my shameless rhetorical device, “aren’t you writing a branched story, with separate arcs of character development? What about that whole metaphor you made up, with the food coloring and the grape juice?”

“That was a trick,” I tell the rhetorical device smugly, my hands perched proudly on my hips. “Strong character development isn’t food coloring—it’s paint.”

Yeah, the thing about character development is that it’s not unidirectional—it’s not so simple as entropy spreading across an ordered system. A good character shouldn’t be some empty glass filling up with liquid. A good character is a canvas—sure, at some point in our lives we’re all blank slates, but eventually all that white space gets covered up, and eventually the colors that covered the white space themselves gets covered up. If a character can ever be said to be “complete”, then, well… I’m not sure how realistic they are.

Across the various stories we’re telling in Avitus, Nathan can change in all sorts of variegated ways, because many different kinds of artists may leave their mark on his proverbial canvas. Those changes are guided by the reader, whose choices move the story along, and by the people he surrounds himself with in turn. Across the myriad ways this story can end, so too are there changes that stay with the protagonist. (And, of course, Nathan, too, has a “paintbrush” of his own, and will have several opportunities to leave his mark on other “canvases”).

Avitus, at its core, is a story about change, both for the better and for the worse. It’s about artists working on canvases, about people evolving and devolving, and not necessarily knowing what one has—or what one has in store. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as we enjoy writing it.

—Leaty

Last edited by Leaty (5 Feb 2016 02:35)