Vanilla Protagonist

aka: Designated Protagonist Syndrome
Although vanilla ice cream, our protagonist, is delicious all on its own, it is the base of many other great flavors. It plays well with toppings and fixings, i.e. the supporting cast, without being overwhelmed completely or disallowing the other ingredients from shining through. Thus, a Vanilla Protagonist is a protagonist whose characteristics and background are plainer or simpler compared to the rest of the cast. This type of protagonist serves as a window by which the audience may experience more varied and colorful supporting characters.

The vanilla protagonist will typically be familiar and easily relatable, giving the audience the opportunity to step into their shoes. They will usually not be too much of anything, or vanilla so to speak. The VP acts as foil for other more unique characters the audience will encounter through them. In other words, the other characters drive the story, and the VP is simply the vehicle. The VP may have no voice for this reason.

In video games, when the protagonist is the player character, this can make the main quest line (when it revolves around The Protagonist) less appealing than side quests or side-character-related quests.

Since these characters need to be relatively flat by their own merit, they may be unpopular with the fanbase but simply being unpopular does not make them this trope. It makes them The Scrappy. Tropes Are Tools and having a lead who is a flat or static character isn't necessarily a bad thing if done well. In in video games, for example, it can give a player freedom to shape their character, or to think outside the box.

Compare Lead You Can Relate To where The Protagonist is modeled after the target audience to better engage them in the story, and Audience Surrogate, where the protagonist is intentionally left as a blank slate, so that the audience can easily project themselves into the character. Also compare Straight Man who is normally The Stoic to better interact with the Plucky Comic Relief but not necessarily a protagonist at all, and the Pinball Protagonist, in which the protagonist lacks significant impact to the overall plot and is merely reacting to the other characters' actions.

Not to be confused with Designated Hero, which is a character who the story plays up as being heroic, but comes off as being distinctly unheroic. Contrast Ensemble Darkhorse, who is a colorful but minor character.

Compare to the Standardized Leader. For describing "bland characters", use Flat Character. This trope is NOT The Protagonist+Flat Character.

This is not for complaining about protagonists one may dislike.

Examples:

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    Anime and Manga 
  • A variation of this is common in shows with harems or Love Triangles. Often, the first girl or obvious winner is much more down-to-earth than the competition.
    • Harem leads themselves tend to be developed less than their female co-stars. Look at the games that many harem series are spun off from. The Dating Sim as a genre has existed since the dawn of gaming, beginning with Porn Without Plot games; though 1992 brought the first games that really developed the haremettes, there wasn't a truly fleshed-out male lead until Yuuichi from Kanon, and that game came out in 1999.
  • Invoked in Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Madoka Kaname believes there's nothing special about herself and this feeling is highlighted by the four other members of the main cast becoming Magical Girls, and beating the crap out of witches and each other. As the story goes on, we find out that this is justified, as mahou shoujo in the series are doomed to become the very witches they fight, and Homura has been keeping Madoka in this role to protect her. In the end Madoka becomes an ultimate savior.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh!: The Protagonist, Yugi is the only duelist without a quirk. He's not the blue-eyed dragon guy, the bug guy, dino guy or even the gambling card guy. His own alter ego has his "age old pharoah" thing going for him. It's downplayed in the manga, where he definitely does have a few outstanding quirks (i.e. getting mad when somebody mistakes his age, having the tendencies of a Covert Pervert, e.t.c.) but just not as much as other characters.
  • Daily Lives of High School Boys. Tadakuni is an inversion. He's a plain Generic Guy with no backstory and he has less relationships with other characters than his two friends Hidenori and Yoshitake. Tadakuni's suffers from being Out of Focus ,with basically no presence in some episodes and many chapters. His status is often lampshaded. However, Tadakuni is one of the most popular characters in the series and he's much more popular than Hidenori and Yoshitake. He's Out of Focus after the first volume and episode 5, making him somewhat like an Ensemble Dark Horse.
  • Sonic X: Sonic is fazed into the background as the role of The Ace, with Audience Surrogate Chris Thorndyke played more as the show's lead. Thus, the more colorful side cast he encounters are the main draw.
  • Sasahara in Genshiken is pretty passive as an otaku. Unlike the rest in the club, he's lacking an overriding passion for any one thing, and serves as the entry point for the non-otaku/closet otaku readers. In later issues, some characterization sauce is swirled in when his sister is introduced; his annoyance at her shallowness is the first negative emotion he shows.
  • Invoked in Durarara!!. Mikado feels he and his life are boring, and with people like Celty and Izaya around, he's probably right. In fact, that's why he founded the Dollars. However, his desire to make his life interesting has the side effect of eventually making him batshit insane.

    Comic Books 
  • Duke from G.I. Joe is fairly bland and doesn't have very much characterization aside from being "The Leader" and for refusing a promotion so he could stay in the field. His teammates include a silent ninja master with a wolf, a Vietnam veteran who was once a street thug, a heavy machine gunner who surfs and plays bass guitar, and a gourmet chef who wields a massive crew-served machine gun as if it were a lightweight rifle.
  • Tintin was deliberately designed so that every reader could identify with him, so he has no family, no back story, no personal connections, nothing apart from what is shown in the adventures. Thus, it is no coincidence that he was overshadowed by the colourful Captain Haddock.
  • As with other interpretations, Sonic the Hedgehog is sometimes considered such in the Archie comic series, since mandates issued by SEGA leave original supporting characters with more freedom for dynamic development than the main cast of the video games.
    • Incidentally, Princess Sally ended up as such in her brief spin off series. Since her role in the main series was usually to act as The Straight Man to Sonic, she lacked much chemistry in his absence, with most personality and conflicts being granted to her more flawed Substitute Freedom Fighter team and Geoffery St John.

    Films — Animated 
  • Disney Animated Canon:
    • Walt Disney's animated films were very much inspired by this element from the older fairy tales, in which the typically nondescript protagonist ventures into the unknown and encounters the supernatural; as such, "normal characters in bizarre situations" tended to be a trademark of his.
    • Sleeping Beauty: The creators of the film weren't all that interested in the beauty herself, hence why the movie spends so much time with the magical and bickering trio of fairies. In fact, she is so underdeveloped and uninvolved within the story that she can be a case of Decoy Protagonist.
    • Frozen's spotlight is split between the royal sisters, Anna and Elsa. Anna is a cheerful, happy-go-lucky princess who is eager to be friends with anyone who crosses her path — much like Rapunzel and Giselle and, well, most of the Disney Princesses. She's a well-done character, but definitely vanilla compared to her sister, who is busy engaging in an epic quest of self-discovery and self-acceptance through generating ice palaces and singing awesomely, and struggling with intense fear and social isolation. Since Elsa is the Deuteragonist, one could say Anna is her foil.

    Films — Live-Action 

    Literature 
  • The Lord of the Rings Frodo Baggins's position in the Fellowship is "the Non-Action Guy carrying the ring" and so the contrast with the epic heroes he's traveling with is all the greater. This was a deliberate choice by Tolkein to demonstrate the humble virtues of the Hobbit; the vanilla character can save the world too. His equally humble companion Sam is one of the very few canon characters to not give into the Ring's temptation, thus emphasizing this point even further.
  • K. A. Applegate once suggested this was true of Jake from Animorphs: while the other characters had clear, definable traits that made them easy to identify (Marco's ruthlessness, Rachel's bloodlust, Cassie's empathy, Ax's alienness, Tobias' conflicted nature as a hawk and a human) Jake was the Standardized Leader keeping them all focused. Late into the series, this is dropped because he grows into the role of The Chessmaster. He also develops a serious complex regarding his leadership qualities.
  • Twilight: Fans and detractors mostly agree that Bella lacks a personality and is generally boring. She was specifically written so that the reader can step into her shoes, and experience the cool supernatural world of vampires and werewolves (and the hotties fighting over her). Compare her backstory (moves from Phoenix to a small town in Washington, becomes popular, falls in love with supernatural beings) with that of Carlisle (devout Christian vampire hunter becomes vampire, spends his life helping people even though they're his natural prey), Rosalie (girl becomes a vampire after being raped and left for dead by her fiance, kills him), Jasper (ex-Confederate soldier and some of his friends raise a vampire army), and others.
  • Terry Pratchett says that when he wrote Guards! Guards!, he thought Carrot was the main character and that Vimes would be just a viewpoint character to introduce Ankh-Morpork and in general set things up for Carrot. Then he realized the vast potential Vimes had as both The Protagonist and The Hero and so he made the switch. The result is that Carrot reads like a stock character brought in from another fantasy 'verse entirely, and Vimes undergoes a rich and complex arc in the first book alone.
    • Eventually, Pratchett Subverted the use of Carrot as Vanilla Protagonist. Many books later, Carrot is one of the few characters who has never been a viewpoint character, with hints of Hidden Depths and Obfuscating Stupidity, making it very dubious that he's the simple soul that he seems to be.
  • In The Heroes of Olympus (the sequel series to the Percy Jackson books) introduces Jason Grace. He has no memories starting off and as a result he's a vanilla sea for the more tasty topping (i.e. secondary characters): Leo, Hazel, Annabeth, Nico and others, who are more relatable and flawed.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Stargate Atlantis teams up the rather bland Brilliant but Lazy protagonist Sheppard with eternally more memorable characters like the memetical Smug Snake Dr Mc Kay, Wide-Eyed Idealist Dr Beckett, Proud Warrior Race Guy Ronon Dex and the constantly Beleaguered Czech Radek Zelenka.
  • Oz avoids this by making the narrator, Augustus Hill, a minor character and perhaps the most sympathetic in the series, and by otherwise having Loads and Loads of Characters.
  • Dollhouse has this as an Enforced Trope because a major point of the series is that Echo slowly develops a personality despite being repeatedly mind-wiped. This makes it hard for her to compete with the side characters who already had fascinating personalities, or even her fellow Dolls Sierra and Victor, who managed character development early on via their romance.
  • In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Sarah herself is sharing screentime with Robot Girl Cameron and Time Traveling Terrorist Vigilante Derek. She was important because John would be important which means that both of them couldn't be important at once. The more John becomes The Chosen One, the more Sarah becomes just another sidekick.
  • Ally on Austin & Ally is a surprising aversion considering how easy a Straight Man (i.e. Ally) lead can slip into this in the kid-com genre. The reasons could include that only Austin and Ally sing, ruling out the intra-fandom rivalry that other shows like Victorious suffer from. There is also no realistic opponent to the Austin/Ally 'Auslly' Shipping pairing, which would cause Die for Our Ship in the event of a lopsided Fan-Preferred Couple that does not include Ally. Finally with such a small cast of four main characters, there is no room for a typical overshadowing Ensemble Dark Horse to suck all the popularity on the show away from the main two cast members.
  • Lost Girl's cast includes include a goth pixie girl that comes from a family highly connected with Russian organized crime, a doctor who is a literal slave, the bartender who was once an all-powerful king who now lives anonymously, and a valkyrie who has laid waste to entire armies. One of Bo's Friendly Enemies is a mesmer who owns several bondage clubs, one of the light fae cops has a long family history, and even the leaders of the sides have vast histories. With such colorful supporting characters, the protagonist, Bo, is vanilla by contrast.
  • WKRP in Cincinnati Andy Travis was written to be the Only Sane Man protagonist a la Bob Newhart or Mary Tyler Moore but they couldn't get it to work. Thus, reconfigured the show so all the characters were roughly equal in importance.
  • Defiance : Nolan is just some guy living in a town with fascinating aliens.
  • Orange Is the New Black features Piper Chapman, a 30-something white yuppie from a privileged background who has her life turned upside down when she is sentenced to jail over a crime she committed 10 years ago. However, her past background is fairly bland when compared to those of the loads and loads of other quirky inmates that she meets in prison. The writers seem to have picked up on the fans' preferences in Season 2 as they increasingly put Piper Out of Focus in favor of further development for the supporting cast members, all the while giving her a more pragmatic personality.

    Newspaper Comics 
  • On The Fastrack creator Bill Holbrook admitted that original protagonist Bob Shirt was this, and that he had to switch focus to save the strip.

    Video Games 
  • This is commonly a Enforced Trope in video games since the protagonist is often meant to represent the player. Thus, many games will give them minimal personality (or none whatsoever) so the player can project themselves in their place. Thus the supporting cast gets all the personality and most of the drama to themselves. It's especially prevalent in the case of a Heroic Mime. Many fans love having this in their games and will sometimes complain if the hero has a strong personality, though the reasons can vary from not being able to insert themselves into the role to the strong personality being one they find utterly abhorrent.
  • Link of The Legend of Zelda is a Heroic Mime and a Memetic Badass despite the large and colourful supporting cast, and amazing countries each one inhabits.
  • Far Cry
    • Far Cry 2 : player chooses from one of 12 characters to play as at the beginning. The remaining 11 are found throughout the game, and interact with the player and they have distinctive personalities. The player's character on the other hand becomes a personality-less Heroic Mime. Players would find it most enjoyable therefore to play as their LEAST favorite character.
    • Far Cry 3 follows a similar trend. The main character, Jason Brody, is a virtual cypher, with the only real information about his past and relationship with his girlfriend showing up in the first few missions. Meanwhile, the supporting cast includes a villain who plays up the "definition of insanity", a tribal queen who alternately seduces and sends you on quests, a kooky survivalist with suicide vest-wearing monkeys (if you bought the DLC) and plenty more mysterious side characters.
  • Valkyrie Profile: Feelings of certain characters bounce all over the place; many fans simply see Lenneth, the main valkyrie and protagonist of the first game, as a useful party asset, but otherwise find her trite, dull, and lacking compassion. On the other hand, many of the Loads and Loads of Characters that Lenneth can recruit are also pretty thin.
  • Valkyria Chronicles: Welkin is the main character and instantly becomes The Leader of Squad 7 despite all of his major subordinates being veterans, while this is his first tour in real combat. He's had officer training, but he's mostly in charge because he's the guy who owns the tank. The rest of Squad 7 is notoriously colourful, with three DLC stories centering around secondary characters and one centering on Selvaria. Unlike many video game heroes, Welkin does have a personality of his own, but it makes him less a generic game hero and more a generic romance-story hero, and he pales in comparison to the more interesting, quirky Squad 7 soldiers.
  • Although Corpse Party is more of a Ensemble Cast game, Satoshi is called the central protagonist. He's a generic teenage boy surrounded by people with more interesting personalities, motivations, and reactions to being sent to a hellish ghost school. His sole defining trait, being somewhat cowardly, doesn't even come into play apart from some dialogue options. While Ayumi and Yoshiki are getting to the bottom of the mystery and getting things done, Satoshi spends a whole chapter stuck in a subplot trying to find a bathroom so his little sister can go pee.
  • Dangan Ronpa : Makoto Naegi. Even in-universe the other characters are chosen by Hope's Peak Academy for being remarkably skilled in some aspect, and as a result they are all quite colourful. Makoto, on the other hand, got into the Academy by pure chance and he criticizes himself for being average. However, he is unique in that he is extraordinarily optimistic and filled with hope. For that, he earns the title, 'Super High School Level Hope'.
  • Super Dangan Ronpa 2: Hajime Hinata can't even remember his talent and basically acts as a snarky straight man to his much more diversified and distinctive cast members. Also invoked since unlike everyone else in the games so far he doesn't have an ultimate talent of any sort to help him stand out on his own. His awareness of this before the events of the game is an integral part of his character, because he's truly Izuru Kamukura, the man behind AI Junko Enoshima. His desire to be talented (and not be a Vanilla Protagonist) is a major factor of his surgical transformation into Kamukura.
  • Sonic the Hedgehog served as this in early installments of his own series. While having slightly better stats than the other characters, his move set is more limited compared to Tails and Knuckles, usually limiting him to the games' primary path. This tends to be zigzagged in later games, since new exclusive moves such as the homing attack and light dash gave him his own edge in gameplay. As story and character were established, his personality was usually kept more simplistic than the others (if still often charismatic), relying less on specific back stories or roles than the others.
  • Blazblue's protagonist, Ragna the Bloodedge is a pretty clear cut example of a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, but has a pretty down to earth personality otherwise. This is especially noticeable when most of the cast are filled with sociopaths, Large Hams, and Yanderes. As such, Ragna plays the Straight Man Deadpan Snarker to almost everyone he interacts with.
  • Mortal Kombat; In a World with energy-wielding ninjas, Physical Gods, fantastic creatures, Cyborgs, et all, Liu Kang was designed to be the accessible humble monk hero. There's not a great deal to his story other than winning the various mortal kombat tournaments, but the various rivalries and relationships in the series are the true focus.
  • Street Fighter has Ryu, who has a run-of-the-mill personality consisting of being serious about training and wanting to be a great fighter. His opponents contrast him by being much more colorful.
  • Tekken 2 had the first game's bland Shotoclone hero Kazuya turn into the main villain. He was replaced as main character with the equally flat and stone-faced Jin in part 3.
  • Mega Man (Classic): Mega Man is your standard 8-bit hero with little motivation other than doing the right thing (which came from his creator anyway). In this case, his uniqueness mainly comes from copying the abilities of the various colorful robot masters as well as fighting Dr. Wily. This can be contrasted with his more free-thinking brother Proto Man, as well his Evil Counterpart Bass.
  • Super Mario Bros.: Mario was designed to be an extremely accessible character who can fit any role. He himself does not have too much personality other than cheerfulness, but it's the colorful world and challenges he inhabits that provides the true meat of the series.
  • Dissidia: Final Fantasy: Warrior of Light has the fewest frills in a game full of many toppinged characters such as Cloud and Squall. Justified in story, as he's a sentient Manikin with no memories outside the cycles of war, and he doesn't really have much character to express beyond what he has developed over the past cycles. Also a case of Tropes Are Not Bad, as his Undying Loyalty to Cosmos - his only motivation - makes him The Paragon to the other heroes, and he has none of their confidence issues or emotional baggage, so the villains' usually effective Breaking Speeches and mind-games don't work on him.

    Web Comics 
  • Antimony of Gunnerkrigg Court, whose general calm and open-minded approach to everything, combined with her ability to be near-central to every subplot she comes across just by existing and the enticingly vague development of the other students, tends to make her the vanilla of many plots. This is diminished after it's revealed that she's part fire elemental and unknowingly responsible for her mother's death, both of which give her emotional depth. Plus, she started having fun with it.
  • Homestuck:
    • John was the first character introduced out of the stupendously large cast and acts as the Audience Surrogate through much of the series, being the kid to whom all the bizarre and improbable game mechanics have to be explained, so he wasn't nearly as well-developed as some of the other characters at first. He's gotten a bit more Character Development now that we can see his actions through other points of view.
    • Karkat on the Alternia side is the first troll introduced and becomes team leader, which in the end is responsible for their victory. His job is to hold the Sanity Ball so his friends can steal their scenes with craziness. Occasionally there are exceptions like calming down his homicidally insane friend by shoosh-papping him into submission.

    Western Animation 
  • The Looney Tunes series went through a long tenure of this as it slowly gained it's trademark slapstick. The series originally utilized Mickey Mouse-alike characters such as Bosko and Buddy, who missed this trope and hit the Generic Guy instead. Beans the Cat was then billed as a new more colorful star, but his sidekick, Porky Pig outshone him in that regard. Porky then turned into this trope for more abrasive stars such as Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny with his Everyman persona making him better fit as The Straight Man or The Comically Serious.
  • Mickey Mouse became a pretty iconic case for the Classic Disney Shorts. Mickey started off a more mischievous scrappy protagonist, though as new additions such as Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto were introduced and took over the more abrasive roles, Mickey ended up toned down into The Everyman to foil them and by the forties was Demoted to Extra. Modern works have tried to give Mickey star power again, with varying degrees of success.
  • The title character of Hey Arnold!. While the first season had some palpable focus on his own dilemmas and personal conflicts, as episodes passed, his shortcomings and foibles faded and he ended up a messianic Only Sane Man to the far more flawed and eccentric universe around him. A high number of episodes barely even featured Arnold, in favor of playing a borderline Ensemble Cast setup.
  • For The Dreamstone, the Noops, Rufus and Amberley, end up looking fairly unremarkable compared to the villains and even most of their more powerful and surreal comrades. They take the part well as newcomers encountering the show's different worlds and processes, but the focus otherwise usually sways in the Urpneys' favor due to their more colorful personalities and providing most of the show's slapstick.
  • Its sister show, Bimbles Bucket follows a very similar formula for Bimble, who gets less screen time than the villains and largely exists as a naive newcomer for Teeny Weeny to explain all the details of the plot towards.
  • The title character of The Life and Times of Juniper Lee falls squarely into this. There isn't anything that truly stands out about her personality-wise other than her interactions with the various characters of Orchid Bay, and her blandish fighting style doesn't help her win fans. In fact, there was an episode that focused on this: at a big supernatural social event, everyone was more interested in her Cool Old Lady grandmother than herself specifically for this reason.
  • Aang and Katara, the main protagonist and main love interest of Avatar: The Last Airbender can come across as pretty bland in comparison to the show's insanely colorful supporting characters like Sokka, Toph, Zuko, Iroh, Azula, Suki, Mai, and Ty Lee.
  • Twilight Sparkle was this in season 1 of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, being a Audience Surrogate by which the distinct personalities and antics of her friends could be observed without bringing much herself. Season 2 onward averted this by giving her distinct character flaws, episodes focusing on her story arc as a student to Celestia, and also demoting her slightly for more an Ensemble Cast setup.

Alternative Title(s):

Designated Protagonist Syndrome