Can Gamma Male Protagonists Evoke Classical Pathos?

I had an interesting discussion with a friend last night as we were digging far too deeply into anime. Almost every anime show (especially those set in a high school environment, which is the majority of them), have male protagonists that are your classic gamma male archetype. They are socially awkward, especially around women. When encountered with women they go into a crazed frenzy, female worship, nosebleeds, slapstick failings. We’re supposed to root for them to get the girl in spite of their failures. And sometimes we do, but we can’t help but wince every time they enter the scene with their female counterparts, who are usually far more composed and cooler than they are.

The result is a different kind of emotion than we receive from a more heroic character. When an alpha or beta protagonist confronts problems, we get the feeling of the basic human instinct overcoming dilemmas, whether they be spiritual or physical, and it fills us with a sense that uplifts us emotionally to a place where we strive to be something better than ourselves, or at least our thoughts are provoked in a direction to where we discuss the merits of certain values. Whatever that may be, that is the true sense of pathos that gets evoked from a good story with such a protagonist.

But with the gamma, we are still in the wince mode, hoping that he can get through the situation unscathed. If he does, we don’t exactly feel fulfilled after watching or reading the work. I believe this is part of the reason so many animes or mangas give us a feeling of let down with the ending, making a cool concept imminently forgettable when they don’t need to be.

My friend brought up another classic example of the gamma: The Phantom of the Opera. The Phantom is very non-confrontational, hiding, stalking, unable to interact at the basic human level. We feel pity for him, but we feel no true sense of pathos to where we as an audience are uplifted by it. It’s tragic to watch, and horrific, and though the musical is quite well done, we walk away from it as an audience as unfulfilled as when we watch anime. Our sense is that we wish things were different, but in an undefined way, or that we wish the phantom was simply a different person. We’re not moved in our emotional response to any sort of thought or action beyond a wish.

And so it’s my conclusion that a gamma protagonist does and cannot evoke a true sense of pathos in a general audience, as we aren’t stirred to a cause, a thought, or any sort of action. We’re only stirred toward pity.

What do you think?

My character Zaira Von Monocle is unrefined and untrained, but she’s certainly not a gamma. She’s driven by loyalty to King and loyalty to family, some of the most important things we can have as people. For Steam And Country has stirred a lot of emotions in people, but you should see for yourself if I evoked any sense of pathos. You can read it here.  

23 thoughts on “Can Gamma Male Protagonists Evoke Classical Pathos?

  1. Gammas cause wince results. The Phantom being one is part of the horror aspect of it all in the story there. You’re supposed to be left empty in that case. But it’s an exception and intended- they took a real risk with that.

    Ultimately, though, a gamma being useful for anything other than War Wolf ammo or a bodkin or pilum target in stories is a rarity.

  2. Maybe a story of transformation from gamma to delta could be good? There’s a post on Alpha Game about the gamma fantasy plot that I found fascinating.

    • Yes! I saw that brought up on another board. The transformation story into growing into a different type can give the pathos feelings. Of course then you don’t have a gamma protagonist the whole way through and the pathos comes from the moments he becomes Alpha or Beta.

  3. If you really want to see the Phantom as a whiner, read the original novel. Both he and Raul are real wimps in the original version, whereas Christine is a tough cookie. It’s interesting that the musical feels the need to make the hero more manly and the heroine more feminine, and the villain less of a dweeb.

    As for anime and manga, they are vast mediums with many different types of stories. There are tales of he-men, such as Fist of the North Star or JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and there are tales of geeks, too. The high school rom-coms you’re talking about here grow partly out of the “magical girlfriend” and “harem comedy” genres, which require the passive, dorky male to make their particular type of humor work, because the boy is basically the “straight man” in a comedy duo: he has to be weak so his off-the wall female partner(s) can steamroll him.

    Reverse harems do the same thing in reverse, with a dorky female surrounded by hawt bois, and the male characters in a reverse harem are usually rakish and aggressive. The result of this is that reverse harems are often more drama than comedy, because the male characters aren’t usually wacky like the females in a traditional harem. But there are exceptions: see Ouran High School Host Club, which is for girls who like their boys pretty, rich, and stupid. In that story, the boys act like the female nutballs in a typical harem while the female lead plays the passive straight man.

    Also, I think it was about in the late ’90s you really started seeing the nurturing male type, usually paired with a tsundere girl. One precedent for that pair-up might be the Studio Pierrot magical girls, who usually had a male love interest who was kind of a boyfriend/big brother combo.

    With the nurturing male/tsundere pair, she’s a hothead always flying off the handle, and he’s superhumanly patient with her. It entails some subtle role-reversal, and it’s funny, and it works. For the greatest example, see Toradora!, which I like to call the Casablanca of anime rom-coms because of its deft and masterful employment of every possible cliche.

  4. You can tell a story with a gamma protagonist, but you cannot get that classic pathos.

    As others have said, the best you can do is a transformation story, where the Gamma becomes something else.

    Even a Delta who fails, but perseveres through hard work, is a better story than a pure Gamma story.

  5. That reminds me of something from sitcoms from when I was a kid. The laugh would be derived by embarrassing the main character (usually a boy for some reason) and then after laughing at the kid’s pain, the audience would then let loose a big awwww when the kid looked wounded.

    Always hated that for a couple reasons; first because the show both wanted the cheap laugh and wanted to create sympathy for the character at the same time (as if someone kicked you into a mud puddle on purpose, helped you up and then acted like a hero for helping you out of a mud puddle). And the other reason was the lack of redress, as if someone could embarrass you (or put you in an embarrassing position) and you just had to take it. Couldn’t fight back, couldn’t talk back, just had to run home and get a hug from your parents.

    Full of cringe. But the worst part was the audience laughter, that the majority of people wanted to laugh at people when they were down was something that I didn’t want to know, even though as a geek I pretty much already knew it.

    That anime character type you’re talking about, Jon, is one of the reasons I don’t watch as much anime as I used to. Perhaps it’s just cultural but I can’t relate to that at all and it doesn’t make me feel anything but contempt for the character. Even if they do grow beyond it I find personally that I can never get past my initial feelings of pity, unconcern, and exasperation. But it evidently has an audience though I wonder if those kinds of anime generally appeals more to females than to males? The guy is pathetic and weak but the girl is super awesome. That would at least make some sense to me. But if I knew a guy who said he identified with those characters? I’d probably try to distance myself from him.

  6. Agree with Mary that it’s a good setup for a character arc.
    That said, there’s a lot more to anime than slice-of-life high school comedies. The Japanese have a lot more leverage about the kinds of storylines and challenging topics. Which reminds me, it’s about time for an updated post of our faves.

  7. All this makes me once again glad that I don’t understand the appeal of anime. Is this prevalence of, let’s face it, soy-boy male protagonists a cultural thing?

    I am not trying to be disrespectful. It’s just that you all seem to know much more about anime and Japan than I do.

    • A cultural thing, sort of.

      There are a few identifiable reasons for it:

      1. The male is a straight character surrounded by zany and possibly magically enhanced females, who make him look weak by comparison.

      2. The male is a stand-in for the audience, which is expected to be made up largely of socially inept otaku.

      3. The story is a role-reversal in which the male lead is a “motherly” figure and the female lead has several typically masculine faults (usually including slovenliness and a short temper).

    • It depends on the series. If you’re watching series like Cowboy Bebop, Fist of the North Star, Outlaw Star, Mazinger Z, Macross, Rurouni Kenshin, or Trigun, you don’t get this kind of protagonist. They only really starting cropping up around the early ’00s.

      Which also coincidentally ties in to when anime companies began to target otaku more with merchandise and series specifically catered to them.

      If you want to understand the appeal of anime, you probably want to look at shonen and seinen anime from before 2000.

      • I’ve only seen Death Note and Cowboy Bebop – not a gamma in sight.

        Not counting Ghibli stuff and Your Name, which come to think of it don’t feature gammas either.

        • Right. They’re not really that common outside of otaku pandering shows and post-2000 harem series.

          I know why folks get the impression they’re everywhere, though. The anime industry, including the western one, pushes the otaku bait hard even though they still don’t pierce popular consciousness as well as the action adventure series do.

  8. I’m not up on the greek letter personality types (I figure I’m a yod or resh or something) but I think that pathos comes from a deserved success denied.

    When a character possesses the virtues that should allow him to achieve his goal but is thwarted, that produces pathos. Genuine pathos is a rare thing in modern stories–it’s an uncomfortable emotion and a hard sell to an audience looking for a feel-good story. When done well it can be very powerful, though. I’d call William Hurt’s character at the end of “Body Heat” a pathetic character–he wasn’t a hero, but he played his cards as well as he knew how. He just got outplayed by Kathleen Turner.

    If a character is seen as incompetent in a particular area, there is no expectation of his success and consequently no pathos. Now, a character can be socially inept but competent in other areas (Jean Reno in “Leon”, for example–another character who had a pathetic end.)

    But I would say that if a character is shown to be lacking in social skills then his lack of success in that area wouldn’t be pathetic, it would just be expected.

    And I had no sympathy for Erik in The Phantom Of The Opera (the novel, I don’t know the adaptations well). He was a sociopathic killer for hire to the Arabs–that’s how he made his fortune.

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