A good visual novel - and a good otome - has several working parts that ensure people can become immersed in the game and enjoy it on an emotional level. Of course you have the story, the love interests, the general setting and art...
The writing style as a whole.
But the kicker - the one thing that can drive players insane or make them adore a project that might otherwise be lacklustre...
Is the main character.
The player is forced into the role of the main character, so it's important to have an MC that is relatable and likeable. Now, players have different ideas of what this means because they aren't necessarily quantifiable.
But the main thing to remember is that a character needs to act and react like a normal person. And they need to behave in a way consistent with their defined personality. Likeable doesn't have to mean passive and kind and relatable doesn't mean "exactly like the reader."
Most people are capable of relating, on some level, to characters who aren't like them as long as they perceive the character as behaving in a reasonable way that is consistent with the story's logic and character's personality.
The problem with VNs and otomes is that they often fail to give us likeable or relatable MCs.
Much of the time we're stuck with a bland, anaemic character who couldn't react her way out of a paper sack. A character that, for all intents and purposes, could be replaced with an inanimate object and not actually have that much impact on the story's larger themes and plot arcs.
And that brings us to The Lamp System.
This is basically just a silly system some friends and I came up with to determine what type of MC a VN has.
I want to say that while I personally view "Lamp" characters as bad, I do know that certain people prefer them because it helps facilitate self-inserting. It's impossible for me to write this without bias but I am going to try to talk about any pros and cons to each character type on this list.
The Lamp System (Shh. It is definitely a thing.)
As mentioned, this is just something some friends and I came up with to help categorise MCs. It was largely a joke but is actually kind of accurate, so I expanded it on it here.
This basically just looks at, well, whether or not you could replace the MC with a really pretty lamp and kind of get the same story. You can really see this system at work during critical scenes in the VN. What does the MC do in those scenes? Stand there, barely reacting? Actively participate? Can you stick a lamp in her place and largely not actually change what's happening?
If so...she might just be a Lamp instead of a human being.
But let's delve into the types a little more to talk about what makes them bad...or good. Or a little bit of both.
The Lamp (and not the kind that grants wishes)
The MC that started it all...
This MC is basically little more than a sock puppet that you slip on your hand while you play. You could replace her with a lamp (or a magic ring, or a semi-important artifact, or just an inanimate object in general...) in most scenes and it actually wouldn't change things much. Okay, sure, imagining the LI making out with a lamp is kind of weird and would definitely shift the story into a comedy...
But the major flow of events would largely stay the same because the MC doesn't do anything important besides exist. And usually, the game makes no real attempt to hide that she's a "Lamp." Lamps often don't even get faces in CGs - if they show up in the CG at all.
These MCs have very little agency, no story arc of their own, and they don't do a whole lot. They are an object of obsession and a catalyst for other people (the love interests and antagonists) to do things. Essentially, this type of MC is a MacGuffin. And you don't want your main character to be a MacGuffin because things happen to them (never because they've done anything interesting though) but they don't really actively participate in events.
What is a MacGuffin, you ask? To quote Wikipedia, "A MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin's importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations."
The attraction the LIs feel for a Lamp is mostly unexplained and unwarranted. It often boils down to "You're interesting" or "You're different" if they attempt an explanation at all. And the player is left kind of going "Is she though??" Because, really, she's not. The only thing particularly different about her is her lack of normal emotional response to any stimuli. At all.
In the end, the Love Interests want her because they have to want her for there to be a story, not because she deserves the devotion. The LIs want her, and that is what drives the story. Her presence makes them do certain things or alters the flow of their life simply because she's there and they want her.
Your typical, bland, faceless, and personality-less MC is a Lamp.
Now, some players like the Lamp because they want to self insert into a blank doll while they read. They don't want the MC to have a set personality or any traits that they may not be able to identify with on a very personal level. They want to slip into a pair of one-size-fits-all shoes and walk in them for a while.
And that's really fine. Many developers write this type of character specifically to make her accessible to self-inserters. She's very watered down to the point that her defining characters are kind of hard to see. And that allows people to mold their mental image of her in any way they want.
The main issue with a Lamp MC is that they're shallow by necessity. You can't give a lot of depth to a character who can't have strong reactions or thoughts about most of the things going on around her - who can't choose her own path or do her own thing. And when your MC lacks depth, sometimes the story does as well because the MC sort of forces everyone to play in the kiddie pool with her.
When the main motivation for every love interest boils down to "I want that person" - it doesn't usually make for a particularly compelling story.
Three Lamps in a Trench Coat
This MC is a little better than the above MC. Sort of.
She appears to have a personality at first glance. You'll catch her having strong emotions or thoughts, and at the start of the story, she may even have some agency. She may have the beginnings of a story arc, or her own dreams and desires...
But all that disintegrates rapidly once she meets the Love Interest. The moment his story begins, it takes precedence and everything about the MC is watered down until she only thinks of him and only reacts to things when he's involved. She becomes a MacGuffin. And if you look close enough, it's clear she's just three lamps stacked in a trench coat pretending to be a person.
She slowly starts to acquire all the traits of a normal Lamp - sometimes to a slightly muted degree. She might do a couple of important things, but you could replace her in the bulk of the story and not really change much about the flow of the plot.
Three Lamps MCs still don't typically have much agency and mostly serve as a catalyst for other people to do things. They're a little more involved in the game's plot but if you really break down their role in the story...
They aren't the ones doing anything significant most of the time. They simply get swept along into someone else's story while people fight over them for no real reason. Like Lamps, they don't earn the devotion or obsession other characters have for them.
I feel like this MC usually stems from writers who are trying to be "progressive" and write a "strong" female character, but who aren't quite sure how to do it and keep her relatable. So the strength only lasts for as long as it takes an LI to express interest. Every now then, a choice scenario might give you a "strong" option to choose from, but that's about it. In the end, she is still a spectator in her own story.
These characters can be slightly more interesting than a Lamp - they give a sort of thin illusion of personality, so it can make players feel a bit like there's more depth to this MC while still keeping her empty enough for self-inserters to comfortably read.
The main issue with them is that they can be really frustrating. They start out interesting and you keep seeing these hints of agency, but nothing ever comes of it.
Many games will try to trick you into thinking they have a developed MC...but nope. Just three lamps stacked in a trench coat, pretending to be human.
The Were-Lamp - because "Chamelelamp" just didn't really work...
The Were-lamp is a step up from the the other two Lamp type characters.
She has a personality and is definitely not a lamp...sometimes.
Depending how much Lamp runs through her veins, at various points in the story, her lamp-like qualities raise their head and she retreats to the background of the story, standing there like a statue - usually when she needs to react to something, but having her actually do something was too tiring.
Or else, it happens when it's time to have her dutifully stand there and blush while being sexually harassed. (Okay, not all games dissolve into sexual harassment. Sometimes it's proper...ish...flirting. Regardless, the MC's job is to sigh gracefully or be embarrassed or occasionally somewhat participate in a vague sort of way.)
But, in the end, most of the time it's just because the Love interests are doing something interesting, and we can't have the MC stealing the spotlight from the heart-throbs. Put simply, when the MC's personality becomes an inconvenience to the writer, it vanishes. And suddenly you have a scene that could progress entirely with a lamp standing in for the MC...and it wouldn't make a difference.
Her thoughts are boring, she has no real emotional response to what's happening, she doesn't do anything. She just stands there.
Now, the MC doesn't have to be the focus of every scene, but if the story is told from her perspective, we should get at least something interesting from the fact that she's present for certain events.
For instance, if two characters fight over the MC, that's fine. But if she's witnessing it, there should be more to her participation than standing there. You shouldn't be able to re-write the scene with them fighting over a lamp...and have it be exactly the same.
Were-Lamps earn at least some of the devotion they receive, and they have some agency and control over their own stories. Some of their actions matter and they occasionally do stuff. But for a significant portion of the story, they are relegated to a spectator in the story of the LI.
Were-Lamps can be frustrating because they're so inconsistent. One moment they're a strong character and the next, they're a blank slate. I think some of the instances I've seen these characters is when the writer wanted to allow the player to choose the MC's personality but weren't sure how to implement that without epic story branching. So as a result, they created a bland character who really only exhibits personality and agency during choice-based scenarios.
The rest of the time they're kind of a Lamp, because the only moments they do anything significant are the moments the player can choose to do that. When the player isn't actively controlling her...she reverts back to her Lamp-like state.
It's hard for me to say there's anything good about a Were-Lamp. If devs want the player to be able to choose the MC's personality, they need to find ways to integrate this smoothly into their game - not have her behave inconsistently because she has no set personality.
Another big issue with these characters is that many writers think they're writing a strong, well developed character simply because the character shows those traits sometimes. But if she doesn't have a consistent personality and if she isn't consistently driving the plots through her own actions rather than by virtue of her existing and making other characters do stuff - can you really say she's a strong character? (By strength, I mean having a strong presence - not being 'tough.)
That said, a lot of players respond pretty well to Were-Lamps because when you compare them to the other two Lamp-types...they are still way more interesting. And they do impact the story, and they can have agency...sometimes. That can be really satisfying when you are so used to seeing Lamp and Three Lamps MCs.
That doesn't mean writers can't do better.
Definitely not a lamp/Fully human
The final evolution of the otome MC...
This probably doesn't need a whole lot of explanation. These are just normal, properly developed characters. You cannot replace them with an inanimate object and maintain any sort of integrity in any part of the story. Their personality is defined and consistent.
This MC is fully fleshed out and has her own story arc - or at least a semi-story arc - and the agency to affect the story herself. She doesn't just act as the impetus for other people to do things. She is more than a MacGuffin - she doesn't only encourage others to drive the plot. She can (and does) do it herself when it's appropriate.
She is a strong female lead.
As mentioned before, strength doesn't always mean "tough." And I think that's something some writers struggle with - the idea that a strong character isn't necessarily physically tough. It means someone that has the agency and ability to grow and influence the plot by virtue of their own actions.
They don't have to have a boy's name or a boyish personality. They can be gentle and kind and still be a strong character.
They can be shy, pure, and timid. But they're not passive. And by that, I mean that they are active participants in the story, not merely spectators. If they are involved in a scene, they are either physically participating or are at least mentally engaged so the player leaves with something interesting.
And most importantly, they are consistent.
They don't wildly veer between melodrama and emotional constipation because the writer never defined a personality for them in the first place. They don't just stand there when important things are happen. They don't merely serve as an object to be fought over, fought for, seduced, or assaulted.
They are more than The Girl in a story that is actually about a bunch of guys and the interesting things they do.
Of course, there are players who hate having MCs with developed personalities because if it differs from their own personality, they feel they can't self-insert.
I think that brings us to the only real conclusion we can come to about the lamp system.
Many different character types have their place in fiction - even Lamps, to a degree. As long as they don't impede the plot, or the development of the other characters. Unfortunately, Lamps often do. And that's their real drawback.
The important thing is for a writer to know what type of character they're writing and do it with intent because that's the only way to do it reasonably well.
It's one thing to write a Lamp intentionally. It's another to think you're writing a good character - to behave as if you're writing a good character - when you're really just writing a character who could easily be replaced by a very pretty lamp without making too much difference in your game.