Sherwood Smith July 22nd, 2006
Discussing Mary Sue characters seems to bring out anxieties–as if a writer is somehow doing something wrong by writing stories featuring characters with aspects that are always attributed to Mary Sues, such as beauty, ability, smarts, etc. Not true! We come to genre because we like heroic stories, or least I know I do. So I’m coming at the subject from the comparison angle. These are not even remotely critical tools so much as thought experiments–ideas to think about when we evaluate that story we’ve just written, or are contemplating writing. Or evaluating a book that might have worked, or almost worked, or definitely didn’t work for us because of the main character.
So for purposes of thought (or discussion) here’s the distinction that I see:
Protagonist. This is the main character. The main character might not have any saving graces, or only an attribute (Madame Bovary is beautiful, but there’s little to admire in her else, and she doesn’t come to a heroic end, but what the 19th C considered a “deserving” one); the protagonist can meander through a story rising or sinking or just plain going nowhere. You’re not guaranteed any resolution at all with a protagonist as the lead. The guys forever waiting for Godot are great examples of protagonists. Any story in which the main characters appear to be constrained to helplessness, repulsiveness and pointlessness might be said to contain protagonists.Â Anti-heroes are sometimes also protagonists.
Hero. The hero may or may not have gifts–ability, brains, beauty, powers–but will have to fight to achieve success, or will die heroically. Winston Smith is a hero. So is Frodo. Neither of these “wins” in any sense, but when we finish the books they belong to, we think about their heroic battles. They did make a difference to those around them. The hero is challenged, has weak moments, changes. The hero does not walk confidently through the story always on the high moral ground, he or she has to reach for the right choice, fight for it, perhaps even struggle forward, always in doubt. But at the end there is resolution, the hero has grown, and has made a difference in his or her world.
Mary Sue. Never leaves the moral high ground–he or she is perfect all the way through. Dangers might come along, but the right power or the right tool comes just when it’s needed. Mary Sue is never really shaken, and thus, never grows. How can perfection grow? Instead, she accretes more and more power, attention, whatever, but inside she’s basically the same as when she started. Acorna, at least in the first book, is a classic example. Beautiful, kind, powerful, she moved sedately through her first story (I never read any of the others) collecting a posse and powers with the confident serenity of one who was born perfect and needs no challenge or change.
Of course there are books where it seems the lead partakes of qualities of all three. One could say that Lymond begins as a protagonist, and afterward veers between hero and Mary Sue: he always has the long view in mind, triumphs over every adversity, though there are costs–heroic costs–though otherwise he’s got all the attributes of Mary Sue: beauty, grace, smarts, talent, and a subcontinent-wide posse who talks about him endlessly, considering every move he makes. Flashman could be called a protagonist-hero, though satiric characters don’t comfortably fit into any model but that of satire.