Writing Effective Protagonists
Since there seems to be a misunderstanding about the issue of Mary Sues and what makes a character unbelievably good, I felt a need to try to correct the record. While I don’t consider myself in any way the authority on the subject, I do enjoy reading and writing about people who are reasonably good at what they do. And it’s understandable to root for such characters. We should want to see our heroes do great deeds, be larger than life, and do cool things.
The problem is not the idea of a highly competent protagonist, but the execution. A good story weaves a trance around the audience that engages them in the fictional world the writer has invented. When such a character seems too good to be true, or too far beyond the bounds of what a character should be expected to do, it breaks the trance. While the line of believability is bound to be subjective, and each person will judge it differently, the writer should take care to avoid crossing it.
Before I continue, I will stress that I want to try to avoid the term “Mary Sue” to describe overwritten or self-inserted characters, mainly because it’s become too loaded and too nebulous. It’s gotten so bad in discussions that “Mary Sue” has become shorthand for “character I don’t like”, after which the legitimate points in the argument become lost. The problem really is the subjectivity of the term.
It should also be noted that not all overwritten characters are Mary Sues, and not all Mary Sues are overwritten. Rey from The Force Awakens is overwritten, but she’s not a Mary Sue; she’s more of a case where they tried too hard to make her a strong heroine and they failed to give her sufficient vulnerability or depth. At the same time, a Mary Sue can just be that ineffective supporting character who gets all the girls the author likes, who's loved by everyone in the story to an annoying degree, does everything the author wishes he could do, and resembles the author in nearly every respect. There's a good case for Terry Long from the New Teen Titans, as just one instance of this.
At the same time, I recognize that we need a term to describe an idealized self-insert character who represents the author’s wish-fulfillment. For the purposes of this discussion, I will solely refer to such characters as Mary Sue. However, I draw this definition at characters that can be clearly shown to be idealized self-inserts, regardless of whether or not they’re shown to be excessively competent. It should also be noted that there are many different varieties of Mary Sues, which go beyond the scope of this article.
So, understanding this distinction, there are various ways that competence can be established without breaking credulity:
1. Show, don’t tell. If your character is smarter than everyone else, we need to see them make intelligent observations or decisions. If he’s good at a particular skill, we need a scene that establishes that skill. Once that ability is established, then it needs to be shown consistently and effectively over the course of the story. Never simply tell the audience that the character is really good at something without then backing that claim up. (Unless, of course, you want to show that the character likes to boost his ego with empty boasts or something, which is fine if you’re doing it on purpose. Just don’t expect anyone to take him too seriously.) In that case, it becomes what’s called an “informed attribute” and that shows the audience nothing at all.
2. Never use respected characters to shill your protagonist unless s/he can back up the claims. For instance, there was a period when a Green Lantern named Kyle Rayner was created to replace Hal Jordan. While the replacement idea wasn’t bad in itself, Kyle would never show any actual competence in the stories themselves during his earliest appearances. Instead, the writer would use other characters to praise Kyle, including characters that had no logical reason to do so, as a way to make him more “acceptable” and sell the character to the readers. For instance, much more experienced heroes would routinely tell Kyle that he was “a true hero”, even in stories where he had not previously shown any actual heroism in his deeds. Needless to say, it failed to achieve the desired result.
Avoid shilling a character if at all possible. This is poor writing technique, and may only serve to harden opposition to your character. Readers inclined to dislike him will dislike him further, and readers who like him won’t need the convincing anyway. It should be noted that Kyle eventually became a more competent and respected character, after spending many years of stories in earning his reputation through his actions. Audiences don’t like to be told to like someone, but they will respond well when they’re given reasons to like that character.
3. You don’t need to be as smart as your character to credibly portray intelligence. It doesn’t hurt to be very smart, but you don’t really need to be as long as you can believably show intelligence. The advantage of being the writer is that you know your characters, you know how the story unfolds, and you have time to put the pieces into place. The reader doesn’t need to know that the Doctor can unravel a Dalek plot that took you months to devise within the span of five seconds. What matters is that the Doctor’s way of figuring it out is credible, and that the people around him don’t look entirely stupid. They may be stupid compared to the Doctor, but they should never look stupid to the audience.
4. Make sure your character’s ability has clearly defined limits. A well-written Superman is not a Mary Sue, because he is portrayed with consistent abilities and consistent limits. He might be able to lift a bus over his head, but he can’t move a planet. (Most of the time, anyway.) There are individuals who are as strong as he is, if not stronger. He isn’t as fast as the Flash, though he’s fairly close. He has clear weaknesses, such as magic, red solar energy, or Kryptonite. As Jack Sparrow says, the only rules that matter are what a man can do and what a man can’t do.
This also goes for personality traits. Clark Kent may be an inherently good person, but he isn’t infallible. His strong sense of morality can be used against him, either because he’s too good to understand evil, or because his moral code prevents him from acting as he would like. He isn’t as intelligent as a Lex Luthor or a Batman in most portrayals and he can be outsmarted. We should have a clear idea of what he can and cannot do in most situations, enough that he can be challenged by a good enough writer.
Where an overwritten character fails is either because of poorly defined limits, or because the character breaks previously established rules for no good reason. He should never seem either too powerful or too weak, and portrayals must be consistent. If you decide to have a character become more powerful, make sure to provide a believable explanation for the change. You must then remain consistent with that level of power afterwards.
5. With great power should come great drawbacks. No one should be expected to be good at everything. Every great protagonist should have a significant weakness of some kind. The more powerful your character is, the greater the flaw needs to be to maintain believability. This can even be done at very high power levels if done the right way. For instance, a Kryptonian with a Green Lantern ring is extremely powerful, but if he needs that ring to survive, and the character struggles with this in some way, then that overcomes the advantage of being that powerful.
Note that the weakness can be as simple as a character flaw. Indeed, this is often the most effective way to establish vulnerability in a highly competent character. For instance, Kitty Pryde is a genius-level ninja who can walk through walls, but she has a nasty temper and is a terrible people person. Sherlock Holmes is his world’s greatest detective, but he’s an arrogant high-functioning sociopath who often shows little regard for the feelings of others. It’s the contrast between great ability and great weakness that make a character truly compelling and interesting. We want to see the heroes rise above the worst in themselves, and only by allowing them the right weaknesses can that best be illustrated.
6. Give your character opponents that are worthy of them. A believable hero will have an enemy who is his equal or better. If your heroine is a genius, then her enemies should be just as brilliant. If she’s strong or fast, then they should have abilities that can overcome her and a plan that is at least competent. If your heroine is really as good as you want her to be, then she should be able to triumph against worthy foes. The conflict will give your hero definition and make him stronger for having faced a difficult encounter and survived. And if you have a really deep rogues gallery that can continuously challenge him, so much the better.
7. Make sure, however, that the struggle is believable and that the villains aren’t throwing the fight to make the hero(ine) look good. The villain should not hold back without a good reason, spare the hero unless something is gained, or make uncharacteristic mistakes. If the heroine wins because the villain acted stupidly, that doesn’t make her look good... it makes your villain look bad. Make sure that your hero earns his victory, and that the villain’s threat level isn’t undermined by the resolution of the plot. If the villain looks good and the hero looks good, then everyone wins in the end.
8. The character must always earn his successes. This means minimizing coincidences, making sure that the outcome of the story is dependent on the hero’s decisions, and making certain that the hero is making effective decisions. This is not to say that the hero cannot stumble or make mistakes from time to time, but they need to be mistakes that an intelligent character would make. If the plot revolves around a mistake that’s easily avoidable by an average reasonable person, then it’s probably not a good idea for the character to charge headlong into it. Indeed, these are the kind of pitfalls that a competent hero should be pointing out and avoiding. In general, an effective hero should always display an appropriate level of competence unless there’s a good story reason involved.
9. Not all heroes are born great. Indeed, many skilled and competent heroes gradually earned their place over many stories and over a period of years. It took Luke Skywalker three movies to be a capable Jedi Knight. It took decades of published stories for Dick Grayson, the original Robin, to prove himself worthy of becoming Batman. It’s absolutely appropriate for a hero to make amateurish mistakes as he learns. However, there should be a slow and reasonable progression, and we need to see why and how the hero learns and becomes better over time.
10. Avoid unexplained regressions. It’s acceptable for a character to get better over time, but he should not become worse unless there’s a good story reason. While it’s acceptable to show a hero become slower with advanced age, it’s not acceptable to have him suddenly and inexplicably forget an entire skill set between adventures. Also avoid unexplained character regressions where the hero forgets important life lessons and repeats mistakes he should otherwise be avoiding. It makes the hero look foolish and undermines previous character growth received from past stories. The character can make mistakes, but they should be reasonable mistakes that flow from his previous life experiences.
11. Establish consistency and make sure not to conveniently forget previously established abilities. This is especially true of serial fiction, where characters have long-established histories. If your hero gained the ability to fly in a previous adventure, he should still have that ability unless there is a good reason he no longer possesses it. (Note that it’s a perfectly valid plot point to establish that the hero’s power is gone for some reason, as long as the story eventually provides a logical explanation.) If the hero is not using a power that should quickly resolve the conflict, provide a reason why he doesn’t use it. If the hero fails to use an ability that he should still possess, and it isn’t adequately explained, it makes him look ineffective. If he possesses a power that violates the Persuasion Corollary (i.e. “don’t use a power you can’t plot for”), either rewrite the plot so it works, remove the power, or write out the character.
12. Avoid the dangers of self-inserts. While not all overwritten characters are Mary Sues, it is true that many overwritten characters are self-inserts. It can be tempting to want to create favorable outcomes for characters you identify with. Avoid this temptation. You need to place just a piece of yourself in your character, just enough of yourself to give the character independent life. However, insert too much of yourself, and the character will drag the story down through sheer self-indulgence. Make sure to look at your character honestly, be willing to admit when the character isn’t working, and take steps to try to correct it if it’s needed.
13. It’s okay to have your character lose once in a while, as long as it’s defeat with dignity. Even the greatest heroes occasionally lose fights, get outwitted by superior opponents, or make critical lapses in judgment. However, the heroine should lose while also making credible decisions. A smart character can still lose because there was critical information she didn’t have, because of an unexpected development she couldn’t plan for, or because a villain exploited her character flaws in an unforeseen way. This then allows for the heroine to learn from the failure and become stronger and more successful in later encounters with the villain. What she can’t do is look or act stupid or ineffectual. A hero who always wins can easily get boring, but a hero who faces defeat with grace and emerges stronger for it can make a compelling story.
14. Victory can itself be a defeat. A time-honored way of having an effective character face setbacks is through pyrrhic or meaningless victories. Perhaps your character loses in triumph... perhaps she gets what she wants, but it’s a poisoned chalice. Or perhaps the price of victory is too high; maybe she loses what she loves most if she succeeds, or she decides she doesn’t want victory once she attains it. Some characters, such as Thanos of Titan, have a knack for self-sabotage and undermine their own efforts without realizing it consciously. Alternately, there may be unforeseen consequences to the victory. Perhaps the hero wins the battle, but the larger war is lost to them by the end. This can be a deep character study if done well, especially if your hero is a complex and layered character.
Hopefully, this should provide a workable starting point to developing main characters that are interesting as well as effective. While far from the easiest characters to write, they can be deeply satisfying ones as well. Just understand that effective characters should also be people with complex motives and desires, and that each victory or defeat should be a pathway to future growth and development.
Win or lose, they should be people, and that’s what counts.