Is Your Protagonist Succeeding Too Easily?

August 1, 2022

When you’re crafting a story, believability is paramount. The quality of your prose, the relatability of your characters, and the intensity of your conflicts won’t hold readers’ attention if they can’t accept the sequence of events as representing their own reality.


Can you identify the supervillain who’s notorious for thwarting that goal? Her name is Mary Sue. She possesses all of the skills and information she needs to overcome any challenge—without prior training. None of the story’s rules apply to her because her status as the heroine grants her special privileges. She’s not allowed to make mistakes.


Maybe you’ve heard of her and feel confident that you’ve steered clear. But her presence isn’t always as obvious as my previous description. If beta readers are complaining that they can’t connect with your theme, your protagonist is one of the first elements you need to reevaluate. Her struggles are an expression of your theme, so the absence of growth can be an indication that she’s a covert Mary Sue.


Fortunately, once you’re aware that she’s infiltrated your novel, you can strip down her perfection to reveal the beauty of being broken and rebuilt.


Solution #1: Opposition

In George Orwell’s classic 1984, Winston Smith rebels against the Party every chance he gets, but in the end, his enemies imprison and torture him until he conforms to their worldview. His failure is due to the tyranny of his country’s government, not a reluctance to act on his convictions. 


Your protagonist shouldn’t be the strongest or smartest person in her world. She’ll have weaknesses and, at some point, come up short of resources. Your antagonist (if your plot calls for one) will be ideally positioned to test her. His superior power and knowledge may lead to a victory that results in an irreversible loss for her. As Gabrielle explains in her viral article about villains, “Before your protagonist can oust your villain, she needs to relinquish a part of herself. Often it’s the lie she began her arc with. The villain chases her into corner after corner until she runs out of places to hide from her ghosts.”


Solution #2: Human Error

Remember the iconic scene where Snow White takes an apple from the hag and bites into it? That was a questionable decision, and she immediately faces the consequences of it. Even as a kindhearted princess, she’s not immune to poor judgment. 


When characters behave impulsively, overlook details, and listen to misleading advice, they demonstrate that, no matter how gifted they seem, they’re still human, and readers need that affirmation to be able to empathize with them. However, if your protagonist continually makes a fool of herself, readers will doubt her intelligence instead. Her screwups need to arise from a deeper source.


Solution #3: Flaws

In the popular TV show Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang tries to firebend before he’s had enough practice, and he burns his friend Katara. But her injury is more than an accident that anyone could have caused. The scene exposes Aang’s impatience and lack of self-control, which he must learn to curb before he can unite the Four Nations and defeat the imperialist regime that’s disrupting the peace.


A character’s flaws might originate from her worldview, culture, habits, personality, or a combination of factors, but the negative influence on her behavior should be a recurring obstacle in your story. Again, Gabrielle shares her wisdom in her article about authentic character interactions: “Flaws are unattractive, but we trust a person who appears to have no vices as much as we trust a person who has no virtues. The same applies to stories. If a bunch of noble, brave, endearing characters face off dark-hearted fiends, you’ll narrow your eyes, wondering what moral the author is pushing. Good characters with flaws and bad characters with virtues are an uncomfortable mix, but their composition is relatable to readers.”


When readers can vicariously experience remorse over sin through the characters, the lessons will not only be more meaningful but also more palatable.


Character Development as Theme Development

My list is far from exhaustive, but many types of failure can be sorted into these three categories. Use each one to jumpstart your brainstorming and as checkpoints to ensure that your protagonist hasn’t devolved into a Mary Sue. Her life doesn’t need to be idyllic to be inspiring, and you don’t have to protect her from pain. Let her stumble. Eventually, she’ll climb out of the mess as a stronger person, and readers will remember her for that.


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