We’ve heard a lot about “Mary Sue” characters: i.e., characters written out of an author’s fantasy about a perfect woman (or man). The “Mary Sue” is usually a Supporting Cast character, but not always. Sometimes such a character will be cast as the protagonist.
That can cause one of the worst of plot-construction sins: sparing your protagonist harm, difficulty, or unhappiness.
The genesis of such a misstep is simple: having imbued his protagonist with every attribute he deems admirable or desirable, the writer falls in love with him. He wants nothing but the best for him. He contrives to have him come out on top regardless of the conflicts, and usually without even mussing his hair. Therein lies the death of drama, for:
I’ve edged up to the “Mary Sue” line at least twice. In one case, it crept upon me unawares; in another, it was a largely conscious act that required several varieties of corrective action. So let it be known that, though I pontificate against this particular failing, it’s from experience rather than innate wisdom.
Alongside the excessive love of a character lies another “Mary Sue”-derived problem: the weakening of your theme. A good theme derives from what writer Tom Kratman calls “eternal verities:” the truths about right, wrong, and human nature that are written into the laws of the universe. The very best sort of plot involves people acting out those verities -- after having tried to deny and defy them. At the end of such a story (if it’s been well told), the reader feels that he’s learned a “home truth,” or at least has had one reinforced. Even if he doesn’t consciously realize it, his awareness of how people act, and how they must act to get what they want without creating chaos where order belongs, is brighter than before.
But the “Mary Sue” protagonist is too perfect to be “people.” He cannot enact such a theme without being wrong, and seriously so, at some point in the story...which would diminish his perfection in the author’s eyes.
This argues for the maintenance of a “safe distance” between the author and his characters.
By that I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t love your characters. You should, and the more ardently the better. But neither in real life nor in fiction should love demand perfection. If you’re able to dispassionately enumerate your Marquee Character’s characterological strengths and weaknesses, you’re better off than you would be if you were simply starry-eyed about him, for you can contrive to put him in situations where his weaknesses are being used against him and he cannot deploy his strengths without paying a stiff price, including the enactment of your theme.
There’s a seeming contradiction in this. All the best fiction overflows with passion: the author’s passion for his characters, his agonies at their trials and sufferings, his regret for the prices they must pay to remain faithful to their virtues, and his determination that what is best in Man shall triumph nevertheless. But that passion must be tempered by a counterbalancing dispassion: the ruthless determination to make your hero endure the sufferings that his decisions entail.
Yes, you’ll suffer as he suffers. You’ll leak tears at every loss he incurs and every wound he suffers. You’ll wish more than once that you’d never set your fingers to the keys.
But Nietzsche was right about one thing, at least: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Your vicarious trials will strengthen you by testing your convictions about how things are and how they must be. And you will become better able to produce good fiction thereby.