Perfect Characters: When They Work and When They Don’t

I’ve been thinking a bit about protagonists in fiction, specifically, what makes a character interesting. My first thought was of those characters that do everything a little too well. These perfect characters don’t interest me at all, but as I thought about it a little more, I realized that sometimes they work. I even like some of them, so I decided to write up my thoughts about these perfect characters.

Allegory

Sometimes a character is perfect because the author is writing an allegory and needs that perfect character to emphasize weakness in others (like Georgiana in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” or the titular character in Melville’s Billy Budd). These perfect characters are used as symbols for something greater than humanity, so their perfection is used to contrast the humanity of others. I don’t find these characters to be all that interesting, but I understand their purpose. I think these characters work best when they’re used as side characters rather than protagonists.

Satire

Another type of perfect character is found in satire. Austin Powers is a satirical take on the perfect spy, James Bond (more on him later). Ned Flanders from The Simpsons is the perfectly satirical portrayal of American conservative Christianity. Jettero Heller from Hubbard’s Mission Earth series is a parody of the sci-fi hero. Satirically perfect characters either have no flaws, or ridiculously contrived flaws. They do no wrong and everything works out for them because that perfection highlights how ludicrous the subject of the parody actually is. This may be the best way to write a perfect character. It works across all mediums, and as long as the parody itself is good, the perfection of the character isn’t distracting.

Mary Sue

Lastly, and most obnoxiously, is the Mary Sue/Gary Stu perfect character. These perfect characters have no purpose in their perfection. The only reason they’re perfect is because the creator wants to be that character. These characters are the author’s ideal, but unfortunately, idealistic characters become very boring, very quickly. Mary Sues always do the right thing for the right reason. They magically have abilities that are perfect for whatever situation they end up in, and they always end up with their romantic interest.

That said, not all Mary Sues are bad characters. Sometimes, like in movies, where the audience likes happy endings and is only exposed to the character for about 2 hours, Mary Sues are great. Ferris Bueller, Han Solo, Superman, John McClane, all of them are Mary Sue characters that can do no wrong and have no (real) flaws or weaknesses, but their movies are highly entertaining and they’re some of the most loved characters of all time. The key to having a good Mary Sue in movies is actually the surrounding characters. Look at James Bond (see I told you I’d get back to him). Bond is the ultimate movie Mary Sue (or Gary Stu if you prefer), he gets all the women, has a great car with nifty gadgets, looks good in a tux, and gets snappy one-liners. His movies are successful because of that, but when I watch them, I’m more interested in the villains than Bond himself. Bond is kind of boring. He’s going to do the same thing in every movie: seduce a woman, get a mission, shoot stuff, drink a martini, get in a car chase, shoot more stuff, then seduce another woman, roll credits. The order may change a bit, but it’s always the same actions. The variety of villains is what makes Bond a successful character, even if the villains are a kind of Villain Sue.

TV can also get away with Mary Sues, though to a lesser extent. Zach Morris (Saved by the Bell), Samantha Carter (Stargate SG-1), Lana Lang (Smallville), and Rose Tyler (Doctor Who, also include any companion that only appears in a Christmas episode), were all Mary Sues. Some of them were great, popular characters, others became annoying as the series went on. The more we’re exposed to a Mary Sue, the less we tend to like them. That’s why television can get away with them, but only for a while.

For me, the most annoying Mary Sues are in books. They can ruin a book. I was reading one of the Sword of Truth books a little while ago and could barely get through it because Richard Rahl is such a Mary Sue. Bella Swan from Twilight is another Mary Sue. These characters are so perfect that they can do no wrong and are practically worshiped by those around them. The biggest problem with these characters is that they bend the narrative and force the reader to see the author in the writing. The whole fictional universe warps itself around a Mary Sue and it can easily break the suspension of disbelief.

While it’s rare, there can be good Mary Sues in books. It’s so rare that I can only think of one character that qualifies, Tyler Durden from Fight Club. What makes Tyler a good Mary Sue, however, is that 1) he’s not the focus of the novel, though he is a primary character, and 2) he doesn’t try to do the right thing. He’s still a Mary Sue since he’s perfect at everything he does, other characters fawn all over him, and he’s absolutely the wish-fulfillment of his creator, but he isn’t a hero.

***

There you have it. My thoughts on perfect characters. I was originally intending this post to be about imperfect and flawed characters as well, but I got a bit sidetracked. Maybe I’ll write up my thoughts on those other subjects later. Anyway, I’d love to hear your examples of perfect characters and if/why you like/hate them.

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