Blog: Perfect protagonists – and their critics

darksoulsI want to talk about something that really baffles me in the book blogging/review community and it is this: the need people have to take a story with a precocious or brilliant main character and slam them as a “mary-sue” or “gary-stu”. The implicit criticism being that they are so perfect that they are annoying. As soon as a ‘critic’ introduces this label it appears to be open season on the legitimacy of both the character and the story. It is dismissive, cheap and painfully arrogant.

Don’t like a story? Fine. Stop reading it. Don’t write a scathing review, despite the fact that you’ve clearly stopped reading before seeing where the story goes. That isn’t constructive criticism and it helps nobody. It is at best lazy, and at worse, malicious. A character that is flawless doesn’t exist. Couldn’t one consider initial perfection itself to be a flaw? I certainly think so. Perfection without growth is stagnation. There is nowhere for a story to go from there. So, if a character was truly so perfect as to be annoying, the story is over.

There are a few widely read and hugely popular works that spring to mind that have received this treatment. One would be the King Killer Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss and another is a book I read recently – Blood Song by Anthony Ryan. Both of these authors have been accused of inserting a ‘perfect’ protagonist. Protagonists that ‘critics’ see as some sort of idealised and unrealistic form, or possibly a warped and perfected self-insert of the author themselves.

I find this to be immensely frustrating as someone who writes about books. Speaking about things that didn’t work in a story for you, as a reader, is fine. It is helpful. But back it up with reasoning and balanced critical thought. Throwing out a claim that you can’t believe that something is popular, or that you didn’t finish reading it because the book harbours a “Mary-Sue” or “Gary-Stu” is lazy, contemptuous and disrespectful to the author and the readers who may listen to you.

It is an ugly term. It is the term of a troll. It is a term steeped in sexism and misogyny and the fact that people have repurposed it to be used as a sort of valid critical device immediately devalues anything you have to say, in my eyes. It isn’t edgy; and it doesn’t lend to your credibility as a critic or reviewer. This community is better than that, and the authors deserve better.

Many of the titles that I’ve seen this term attributed to are immensely popular. So popular that they in no way need a voice on a little backwater blog defending them. I’m not doing that. My purpose in posting this is not to directly defend the books that have been criticised for this trollish trope, but to object to the lazy criticism it implies and to the term itself.

I’m a pretty firm believer in only writing about books that I have finished. So, generally, I only ever write about books that I’ve enjoyed. I like it that way. I see no benefit to shredding the work of an author for a book that didn’t click with me, especially one that I didn’t finish. I’ll just put it down and pick up another. Some may see that as something that undermines my argument here, but I have no desire to wade into a mire of negativity as some sort of subjective public service announcement against a book. Some might see it as their responsibility as a ‘critic’ to write about EVERYTHING good or bad, and that’s fine. But if you’re going to do that at least respect the work enough to see it through. It might change your mind by the end.

I’ll keep writing about things I enjoyed and why – to me, that is a more useful contribution. And if you’ve read this, please, never dismiss a book or character as a “Sue” or a “Stu.” You’re better than that. Want to be controversial? Use your words and an element of critical thinking if you’re going against the stream. Argue your points and provide evidence. Talk about what worked, what didn’t and why. I may not agree with you but I’ll definitely respect it.

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