Designing your protagonist is a daunting task. At this point in your storytelling adventure, you've crafted a compelling adventure, plotted your hero's journey, and compiled a list of obstacles to throw in their path. But there is just one problem: Your lead keeps waltzing through danger without a care in the world. People die all around them, and they just shake it off like Ms. Swift.
You've fallen victim to the infamous Mary Sue.
If you book--and considering your interest in this blog, you really should--then you're probably familiar with the term "Mary Sue." But for those of you outside of our elite club, allow me to educate.
Have you ever read/watched a character and just thought, "Man. That is totally not a real person. They are too good at everything they do, and nothing seems to bother them much." Then you've seen a Mary Sue.
A Mary Sue is an idealized caricature. They are the author inserting her/himself into the story. Coined from Star Trek fanfiction (because, of course it was), this unfortunate turn for a character can be found in almost every medium. Think about any YA novel you've ever read. Seriously. Any one of them. It is almost guaranteed that there was a Mary Sue or seven.
The Divergent series is basically an entire franchise based around Mary Sues. John Wick? Trends a little close, considering he is basically in a video game with an aimbot hack turned on. What about any character from CSI: Briscoe County? Or Doctors Without Underwear? How is it that a surgical tech is also an experienced brain surgeon/krav maga instructor/slam poet?
It's Mary Sue.
Writers, by nature, put themselves into their work. Stephen King put himself into a never-ending roster of drug-fueled ink jockeys in the seventies and eighties. M. Night throws himself into deus ex machina roles for his films. J.K. Rowling made Hermione, and we've never thanked her enough.
The point is, it's not inherently wrong to want to place a version of yourself into your story. I am totally guilty of that (there's a Jewish soldier facing off against the possible extinction of mankind. Really, Adam? REALLY? YOU THINK YOU'RE FOOLING ANYONE?!?). At the same time, you have to remember that the story comes first. And stories are best told by characters that fit within that universe...and are also realistic.
The original Mary Sue was a parody. She represented the common flaws of characters created for fanfiction. She got along well with every crewmember, perfect at everything (the youngest Starfleet graduate with aces in blah blah blah blah blah), and died a hero with full honors at the ripe young age of who gives a crap. She was, in every way, wish fulfillment on the part of the author.
But characters in a novel/movie/TV series can't be perfect. They have to have flaws, otherwise there is no journey to enjoy. If Buffy had started out the show as the perfect, omniscient slayer of vampires, it wouldn't have been worth watching. I mean, I still would have given it nineteen seasons, but that's because Joss can do no wrong in my eyes.
Look at a show that revels in the Mary Sue-ness of its main character: 24. Jack Bauer is a freaking god. No, I'm not talking about his ability to go a full day without pooping. Nor is this a tirade against him mowing down countless bad guys without any emotional fallout. I'm talking about him somehow traveling around Los Angeles in less than 24 hours.
The best episodes of 24 show Jack at his worst. He fails to stop an assassination. He messes up and a bomb kills a bunch of people. He is tired and falls asleep, letting a bad guy escape. Those are the episodes that kept me coming back. It's when Jack is somehow able to single-handedly fly a helicopter into a space station to stop the Cobra Commander from eating the Constitution that I lose interest.
Characters need flaws to seem human. Characters need to seem human to be interesting. Characters need to be interesting to keep you coming back for more.
Take one of my new favorite shows: The Expanse. Every character in that show is fundamentally flawed, and it's amazing. Miller is a tough-as-nails cop who can't get out of his own way. His dogged pursuit of his goals, combined with a martyr-complex, leads him down dark and troubled corridors. Amos is missing the part of his brain that computes empathy, and he laments that fact between handing out viscous beatings. Even the villains are nuanced, and they're more than willing to admit when their version of events turns out to be wrong.
Take a look at the actions your character takes throughout the story. Did they come out of that fight too easily? Are they scaling mountains, even though they started their journey as a baker's apprentice? Are they too smooth with the opposite sex, even though they don't speak the language?
Throw out the mold of the perfect protagonist. Your stories, your characters, and your readers will thank you.