accountability, baroness orczy, bbc merlin, bbc sherlock, captain america, captain america: the first avenger, captain america: the winter soldier, character development, characters, dynamic characters, editing, harry potter, heroes, marvel, marvel superheroes, star wars, story dynamics, the brooklyn project, the scarlet pimpernel, undo the sue, writing
Sometimes, an author will become so preoccupied with his or her hero or heroine that they can do no wrong–even when they are. The rules bend for these protagonists. And people in the stories (and occasionally the reader as well) see nothing wrong with this.
This can potentially lead to the creation of a Mary Sue.
Protagonist-centered morality is bad because it takes away the possibility of accountability as well. If your hero does something wrong, you want it to have repercussions. They can’t just get away with a slap on the hand! It reinforces to the reader that the hero has done something wrong, and it also makes for deeper characters. If the hero has slipped up once, they have to fight harder to even be allowed to do it right the next time..
On the other hand, if you don’t add responsibility, your protagonist can become spoiled and obnoxious (as in real life) or unrealistically angelic (sickening.) The latter would make him/her a Mary Sue, no matter how many de-Sue-ifiers you threw in to try and balance it (without removing the lack of accountability.)
Apart from the message that it sends, that it’s okay to do bad things, it’s bad for the story at large.
I’m trying to think of a few examples, but all I can think of is that, though in the final cut, we never see the response to Steve’s failed attempts to enlist, falsifying information, I think there was actually a scene planned where someone found out and didn’t trust Steve for a while. They just didn’t officially tell anyone because if they did he’d be court-martialed and they couldn’t have that. In the planned Howling Commandos fanfic that I’m writing, I was going to have one of the people in the USO show tour find out and hold it over Steve. There are, however, strong consequences when Steve fails to predict that the train is a trap and save Bucky, even if it’s not technically his fault.
Another example would be the BBC show Merlin. While, all around, this is generally a good show, the BBC slipped up a bit (for once); this show displays a bit of protagonist-centered morality. Though, later on, they add more consequences, even to past actions, early in the show there are a few episodes where Merlin slips up and gets away with it. However, for the show’s other protagonist, Arthur, there are always consequences to his actions. Inconsistent much? Or just waiting around? *sigh* I wish they’d done it earlier on.
In the BBC show Sherlock, we’re actually hoping to see protagonist-centered morality blown out of the water; at the very end of the last season, Sherlock killed someone, point-blank, in cold blood (attempting not to give spoilers here); we want to see how people react to this. There’s always mistrust, and rightly so, after something like that.
In Star Wars, Obi-Wan’s attempt to distance himself, to not become emotionally involved, backfires when Anakin turns to the dark side; Obi-Wan’s aloof affection was simultaneously too much and not enough.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier comes with a thorough message about accountability (where Civil War is essentially about people’s Constitutional rights, from what I’ve heard). This is especially true for Natasha, who risks, in a selfless action that proves she is capable, no matter what she (and incidentally, Hydra) thinks, of heroism, she spills all her dirty secrets across the Internet in order to bring Hydra down (again, trying to avoid spoilers.) Ironically, this bypasses the same failsafe that Hydra thought would protect them; they insist that Natasha (or anyone, really) wouldn’t incriminate herself like that.
From what I’ve heard, Harry Potter is really bad about this–it sounds like he consistently breaks rules of both the magician and human world without any consequences.
One very good book that could make better use of accountability (without outright protagonist-centered morality) that I love is “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” Except for Marguerite, the book doesn’t use it quite as well as it could…
Accountability. Use it for deeper character.
Thanks for reading, and God Bless!