You’ve heard the complaints: So-and-so character’s a Mary Sue/Marty Stu! Why are all these anime protags same-faced and boring? Damn, this character is clearly just a shoddy stand-in for the author!!
Over the last decade or so, critics have often leveraged “that character is SO OBVIOUSLY a self-insert” as a complaint against movies, shows, and books. In a lot of ways, they’d be right to complain; self-insert characters can ruin a story. Such a character may be so overpowered that we know that they’ll always win. Or, they may follow a romance arc tread by so many previous protagonists that the arc has become flat and predictable.
For example, harem protag #44783 usually has dark hair, a medium build, and displays barely enough charisma to attract the neighbor’s dogs. The love interests, in contrast, radiate attractiveness by default and feature hair colors that would make a rainbow jealous, and they inexplicably fall in love with our boring protagonist over the course of the show. Rinse and repeat for harem protag #44784.
Or what about that perennial spiky-haired lead character who always manages to grunt and groan their way to victory? Sure, they may initially have trouble defeating the big bad, but eventually the power of the plot gives them the strength to overcome the antagonist. Maybe they’ll even make friends with the former mass murderer, and all will be well…until the next big bad shows up.
Do these very vague examples remind you of stuff you’ve watched or read before? If they don’t, then congratulations; you’re pure and can stop reading this article.
But, for the rest of us unenlightened folks, these protagonists either annoy our academic sensibilities — or they pull us into their stories and give us an escape from our dreary lives.
Now we’re getting closer to the purpose of this article: a discussion about why overpowered, boring, cookie-cutter, plot-armor-infused characters aren’t as bad as we might think of them.
As mentioned in my Rock Lee article, Lee — a true underdog in every sense of the word — would be a more relatable main character for the Naruto franchise; and yet, Naruto himself saw great success as the protagonist despite being a reincarnated demigod with a demon shoved into his belly. But why is that? Surely, we average humans would prefer to spend more time with someone as weak as we are — rather than someone blessed by the gods, right?
What this line of questioning overlooks is the fact that we consume stories not just to relate with the characters, but, in many cases, to distract ourselves from our lives. Unless you were born into a family that can give you a “small loan of a million dollars” anytime you want it, you probably don’t enjoy your life that much; you dream of being a princess or prince (of tennis). You dream of having powerful magic at your fingertips and of drowning in sexy abs and bosoms.
Those anime, where the protagonist pops out of the womb with plot blessings, give us our fantasies. The main characters live our dreams for us, and we vicariously live our sad little dreams through their overpowered adventures. They become our self-inserts into Konoha, Eorzea, the Spirit Realm, etc.
Indeed, why be Rock Lee when we can be a demigod? Why be boring and of medium height when we can be boring, of medium height, and swamped in bosoms? We already suffer enough in our day-to-day lives, so give us our guilty pleasures, “high-quality writing” be damned. I’m watching Kamisama Kiss and Haruhi Suzumiya tonight; no stopping me now, critics!
With all the difficulties that average people go through, and especially in light of the current pandemic, self-insert characters and stories play even more important roles. They help us to stave off stress and loneliness, and take us to strange, beautiful lands where we can put behind — even if just for thirty minutes — the pressures of keeping a job or maintaining a good college GPA.
Sometimes, it does us good to drop our anti-Mary Sue pitchforks and just enjoy a simple show where two opponents yell and moan and grunt at each other until the self-insert character comes out on top.
Or bottom, if that’s what you prefer.
Viet is a Californian grad student with a penchant for burgers, anime, and snark. When he’s not writing or illustrating, he’s maining Doomfist and being generally a pain in Overwatch.