Last night, I finished reading the Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler. It was an entertaining if formulaic military historical fantasy series, but one particular character in it, Marcus d'Ivoire, rubbed me the wrong way the whole time. I could have sworn I'd seen him somewhere before – and after a little thought, it was clear why. He was specifically generic. That is, he represented an exact trope I've seen more than once.
A man who's in his thirties (old enough to be 'seasoned', young enough to be vigorous) whose primary defining trait is his honor and nobility of character. He makes mistakes, but he's always trying to do the right thing: it just doesn't always work out. Other characters joke about how honorable he is, but anyone who sincerely doesn't like him is a bad person. By way of flaws, he tends to be somewhat oblivious, and he is of course charmingly chauvinistic (he knows women are equal to men, but he feels such an urge to protect them!).
I say charmingly, because women in the story often seem to appreciate it on some level. And this, to me, is the greatest offense. A sexist character isn't the worst thing in the world, especially in settings where sexism is logical or expected. It's when that character's prejudices are represented as acceptable or even endearing to the subjects of those prejudices that my hackles rise. I'm sure there are women out there who appreciate 'chivalry', but I haven't met them yet. For the entire story to be populated by women who cherish their freedom of agency, yet find these attitudes a mild irritation at worst, defies belief.
Now this might sound like another "Marty Stu/Gary Stu" complaint, but I think this is worth highlighting as a problem because…
1) It's not just a general "oh, he's good at everything" issue. These characters do make mistakes and have legitimate faults.
2) And when I see this character, he's often in an otherwise pretty solid book. Shadow Campaigns is well worth reading if you enjoy the genre. I'm a legitimate fan of the Expanse series, but Holden (pretty much the protagonist of the whole thing) fits this archetype to a T as well. Both of these series demonstrate their authors' skill and versatility, yet the flatness of these characters bogs them down.
Now, I'm not trying to pick on male writers as a whole, or even these specific writers. I'm sure lots of people of every gender do this, and I'm probably blind to similar faults in my own work. But I suspect there are a lot of stories out there with this problem, because I think it comes from one of several possible places:
- This is 'your' character. I suspect it's not a coincidence that those two series were written by gamers. Marcus and Holden come across as the authors' insert, simpler characters than the far more interesting casts that surround them. Makes sense; a lot of times, you just want to be the good guy.
- You want to appeal to your audience. This kind of character might be seen as the ‘easy’ protagonist: even his flaw comes from a good place, so he’s likable. The problem is, I think authors overestimate HOW likable this character will be. In both Shadow Campaigns and the Expanse, Marcus and Holden were the low points for me. Sure, I'm not the audience they're meant to appeal to, but actively turning readers off is a problem.
If you’re reading this and thinking “Oh shit, that sounds like my character!”, I think there are ways around this. Ned Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire is a perfect example of someone who LOOKS like he might be this, but isn’t. Ned Stark is different because his honor is a true flaw – it runs so deep that his one act that ‘betrayed’ it torments him for his whole life, and in the end, it even gets him killed.
Now I’m not saying you have to literally kill these characters – but if you want to build a character around these tropes of honor and nobility, just keep in mind they should have real, solid consequences. That alone is a big first step toward avoiding Mr. Hero McGoodguy.
I welcome any thoughts or discussion on this topic! Where have you spotted a Hero McGoodguy, how to avoid them, your own struggles with writing them…