The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, is a wonderful book. The writing is beautiful, the story sucks you in like a movie does, and the characters are engaging and loveable- especially Kvothe.
It’s good that Kvothe is loveable, being the main character and all, but I was actually surprised by how much I liked him. He’s the ‘more clever and skilled than everyone’ character that can so easily be flat and boring. His ‘flaws’ are a fiery temper- which is often a praised character trait- and pride, which is well-founded due to his talent. To top it all, his eyes change color based on his mood. In short: Kvothe is a Mary-Sue.
But despite the general hatred for Mary-Sues, it works.
Now, Kvothe’s character doesn’t work for everyone. He seems to be the biggest problem people have with the book, based on Goodreads reviews. But Kvothe never annoyed me, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why. It was only halfway through the second book that it clicked.
Kvothe is an engaging character because we’re not reading to see him succeed, we’re reading to see him fail.
The story-within-a-story format is essential. When we first meet Kvothe, he’s a quiet, sad innkeeper. He’s still a stranger to the town. His inn is empty. His is the largest silence in the silence of three parts.
But the beginning of his story, chronologically, is classically heroic. Sworn enemies, powerful secrets, a beautiful woman… His narrative should end in a palace, in a ballad. Not in a failing inn.
One of the reasons people read, especially people who read fantasy, is to see the impossible become possible. To see a hobbit triumph over an empire. To see a boy living under the stairs defeat a dark lord. To see four displaced children become kings and queens.
Anyone can fail, can fade into obscurity. But not great heroes. Not perfect people. That would be… impossible.
And so the cleverer Kvothe is, the more he succeeds, the harder it becomes to reconcile the past-Kvothe with the present-Kvothe.
This dissonance makes me keep reading. I need to know how the two stories join up. By itself, the main story of Kvothe’s rise to fame is only mildly interesting, but its context changes everything.
And yes, there is a thrill that comes with such a classic hero’s journey. The flashbacks do have to have their own appeal, since they make up most of the book. We are reading to see how he became a legend. But we’re also reading to see how Kvothe the Arcane, Kvothe the Bloodless, Kvothe the Kingkiller, fades away.
So how can you handle a perfect Mary-Sue character? Make them fail. Make them do everything right and still fail. And not only that, but the reader needs to know that the character will fail. It may be hard to pull off. I have no idea how Rothfuss will manage it. But it creates a wonderful, tragic tension that draws the reader along.
What are some other well-done Mary-Sues?