I love Harry Potter. Really do.
But I can’t help but wonder if he’s a Mary Sue.
-he gets away with breaking laws (5 points to Gryffindor!)
-he has a prophecy that pertains particularly to him and is a “chosen one”
-he tragic backstory that automatically discredits his faults (not to every…
I don’t usually jump into these things, but I’m such an HP nerd, I’ll make an exception.
He’s certainly got Sueish traits, like every other main character. But yes, there are points in the books where he can come off as a bit more Sue-ish than usual. I’d have to disagree with you on the points of his sue-ness, tho! =P
I’ll try to argument why the points you picked don’t seem that Sue-ish to me (it’s subjective, of course!), and then address the points which I see as problematic to his character. And I will say upfront, sorry for rambling, but HP is a topic I can’t help rambling on.
- Gets away with breaking laws: This one, as a child, I didn’t pay attention to: we were all happy that Harry got to win at everything, because we knew he was the good guy, and good guys should be awarded stuff! When you see it from this childish point of view, Harry getting away with stuff and even being rewarded for it would be a glaring Sue trait. However, casting away that own limited view and accounting for other characters changes this.
How? Well, consider the story ended up setting Harry up as a hero who a Mastermind attempted to ‘groom’ into the perfect martyr, but said Mastermind could not keep his own feelings out of the equation. You’ve got a Headmaster who wants Harry to act like a Hero, hence rewarding reckless heroic actions; or even enabling and encouraging them, and setting up things to the point Harry has no choice BUT to act as the default hero. Broken rules to the goal of grooming him are rewarded, and punishments are held off on the excuse of Harry being “allowed to have a childhood”, a sentiment we heard from Dumbledore’s mouth at the end of the fifth book.
Consider also that the ‘allowing’ authority figures around Harry (e.g. Minerva McGonagall) had close ties with his parents. Does it not seem likely that these people would have their interaction with Harry altered because of whatever affection they had towards his parents? I personally always felt Harry got away with some stuff because McGonagall saw James in him, and the whole staff already had a HUGE bully-enabling issue with the Marauders (and Snape, let’s admit it, because he gave as good as he got).
So is it unfair? Absolutely. But does it make sense within Harry’s story? I think it does, which is why I personally can’t count it as a Sue trait.
- Prophecy that pertains him / Chosen One: This one, I also have never been able to tack on Harry’s Sue traits. Yes, there is a prophecy… but it doesn’t only pertain him. As we all know, Neville was as likely a candidate for this role. Furthermore, the reason Harry was picked in the end wasn’t because he’s inherently special or somehow more powerful, but because of Voldemort’s own character. He picked Harry because he was a half-blood, just like him, so this tells is more about Voldemort’s mentality than Harry’s perceived specialness.
I’ve also always tacked his ‘chosen one’ status as something that his parents and Dumbledore both brought on. He was eligible for the prophecy not because he was special, but because his parents were great wizards: Harry didn’t out-tap-dance Voldie from the womb, his parents made themselves targets because of their role in the War. And with Dumbledore’s meddling, by the time Harry was all grown up, he’d set everything up so the prophecy was very clear-cut. McGonagall herself mentioned once that Divination is not by far a solid science, so it’s likely a prophecy can take many shapes and have many outcomes (I have no doubt if Harry had actually died in the forest, Neville would’ve been the next one fit for the Prophecy, simply because he wouldn’t have given up on defeating Voldemort for as long as he lived, so Voldeort would’ve always found a rival in him until one of their deaths arrived). But the prophecy offered a definite way to end with the Dark Lord, so obviously Dumbledore did all that was in his power to put Harry right in the middle of it, all for the greater good.
- Tragic Backstory that discredits his faults: Thiiiis one, I think you answered yourself. It’s an “immediately special” trait, yes, but these ones, I either count as Sue-ish or non-Sueish depending on the world’s reaction to them. In Harry Potter, it’s done well, because yes, people will often revere Harry for being the Boy-Who-Lived, but there are so many instances where the people who knew him as such end up changing their mind about him, or on the other hand, end up hating him just for being famous.
It’s well-executed: we see people work Harry out to be a Hero and realize he’s just a normal guy (almost everyone in Harry’s year, particularly through Dumbledore’s Army), we see people get disappointed in him (Draco Malfoy on learning Harry doesn’t automatically want to hang out with him), we see people assuming the worst of him for his fame, such as him being greedy or willing to play dirty (Fudge, Bagman, etc.). But the people who dislike him don’t dislike him purely based on him being good (he’s an ass to Malfoy as much as Malfoy is an ass to him, and the way he ended things with Cho was immature and rash as Harry is often known to be), and the people who like him end up doing so despite his faults (whether they be real or perceived by them solely) or thanks to an effort on Harry’s part (or sometimes a lack of interest in holding a disagreement, like with the Hufflepuffs who thought he was the Heir of Slytherin).
Now, let’s move on to what I consider his Sue-ish traits:
- Unrealistic or Unexplained Abilities: The main one that always bothered me is Harry’s “natural” ability in Quidditch. I could just NEVER buy it, that he just got on a broom and *snap* he’s super good at it and just like his father. Unless that sort of ability is magically inherited among magical families or some such, it’s just ridiculous and a trait given to make Harry stand out among his peers. I honestly have no clue why he couldn’t just be ‘okay’ at it, but like it so much that he wanted to keep practicing, eventually becoming as good a flier as his father. His ability comes off as undeserved, and just granted by the author to make him special ‘just because’.
As you can tell, I don’t buy flying abilities being inherited. =P
Another one would be Harry’s inconsistent learning rates. He’s just no good at some simple spells: Accio, which he had to practice like mad to get right while working under pressure, despite having covered it in their coursework. But SUDDENLY way good at very complex spells: conjuring a Patronus is something few GROWN wizards are able to do. And while this one is halfway justified in that Harry had to work half a school year under pressure to achieve, it just hints at a high proficiency at spells that just won’t shine through in the rest of his coursework. Though I have to admit, it might have a LOT to do with the drive a Wizard has, given Harry has always been canonically good at DADA-related spells, and just balls at everything else. I would just have liked to see wizard “power levels” addressed somehow.
- Protagonist-Centered Action: This one, I’ll admit, is because of the format the book is in. Save for the prologues, which were often us looking through the eyes of an unknown characters, all the books were solely in Harry’s point of view. So of course the action seems very Harry-centered, and it can seem that EVERYTHING revolves around Harry all the time.
I count this as a Sue-trait because I consider Sueness to be the result of a failure in writing, not something inherent to a character for having this-or-that trait. There are many questions that a Harry-centered story brings up, which wouldn’t be there if we got a look into other character’s heads. I can say that with certainty, because recently Rowling has been updating full character profiles (namely McGonagall and Lupin’s) that flesh out the character and ANSWER those questions (e.g. Why didn’t Lupin ever try to reach out and raise Harry rather than leaving him with the Dursleys? His profile explains why, via letting you see what a mess his life was and into his psyche). Still, I’m against extra material being needed to explain a story fully, so the books are still painfully Harry-centered.
- Aggressive/Emotional Overreactions without Consequences: This one is another Sue-ish trait I see in Harry, which many Young Adult Novel protagonists suffer from. It revolves around the protagonist (in this case Harry) having a violent emotional reaction and saying or doing something reckless / hurtful, without this being addressed later.
For short books, this doesn’t matter, as it’s something that happens in the moment. For a long series, it gets stressful after a while. Such is the case with Harry and Ron’s mean attitudes towards Hermione without it being addressed and properly forgiven (Hermione just keeps coming back after very lame excuses on their part, which does speak more about her than Harry and Ron, but makes the two main boys look like bullies half the time), or Harry’s berating to his friends without being called out on it after (the most glaring one being the fifth-book “I’M THE CHOSEN ONE, NOT YOU” yelling match at Grimmauld Place). Most of the time, there’s an explanation for it (Voldemort’s stronger hold on Harry’s mind), but the resolution to it doesn’t seem genuine most of the time, and I always feel like Hermione and Ron get the short end of the straw when having to deal with Harry’s emotional bursts.
The one time Harry’s emotional bursts had severe consequences (instead of a slap on the wrist or a bold congratulation for whatever heroics the emotional burst led to) was at the end of the Fifth book, with Sirius’s death. But for most part, the other instances go fairly unnoticed by other characters (perhaps on account of them either fearing Harry or just pitying him too much to really berate him?)
Wow, sorry for the huge blocks of text.