Earlier today, I was talking to a coworker about some of our favorite characters in anime. We discussed the typical picks, like Vegeta, All Might, and Saitama. For most of the discussion, we were in agreement that they were all great characters. But then I brought up Berserk’s own Black Swordsman: Guts.
And the discussion became a debate.
The moment I brought up Berserk, my coworker buddy rolled his eyes. He claimed that Guts is an unlikable and unrelatable ‘Gary Stu’, and that his presence in the story drags it down as a whole. He even argued that Kirito from Sword Art Online is a better character than Guts.
And I got pretty upset.
Today, I’m going full Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney and breaking down, point by point, why Guts isn’t a Gary Stu, and everything well done in the writing of his character. And I assure you, there is a lot.
This is my defense of Guts from Berserk.
Now, for those not in the know, a ‘Gary Stu’ is the male equivalent of a ‘Mary Sue’, a common character issue in many stories. Now, what is a ‘Mary Sue’?
To put it simply, a Mary Sue is a character without flaws, struggles or problems. They are all powerful, beautiful, and loved by all. All the characters around them love and respect the Mary Sue, while the villains due nothing but think about what the Mary Sue is doing right now (instead of, y’know, ruling their evil empires or whatever *cough cough* Voldemort *cough cough*). They have no real motivation to do anything in the story, aside from them simply being a good person.
A good example of this is Kirito from Sword Art Online (because my dear coworker brought him up). In the first season, Kirito just manages to escape the status of Gary Stu. Yes, he’s all knowing, all powerful, and every girl within a mile radius of him wants his dick. However, he does have motivation. In the Aincrad saga, he wants to escape from the death game and survive. In the Fairy Dance saga, he wants to rescue his wife. After that, however, he has no reason to be a part of anything. He simply leaps in and helps during the Gun Gale saga and everything beyond because ‘it’s the right thing to do’.
Guts does not have this issue. Throughout the story, Guts always has some goal to drive him. In his childhood, he wants to earn the respect of his father Gambino. While in the Hawk, he wants to help Griffith achieve his goal, before discovering his lack of a personal goal, at which he leaves to find his own goal. When he returns, he aims to save the remaining members of the Hawk. Then, after the Eclipse, his goal becomes simple and crystal clear: murder Griffith and avenge his comrades.
Motivations are the core of a character. Without them, a character cannot function. They drive us in real life, as each of our decisions affect whether or not we’ll be able to achieve it. The same can be said for fictional characters. Guts’ drive makes him compelling, as you witness his every decision drive him closer to or further from his goals.
But here’s the question: is Guts a Gary Stu due to his power? Fuck no.
See, Guts isn’t necessarily the most powerful character in the series. Hell, in terms of actual ability, he is vastly overshadowed by the monsters that he fights. Sure, he has the Dragonslayer and the Berserker armor, but that can only take him so far. The only reason Guts has managed to stay alive so long is due to his dumb luck and dirty fighting style. He knows that fighting fair isn’t gonna do it, so he pulls all the stops and uses cheap tactics to win.
Now again, compare that to Kirito. In the first arc of his story, Kirito spends a ton of time grinding off screen (he lives in an RPG, it makes sense) and he knows the game inside and out because he was a beta tester. Then, in Alfheim, he lucks out because the game is a sloppy SAO reskin and gets all his stats back. Sure. But from then on, he’s simply an unstoppable bad ass in game because… he’s the protagonist. After Alfheim, he never has to earn anything ever again, and no one stands a chance against him.
Guts is not a Gary Stu. He’s one of the best, most well-written characters in all of fiction. Life has fucked him over time and time again, but he always gets back up. He’s far from perfect, and he’s just as far from unstoppable (although you wouldn’t be wrong to think that he is, given how crazy some of his achievements are). He strides to achieve his goals with underhanded and cheap tactics, sheer luck, and extreme determination. His unstoppable will makes him admirable, his socially awkward and isolated personality make him relatable, and his goals are both compelling and interesting.
Any questions, Tommy from work? I could go on.