Having been influenced by a school of genre-savvy writers, gamers and friends in college, I feel an immense pressure to avoid turning my characters into Mary Sues. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, a Mary Sue (originally a fan-fiction term, I believe, but now used more widely in all sorts of stories) is, according to the wikipedia article:
“…[A] fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as ‘Mary Sues’ is that they are too ostentatious for the audience’s taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the ‘Mary Sue’ character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an ‘author’s pet’.”
The most ridiculed example of this lately has been Smeyer’s Bella Swan — but of course, Twilight has pretty much become the example among genre-lovers of how not to write anyway, so that’s hardly surprising. Someone pointed out to me recently a very amusing Mary Sue Litmus Test that you can take for your own characters… And it left me quite horrified with my own.
You see, I have become frightfully paranoid that readers will roll their eyes just the way I do, when I read about a character’s golden hair or their piercing gaze. But does that mean I have to be afraid of commenting on beauty entirely, for fear of making said character a Mary Sue?
After all, there are plenty of characters in popular fiction that have both looks and talent. Just from my own favorite books from adolescence comes to mind Marisa Coulter and Lord Asriel from Pullman’s His Dark Materials; both are, in a way, paragons of their own gender. For some reason, they just don’t seem to annoy us as much.
So is the Mary Sue Litmus test alone, enough to determine the annoyingness of a character? I don’t know, but something has to be done to quell my Mary Sue anxiety or this story is never going to get written, just ripped apart due to my own self consciousness.
I found myself thinking about one character of mine in particular, thinking that it might be interesting to give her the power (via beauty and sexual appeal) of being a kind of fantasy for the men in the world, however she isn’t at all interested in being so. Unbeknownst to me, there was already a book precisely about this called Fire, which I’ve bought from Powells and plan to review at some point… Anyways, I can’t decide whether giving her beauty in addition to her prowess as a member of this group of kind of psychic hunters is way too much or not.
I hope that it will work itself out, in time, as she turns from sort of a vague idea into a fully-formed personality. I just found myself writing… “Truly, she was loveliest at times like this — when no one was watching — but it didn’t matter; she was other things entirely.” No matter what happens to her, I think I’m going to keep this idea. Maybe get rid of the dashes and the semicolons, but keep the idea.
And not beat myself up TOO much for having something Mary Sueish… Because I have a suspicion that it really depends on the merit of the book as a whole, whether or not the Mary Sueishness of one character is really annoying to a reader or not. After all, how can we expect no portion of our own identity to end up in characters of our own design?
I don’t think it’s as much of an issue now as it was when she first began… It’s morphed kind of from her being a fantasy because she’s hot, and more into her being a fantasy because AS a member of these warriors, she’s kind of denied aspects of her gender and not allowed to marry… Thus, she’s unattainable. Anyway.
I have a problem with beauty. Writing about it has always bugged me, and it always will… Must be a feminist pseudo-intellectual thing, or perhaps my own adolescent history of feeling ugly as hell. I don’t know, in any case it gets in my way. I can’t agonize every time I comment on a character’s appearance, wondering whether it’s too superficial or not…