Friday evening, 13°F
Listening to Tame Impala, 41 Mosquitos Flying in Formation
Sometimes I lay awake at night worrying about all of the poor, innocent pixels being inconvenienced by online discussions of what does, or does not, make a Mary Sue character. Many of these conversations revolve around the accused Mary Sue’s looks and talents. I contend that those things alone are not what make up a Mary Sue.
Despite what you may have heard, the problem with a Mary Sue isn’t that she’s* precocious, ridiculously beautiful, has remarkable hair, is phenomenally talented, sings like an angel, or is lusted after by all. If those factors alone made a Mary Sue, then the biggest-ass Mary Sue who ever lived was 1971 David Gilmour. Or possibly 1971 Greg Lake. And if you call either of them a Mary Sue, we will surely come to blows, my friend.
Your character needn’t be a homely, talentless sadsack to avoid Mary Sue territory. Here’s what makes a big-ass Mary Sue unbearable, and it’s not her looks or her talents.
- She never makes mistakes. Anything that goes wrong for her happens as a result of dumb luck, or because some envious person is being wicked to her.
- She’s unfailingly sweet. And therefore boring, because there is no such thing as an interesting character who is unfailingly sweet.
- Anything she attempts is an immediate success.
- She is disliked only by those who envy her. Everyone else adores her.
- The only friction in her story happens as a result of jealous people reacting to her *yawn* perfection.
- Before any friction can get very friction-y, someone swoops in to save her.
- She might get inconvenienced, but she’s never going to get screwed.
- She is incapable of making the occasionally Really Lousy Choice** or behaving selfishly. In other words, unlike real humans she is flawless.
- If she has a flaw, it’s not a real flaw, but something adorable like she’s so clumsy (and needs to be rescued) or precious like she’s so empathic that she takes on other people’s pain (and feels sad).
- She never grows as a character. She doesn’t need to because she was born perfect, never makes mistakes, and doesn’t struggle.
- Like her sweetness, her lack of growth renders her as boring and unsatisfying as a bowl of table sugar.
- She never has to try.
- Because she prevails (or is rescued) without growth, change or struggle, the reader never gets to root for her.
Notice how nothing on that list pertains specifically to being young, darned good looking or particularly talented. This is because those features aren’t what make Mary Sue a story killer. They are only minor symptoms of possible Mary Sue-itis. If a character hits most of the bullets above, but is pockmarked and ungainly with bad hair, she is probably still a Mary Sue. If a characteris drop dead gorgeous and insanely talented but can still make mistakes and has to struggle and learn and grow, then she’s not technically a Mary Sue.
Try a sprinkle of asshole
One of the best suggestions I’ve seen on writing compelling characters (and avoiding Mary Sue territory) is to make each character in your story “a little bit of an asshole.” I don’t remember who first said this (probably novelist Chuck Wendig), but man, it’s really the truth. Deep down, you know that the capacity to be a bit of an asshole is what makes a character compelling. This explains why you’d rather hit the beer tent with Tyrion Lannister than Daenerys Targaryen.
Wouldn’t you? I know I would.
So how do you make a character a bit of an asshole? Here are some things to think about.
- Does the character deeply disappoint another character, and not because of a silly misunderstanding, false accusation, or the trickery of Those Who Envy Her, but because of a genuinely poor choice or act of selfishness, weakness, indifference or impulsivity?
- Does the character give another character a ration of shit at some point in the story? If not, she probably should.
- Does the character have any anger, resentments or weaknesses? If not, is it a human?
- Does the character ever do something a perfect person would never in a million years do? (And that she’s not forced to do against her will by evildoers?)
- Does the character have any authentic human flaws? Think about the flaws of people you know. Even people you’re crazy about have their flaws. So should your characters.
Recently I read Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple. Now, if you’re not familiar with Semple, she writes terrific character-driven fiction. I could list all of the ways the main character in her latest novel is a little bit of an asshole (and therefore very real), but the one that sticks out in my mind is when she swipes a set of keys from another parent at her child’s school. You don’t learn of her reasons until much later in the story. It leaves you wondering if she’s suffering from kleptomania. But—no spoilers—it doesn’t turn out to be some perfectly innocent reason. And that’s what makes it good characterization.
*Using “she” only because Mary Sue is generally a female name. A Mary Sue may be any gender.
**Please don’t confuse the occasional Really Lousy Choice™ with Too Stupid To Live™, which, like the Mary Sue, results in character insufferability and may lead to reader book-wall syndrome.