Ah, the sensationalized “Mary Sue.” Chances are, if you’re into writing or art, you’ve heard of the concept. It’s the idea of a character, in this case female, who is an over-the-top type of generic–if that’s at all possible. If you’ve never heard of it before, I would recommend a quick Google search. You’re going to come up with a handful of results, including “tests” to see whether or not YOUR character is, in fact, a Mary-Sue.
I’ve taken some of these tests. They’re kind of interesting, if you’re spending an afternoon trying to write something and are in desperate need of something to distract yourself, lest you end up with any actual work done. But I’m here to tell you a little secret.
The whole “Mary Sue” thing is highly overrated.
Yup. Not that you shouldn’t take some of those suggestions about your character to heart, but in the end, the entire concept of the Mary Sue arose from fanfiction culture–wherein there is an over-saturation of wish-fulfillment stories involving wildly over-reaching teenagers living out hormone-driven fantasies. (A lot of which seem to involve bubblegum-colored hair.) Is that a bad thing? Not nearly as bad as some writers/artists would have you believe. They make it seems like Mary Sues are an epidemic afflicting the artistic world, when in fact you’re most likely to see them while perusing Deviantart… And no 12-year-old exploring art, prose, and budding sexuality should be shamed for having a character who is part-elf, part-centaur, part alien-warrior-princess, with flowing pink hair, the body of a Victoria’s Secret model, and the ardent feelings of every male character in attendance as she fights to save the whole world single-handedly, despite her crippling back-story, not to mention a personal connection to other important characters.
(Yeah, that’s kind of the Mary-Sue thing in a nutshell.)
Of course these aren’t characteristics that more experienced writers and artists want in their characters… But that’s just the thing. We’ve grown up. We’ve grown out of that phase. Theoretically, if we’re still doing this, we’ve honed ourselves and our vision of the world. We’ve realized we don’t have to throw all the ingredients in at once to have a good cake. And we’re not living out self-importance fantasies through our art. (Or at least, we’ve gotten better at hiding it, because again, there are lots of people waiting in the wings to judge you if you say your character is based on you.)
I hate the Mary Sue issue, and I’ll tell you why. Because it puts a totally unnecessary pressure on artists. It’s yet another set of arbitrary rules that someone came up with, because they thought it was silly and “unrealistic” for characters to be all these things. And yeah, okay, the results aren’t always great to read/look at. But who says? At the end of the day, you should be able to create whatever you want… And the rest of the world can deal with it, or click on that convenient little ‘X’ in the upper-right corner. (That’s upper-left for you MAC users.)
It also adds just one more area to be paranoid about for us writers. Are our characters “unique” enough? Are they saving the world, but not being too showy or all-powerful about it? Are they portrayed as realistically over-weight, or disabled, or given some kind of flaw that makes them more ‘human’? Can’t give them a weird hair color, even if it makes sense, because Mary Sue, you know. Can’t have too many characters in love with them, because isn’t that just being a bit too greedy? Don’t want to give them a tragic back story; that could be too much?
Isn’t it bad enough we have to live with all of these expectations as PEOPLE, without having to impose it on our characters as well?
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to make your characters unique, or real, or flawed, or human. Do that. But don’t stress about it so much. The fact is, a lot of your characters are going to come out seeming the same regardless. It’s the truth. Think of the narrators/main characters in some of the most popular books you’ve read–ESPECIALLY those told in first-person. Don’t they seem just a little bit interchangeable? A spunky attitude, and yet just trying to survive? Doing the right thing even though it’s hard? Toeing the line, falling in love with the main? Pretty, but usually self-effacing, without any kind of major detractors?
Yeah. And that’s because we, as writers, want to appeal to as many people as possible. We want readers to be able to insert themselves mentally into our story. Which is easiest if we start with a “factory model default setting”-type character. Someone who might have some flaws or distinctive characteristics but who is, for all intents and purposes, someone that doesn’t stand out too much or alienate themselves from the masses. If you want crazy, quirky character traits, you save those for the secondary characters. If you think back, you’ll probably remember that a lot of your favorite characters are secondaries or villains–and you though the protagonist was OK.
Again, I point you to the above. It’s because the main character is SUPPOSED to be a Mary Sue. Not the kind that I described earlier, mind you… Not the roleplay identity of a young girl on Gaia Online. The kind of Mary Sue that is a default. Does that always work? No. Can you get away with making much more “niche” characters? Of course! And publishing is always looking for new voices, new points of view. (Although I will say that “mainstream” writing has a lot fewer of these than, say, literary writing.) They want to try to branch out. So never be afraid of writing WHATEVER story you want, and whatever CHARACTER you want, because I guarantee SOMEONE out there will read it and find it worthwhile.
Just remember to first decide whether your audience is made of pre-teens on fanfiction.net, women readers in an ethnic-views study class, or the world at large. It will make all the difference to your success.
And never let anyone tell you what you can and can not write. Everything is considered ‘wrong’, until someone figures out how to do it the right way. 🙂