(Apologies for the silence! We return to your irregularly-scheduled programming now… ish.)
(Also, spoilers! for MATCHED, THE HUNGER GAMES and TWILIGHT.)
Mary-Sues are a universal evil of the literary world (or, if you’re 13, a totally realistic and appealing character). They’re too pretty, too kind, too powerful, too smart, too ass-kicking. They never fail. They suck.
They are also, however, disproportionately common in female protagonist POVs, and difficult to avoid entirely. To an extent, all fiction offers at least some wish fulfilment. Even dystopic tales of subjugation and control diametrically emphasise freedom and resistance. Narrative progression ensures character development ensures change – and usually for the better. It’s why we read – because reading is an escape, always. Sometimes, you want to spend time with a character whose world is slightly more awesome than yours.
Then we have the opposite. Authors, terrified of getting stuck with the Mary-Sue shame-label, create characters who are simple, ordinary, average (like you and me. I mean, unless you’re a dragon-defeating warrior princess, in which case you should really be shopping for a new wand or whatever), who get dragged into events beyond their control and even their interest. But when these identifiable characters continue to refuse their Call to Action and resist involvement in the actual plot, things go from realistic to boring fast.
So here’s the conundrum: how do you make a character interesting enough to be worthy of a reader’s time and attention, but not so ridiculously amazing that their journey reads more like an author’s dream journal than a novel?
We can illustrate this dilemma with real-life literary examples. Maybe I’m beating a dead horse here, but some of the best examples of the Mary-Sue vs. Boring Betty debacle come from major debuts in recent YA history: think Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES, Cassia in MATCHED and (do I even need to say it?) Bella in TWILIGHT.
Let’s start off with the most recent – Ally Condie’s Cassia. She’s just a normal girl in a perfect world living out her pre-planned life to a tee – until she falls for the wrong guy. Let me preface this with a disclaimer: I did not enjoy MATCHED. (More on this later.) One of the biggest reasons for this was that I felt Cassia was just way too boring to devote an entire novel to. Sure, she rebels from the Society’s restrictions, but mostly in though – in her own head. She and Ky get together… and hold hands. Then she goes off and farms somewhere, planning to search out her lost love, with no ostensible plan. I’m fairly sure Cassia’s primary character trait is boring.
Then we have Katniss, whose name should be your first tip-off to her Mary-Sue undertones. Not so fast, though – Katniss is complex, self-reliant and, well, kind of a bitch. However, she’s also preternaturally and prodigiously talented with a bow and arrow, gifted with a beautiful singing voice and – like Bella – she’s got the ~secret pretty~ thing nailed. Katniss is primped and preened in every single book, adored by viewers who don’t actually want to see her die (shocker), and given the nickname ‘The Girl on Fire’.
But then MOCKINGJAY happens.
The beautiful, ass-kicking, heart-breaking Katniss gets scarred, tortured and develops a pretty serious morphling addiction. She kills again – this time, almost indiscriminately – and resists, resists, resists getting sucked into a war she wants no part of (even though it’s against the regime who stuck her in an arena to kill off other kids. Que?). She spends most of her time in a coma. MOCKINGJAY is about a war whose leader doesn’t want to fight. In losing interest (and often consciousness), Katniss ensures we lose ours too.
Bella brings up the rear, and the winning Mary-Sue position – possibly of all time. Has there ever been an author with such blatant self-inserting intentions? Bella is adored by the boys at her new school, equally hated by the girls, and the only girl in a hundred years to catch the eye of ridonkulously handsome vamp Edward. When her vamps her in return, she turns out to be the best of them all. Possibly the most annoying thing about Bella-Sue is her unrelenting denial of any and all of these traits. Is she modest or stupid? Either way, they could’ve renamed the stereotype after Bella when Meyer was done with her.
So how do you find the balance? It takes practice and revision. It also requires neutrality. Not everyone will love your character; not everyone will have disliked Cassia like I did. Instead of making your character likeable, make them compelling. Someone whose world and experiences you’d be happy to follow, for good or bad.
And remember: if you’re planning on experimenting with a new character, get tested first.