Anyone who’s played around in the world of fan-fiction knows who Mary Sue is. Mary Sue is perfect. She’s beautiful…most likely with at least one physical feature that either lends itself to poetic cliché (hair that shimmers like a raven’s wing) or is honestly a physiological impossibility for Homo-sapiens. (Violet or gold eyes anyone? How about one of each?) She probably comes from some sort of dreadful background–maybe an orphan, much abused, raised in poverty–yet overcomes it all without breaking a nail or suffering from PTSD, and saves the world without breaking a sweat. Men want her. Women want to be her. Children and small animals adore her. Unicorns flock to her and roll over at her feet for tummy rubs even if they’re breaking into the pages from an entirely different genre. She’ll probably have a flowing name of many-vowels like Aulienniayaia. She will not be named Gert.
When I was immersed in Pern Fic, I knew of one Mary Sue who had rose petals strewn in her path. Actual rose petals. By peasants. With much wailing and gnashing of teeth. And why? Because she was moving across town. (And she rode a dragon that wasn’t so much a gold color as… apricot. I don’t personally believe that anyone who rides an apricot dragon is rose-petal strewing material, but I digress.)
But the point is the perfection. The noble, handsome guy who wears artfully torn shirts out of habit just so his chiseled physique has a chance to gleam, and who will face down his foes unflinching. The ethereally beautiful woman who can balance the entire universe with a single word uttered from glistening ruby red lips. You know who I mean. You can probably name a few. You might even have written a few. I know I have.
These are not the sort of people I would willingly hang out with. I have enough of an inferiority complex already, thank you very much. I can’t relate to them. And I would submit to you, gentle authors, that if your readers cannot relate to your main characters, you’re missing out on something important. You’re missing out on the connection that makes your character real. Likable. Someone who isn’t just going to get cheers because she/he is the heroine/hero but because the audience has invested a feeling of…well, of empathy. Maybe even of friendship.
Many years ago, when I wrote the aforementioned Pern fanfiction, I was asked to come up with a Weyrleader (a head honcho for the uninitiated) and, like the newbie I was, I created B’yard. You can probably guess. B’yard (we’ll call him Bay) was stereotypical hero-material: tall, handsome, black hair, (yeah, yeah, raven‘s wing, shut up) built to centerfold specifications, ice-blue eyes, noble out the wazoo, great in a knife-fight and oh yeah, he could dance. And scars. He had an impressive array of scars. (I know, right? I’m so ashamed.)
It didn’t take me long to realize that as a main character, Bay was not going to be a success. You can’t write much about a guy who does everything right, who gets to be leader by being the best, and who leads his people with wisdom and fairness. He’s not a hero anymore. He’s a freakin’ hall monitor.
So I started to mess him up. By the time Bay’s character arc had ended, we learned that he had the political astuteness of an eight-week old Labrador puppy. He was so locked into “doing the right thing” that he was the most easily manipulated character I’ve ever written. His career ambitions totally wrecked his love life. He was clueless when dealing with anyone under the age of 7, including his own son. His habit of dramatically showing off his scars became something of a joke with the dragonriders-in-training. And his penmanship was frankly crap. He had to hire a secretary for all his correspondence. I could have written about him forever. I definitely learned a lot from him.
These days, when a new character starts tapping at the door of my subconscious and I invite him in for a chat over tea and crumpets, I immediately start looking to see what makes him tick. What are his good points? What are his flaws? What makes him stupid? What makes him smart? What makes him human? What redeeming qualities does he have? Does he have enough baggage to complete a journey? Are we going to have to pick some up on the way?
In my Young Adult historical novel I have two main characters who seem to have nothing in common. Marcus is young, highly-educated, something of an intellectual and a complete snob. He can recite poetry. Lupus is older, slow-spoken, intensely private and content to lead a simple life as a blacksmith. He might know a dirty limerick or two, I never asked him. Problem: Marcus is a slave and Lupus is his new owner.
Honestly, once those two characters introduced themselves to me, it would have been pretty impossible not to write about them. Not because they’re perfect or stereotypical hero material, but because they aren’t. And that makes them interesting. At least I sure hope it does!
So, for the writers out there, what are your experiences with character perfection or character flaws? I’d love to hear your input!