Unleaded: Fuel for Writers is pleased to host Loren Rhoads as our Guest Blogger for Friday, October 30th, 2015. Loren’s first book in a space opera trilogy, The Dangerous Type, was published by Night Shade Books in July. The series will be completed by Kill By Numbers (September 1) and No More Heroes (November 3) before the end of 2015. Loren’s blog post for us is about the eponymous “Mary Sue.” Authors are accused of using “Mary Sue” protagonists as proxies for a form of “wish-fulfillment” – beautiful, smart, skilled. In short, too perfect to be “real” for the purposes of the reality of the book. Loren gives us her view. Take a read and then let us know what you think.
Is Your Character a Mary Sue?
One of the sharpest criticisms leveled against female characters written by women is that the heroines are Mary Sues: unbelievably perfect women who are beautiful, smart, competent, and can do no wrong. Because men apparently never write about genius billionaire playboy philanthropists (Tony Stark) or Star Fleet captains who woo all the girls (James T. Kirk) or ageless madmen traveling the universe in Police Boxes who are too cool to use an actual name (the Doctor).
The term Mary Sue dates back to Paula Smith’s parody “A Trekkie’s Tale,” published in 1973 in her fanzine Menagerie #2. Only 15 and a half, Lt. Mary Sue is one of the youngest officers ever to serve aboard the Enterprise. In fact, she wins the Nobel Peace Prize and the Vulcan Order of Gallantry, among other awards, for taking command of the ship when the chief officers are stricken after an away mission. They all gather at her deathbed to cry over her passing.
Now, there is a “helpful” online quiz to check if your character is a Mary Sue. Some of the issues it attacks are double-edged swords. In real life, everyone has noticed that when they enter a relationship with someone, the object of affection is perceived as more attractive than he or she may actually be. If a POV character describes the protagonist of your story as beautiful – or pretty or striking or anything other than plain or average – is that a case of the author inflating the appearance of her self-identified character or is it actually good characterization of the POV personality?
If the author gives the main character a name that shares a starting letter with her own name, is that because names tend to have a limited number of starting letters? If a character has an exotic name, is that wish fulfillment on the part of the author or simply admiration of the Chrysanthemums, Jadas, and Saorises of the world?
If the character seems to have exotic skills or to be extremely competent, does that mean that the author is projecting – or that, as in the case of Raena Zacari and her lethal killing skills, it’s all the character knows? One of the criticisms aimed at my space opera trilogy is that the crew of the Veracity are skilled at their jobs: which they obviously would be, since they were chosen for that exact reason. It seems weird to me that competence would be viewed as a negative feature in an action story.
Then again, almost every female character has been charged with being a Mary Sue, from Bella Swan to Rose Tyler to Buffy Summers to Katniss Everdeen. It almost seems as if critics would prefer to only read about masculine heroes who are strong, competent, romantically irresistible…say, someone like James Bond?
To be honest, all the characters in my novel Kill By Numbers have a little piece of me in them: Gavin reflects my struggles with addiction; Coni depicts my fascination with legal personhood; Raena shares my insomnia.
The Mary Sue is not the skinny, muscular assassin depicted on the cover of the first book with silver hair like mine. (Because, of course, I didn’t have any say over the cover image and Raena’s hair, throughout the series, remains black.) The Mary Sue of the series is Mykah Chen, the African Chinese pirate journalist. I don’t imagine any of the trilogy’s reviewers will ever guess that.
Of all the people in my trilogy, the one closest to me in reality is Mykah, who got elected captain of the Veracity because no one else wanted the job. He’s a journalism graduate whose ideals were too high to accept an entry-level job in his field of study (like your humble narrator). He worked in food service (ditto) before he ran away to become a pirate. (Well, I haven’t become a pirate yet, but I am trying to raise my daughter to be one.) Mykah aspires to use storytelling to change the galaxy. That’s me in a nutshell.
I think it’s important – probably even obligatory – that your characters embody parts of your personality. It falls under the command to “write what you know.” I think it’s equally important for you to stretch what you know about people, borrowing both from people you know and those you’d like to, as you create your characters.
Don’t let anyone tell you they are Mary Sues.
Loren Rhoads is the author of The Dangerous Type, Kill By Numbers, and No More Heroes — the In the Wake of the Templars trilogy — all published by Night Shade Books in 2015. You can find out more at www.lorenrhoads.com.