We’ve all seen it. The character who the author clearly adores and is described in glowing terms, but whose deeds fail to live up to the hype. This is the character who is supposedly an innocent victim of everything, the sweetest, nicest person imaginable, and so on and so on (otherwise known as Mary Sue/Marty Stu).
Some of these get published, both trad and indie. The ones that are just good enough to gull readers like me into a purchase get summary flying lessons if purchased in hard copy and the delete button if purchased electronically.
It’s not often they get me, simply because authors who write these characters simply aren’t that good (usually).
So how do you tell? Or rather, how do you recognize that you’re dealing with one of these in a book, and for the writers among us, how do you avoid writing one?
The first big sign (and this is true in real life as much as in fiction) is that with very, vanishingly few exceptions, nobody is an innocent victim all the time. If everyone is always doing your poor character (or, Dog forbid, your friend) wrong, it’s time to take a closer look at what’s going on. In my experience, even people with severe problems dealing with people aren’t always innocent victims of predators using their lack of social ept against them (and don’t take the author at their word here, either. Think of the author as the ultimate unreliable narrator).
If someone is always being victimized, look for signs that person is trying to manipulate or cheat others – or is using “I got no social skills” as an excuse to be an asshole. Observe the interactions between the person and other characters. Chances are good that the sainted one’s halo has slipped a ways and is very tarnished.
Other characters (or Dog help you, friends) might rush in to support and help the poor dear, but somehow never seem to gain much of anything for it. Or – and this one is a guaranteed flying lesson for a book – everyone raves on about how intelligent or good at something the darling angel is, then the darling angel goes and does something ridiculously stupid that proves the author has no idea about whatever it is that dearest is supposed to be wonderful at (yes, I’ve seen this in real life too, but people frown on being given impromptu flying lessons via the nearest window. Imagine that).
Honestly, if you take your emotions out of it, they’re pretty easy to recognize. The ones I call bullet-makers are worst, and I’ve seen plenty in life, and a few (usually inadvertent) in fiction. These are the innocent saintly ones who don’t ever seem to do anything overtly bad, but somehow chaos and confusion erupt all around them, friendships get shattered, and the cause of it all comes out smelling of roses – unless you’re watching very carefully.
How do you avoid writing them?
That’s where “Show, don’t tell” comes in. You don’t tell people so and so is innocent. You depict an actual innocent who is confused and scared by a situation. People who have nothing to do with bad stuff happening (whether emotional, an online explosion, or something else – real life or written, the principle is the same) don’t react the same way as people who were stirring the pot. People who wouldn’t know innocence if it bit them tend to be unable to write it, so if you can’t, ask someone who can to help you and when they tell you you got it wrong, listen to them.
Similarly, if you’ve got problems recognizing chronic liars (many people do, either because we don’t want to believe that someone is going to deliberately lie when we don’t see a reason for it, or because we don’t really believe that people can be evil and do things to cause harm), read up on some biographies of known liars, watch the behavior of public figures caught lying, and take notes (because oddly enough you’re going to have trouble finding someone willing to tell you that yeah, they’re a pathological liar and sure they’ll help you write one properly – and yes, I do recognize the irony here).
It can be done. When it’s done right, you get characters who don’t make you want to go and shake sense into the author.