Tag Archives: Mary Sue

Hero or Superhero

Usually by this time on Tuesdays, I have an idea about what I’m going to blog about. Heck, I usually have an idea when I get up. Sometimes I even have the post written the night before. But not today. I blame yesterday for it. Between painting and taking down cabinets and an emergency plumbing repair (nothing serious, just threw off my timing on the other projects), my brain wasn’t on writing or blogging. To be honest, I needed a day like that. But, it meant this morning, I was scrambling for a topic.

So I did what I sometimes do in that situation. I went to other blogs, social media feeds, etc., and looked to see what folks were talking about. I came across a couple of different threads on different sites about what readers look for in main characters, especially in genre fiction. The phrasing was different but it all came down to one main question: do readers want heroes or superheroes for their main characters? Or, to put it a little differently, do they want flawed characters who have issues to overcome and who might grow some during the course of the book or story arc or do they want that perfect character who, like Clark Kent, swoops in to save the day and rarely has a hangnail, much less anything seriously go wrong in their life?

In one of the discussions I looked at, someone commented that they didn’t think you needed a character to have flaws or to “grow”. They pointed out characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones and asked how they “grew”. I think those two stood out to me the most and for different reasons. Ian Fleming wrote Bond, at least in my eyes, as the “perfect” man. He could get and bed any woman he wanted. He was the perfect spy. He was the man most other men wanted to be. There’s no problem with that. For the time when the books were written and for the genre involved, that’s what readers and publishers wanted. Besides, for every James Bond, you had a George Smiley. John le Carré wrote Smiley as an older man, one who had fallen from grace in the intelligence community. He was not the perfect man and he had a past to overcome. In my mind, in many ways, he was much more interesting than Bond ever could be.

As for Indiana Jones, he was far from perfect. While those imperfections didn’t cripple him, they were there. He was impulsive. He didn’t always think through the consequences of his actions, even when those actions might put others in danger. He had daddy issues. We see some growth, especially with regard to the daddy issues in the third film. (We won’t mention the fourth film. Please don’t mention the fourth film.)

But, where my mind went first when I saw the original discussion was my own reading and David Webber’s Honor Harrington. One of the things I loved about Honor from the very beginning was that she wasn’t perfect. Sure, because of her genetic background, she was taller and stronger than some. She was also a brilliant Naval officer. But she had her own ghosts and insecurities. Those could come close to crippling her. She had a temper and a streak of vengeance a mile wide. Both of which cost her as well, at least early into the series.

I loved seeing her shine as a Naval officer and then seeing the insecurities as a “normal” person. I’ve known people like that. They excel in the office or boardroom, in the surgical suite or at the front of a classroom. But put them into a social setting and they suddenly think they are unworthy, ugly, insecure, whatever. That was Honor. Over the course of the first three or four books, we get to see her grow as a person. She was already a strong officer but as a “woman”, she had a long way to go.

That did not make her any less of a leading character or human. Far from it. By seeing her able to put those insecurities or, in some cases, prejudices behind her in order to do her duty was refreshing. those flaws kept her from being a Mary Sue (something she has come very close to being in the later books in the series, imo).

What I noticed on each of the sites where I saw this discussion happening was that they rarely seemed to mention female main characters, focusing instead on male leads. Maybe their responses stem from the belief that men shouldn’t show weakness, maybe it came from something else. I don’t know. But, I think it comes down to a matter of degrees.

I don’t know about you, but when I say I want a character with flaws, I don’t mean I want a character who has been broken by life. Oh, there are places for that, but not every leading character has to be broken. They can be bent — hey! Get your minds out of the gutter! — or they can simply be human. Growth doesn’t have to mean a major change to their behaviors and attitudes. It can be as simple as learning to admit that they don’t know everything or that they might not be the best at something. It can be learning to let someone else into their lives, be it on a romantic scale or with regard to business.

Sometimes, we need characters with some flaws to make them believable. What is appropriate to one story or genre might not be for another. So, here’s my question to you; what books do you think do the perfect (or superhero-esque) character well and which ones do you think do the flawed character well? (Yes, this is also my way of adding to my TBR stack.)

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Filed under AMANDA, characterization, WRITING: CRAFT

Self-Insertion

Every time I see this phrase, I feel like it’s a little dirty.

“Oh, go self-insert!” 

Yeah. Sometimes my brain is a 14 yo boy (although admittedly my 15 and 16 yo girls would make a sailor blush at times. Dinner conversations are frequently… interesting.) Anyway, I was talking about writing, not sex. Although….

Robert Heinlein famously said about writing to do it in private and wash your hands afterward, a clear parallel to a much more intimate act. If we follow that line of thought through, we come up with writing being a pleasurable act for the author (we’ll leave the other side of the equation out of it for a moment) which seems reasonable, because why else would we inflict this kind of effort and angst on ourselves? So yes, in a sense we the writers are, ah, F*&ing ourselves. It’s all a mindf*&k, though.

But does that make the main characters of our books a self-insertion? The more common, less literary term would be Mary Sue (or Marty Stu), which is outlined by TVTropes (here be dragons, or at least TymeEaters).

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

The problem is that while somewhat obviously this is a deeply flawed, highly cliched character, it’s not always the case when a critic snubs a book for containing a self-insertion. A Mary Sue lacks a growth arc, first of all. She (or he, in the case of the Marty Stu) springs onto the scene perfect, and being practically perfect in every way, has no desire nor need to change and grow into the role the author has set them into.

Chuck Gannon has been criticized for his main character, Caine Riordan, being too skilled, and obviously a wish-fulfillment character. I can see why – Caine, in the books, is a very competent person. But I’ve also met and talked with Chuck and I know that he is a brilliant man, behind a humble approach. And I know that he has friends who can do everything Caine can, and more, so for him to write this character came naturally. Where it stretches readers beyond belief is actually in the fact being stranger than fiction department.

Our own Peter Grant caught flak for his Steve Maxwell character being a ‘golden boy’ who could make no wrong moves. Peter thoughtfully considered the criticisms, and added flaws to Steve, but thankfully he didn’t break his hero in the process. It took me a while to put a finger on what I liked about Steve, but it finally clicked in a recent conversation about favorite superheroes, and why so many of us like that other Steve, Captain America.

Captain America (I unequivocally reject the Hydra version) is a nice guy. He’s a superhero, yes, but he’s also a guy you feel like you could sit and have a cup of coffee with, telling stories, and that he’d get up to go rescue a kitten, and it wouldn’t come across as too-good-to-be-true, he’s just that nice a guy.

Coming back to the pleasuring oneself aspect of authorship, yes, simply writing a character we could insert ourselves into ,and escape the humdrum world into a more perfect place would be a masturbatory experience. However, I’d like to think that ideally, writing is more akin to a shared pleasure experience. We’re not creating a book we’ll be taking to bed, after all. No, we dress it up, straighten the seam on it’s stockings, and watch it sashay out the door… and waltz into the arms of a reader. That is the goal of writers who are publishing. A two-way street of mutual enjoyment.

I’ll not take this too much further… just know that if I can write something that makes my readers happy, it makes me happy. So yes, I am inserting some of myself into my work. And writing a heroic main character who wins through the obstacles placed into his path, growing and developing into a better person as he does so? My fans like that kind of thing. So do I. I don’t like dark, brooding characters for whom nothing ever goes right, and the universe is out to get them. I’m sure there are readers out there who do. Hopefully they can find the writer for them, because I’m not the one.

Writing is perhaps the ultimate mindf%$k. Was it good for you? Because it was good for me…

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, characterization, WRITING: ART