August 14, 2011

March of the Sues & Stus

I can't tell you how many times I have been reading a book cursing and gagging because a character has been just too damn perfect (*cough* Edward Cullen *cough*). I've lost track of the girls who are plain-but-not-really-plain-because-all-the-guys-apparently-have-a-thing-for-her and the 'gorgeous' guys with chiseled abs and shimmering violet/emerald/[insert any other equally ridiculous and rare iris colour] eyes that 'stare right into your soul'. 

Excuse me, I just threw up in my mouth a little bit. 

This bothers me so much, that when I'm scanning a book's description deciding whether or not to read it, if I so much as see words like 'gorgeous' or 'hot' in reference to a guy the MC is 'crushing on', the book gets dropped like it's been in direct contact with a SARS patient. Sure I've probably prejudged some perfectly well-written and enjoyable books, but I prefer to think that I have a pretty decent Sue/Stu-dar. I like an attractive love interest as much as the next person.  I also prefer to read a book with a protagonist who isn't described as butt ugly. That may sound superficial, but sometimes these characters are just as unbelievable as Mary Sues and Gary Stus (unless of course this character happens to meet and fall in love with another ogre like in Shrek). 

Speaking of Shrek...In university I enrolled in a Fairy and Folk Tales course, which I have to say was one of the the most interesting and informative courses I took in 8.5 years of post-secondary schooling. While studying the classic fairy tales (and some not-so-familiar tales as well), we discussed the Aarne-Thompson classification system of elements in these tales. Some of these elements can be found in the fairy tale heroine who is the fairest and purest young maiden, inspiring jealousy and even revenge from her not as fair a) older sisters, b) stepmother, or c) some other equally envious person (Cinderella, Snow White, and so on). This heroine is so perfect and 'fair of face' that the worst thing we can say about her is that she's a little too curious (Sleeping Beauty), a little too trusting (Snow White), a little too in love (The Little Mermaid). She is the epitome of Mary Sue-ness, but from an early age we all lap it up. We all want to be her. I won't belabour the point by starting in on the parade of Gary Stu princes in these tales...

We all like a good Mary Sue and Gary Stu...in FAIRY TALES.

Unless your express purpose is to write or rewrite a fairy tale, I really think there is no place for Sue or Stu. The best, most accessible stories on the market are those that, even though they might have some element (or many) of the supernatural or fantastical, are tempered with a good dose of the believable. I think it's safe to say that most people prefer a character that they can relate to at least in part, be they dwarf, vampire, or werechicken. Since none of us is perfect, it is difficult to relate to a character who is. Your setting or world can be so far removed from our own that it is virtually or even entirely unrecognizable, but your characters' qualities shouldn't be.

Easier said than done.

I know I've been all Judgy McJudgerton up until this point, but the truth is writing good believable characters with very real flaws is difficult.  We want our characters to be likeable despite their faults, which is challenging to say the least.  The best comparison I can think of is preparing for an interview question like "Tell me about one of your greatest weaknesses".  The key is to come up with a strength disguised as a weakness, but for it not to be obvious that this is what you are doing (Ha! Good luck with that one!).  Our characters need to have flaws, but these flaws have to be minor enough, or overcome-able enough, or a strength-in-disguise for the character to be redeemable or even likeable.  Not. Easy. To. Do.  I have stood in judgment of so many authors for not doing a good enough job of this, and now I eat my words.  Until I started trying to write my own slightly flawed characters, I had no idea just how hard this was.  So even though it pains me to say it, a character like Edward Cullen, whose worst flaw is arguably being cursed with vampirism, is to some degree understandable (I won't get into his stalkerish tendancies, the idea of necrophilia, or the unhealthy attachment issues).


I stumbled upon The Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test online today and gave up about thirty questions in.  I did bookmark it though, to be returned to at a later date.  I confess, it was a touch discouraging seeing all the check marks that indicated my MC tends toward Mary Sue-ness.  But this is a good place to start.  Now I can revisit my character(s) and strive for authenticity, for believability, and for accessibility. 

No Mary Sues or Gary Stus allowed.

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