Pep Talk - WHRN 2009 - Mary-Sue jumps at you, too - especially in Fantasy! by Sheba
(Thanks go to Subtle Kisses for beta-reading again. Also, again, long pep talk is long. But I got links this time!)
As for today, you are probably wondering why I am talking about Mary-Sues. Or you donít even know what a Mary-Sue is. Both problems will be solved in a little while.
First, what is a Mary-Sue? Mary-Sues are most likely known for being original characters inserted in fanfictions by rabid fangirls. They tend to have a tragic past, are very beautiful Ė or do at least have impossibly colored eyes and hair Ė have amazing magic powers, most often fake Japanese names and, most importantly, whatever male character from that fandom the author desires falls in eternal love with them. Male counterparts of Mary-Sues are called Gary-Stus, but are much, much rarer.
For a much better explanation, wikipedia is your best friend:
So now that you have rolled your eyes at such a terribly designed character, you probably wonder why you should even care about this pep talk because clearly, weíre writing novels with characters a bit more believable than that.
The thing is: Every character has Mary-Sue potential, especially in fantasy novels and especially the main character. This is because, quite frankly, Mary-Sues and main characters have a lot in common. Ouch, yeah, but weíre getting to the solution, I promise. For now, letís look at those similarities.
- In a fantasy novel, your main character is most likely the one who has to face danger and will defeat the Big Evil Guy. Itís highly possible that he/she needs some unique skills for that - otherwise, every random character could kill the Big Evil Guy and he wouldnít be so big and evil at all and you would have no plot. So these skills are probably either magic or some fighting talent Ė or a blessing from a god or generally something that makes your character outstanding.
- Most novels also contain at least some hints at romance and since itís your main character you will probably write about most (hence the main thing), itís likely he/she will be part of this.
- Perfect characters are boring to read. So your characters need to know fear and traumas so they can overcome those during the plot. And since your character doesnít start out as a newborn, those fears have their reasons most likely in the past.
And there you have it. A potential main character with magic, godly support, romance and a tragic past. Head meets table, right?
During my first novel, I realized that the one big thing which separates a Mary-Sue from a good character is the world around them. My main character in that novel is a sixteen year old girl who had been tortured by her mother and was almost raped by her father, is an outcast of noble society and has, at first to defend herself against her mother, invented some unique and awesome magical system which never got tested because her mother died. But now she has to save the world.
Yes, sheís a Mary-Sue alright. And a very, very complete one at that. One of the two people who read that novel so far asked me after the first three chapters: ďSince you obviously donít really like your mom, is this some kind of revenge-novel with a self-insert?Ē I smiled and told him to read on, please, oh please.
He did and never brought up the issue again, because I locked that Mary-Sue into a demon-filled tower and gave her three evil gods as traveling companions. And even with all her Mary-Sue-power, she totally paled in comparison with them. Of course, during the plot, she befriended them all and sacrificed her life in the end to save everyone, just to get saved by the creator of the world, because she still was a Mary-Sue after all. Sigh. But through all this, I had at least made sure that it was clear the gods would have also managed to defeat the Big Evil Guy without her.
So what does this story teach us? Even characters who have more than enough Mary-Sue potential donít have to annoy the reader as those terrible ones in some fanfictions are, as long as they, as unique as they may be, still fit into the universe around them in terms of power. A special magic is still special, but as long as itís not much more powerful than anything else, no one will suspect a Mary-Sue behind it.
Letís now look at the romance. My main character is a clingy one, so sheís my FMC in all my novels. Yeah, Mary-Sue strikes again. In my last NaNo, the male main character was, for all the scars of her torture, in love with her since he was a small boy. Of course, he also was the most sought-after male in the whole kingdom and exceptionally pretty. And had a tragic past. Ugh.
Still, no one who has read my novel so far cringed. Why? Because I took all magic power from my FMC and made her much of a helpless bystander, which kinda countered this terribly mushy romance. And that MMC, clearly a Gary-Stu, turned out to be a robot who had to fight his evil father.
So why did this piece of crap work out, even though itís clearly not the best novel ever? Because of balance. I made sure that the romance was kept in check by two side characters, I made sure the awesome robotic powers came with a price and because even though they won, I made sure that the Big Evil Guy turned out to be not that evil in the end so it wasnít all that clichť.
The problem most Mary-Sues have is indeed a balance problem. They are the whole focus of the story; all other characters and their personalities get pushed aside under the glorious light of the Mary-Sue. This is the second crucial fact: As long as you make sure that your main character isnít keeping the spotlight all the time, you are on the safe side.
The last problem, the tragic pasts, is much easier to solve and I donít even need to give you bad examples from my novels. The only thing you need to watch out for is that fears can still make your character perfect.
Alright, so maybe this still needs some explanation. Imagine a girl who was told by her father that her mother left him because of her and she believes him, even though itís clearly not her fault and as a result, she is insecure around other people now. This gives her a fear and a trauma, but since itís clear it hasnít been her fault at all, sheís still perfect, just an innocent victim and pretty close to a Mary-Sue.
Now take the same girl, with the same fear and the same past, but this time her mother left her father because the girl was one terribly annoying brat who cut school, and the father just watched and did nothing, so the mother felt helpless and finally left after telling her daughter she would if she didnít go back to school.
Can you see the difference? Mary-Sues lack one thing: Flaws. Fears, traumas and bad memories donít have to be flaws.
So yes, your character needs those three things:
- A world not levels below their own skills
- Other characters they have to share the limelight with
Even when your character is a Mary-Sue (I sure know mine is) in the end, do not despair, because these three things will prevent your reader getting annoyed with your character. You can still write a wonderful novel, even with a Mary-Sue or two in them.
And if all else fails: Remember Cinderella in that Disney movie? She was the biggest Mary-Sue of all Ė and itís still a wonderful movie.