On Main Characters and the Mary Sue

So the other day I was reading a review for a series of novels someone recommended to me, and I came across a term I hadn’t heard before. I forget the actual quote, but the gist of it was that the main character was nothing more than a Mary Sue character. I had no idea what that meant, so naturally I asked my best friend Google.

What exactly makes a Mary Sue character is apparently a heated debate on the internet (which should be your first clue that the whole thing is absolutely pointless) but most agree that the Mary Sue character is an idealized version of the writer. Apparently this qualifies as a “bad thing” in literary circles. But why?

Despite what publicists, agents, and even some writers want you to believe, writers are by and large a very boring subset of the population. By far the most interesting things that happen to us, happen in our minds. True; some writers have incredibly interesting backgrounds. But if you could peek inside a day in their life, chances are you’d find them doing the same things you do–walking the dog, loading the dishwasher, trying to get rid of the damned crabgrass, and sitting at the computer. The only real difference is that instead of virtual farming or LOLcats, we’re writing.

So it’s not at all surprising that a writer places an idealized version of his or her self into a story. And frankly, I think we’d all be bored to tears if they didn’t. In order for the reader to care about the story, they must care about the characters. In order to make the reader care, the author must care. The best way to do this is to ensure that these characters have real emotions; otherwise they’re just cardboard cutouts being moved around a set piece which, no matter how brilliantly decorated and described, is still just another set. No one gave two craps about the balcony in Romeo and Juliet, remember. It was the characters that made the play.

Still a bad thing, you say? Well let’s take a look at a few of these “bad” characters.

  • Abraham Van Helsing
  • Huckleberry Finn
  • Robinson Crusoe
  • James Bond
  • Natty Bumppo

And probably at least 80% of all the main characters ever written. Still seem like a bad idea?

That’s not to say it hasn’t been done horribly; one need not look far beyond the “Men’s Adventure” shelf at your local bookstore to find a deluge of wish-fulfillment (and often, really bad writing.)

But if it’s done well, such as in Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, it can blow you away. You actually care about the character, because the author cares. And that makes the story work, provided there’s an actual story to be told. That, you’ll find, is the common ingredient in all the above examples; there is an actual story to be told, a problem to be solved, and not just one adventure after another for the sake of fantasy fulfillment.

So, as long as you’ve got a story to tell, keep on throwing yourself into your work, sometimes literally,  You might run into me the next time you open one of my books.

Hope to see you there.

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