Ah, yes. The “Mary Sue.” One of my favorite tropes, despite the fact that its definition varies. I do think this description from TVTropes suffices:
Since there’s no consensus on a precise definition, the best way to describe the phenomenon is by example of the kind of character pretty much everyone could agree to be a Mary Sue. These traits usually reference the character’s perceived importance in the story, their physical design and an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.
Looking for a great example? Cleolinda’s Mary Sue meme entry (“Cleo Sue”).
Go read it all. I’ll wait.
So here’s the thing. I started writing my manuscript when I was fifteen. When I revisited my manuscript, I made some interesting discoveries about fifteen-year-old me. Namely, I was a terrible writer. I had a great story and some really cool ideas about/for characters. What was on the page wasn’t cool. It was shallow and contrived and illogical.
It was a lot of work. There was a ton of overhaul. It’s still getting there, but it’s a lot closer than it was.
One of the biggest changes comes from my protagonist Cassandra’s characterization. See, Cassandra was a Mary Sue back in the day. She had it all:
- Perceived importance in the story: Protagonist! Hero! The world revolves around her! No, really, I think at one point in my draft the world literally revolved around her.
- Physical design: Cassandra was a Mobius Mary Sue; she didn’t know she was beautiful, that’s what made her beautiful.
- Irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature: Perfect! Could do no wrong!
I have a crush on every boy!Every boy has a crush on her!
If this manuscript had ever been published with Cassandra’s original characterization, she would have been the Bella Swan of heroic fantasy.
CassSue had to go. For one, she was boring. When all the parts are completely special and the sum of those parts is perfection, there’s really nothing interesting about that character. Sure, I can say CassSue is interesting until I’m blue in the face, but I can’t show you how CassSue is interesting because there’s nothing to show.
How did I save my hero from crippling perfection? I decided that a perfect character made things too happy and unrealistic. There’s no conflict there. I started asking some questions:
- What does my character want?
- Why does she want that?
- Who and what stands in her way?
- What does she have in her arsenal that can help her remove that obstacle?
- What does she still need?
- What does she value?
- Where does she find motivation to keep her going?
With each read, she’s different: a little more complex, a little more nuanced. she’s still important, but she is no longer universally desired. She has flaws and weaknesses.
CassSue is gone; Cassandra’s here to stay.
Next week: a semi-companion piece about strong female characters, gender and narrative, and how I turned men into women.
How do you add complexity to your characters?