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Let it be known that my vacation is officially over!

I hadn’t actually intended to take a break from this blog, but between NaNo, the holidays, and prepwork for the novel I’m working on now, I suppose this thing ended up taking an unfortunate backseat. On the one hand, it’s been time well spent – I’m almost 40,000 words into this novel and my life is pretty much under control, which is always a nice feeling. On the other hand, blogging is like any other work, and an extended period of time spent not practicing the skills is never useful.

I’ve had a couple of thoughts in the past two months, and I’ve got a nice little Evernote document about things that might be worth writing about, if I can remember how to do it anymore. Whether it’s a question of what I’ve been reading what I’ve been writing, or maybe just fate, most of the notions I’ve been playing with lately have to do with characters and characterization.

Characters are the heart of the story, and I feel like far too often they end up getting overlooked or butchered by their writers in the name of either scriptural folly or ‘the good of the plot’.

But before I can start thinking about how to treat characters, the strengths and weaknesses I see in my own writing and in other people’s, I have to get something off of my chest:

I have a huge problem with Mary Sues.

From http://piratemonkeysinc.com/art.php

Pictured: the secret second form of 1/3 of all fandom characters, apparently.

First of all, I feel like I ought to be clear here. I don’t mean to say that I dislike the existence of characters who are described as Sue-ish. Rather, I think that the entire idea of Mary Sue characters is damaging to the institution of writing.

I’ll be the first person to agree that there are far too many characters, in fanfiction and in professional, published works, who make me want to flail and hit things and possibly throw my book and/or laptop into the fire. We’ve all stumbled onto works where the main character is some vapid, uninteresting piece of perfect fluff, whose strengths are hilariously exaggerated and whose weaknesses only count as flaws if you squint and look at them very carefully through a tinted magnifying glass. The next time I see a female character whose greatest failing is the fact that she’s sometimes kind of clumsy, I might very well scream.

Most of us have probably also read stories in which none of the main characters really behave the way they should. There are Harry Potter fics that feature soft fluffy leather-pants-wearing Draco, compassionate-and-misunderstood Snape, intelligent-and-courageous Harry. Star Trek writers seem to love making Spock abandon logic for passion at the drop of a hat, and I’ve lost count of the number of ways I’ve seen Batman abused by intrepid fanfiction writers with more zeal than skill.

Leaving fandom alone, there’s also a trend in Young Adult literature right now of having main characters who have no reason to want do what they’re doing, but do it anyway because the plot demands it. (Thomas, I’m looking at you.) Characters will avoid asking logical, awkward questions because that might force the writer to stop and answer them. They behave calmly in crazy situations, or overreact to simple misunderstandings to provide the ever-sought-after drama.

In short: bad writing is everywhere.

My problem with Mary Sues is that by treating them as their own separate phenomenon, we’ve started blaming the characters for something that should be pinned squarely on the writers. When people find a character they don’t like, instead of balling their fists and asking why the author couldn’t write a decent hero, many of them seem content to yell at the poor construct as though she (occasionally he) had any choice in the matter.

Just look at some of the criteria listed for figuring out whether or not a character is a Mary Sue:

  • The character might have a disproportionate amount of description about their appearance compared to other characters.
  • The character has a special ability or superpower that doesn’t fit into the setting
  • The Rules of the universe bent or broken for the character (Like joining a group despite being too old or too young)
  • The character picks up new skills and/or gain ranks unusually fast during the course of the story
  • The first plans, strategies, ideas, etc. the character comes up with always (or nearly always) work
  • The character considers their talents, special abilities, or good looks to be a curse
  • The character is just as good or even better at the jobs and/or skills of one or more canon characters
  • The character is liked by all the canon characters

These are all choices that a writer had to sit down and make, and they all have to do with flagrant breaches of logic, if not the actual laws of human nature or the universe.

It isn’t that Shahrazad Van Helsing happened to walk into a room and make Buffy, Spike, Willow, Angel, and the First all fall in love with her. She didn’t happen to be the secret super-special slayer, and she didn’t just magically come equipped with the Sword of Michael and the Tome of the White Arts. And even if she is tall, graceful, and strong, with perfect hair and breasts, and a tragic story about dead parents and a curse where anyone she truly loves will turn to dust when they first kiss, that doesn’t have to mean she’ll drag the story down.

Who she is, how she behaves, and how other characters interact with her aren’t subject to fate.

In other words: there’s no such thing as a bad character.

Another blogger offered a better example of that than I could, when she described Batman. She was proving a different point (one I also agree with), but it just goes to show that with the right angle of attack and the right kind of disparaging language, Batman is shown to be about as obnoxious as a character can get. And yet, because of the way his story is told, he’s one of the best loved characters out there. Another commonly-touted example of a Mary Sue worth following is Neil Gaiman’s Morpheus, from the Sandman series, but really, it’s not hard to look at mainstream fiction and find protagonists with dark pasts, skills that most people can barely dream of, gorgeous love interests.

What separates the gems from the drivel isn’t whether or no they have a lovely singing voice, or whether or not they catch the eye of the cute rich love interest.

In the end, what it comes down to is whether or not their authors can write the damn story!!

There’s nothing wrong with amateurs being amateurs. We shouldn’t bash creative novices for doing the best they can, playing around with wish fulfillment, losing track of characterization and internal logic in the rush of seeing a dream come to life on the page. But maybe it’s time to start having the decency to treat them like any other enthusiastic newcomers to a field.

As long as we keep putting the onus on the characters, the writers will never grow.

Mary Sue Checklist points taken from here, and here.

The Brester Estates hadn’t changed noticeably since he’d first visited the place almost fifty years ago. The apartment building was eight stories high, each floor containing five separate apartments. The exterior was red brick, the facade broken at regular intervals by small balconies, and the interior was bright and crisp and clean, soft grey carpet and white walls accented with cedar trim. There was a front hall but no desk, the space where one might have stood filled instead with a planter of ferns and flowers.

The elevator looked as though it were the same one that had been first installed, though it ran smoothly and quietly, without complaint or malfunction.

He could remember as a young man being afraid of this elevator, though he’d never been able to explain why it intimidated him when no other ones did. He’d been afraid if it stopping, or suddenly crashing to the ground in a shower of sparks and squealing, shearing metal. It was actually that fear that had taken him across the line past friendship with his first serious, long-term boyfriend. A little lurch, and he’d grabbed Rodger Tannis’s hand without even thinking about it, and …

The memory made him smile, though his expression was sober again by the time the car reached the eight floor and the doors chimed open. This wasn’t a social call, and Benedict doubted that it would be much of a day for smiling.

In spite of the hour, there were sounds coming from under the door of apartment 801, muted music and conversation. He knocked twice, briskly, then once more after a brief pause. The sound of voices stopped, and after only a few seconds the door swung in and open.

Coreen Leonard stood in the doorway, looking wary and worn. The last time he’d seen her had been at a gala, and she’d turned heads and stopped breaths. More from the way she carried herself, the light in her eyes than anything else, he’d always thought. She was a striking woman, beautiful and fierce, long blond curls like a beam of light behind her.

Now, she seemed a shell of herself. Her shoulders were slumped, and there were purple smudges underneath her eyes. Her hair, generally a source of pride, was pulled back carelessly. Those fierce eyes flashed when she saw Benedict, though, and her lips tightened.

“Good morning, Governor,” she said, and though he’d been half expecting it, the coldness in her tone still hurt.

“Good morning, Corey,” he said, as gently as he could. She didn’t react to either the tone or the name, and he fought the urge to sigh. “May I come in?”