On Main Characters: The Mary Sue/Gary Stu

Good morning, Internet!

I hope you all had a wonderful three-day weekend. Even though it was a bit cool and overcast up here this weekend, it seems like the town and surrounding areas are starting to wake up for “the season.” I’ve never lived where there is a tourist season before, but I kind of like it. It gives a kind of interesting rhythm to the year. And of course, given my general misanthropic tendencies, I can only handle extra people around me for so long, so at least I know there’s a limit…

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I’ve been ruminating on main characters recently, in part because I’m reading Red Rising, by Pierce Brown. I realized that I wrote several things about side characters, and I’ve given you all profiles of my main characters, but I’ve never really done a breakdown of main characters in general. So consider this the first of I-don’t-know-how-many-parts on main characters and what makes them good…

About Darrow…

First of all, about Red Rising.

I’m feeling sort of “meh” about this book. It started kind of rough, but now that I’m over halfway through, I’m getting more into the rhythm of the book. In general, I don’t much care for first-person-present narration, which this is. It’s also very dark–like a real dystopian dark. I struggle with books that feel hopeless, and this one kind of does. Plus, the first third of the book or so is an absolute firehose of names, words, uses of words, phrases, and worldbuilding that was honestly tough to wade through.

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In any case, I read some of the reviews of the book on Goodreads, which I often do when I’m having mixed feelings about a book. Sometimes, if I’m struggling to like something that is really popular, I’ll skim reviews to see if I’m the only person who has thought something was wrong. Other times, I just hate read bad reviews to confirm my experiences.

Of course, if I love a book, there’s no review that will change my mind. I recently read A Gentleman in Moscow, and any bad reviews about that book are clearly written in bad faith by monsters, psychopaths, and losers.

Anyway, some of the reviews of Red Rising mentioned the main character, Darrow, as something of a Gary Stu character–a male equivalent of the Mary Sue, the character who is idealized to a fault, who everyone loves, who has magical/mystical/untapped skills that make him/her “The One.” While I can see their points, I’m not sure Darrow really fits that category.

The whole experience got me thinking about the idealized main character, though, and I started wondering–what does put a main character into the Mary Sue/Gary Stu category? And how can an author keep a main character from becoming a Mary Sue/Gary Stu?

What It’s Not

Here’s one thing I think gets muddled… A lot of people use the Mary Sue label as a stand-in for a character with untapped potential or skills or some kind of destiny or something who suddenly levels up.

But I think that’s a mistake.

Human history is full of men and women who seemingly emerge from nowhere to effect change in the world. Look at Boudicca, Alexander the Great, King David, Empress Matilda, and a bunch of others. It takes one event, one battle, one audacious act, one unforeseen death to catapult these people into the limelight and reveal their mettle. Those who didn’t have that mettle? Well, we don’t remember their names.

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No one wants to read stories about average people living average lives who never encounter conflict–and if they do, they read literary fiction. All stories need conflict, and the purpose of conflict is to stimulate a response that propels a story forward. In history, when conflict arises and people don’t rise to the occasion, we don’t remember them.

So it doesn’t bother me when a character has a secret power or untapped potential or some way to suddenly “level up.” To me, that gives me a reason to keep reading. They only level up if they’re going to need those powers or skills to defeat the enemy.

 

What It Might Be

I do think some characters have distinct Mary Sue/Gary Stu tendencies.

  • Perfect Avatars: There’s no question that some authors write characters they wish they could be–the beautiful, brilliant warrior woman every man wants or the hulking badass guy who gets every woman with a wink. I think it’s natural to write this way, especially for immature writers. I look back at some of my early writing from middle and high school and cringe. It was almost entirely wish fulfillment. We write these characters as avatars, I think. We can step into them and be other people–people who know how to handle conflict or how to drop the perfect sass at the right moment.
  • Endearing Flaws: When a character’s only flaws are endearing, it does make them seem a little too cute to like. I think endearing flaws are okay, but it would be nice to mix them up a bit. The clumsy girl is kind of overused at this point (I know, because I’ve used it). You know what would be a great endearing flaw? A girl who tells a lot of dad jokes, or a guy who is convinced he’s a great cook, but burns everything he touches. I also think it’s okay for a love interest to see a character’s flaws as endearing while everyone else sees them as super irritating. I think in my own books, Igraine‘s abrasiveness can be quite repellent, though Braedan thought it was adorable. And Connor‘s innate brutality is terrifying to most people, while Mairead loves him for it.
  • Always Successful: This one is tricky. There’s a tension authors have to maintain with conflict. A main character who never fails isn’t very interesting. There’s no real suspense. But on the other hand, we sort of know, as readers, that main characters (or at least the main-main character) are probably going to make it to the end of the book or series. (Usually.) I think authors have an obligation to beat their characters up a little bit–to let them fail in ways that they may not immediately recover from. This could mean getting physically wounded in a way that requires healing, making a mistake that causes huge ripples through the rest of the story, or losing an important side character or ally–or even making a new enemy.

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What (I Think) it Often Is…

I think there’s a wide range of acceptability when it comes to main characters veering toward Mary Sue/Gary Stu territory, and a lot of it is entirely dependent on the reader and what the reader wants, expects, and likes in a main character.

Which brings me to my own conclusion about what people mean when they say a character is a “Mary Sue.”

I think a lot of times, people really just mean that they don’t like the writing.

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Maybe the dialogue is stilted or immature. Maybe the tense/POV is wrong; personally, I think all first-person narratives can more easily veer toward Mary Sue territory simply because you automatically have an unreliable narrator. I mean, if you trust me to be 100% honest about myself, you’re a fool. I’m an honest person, and I’ll share a lot of personal things, but I don’t share everything, and what I do share is filtered through my own lens.

It does seem to me that when I read about characters who are criticized as being Mary Sues/Gary Stus, the books are often first-person POV, young adult, or early novels by a new author. I think the more we write, the more we learn to avoid these mistakes in character building. It’s easier to get past them when we move to a more omniscient POV and grow to be more mature writers.

Red Rising was Pierce Brown’s first published book, and while it’s a far sight better written than a lot of other first novels, I would not put it in the same category as A Gentleman in Moscow or anything by Ann Patchett or Kazuo Ishiguro or Khaled Hosseini (I will always cry over A Thousand Splendid Suns). But I don’t think Darrow is exactly a Gary Stu, and I suspect that the remainder of Brown’s series gets better. (I haven’t decided if I’ll read the rest of it yet–again, it’s kind of dark.)

I have more thoughts on how to avoid making a character into a Mary Sue/Gary Stu, but this is getting long, so I’ll share those next week.

In the meantime, I hope you all enjoy these waning days of spring as we move toward summer!

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