by Janis Patterson
One of the more peculiar kinds of book is known somewhat disparagingly as the Mary Sue. Although it can occur in any genre, it seems most prevalent in romance and marginally less so in mystery and usually but not always is the offering of a beginning or very amateurish writer. The generally accepted definition of a Mary Sue book is that the protagonist is always just too perfect – too beautiful/handsome, too smart, too brave, too kind, too loveable, too adored by everyone they meet, too… everything. Obviously most of the time this is just a bit of wish fulfillment and self-projection by an unskilled author. Yes, there are professional authors who indulge in this fantasy trip, but thankfully they are rare.
On the other hand, some don’t believe a writer can create a believable character without putting a little of themselves into the mix. It is this touch of humanity that makes the character live. So when we are creating our characters, how much of yourself do you put into your people? I’ve asked this of a lot of writers and have gotten answers ranging from ‘nothing at all’ to ‘a passion for ripe olives’ to ‘she’s my Aunt Clarissa.’
I know that writers are all different, but I do believe that most writers tend to make their protagonist the same sex as themselves. While there are some who do write the opposite sex both beautifully and believably, doesn’t the basic denominator of sex itself color our writing? A well-crafted male character will have a different view of and reaction to the world than an equally well-crafted female character, no matter by which sex they are written.
While I am neither, I have written 20 year old protagonists and 80 year old protagonists, but at the base of their character is the fact that they are women and that basic fact of femaleness does a great deal to shape them.
I’m not going to go into sex stereotypes, which is its own minefield, but say again that what and who we are has to influence the characters we create. As an experiment, we should take the skeletal description of a character – for example, a 35 year old widowed single mother of three who is a welder, who used to want to be a nun and who is allergic to peanuts – and then ask five or ten authors to flesh the character out by writing a couple of scenes. Other than those skeleton points, I wonder how much any of the characters created would resemble each other.
To offer up my own work, my main protagonists are human (as I am), are female (as I am), are Caucasian (as I am), are politically and socially conservative (as I am), are generally tall (as I am not but wish I were) and reasonably intelligent (as I hope I am). Other than that they run the gamut from demure 19th century librarian to arrogant and opinionated old lady to wildly courageous contemporary spy and, should they ever meet, would probably have nothing of substance to say to each other.
I’m not saying that every writer should have something of herself in her characters. Neither am I saying that no writer should ever put anything of herself in her characters. I am instead offering for thought that a part of ourselves does live in our characters, that it cannot help but do so. Our job as writers, though, is to keep Mary Sue at a distance and let our characters shine as themselves.