Thursday, October 28, 2010

Characters: Mary and Gary Revisited (Part Two of a Series)

So the other day I mentioned Mary Sue and Gary Stu, two individuals who tend to show up in fiction, usually under various aliases and disguises. So who are they, and how can you ban them from your fiction? (Trust me, you want them banned. They're annoying.)

We'll start out by discussing the most obvious characteristics of Mary or Gary. Usually, each character will be quite good looking. I'm not talking everyday, nice looking, attractive individual. No, that's never good enough. I'm talking mind-blowing, in your face, you-could-never-hope-to-look-this awesome. Generally, Mary or Gary will have striking eyes. Striking, in this case, usually means a color that no normal iris could be. Blue is a popular eye color for Mary or Gary, but brown and green come in at a close second. Of course there's always the inexplicable "lavender" or "golden" that tends to show up from time to time. Mary Sue will never have acne, despite usually being an older teenager or young adult. Her skin will be "milky" or "creamy" or "flawless." She may have blond hair, but not always. Brown is an option as well, but always "soft" brown or "flowing chestnut locks." Black hair is a plus, especially if Mary has had a particularly difficult life. Gary Stu will tend to have brown hair. Most of the time, Mary Sue and Gary Stu will be quite tall for the time in which they live, but never too far above average. This works out in romantic situations or fights. Towering over men would mean that Mary Sue would be seen as competition for the men or be harder to rescue. Gary should be an average height. Eventually, he will be required to wrestle with some large individual, not a foe, but an ally who does not think Gary can do the job. Gary will win, because he is perfect. (If he were too tall, he would have an unfair advantage over the other men. Perfection in a world where everyone is less than such is always fair.) Gary or Mary will always be athletically fit, regardless of whether they lead an active life. Doing hard chores on a farm will give them particularly sculpted muscles, all over. Mary, of course, will not be too muscular. Just strong and pretty.

Mary Sue and Gary Stu usually also have certain abilities that they can learn or be born with, regardless of the ability. Often, Mary is an orphan girl who grows up a slave on a farm or a misunderstood apprentice to the nice florist in the village. Usually, she will have endured an illogical amount of abuse. Gary has the same background, usually. Their abilities are always amazing, but they will need to be honed. Things like controlling plants or calling up various weather phenomena (love you Stan Lee!) can be an ability for Mary or Gary, but are usually limited to Mary Sue. Magic, in any case, will be available to both Mary Sue and Gary Stu, if they just believe in themselves, or have the usual wizened mentor to lead them in all paths of magic. (Note: this does not mean that any magical system in any book will lead to Mary Sue and Gary Stu showing up. Harry Potter is a good, gawky, awkward example of a magical character who is not a Gary Stu.) It will be true, almost without exception, that Mary Sue and Gary Stu will both be able to wield a sword with an amazing proficiency, with little instruction. (This may or may not be because his or her father or mother or both were also masters of the blade.) They will be fast, agile, strong, and skilled, usually on a level that one only achieves by being raised in an institution that shares similarities with the Jedi Temple. They may also be slightly depressed, for whatever reason.

Where do they usually show up?

Fanfiction is a common place for Mary Sue and Gary Stu to show up. (Visit the Inheritance Forums writer's section for a good, centralized example of what I mean. Some of the other fiction on there, not necessarily fanfiction, will also have examples of Mary Sue or Gary Stu.) They also tend to show up the most in fantasy, because most of the more reality-based fiction out there has little room for unrealistic perfection at the office. Plus it's just not that entertaining or engaging.

The most blatant example of a Mary Sue in published fiction is Estella in the Feather Book Series. She is introduced as a depressed young adult who has just aged out of the foster care system. As mentioned before, she has managed to complete a four-year degree in her spare time, implied to be through night-courses after she finished her high school homework. Instantly, this is a turn-off, because she's so remarkably intelligent that the reader can't hope to relate...or compete. She also describes herself as being remarkably beautiful and unique (this is always a warning sign, when a character begins to describe him or herself.) While it's acceptable for her lover boy, Edgar, to say that she's pretty, for her to constantly (yes, seriously, several times or more) go out of her way to describe her remarkable hair (platinum blond) and eyes (crystal blue) is annoying. This is just one example, and it occurs in what could be considered a fantasy book.

Why does it happen? That's pretty easy to tell you. Mary Sue and Gary Stu tend to show up because the authors express how they see themselves. This is not unnatural, or any indication that the author thinks too highly of herself. Think of a girl who has a crush on some dude, and another girl flirts with him or is even dating this crush. The first girl (we'll call her Lilly) will automatically think, however subconsciously, "I"m better-looking than her. How could he pick her? What does he see? She has like, nothing on me." Yep, I've done it too. I'm not the first, and I won't be the last with this type of thinking. This gut reaction can lead to Mary and Gary sneaking into fiction without warning, and they're hard to deal with because they steal the spotlight and get in the way of the rest of the story (mostly because of how annoying they are, but also because the plot is overshadowed.) What you will have to learn to do is keep them out or kick them out if they've become squatters in your universe.

First, avoid having your characters describe themselves very much. In reality, it's not too necessary to describe your main character because many readers tend to see the character as either looking like them or completely different from what you intended. Often, I will get a picture in my mind of what the main character looks like either because of her personality or her name. It's a reality of writing, so go with the flow and let your character define him or herself by personality rather than looks. Second, don't give your character too many remarkable abilities. One talent or particularly special ability is fine, as long as this character is not solving every single problem that arises. (When this happens, it's like deus ex machina, but not as clever.) Third, let the character have flaws. A human character (or elf or vampire or misunderstood orc), who is sweet or fair all the time, without fail and without wavering, is not realistic in fiction. Many readers see this type of character as someone with whom they cannot relate and it's a turnoff. Make characters that are convincing, can carry the story without being able to solve all the problems, and who are on the same level as your readers. Example: I love Spiderman and Batman. Why? Simple. Spiderman starts out as a poor college student, something I have definitely experienced, and that makes him closer to the reader despite superpowers. Batman is wealthy, but he's human. He has no superpowers and is forced to literally do things the hard way. (And I would love to give Chris Nolan a big hug for his take on Batman. Brilliant.) I love these characters because I can relate to them as a human, though they are men and I am a woman. I can't relate to a character who is too beautiful, talented, and sweet, because I am not those things. I knit, make jewelry, write, and play violin; and I'm really not all that sweet most of the time. Readers like me want to read about a character who is just as average. They feel cheated out of some serious boosting when a character who is already magic, beautiful, and talented wins a battle, because it's predictable. Readers want to see the character struggle, just as they would struggle themselves. It's not because readers are cruel or antagonistic. They just want to look at a character in fiction and think "Hey, maybe I can do that too."

Thanks for stopping by today, and stay tuned for more.

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