There is a fear that many starting writers feel when it comes to crafting the main characters in their epics, that what they create will not feel real enough to their audience. I touched on it briefly in a post from a couple of years ago, titled The Beauty in Flaws, where I talked about how a writer sometimes has to fight against the impulse to create perfection within their characters. In some circles, these kinds of characters are derogatorily referred to as Mary Sues, although in my opinion that term is overused and, in some cases, poorly understood.
The term “Mary Sue” actually has an interesting history. It came from a fan made Star Trek story written and published in the 1970’s. The story itself was written to be a parody of what the author viewed as common themes in other fan made fiction, and featured an enchantingly beautiful teenage lieutenant named Mary Sue. Characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, she wormed her way into the good graces, hearts, and minds of two or more of the primary characters (in her case, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy).
In the forty years since that was written, the term Mary Sue has exploded across the internet, and is used to describe any modified or original character, male or female, who seems unnaturally perfect or interconnected to the fabric of the story. These characters are often accused of being self-insertions of the author, or simply engines for wish-fulfillment, and while I sometimes believe this to be the case, I also believe that it can be more complicated than that.
Sometimes I think these characters suffer because of an overabundance of focus or a need the author has created for them to be the center of the story. The best modern example I can think of for this concept comes from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and one of their focal characters, Skye.
(Small warning: significant spoilers ahead)
At the beginning of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s story, Skye was one of several new and interesting additions to the pre-existing Marvel continuity. She was a young, a gifted hacker, but painfully naive and in blind pursuit of something she didn’t fully understand. In other words, she was a fair and balanced character. She fought, she failed, she learned, and she grew, all while finding a harmony with the other characters.
However, as the series progressed, whether through design or lack of planning, Skye was continually shifted to the center of attention, often to the point where it severely strained the veil created by suspension of disbelief. Examples of this include:
* Skye completely skips over formal S.H.I.E.L.D. training in their special academies and gets special security clearance
* Skye reveals she was interested in S.H.I.E.L.D. because of something linked to her unknown parentage
* Skye bonds with Coulson, making him a surrogate father figure, and develops a budding romantic tension with the only other male agent on board, Agent Ward
* Skye nearly dies, dramatically, and is brought back to life with unknown alien goo, the same goo that saved Coulson, further connecting them
* Skye is revealed to be some living artifact of unknown power, and seems unnaturally at peace with that fact
* She is continually increasing her skill set, making her a gifted hacker, hand-to-hand combat specialist, and sniper
There are more examples, but I think those make my point. Now, some people have called Skye a Mary Sue character, and while she certainly is, she may not have been originally designed that way. Sky is an example of a potential writer pitfall I call “the lensing effect,” in which a character is forced into the focus of a story even when the plot has moved beyond them. Since the plot can’t stagnate, the character is dragged along with it, forcing changes to them that would never happen organically, like a rider being dragged behind his horse because he fell off while being tied to the saddle. However, in fiction, instead of killing them, they become empowered, influential, and essentially the axis around which the rest of their world turns.
I fell into this pitfall once, and it’s amazing how far you can go down that road, how many times you can reframe a story before you realize that instead of weaving a tapestry, you’ve made a tangled knot with more loose ends than you can count in a single sitting. It’s a humbling experience, and one I will always carry with me.