In Defense of Non-Ordinary Characters
I’ve talked about this topic before, here, but it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot the past few weeks as I’ve binge watched several seasons of Doctor Who. The Doctor is, according to a lot of the sort of people who frequent rpg and writing forums, exactly the kind of character no one enjoys any more . . . hypercompetent, too smart for the average person to identify with, too alien for real people to identify with . . . shit like that.
Yet the show is insanely popular.
This, plus re-reading the InCryptid novels in preparation for the next one coming out later this week — a series which has had more than one book make the NYT Bestseller List, if I recall correctly — have made me realize anew that the people saying what people don’t want in a character, what makes a character a “Mary Sue” by the modern definition (which is ludicrously far from the original definition) are full of shit. People do want those things. They don’t. They are a subset of people, a subset that’s got a big enough ego to think they’re speaking for everyone, a subset that also is not nearly as big as it thinks it is.
They also are a subset that I think scares far too many would-be creators out of doing what they really want to do. Gods know they scared me out of it for years. Universal Nexus started as a unholy massive crossover fanfic setting and got refined and rebooted a lot to become what it is today. One of the things I focused on so goddamned much during the final reboot and, until recently, was worrying about when I made little refinements here and there, was making sure that no one was too powerful, too important.
A while back, I had a moment of panic when I realized that despite this, Jake had gone from just one of many decorated starship captains to the commander of the entire Sweytzian Fleet and the descendant of countless generations of warrior priests . . . specifically a family of them with a galaxy-wide reputation for two things: 1) being excellent swordfighters, and 2) lacking a sense of self-preservation, with rumors that they were bred or genetically engineered long ago to have these traits, especially the first. Opinions differ on whether the second makes them better warriors or was an accident.
His eldest daughter . . . the female main character in the story currently called “Quinn’s Story” . . . went from just a mechanic and excellent swordswoman to a genius mechanic who’s revolutionizing maneuver drives, a kickass fighter pilot, and an excellent swordswoman.
Hell, Quinn himself went from someone whose whole character description was “walking Ruvellian stereotype — flamboyant, good with a sword and blaster, gambles a lot; looks a lot like Antonio Banderas” to the second son of a major Ruvellian noble, someone who is closely related to the queen of Ruvellia — one of the major worlds of the setting, and a former professional gambler who was making quite a good living at it and gaining quite a bit of fame before he decided he wanted to do something more exciting with his life.
The major family in the setting went from “well off” to “each of their 30 kids will inherit at least a million upon the parents’ deaths, aside from that, I don’t actually know how much they’re worth.” (The thirty kids, I must add before anyone criticizes it, come from various combinations of a total of eleven biological parents, and include some multiple births.) It suddenly struck me that this made them less identifiable, more whatever-the-fuck-they-aren’t-supposed-to-be.
Then I realized, with some help from Jaye, that it doesn’t fucking matter. They’re not Mary Sues except by the stupidest definition. They are, alas, characters many reviewers aren’t going to like, because for some reason far too many of the people who review sf of any kind are the sort who subscribe to the belief that powerful characters are a terrible, horrible thing, that ordinary people . . . people “just like them” . . . are what every author should be writing about.
But they’re characters I, personally, like a lot more than I did when they were more ordinary people. And I’m my target audience, not some unknown person on the internet who is a self-appointed expert on what everyone wants in their entertainment.
A series about Rose Tyler or Amy Pond where they never met the Doctor would’ve been boring as hell, in my opinion. Yeah, there are people who say they like “true to life” stories like that. But even those stories aren’t about ordinary people living ordinary lives most of the time. They’re about when something interferes with that ordinary life.
Yeah, ordinary lives are what I wanted to show with Intertwined Lives and what I will, eventually, be touching on again in other works. But not the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Who the fuck wants to read about that?! Sure, I’ve got a character who married into the major family who before that was just a humble coffee shop owner. There’s no way in hell I’d use him as a viewpoint character before he met them. That story would have chapters about such exciting things as “Going to church on Christmas” and “Hiring a new employee”. Wheee! I’d totally want to read that book! Before he met Viktor, he’d exactly two interesting things happen in his life: 1) emigrating from Earth, and 2) his husband dying of a horrible internal fungal infection. Those might be worth writing about. But the first isn’t really that interesting without showing more of the surrounding political situation than could easily be done, and the second is too depressing for my tastes, so odds are I won’t ever bother.
I sometimes feel like the pressure to write characters people can identify with comes from people with no imagination. I’m not, I hasten to add, talking about the people who say that meaning they want more characters that aren’t straight, cis, white men. Those people have a very good point; they are just wording it differently than I would. I’m talking about . . . well, a good example is someone from a conversation on a GURPS’ forum once who refused to play characters over a certain point level because he couldn’t identify with people who were that much more powerful than him. This meant he could never play a game with superheroes, or archmages, or, hell, depending on where he drew the line exactly, possibly even realistic special forces characters. I can’t wrap my head around this. Okay, some of this is admittedly probably because I sometimes think I was born the wrong species and was meant to be a stereotypical dwarf (not in an otherkin kind of way, just in a “they make so much more sense than modern humans!” way) so I’m, honestly, not really good at being an ordinary person. Fuck, I’m not an ordinary person! I’m a bisexual, Odin worshipping, democratic socialist with OCD and anxiety. I can’t identify with ordinary characters! And I don’t expect to anyway. I don’t want to read about me; I want to read about other people.
Just had a conversation with my clone about this topic a few days ago.
I’ve never understood people who insist that average=realistic and anything else is a badly written Mary Sue character. Average wouldn’t BE average if there weren’t people both below and above that middle range. And it’s unreasonable to say that 32 percent (approximately, in a normal distribution curve) of the population is “unrealistic” because they fall outside the range of “average.”
(Yep, a writer-type person using MATH to make a point. Not realistic! 🙂 )
I’ve seen people take the “average=realistic” thing so far that they argue that characters shouldn’t have red hair “because it’s so uncommon”! I think I just stared at the screen when I saw that one, too stunned to come up with any kind of response.