I have a confession to make that won’t make me many friends: I like hyper-competent beautiful characters.
Notice I didn’t say “I like Mary Sues.” There’s a reason for this . . . read carefully because lots of people seem to have trouble with this one, more every year: They’re not the same thing!
First, let’s recall what sort of character “Mary Sue” originally referred to: the idealized, usually teenaged, self-insert in fanfic, the sort that could out-logic Spock, out-captain Kirk, out-doctor McCoy, out-engineer Scotty, and seduce all of them easily . . . at least as far as I’ve been able to tell. That’s pretty damned far from the definition used today. Today, I’ve seen the term used for anything from a female character that is good-looking and good at anything, which is so annoyingly sexist that it makes me want to ask what decade the person saying it time-travelled from, to characters who have become super-competent at one skill through a lifetime of hard work, but most commonly it refers to any character who commits the current literary (or at least pop culture literature) sin of being both beautiful (or handsome) and skilled in more than one thing, especially if they have an angsty backstory. People defend this definition by saying that characters like that are unbelievable, that they warp reality around themselves and therefore ruin the suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy a story.
I say “Bullshit.” Some characters like that do, in fact, ruin a story. But some don’t. It’s a matter of, more than anything else, the writer’s skill. Look at Verity Price. In the hands of many authors, she would be utterly unbearable, but in Seanan McGuire’s hands, she’s a talented dancer, cryptozoologist, and . . . parkour-doing-person, I don’t know the word . . . but utterly believable, at least within the confines of the story, because she still has problems that we can identify with, and these problems aren’t exaggerated to make her more pathetic. She feels like a real person. That’s the mark of a good character, regradless of how talented they are.
You know, I had a similar discussion years and years ago on an rpg forum. I was explaining why I like high level/high point total characters and was told, pretty much, that I was engaging in silly wish fulfillment gaming instead of Serious Mature Gaming. What’s wrong with a little bit of wish fulfillment? Do most people really want to pretend to be commoners in revolutionary France . . . this is a real GURPS game someone I talked to was running once, by the way? Do they really want to read about Joe Ordinary and his ordinary day? Of course not! That shit’d get really boring, really fast! We want to read about John Carter, Conway Costigan, Lazarus Long, Wolverine, Snake Eyes, Verity Price . . . even Jo March and Anne Shirley weren’t ordinary people. Or at least that’s the sort of character I want to read about. I, by the way, write for people who want those sorts of characters. If you don’t, sorry, mate, you aren’t my target audience.
There was another point made in that long ago discussion that is relevant to the whole thing about alleged Mary Sues ruining stories. That was that it’s too hard to identify with powerful characters. Again I say, “Bullshit.” Too many people have been reading superhero comics for too many decades for me to believe. People identify with characters that are believable, as I said above. Characters with flaws and problems, but not ones that are so overwhelming that it’s unbelievable they’re not curled up in a corner crying all the time. Characters that, regardless of how beautiful they are, can’t get every person they want to fall in love or lust with them. You know, characters that are like people . . . but a little better in some way so they’re interesting enough to read about, because, as I said, we don’t want to read about perfectly ordinary people doing ordinary things . . . Bilbo was not an ordinary hobbit, before anybody says it. Tookishness, remember?
I guess, in short, what I’m saying is that traits aren’t what makes a character a Sue or not. It’s how they’re handled. Look at the original definition. That’s not a character. That is just wish fulfillment. Unless you’ve got a damned good explanation of how they got to be so smart and irrestible to men who I’d imagine have very diverse tastes. See? Even then it comes down to how well written the character is.
Every time someone says ‘Don’t write characters who are both good looking and smart, or good looking and highly skilled at something, because that isn’t realistic — real people can’t be both,’ I want to thwap ’em upside the head with the metaphorical cyber-fish I keep around for such purposes.
— GURPS. I used to talk with friends about how impossible it is, within the points limits of the system, to write a “realistic” character. Real people are only 100 points? I couldn’t buy my own stats for that, to say nothing of skills. (But I get “can’t drive” as a 10-point disadvantage, which helps. *grin* Likewise the 5-point version of “lame”.)
Hmmm. How many points in GURPS would you have to pay for “writing — fiction” as a skill? If you’re doing it professionally, it has to be at least a 14, right? And writing fiction is a lot harder than merely being able to read and write (which is free for a setting such as “America — early 21st century” unless the character gets “cannot read or write” as a disadvantage)…
Oh, yeah — another ‘you can’t have both’ is characters (or real people) being good with both numbers AND words, or both art AND science/math. Can’t happen — isn’t realistic. *shakes head, looks for cyber-fish*
Under 3rd edition GURPS, 100 points is the baseline for a heroic but realistic character. Under 4th edition, it’s 200. Despite this, the template for a real world SEAL straight out of training is around 260. They admit this is a bit of a flaw but refuse to fix it. This is one of the reasons I did away with point limits in my games. I approve or disapprove characters based on concept, not cost.
12 to do it professionally, for 14 to be good at it, if I recall correctly. It would depend on your IQ, I think. I couldn’t tell you for sure since I’ve been running stuff in my own based-on-GURPS-but-with-significant-changes-system for years.
I’d totally forgotten about the “Writers can’t do math” sort of thing. I joke that it’s true with me, but it’s more that math is so easy for me that I get lazy and don’t check things . . . I once would’ve made a perfect score on a calculus exam but I got to a step where I had to add 1 and 1 and I thought I had to multiply them, so I put 1.
[…] 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 […]