On characters

I meant this post to be specifically about female characters, because they’re perpetually troublesome, but the truth is it’s about all characters, all people being people, and all Mary Sues being Mary Sues (or Gary Stus, as it may be).

I recently threw a book at the wall.

I haven’t done it many times in my life, and this particular book didn’t deserve to be thrown on its own merit, only because it was the latest to do something that’s begun to drive me batty. To wit: it told the story of an angelic woman and how she is persecuted by filthy men.

I hate that story. Or rather, I can love that story, if it’s told exquisitely, because The Bluest Eye is that story and it’s one of my Top Five Novels For Ever, but this novel didn’t tell it exquisitely. On the telling scale, this novel fell somewhere below Samuel Richardson’s 1740 breakout Pamela, which told the same story. Except Pamela ended happily.

There is a Neil Gaiman quotation that comes up on my Twitter feed fairly often: something about liking to read about female characters who solve problems for themselves. Good for you, Neil. You’re progressive. Go have a beer.

Solving one’s own problems isn’t enough, though. Because Mary Sues solve problems, and nobody likes a Mary Sue. They aren’t real people. They’re flat. Boring. Unreal. Unrelatable. And so are perfect villains. The very best writing comes from writers who repeat to themselves, over and over: every character thinks he’s the main character. Every character thinks he’s the good guy. Your villains need to have palpable, relatable motivations for being bad. And if they’re willy-nilly humping and poisoning and cutting up your heroine just for giggles, you’ve done them a disservice as human beings just as much as you have her.

Real people are directly responsible for some of their own problems, because they’re flawed. If you’re writing a female character who solves problems for herself, you aren’t necessarily doing that. If you’re writing a female character who causes her own problems, you just might be. You might–just might–be suggesting that women are people, too, human and fallible and capable of making mistakes, and yet still being loved and valued in spite of it.

Quite a spectacular idea, isn’t it?

But this rant isn’t just about women, because there are Gary Stus, too. There’s something about a particular hero of historical romance that has always bothered me, and it turns out that this is it. Dude has 99 problems, and he isn’t the cause of a single one. Listen, I love him. You love him, too, because he is by and large very well written. But he is … well … lacking that particular dimension.

Speaking of characters who cause their own problems: Dragon Authors has reviewed The Bear’s Wife, and the review highlights Perry Drinkwater and her poor decision-making skills. I can’t say I disagree; there wouldn’t be much of a story if she didn’t bumble. Part 1 will be free to download for Kindle on Friday–grab it if you haven’t already.


2 thoughts on “On characters

  1. This post speaks some truths.

    I’m sick of the ‘strong female characters’ who do everything on their own and are very skilled. We saw what it did to the new Mad Max. It turned out to be very sexist and just enforcing new gender roles.

    I want flawed women. I want female character with the same psychological depth of Max Cohen (Pi). There are a lot of stories with deep male characters. The best male characters aren’t macho dudes who mow down people with machine guns. They’re like Max Cohen and Holden Caulfied – flawed and messy.

    Margaret Atwood is fantastic at female characterization. Zora’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is pretty good too.

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