Writing Non-Fiction posted June 9, 2022

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Perfect is Boring

Famous Troublemakers

by jp88

Let me introduce you to the most haunting, problematic cousins of storytelling: Mary Sue and Marty Stu.

You know them, if not by name, then by appearance. The tenth fellowship companion, an orphaned half-elf, with impeccable fighting skills, unheard-of beauty and a tragic backstory? The exchange student who joins Hogwarts, is sorted into Slytherin but has a heart of gold and enters Auror training while in their teens?

Originally coined by Paula Smith in a Star Trek satire, the character of Mary Sue is an implausibly flawless female (if male it is a Gary or Marty Stu), who turns every head, masters every challenge and cannot do wrong. She makes regular appearances in fanfiction, often when the Author inserts themselves into the story and conveniently forgets that everyone is flawed.

That is a big problem.

Flaws are not just a way to enrich a character, they are absolutely, one hundred and fifty percent essential. A story, even with the most mundane plot, can engage and draw a reader in, as long as the reader relates to the character. And we do not relate to perfect characters, if we feel any emotion towards them at all, it is contempt. Even that would be quickly replaced by boredom.

I have once hated a character, was annoyed by him and read all 10 books he was involved in - because hating a character is fine. I was emotionally invested, and that is what an author wants to achieve. Also, if a character is too perfect, there is no tension, because we know they'll solve anything. Is there a risk because they get imprisoned in an impermeable cell? No, same reason.
Mary Sues and Marty Stus are present in various versions in books and literature, but they commonly come with the drawback of being hated by fans. Consider Wesley Crusher in Star Trek Enterprise. He has arbitrary abilities, way more authority than his age allows, generally is exempt from any consequences for his actions - and was ranked within the top 10 most hated characters in Star Trek on screenrant.

The reason why readers fall in love with flawed characters is that they are complex and human. We love Hermione even though she is a know-it-all. It works with the characters on the evil side of the spectrum as well. We somehow feel that irresistible impulse to redeem Draco Malfoy, because he's a complex shaded character. How many shades can there be in a perfect character?

Most authors are guilty of creating overly perfect characters in their early drafts (or final novels - I'm looking at you Twilight). I have done it myself, not just once, and will most likely do it again. I once entered a competition and spend so much effort on crafting a likeable, flawed protagonist, that I missed the Marty Stu I added as the supporting cast.

It is important to be aware of the problem and to try to avoid it. A flaw is good, and it is even better when there's a logic to it. Imagine a character who is incredibly intelligent. That character might also be ill-tempered with a short fuse because it irritates him how long everyone else takes to catch on.

If you haven't tried it yet, give your characters a fresh splash of human flaws, and you'll see how much more relatable they'll become.

Writing writing prompt entry
Writing Prompt
Write a story or essay with the topic of "writing". Can be instructional or a character in the story can be a writer. Creative approaches welcomed.
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