(Author's note: this essay was sparked by a conversation I had with someone I beta for on this website, Claiborne – consider this a suggestion that you read her story, it's very good. Anyway, the more I thought about it, the more confused I became. I've never understood the whole "man is basically good" concept, but when I made this connection, I was utterly bewildered. I think it's worth thinking over ~not Ross)
What this essay is not: your everyday field-guide to Mary-Sues and how to avoid them. A writing guide. A rant.
What this essay is: a confounding conclusion.
I think people have completely missed the mark on Mary-Sues. I haven't read every so-called "How to Messily Murder Mary-Sue" guide that's been posted on this website, but I've read a few, and I think that every Mary-Sue assassin has failed to pick the "he's too perfect" scab off of the one-dimensional-character wound.
Working definition of Mary-Sue: a character that seems too perfect. (As opposed to the alternate way of thinking that says a Mary-Sue is a self-insert of the author into the story.)
Many peoples' solution to the Mary-Sue problem is to give your character a weakness. Jessie may be a fabulous track star (which I am not), but she's terrified of bees (which I am). A fear of bees or the dark or the monsters under the bed is not going to be the Tylenol to your flat-character headache. A fear is just another fact, like, "her hair was blonde and unbrushed." Stories, the good ones, are not built around facts. They're built around psychology, around states of mind.
Pretend that Daniel Clemmens is out for a walk with his dog and sees a large man with tattoos all over his arms breaking into a house. Daniel doesn't know the owners of the house at all – he's never even seen them. He runs for the man and attacks him, inciting a nasty fist fight that lands Daniel in the hospital with a broken collar bone and one eye swelled shut. Okay, maybe he had a sudden moment of valiance that urged him to be so heroic. A burst of empathy. You hear stories about people like that sometimes. But suppose I wrote a short story of that event. You'd read it, maybe even enjoy it, but when you finished and went to tell a friend about it, you'd say, "It was kind of a dumb story, though. Why would Daniel sacrifice like that? What was in it for him?"
Ah. We have found the root of the problem. What did the burglar have to do with Daniel? What did Daniel have to do with the burglarized house? Absolutely nothing. And yet Daniel jumped in to stop him. And it made the story feel downright lame.
You're not going to like what I'm about to say: all right, so we need to make Daniel more selfish. Mary-Sues are "too perfect." Daniel is a classic Mary-Sue. He has no personal investment in this potentially fatal situation that he's catapulted himself into. He has no self-seeking motivation.
We call Mary-Sues "one-dimensional." Perfect characters are "one-dimensional," which means that we as readers don't feel connected to the character because we don't think we're fully seeing into their brains, into the way they think. We assume that there's more than perfection. The mind never stops at human perfection. There must be more to Daniel than his selfless act. What was in it for him? What was his motivation? He doesn't seem well-characterized because we feel like we don't know why he did what he did.
"Oh yeah?" you ask. "Well what if he is well characterized? What if he was acting totally selflessly? What's so awful about that?"
Ask any reader. He's not believable. He's unrealistic.
Hold on, this is where things get sticky. This is where we switch fields of thought.
"Man is basically good," says L. Ron Hubbard in his 1980 article Ethics, Justice, and the Dynamics. "He is basically well-intentioned. When an individual does harm the dynamics, he will destroy himself in an effort to save those dynamics."
Man will put "the dynamics" – I'm not entirely sure what that is, but I'm assuming it's something along the lines of "the greater good" – ahead of his own well-being? Daniel really will get into a fist fight with that criminal just because that's what's good for society? Then why, as soon as we insert Daniel into a story, is he accused of being a Mary-Sue? Why is he suddenly too perfect? Why is he unrealistic? Why can we no longer relate to him?
Because L. Ron Hubbard is wrong. He may be a famous psychologist who writes famous columns on the subject, and I an amateur fiction writer who hasn't even taken the SAT, but I can confidently say that he is wrong. How can any writer – or avid reader, for that matter – agree with him? How can any believer in the existence of the Mary-Sue as a too-perfect, one-dimensional, unrealistic character agree with him?
"Wait!" you're screaming. "All the best authors say that fiction doesn't line up with real life! So this essay is completely pointless." True, all the best authors do say that. P.S. Baber says exactly that: "Good fiction doesn't mirror reality at all." You know what else P.S. Baber says – in the same paragraph, no less? "Good fiction is the dream that's too good to be true." And here we are, not calling fiction GOOD unless the main character is deeply flawed. Basically selfish. Basically evil. The opposite of perfect. Kind of makes you wonder about the real human race, doesn't it?
If you object to my synonymous use of "selfish" and "evil," explain to me why we scold the four year old who takes the toy fire engine from his playmate because he wants it for himself.
So, so, so many people in the world today share the views of L. Ron Hubbard and say that man is basically good. He only does bad things because of his circumstances. And when he does do bad things, he purposely lets himself get caught – the criminal leaves evidence because he wants to be caught for messing with "the dynamics," the liar makes himself become physically sick as punishment for his sin. I don't understand how any versed literature-lover can think this. We call perfection flat, un-relatable, and under-developed. We scoff at writers who can't seem to delve into a character past surface goodness. How can we give a Mary-Sue warning to any fellow writer, then turn around and hold the view that man is anything more than a fallen, flawed, imperfect, selfish being? It's inconsistent. It's lazy thinking. It's lack of contemplation.
I once had a short discussion with a writer on this website relating to this topic of the nature of man. For convenience's sake, let's pretend this writer is a girl. I asked, "A man comes up and steals your laptop and your iPod, both brand new. Aren't you going to be angry with him? Aren't you going to try to retrieve your things, and to get back at him?" She said, no, she would assume that he had some greater purpose in stealing her electronics. Maybe another man had held a gun to the thief's head and threatened to kill his daughter if he didn't go and steal the laptop. Well maybe so. And maybe a piano will fall out of the sky and crush the real bad guy before he has a chance to terrorize anyone else. We can say just about anything we want for the sake of hypothetical argument. Chances are, you're never going to have to test your "theory," so why bother actually stopping and thinking about it for a moment. What if someone really did steal my laptop? I'd be furious. I'd want to throw them in jail. Drop the act and just examine yourself for a while.
Why? Because self-examination is one of the most key aspects to writing a story. It's going to be physically impossible for you to characterize well if you don't know yourself or see connections between the way you think and the way you act.
Besides, there could be a long, long chain of men holding guns to other men's heads that ended up with this one man stealing your laptop. The chain has to start somewhere. How do you explain the start of the chain? "A crazy person who escaped from an asylum!" For all the criminals in the world, do you really think that there have been that many asylum security breeches? Again, please drop the act. Please look at the real world for a little while and think through the logicality of the arguments that you use and the beliefs that you hold.