In his blog last week, author Scott Gilmore spoke to the avoidance of the “Mary Sue” characters, particularly as relating to female protagonists. I don’t disagree with him at all: the main character of a book should struggle, and grow or evolve in the process, to overcome the obstacles blocking her from that happily ever after. Otherwise, what’s the point? Readers can’t identify with perfection.
This leads to the cliche of the strong female character. And, yes, it’s become a cliche–a trope–in several genres. A quick Google search brings up several articles addressing this, such as:
- ”Strong Female Character Cliches to Avoid (In Writing and Beyond)” by Hanna Bauman
- “Write Strong Female Characters Without Being Cliché” by Writer’s Relief
- “It’s Time to End the Cliche of the “Strong Female Character,” and Just Write Women” by Elisabeth Sherman.
The stereotype of the strong female character has been addressed before and by many, but it persists even as literature offers slight adjustments. One of the more recent variations on the cliche is the female protagonist who’s too stupid/stubborn to live. Pigheadedness has become conflated with strength, something to celebrate rather than regard as a fault. I call it terminal stubbornness.
That trait makes my teeth itch.
The female main characters I write oftentimes exhibit excessive stubbornness, but to such an extent that it ought to get them killed. Instead, they suffer the consequences which forces them to evolve and adjust, just like real people do.
In Triple Burn, Ursula quickly learns how and when to pick her fights. Some reader responses indicate that they think she capitulates too soon and too easily. But consider the overwhelming circumstance: she is physically altered. Adapting to those circumstances makes her smart, not weak. (If my very DNA and flesh were altered, you can bet I’d resent what happened, but I’d also adapt, because the alternative is permanent.) Excessive stubbornness wouldn’t have endeared her to me and would have condemned her to a harsh doom on a planet she was not equipped to survive.
In The Barbary Lion, Chloe retreats into herself, becoming compliant to her captor’s will until the moment arrives at which time she takes full advantage of it and flees for freedom. She adapts, using the supernatural skills learned from her captor to evade him and the hunter he sends after her for two decades. Of course, this is a romance and reconciliation must occur, so she negotiates impressive concessions from Atlas Leonidus, a character whose defining trait is his utter refusal to break his word.
The ability to recognize futility and adapt is a strength rather than a weakness. It’s a skill we must all accomplish to some degree, or we don’t survive very long in a society and world determined to crush us.
In avoiding the Mary Sue protagonist as well as one who’s too stupid or stubborn to live, the author must imbue the character with at least one fatal flaw and perhaps several more minor flaws. (This goes for heroes as well as heroines.) In Hogtied, Melanie’s has two major flaws that feed on each other: she’s hot-tempered and impulsive. She’s also determined to make her way in the world and, when circumstances become more than she handle, she seeks help like any rational person would do. In short, her flaws don’t annihilate her intelligence–they just blunt it occasionally. After all, that’s human, too.
A main character exhibiting the spectrum of virtues and vices that make him or her human–even if the character isn’t human–becomes relatable to the reader. The Mary Sue character has either no flaws or her flaws are so minor that they don’t matter. Those tiny flaws seem to enhance rather than obstruct. Gilmore noted the current trend in fiction preferences for Mary Sue heroines. Perhaps that’s because, in these days of an ill-managed pandemic and civil unrest, we need something perfect to inspire or comfort us.
I don’t know the answer. I do know that I don’t like Mary Sue protagonists or the strong female character cliche.