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:
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.
Tiger in the Snow
Tessa heard huffing behind her and halted in her tracks. She slowly turned around. As cold, hungry, and tired as she was, slowly was the only speed of which she was capable. A squeak of fear escaped her mouth, which would have hung open were she able to stop chattering and shivering.
The hulking bear walked toward her, its stride purposeful, its gaze focused upon her. The flight or fight instinct froze her muscles, not that she could have fled anyway. Her body just wasn’t capable of it. Perhaps if she crumpled to the ground and curled up as tightly as possible? Might that convince the bear that she wasn’t worth its time or trouble?
Close enough to open the channel for mental communication, Dmitry contacted the bear, using the mind-to-mind path open to all shifters.
You’re frightening her.
He felt a mild sense of surprise from the bear, but the shifter answered without breaking his focus on the woman, She smells ripe. She’s mine.
She’ll die of exposure and be no one’s if we don’t take care of her.
We? There is no “we,” tiger. The woman is mine.
Dmitry paused to deposit his duffle and then emerged from the cover of the winter forest. The woman’s brown eyes widened even more with terror. She groaned as with the realization that she was dead, either from animal attack or hypothermia. Death was certain. Escape was futile.
Just as hungry for a mate as the bear, maybe even hungrier, Dmitry tried for rational control one more time: The woman is terrified and near to death from cold. We must take care of her first before either of us stakes a claim.
She’s dying, you fool!
Indeed, the woman had crumpled to the ground and she lay ominously still.
Tiger in the Snow
Tessa looked upward at the dimming sky. Considering that the winter sun had shone brightly overhead when they stopped, several hours had passed while she lay unconscious. Derek had wasted neither time nor energy calling for assistance.
The rat bastard had left her there to die. Since she had refused to be his mistress, he would find her disappearance convenient. She clenched her jaws and hoped for the gratifying opportunity to get her hands on him so she could throttle the jerk. Her shoulders drooped as righteous anger evaporated. The likelihood that she really would have the opportunity to exact a little vengeance looked pretty remote.
She shivered as cold sank bone deep and chilled the warmth of outrage. She was lost, freezing, hungry, andso damned tired. Hopelessness settled in her chest, which sparked a retaliatory fit of new anger. She’d always taken care of herself and she determined she would do so this time. But then, determination wasn’t always sufficient. She had no good reason to think she could survive being so woefully unprepared for this winter hike.
Despair descended again, only held at bay by the faint, desperate hope that she could come across someone, anyone, from whom she could beg help.
“As long as I’m moving there’s hope,” she muttered through chattering teeth, but the pep talk rang hollow.
Maybe being found by some hillbilly mountain man wouldn’t be so bad after all. She clenched her jaws, but her teeth still chattered. If said imaginary, hillbilly mountain man could provide heat, she’d give him anything.
The waning sunlight drew her eyes to a wide trail. Tessa’s heart leaped with hope. A trail meant she was near civilization. Presumably. Slipping, sliding, and stumbling she raced toward the trail. Icy sweat joined the wetness soaking her clothes so that she teetered on the edge of hypothermia as she plodded along the trail, arms wrapped around herself, feet numb. Only the tears dripping from her eyes were warm, and those soon chilled in the cold temperatures.
The triumph of reaching the trail soon faded as she walked and saw no one. Of course, it wasn’t exactly peak season for hikers, but she had hoped to come across someone. Anyone. She had expected the famous trail would at least be lightly populated, not deserted. She walked, well, trudged would be a better word. She looked around her, hoped to see the golden glow of human habitation, like a window to a cabin with actual people inside. But cold and darkness and loneliness soon had her concentrating on merely putting one foot in front of the other. To stop walking was to die.
Hope ebbed. Maybe she would die out there, a stupid woman who had believed promises of forever from a man who had not meant them, a man who had patiently explained while they were still snuggled in a warm bed that she just didn’t have the background and social connections to be his wife. One would have thought that, at the ripe old age of thirty-six, she’d know better.
Tessa cursed her stupidity. She should have known that a snob like Derek wouldn’t consider a nobody like her—an administrative assistant—as a suitable candidate for marriage.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. The wrath she stoked distracted her from her current predicament.