Reasonably Unscrewed-Up Character ≠ Mary Sue
When Mary and I were doing the Q & A portion of our Borderlands Books appearance, I went off the ranch a bit and kvetched about one of my pet peeves concerning science fiction reviewers, which is the assumption that any main character who is not screwed-up is somehow automatically a Mary Sue wish fulfillment character for the writer… or perhaps more accurately that my main characters are Mary Sues for me. Rather than recreate the kvetch, let me transcribe it here, edited slightly so you don’t get every stutter and “uh”:
Forgive me father, for I have sinned, I have been reading my reviews. And there’s one thing that just always pisses me off, and that it is that when they mention characters, they say, well his main character is fine and blah blah blah but it’s really just a Mary Sue character. And it just drives me insane because it’s in all my reviews: “The main character’s a Mary Sue.” Well, no, the main character is not a Mary Sue, he’s just not incredibly fucked up to begin with!
There’s a difference between having a character that’s, you know, fairly on beam, and having a Mary Sue. Having a Mary Sue would be like, ‘Harry Creek, five foot eight, a little more portly than average but still devastatingly handsome and sexy, stepped in. And they said “Thank God, Harry, you’re here!” And he said, “Why yes, I am, and I will solve that problem for you. Now, now, don’t thank me — this is what I do. I will now go retire and have sex with many people.”‘
So all these things… they’re like John Perry is a Mary Sue, and my immediate response was just because the dude lives in my little town, in my house, and is a writer, doesn’t mean he’s my Mary Sue. Which I understand is unconvincing. But then there’s Harry Creek, he’s a Mary Sue. I wrote something for METAtroplis, and the review was “this is yet another Mary Sue character.” That Mary Sue character was the nineteen year old screw-up who gets a job as a pig farmer and on his first day on the job gets enveloped in shit. I’m like, yeah, I want to be that character! When I was right out of college, which is the equivalent of what this character is, my first job was as a movie critic at a newspaper — I watched movies for a living, and I got to tell people about it. For an egotistical 22-year-old man, it doesn’t get any better than that. This guy is not my Mary Sue, I’m his!
So just because a character is not immediately in pain doesn’t mean he’s not a Mary Sue. He’s just not in pain.
Bear in mind that as I was saying this all, I was in ranty hyperactive mode, playing to an audience, who was laughing with me (as opposed to at me, you can be sure), so I’m a little more strident here than I might be otherwise. On the other hand, I do have a point here, which is I think SF reviewers have gotten into the lazy assumption that any character that’s not immediately laden down with problems and/or is meant to be more competent than usual in a particular skill or skills is a Mary Sue for the author.
Now, maybe that’s the way it works for other authors, but for me, not so much. I make some of my characters more competent than usual because a) non-competent people don’t generally interest me as primary characters and b) from the standpoint of story mechanics, unless the journey to competence is the point of the story, the less time you have spend getting your character up to competence, the more time you have to deal with the story itself. None of this has to do with me having any wish fulfillment, other than the practical wish of keeping my story bubbling along. As for why I don’t make my main characters all fucked-up, well, I suppose it’s because the stories I’ve written so far don’t need them to be. When I need one, I’ll write one. But I’m not going to make a character all fucked-up just because. Seems a mean thing to do to a character, and possibly a bad thing to do to a story. Again, this is less about my own wish fulfillment than practical issues of story construction.
(And as for John Perry, as I’ve noted before (.pdf link), the reason he lives in my town and in my house and is a writer is because I’m lazy, not because he’s me. In the OMW universe, the character most like me is Harry Wilson, who doesn’t get his own star turn in the universe until the short story “After the Coup.” And even then (spoilers!) he gets the crap beat out of him, which doesn’t seem like something you’d let happen to your Mary Sue on a regular basis.)
I’m aware that the term “Mary Sue” is experiencing some definition creep so that aside from meaning “author wish fulfillment character” it’s also come to mean “supercompetent, non-screwed-up main character.” But this seems like critical and linguistic laziness to me — Let “Mary Sue” mean what it’s supposed to mean, and let something else mean that other thing; I vote for “Campbellian Competent,” myself. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize writers on both counts — Campbellian Competent characters can be lazily constructed and boring as hell, just as Mary Sues are painful to read in their own way. I’d just suggest critics actually try to parse the difference. It’d be more useful to readers, and I know it would annoy me less.