Talking to someone in the comments on the most recent comic I’ve posted up made me realize that the term “Mary Sue” or “Gary Stu” is being thrown around awfully liberally these days. As much as “hipster” seems to mean “young adult who wears clothing”, all it seems to take for a character to rack up accusations of being a wish-fulfillment mouthpiece device is to be the same gender as the writer, be notably talented at anything, or be likeable in any way. In light of this, I went back to the archives and found a blog post I wrote about two years ago for my on-again-off-again dead and reanimated and dead all over again art blog regarding writing interesting protagonists in a fantasy or sci-fi setting. I’ve cannibalized it a bit, but if it seems familiar that may be why.

I know the vast internet collective has coded up plenty of “is your character a Sue” tests that people run to so they can gauge whether or not their characters are ordinary enough to make the grade. I always feel on the fence about these kind of tests because the traits they call out are almost completely irrelevant outside of the context and actual application they receive in the piece. What may seem unacceptably fantastic in theory may be considered mundane when viewed in the actual scope of the world a writer has built. And just because something sounds idealized when you break it down into the individual pieces, it doesn’t necessarily mean that those features manifest in a particularly flattering manner.

For example, let’s say I describe a character to you as a broody, dark skinned man in impeccable physical condition with pointy ears, long white hair, purple eyes, and an aptitude for bladed weapons. Clearly I must be talking about that pretty-boy drow prince, Drizzt, from Forgotten Realms.

Oh wait no, I was actually talking about Sten.

That’s the difference context and application make.

I absolutely hate the question “is the character attractive” because there is such a massive scope of what people are attracted to that you can take just about anything you can think of and someone out there will find downright sexy. Think Marv from Sin City, the driving force behind that character is supposed to be that he is so ugly and horrible, even in a city of prostitutes only one woman has ever agreed to sleep with him. I could probably find you a handful of women who would argue that Marv is more attractive than Mickey Rourke under normal circumstances and even more who would be all over a guy like that in real life.

For that matter, are guys like Steve Buscemi attractive? He’s been married for 23 years, obviously someone digs him.

If I make a Steve Buscemi-inspired character and some fan draws steamy anime-styled porn of them with lots of cherry blossoms and drapey fabric because they think he’s so gawgeous and wonderful, does that mean I’ve just designed an attractive character? From my experience, no matter what a character looks like, if you make them out to be sympathetic or friendly in any way someone out there will assume that they must either be the kind of person you’re attracted to or the kind of person you wish you could be.

My favourite subject to write about basically breaks down to outlandish characters doing mundane things (as you may have noticed from this webcomic here that I assume you’ve been reading). I am of the opinion that there is no character out there so outlandish and out of touch that they couldn’t be recrafted into a relatable person by taking Maslow’s Pyramid of Human Needs into account.

This pyramid represents the basic concerns of a human being in ascending order of triviality. The lowest levels of the pyramid represent the lowest common denominator that all people can identify with. As you climb the pyramid, problems will generally matter less.

The bottom of the pyramid represents life-or-death needs like food, water, shelter, air. No one in the world will ever question a character’s motivation to not die. And when they say “sex” they mean it in a Children of Men “our species is going to die” way that drives characters in a post apocalyptic setting to muse about how the earth will be repopulated, not the “bawww why can’t I get laid” way. In the context of films like 28 Days Later where they take into account what that drive to preserve the species will do to women’s rights, it’s downright terrifying. Matters of life and death will always interest an audience, so even a character who sits at a high level on the pyramid can be stripped down to a basic need for survival in the climax of a story.

Less important than air, but still of pretty high concern is safety. The feeling of unease walking home alone at night, fear of losing your job, and health issues are all fairly universally accepted as important motivations and can easily turn into life or death struggles in their own rite.

Love or belonging is a fairly light, inoffensive problem for a character to overcome. On it’s own, it’s a status more suited for comedy, as it lacks the drama of life-or-death struggles.

Respect amongst one’s peers is in a similar boat, and is the last really relatable struggle you can put your character through. Self-actualization is more of an abstract idea that can lose your audience, as a character whose only struggle is to be the best at what they do is not terribly entertaining if they can’t be stripped down to a more basic need in the pursuit of that goal.

Conflict is built out of characters gambling their place on the pyramid as they attempt to raise their status, and characters cannot climb to a higher level if the needs below them have not been met. For example, a character will not be worried about getting the girl if they are in the middle of drowning (unless they are possibly Leonardo DiCaprio). The more a character stands to lose, the more an audience will care about them. This is why the first Iron Man is more entertaining in every way compared to that abortion of a sequel it got. Iron Man the first saw Tony Stark as a Millionaire jackass playboy who is humbled to a life or death struggle when his convoy is bombed and he’s left dying in the desert with shrapnel in his heart. He can’t be the life of the party again until he can figure out a way to improve on the car-battery system they rigged up in his chest to give him a few days to live. And his cocky attitude remained dampened until he could escape the terrorists who were planning to execute him after he was finished with their bidding. His security was stripped away when he found that the man who had ostensibly become his father figure was doing shady things with the company behind his back and trying to force him out, and that soon became and all new life-or death struggle of it’s own right.

The second Iron Man hit it’s climax somewhere around the 20 minute mark When Tony fights Vanko at the race because that is the only point where he’s truly caught off guard and seems concerned for his life. We’re told that he’s allegedly dying, but it comes across as more of a tacked on plot device than a legitimate concern because it doesn’t seem to distract from Tony’s illustrious lifestyle. The writers threw away every opportunity they had to strip him down to an interesting conflict. Tony’s got some blood poisoning from his chest reactor and it throws him into a funk. He takes his armour on a drunken joyride through a house party and what could have been an opportunity to have him, say, accidentally harm a guest and end up mired in legal ramifications that threaten his adoration from the public and security in the company while he’s simultaneously dealing with the medical trainwreck he’s becoming turns into an opportunity to show off how nice their CG super suits look when they fight to a catchy soundtrack that I’m sure was very expensive to license. Then before the whole “dying” thing can really bring him down to some base emotions, like a modern day Perseus people start showing up and handing him the solutions to every issue that might have been interesting to watch him overcome.

I guess what I’m getting at is that people can’t be all that concerned about your character if the character doesn’t seem to be concerned about themselves. There are a lot of stories you head into knowing that the Good Guys will win and the Bad Guys will lose, but those stories are still entertaining when you don’t know HOW the Good guy will win. If it’s because the good guy is super smart and rich and sexyfine and gets all the girls and everybody wants to be his best pal and he’s totally confident with himself and the Bad Guys are ugly poor losers and nobody likes them, you just wrote a really boring story. The whole conflict is so one-sided, people are probably going to start feeling more sympathy for the Bad Guys. Things are stacked against them but they still keep fighting so whatever it is they’re after must be pretty important. (Call the story Megamind and expect to see $150 million at the domestic box office)

People are quick to call “Mary Sue” on characters they feel are overpowered, but the problem with these characters is not in their copious volume of powers, it relates back to the pyramid as well. “Mary Sue” characters are generally boring because they’re rich and everyone wants to be their friend and they have a smoking hot significant other and they’re the best at what they do. They’re already at the top, so their story has no room to arc. A protagonist can have rainbow hair, fourteen wings, and laser beams shooting from their purple eyes and still be interesting to read about if they have some kind of real human struggle in their life that the audience can connect with.

My favourite example of this is John Arcudi’s short-run DC comic, Major Bummer. Lou Martin is a tall, handsome, indestructible superhero with inhuman strength, super genius engineering skills, and a chiseled body that makes smoking hot women fight over him. On the other hand, he’s always losing his jobs at fast food restaurants and VCR repair shops when his bosses are angry about having to clean up after his massively destructive battles at work, catty women are constantly trying to manipulate his life to get cozy with him, his massive bulk is too big to fit in the crappy car his unemployed ass can barely afford, the horrible lizard people he brutalizes in the effort to not-get-killed-by take him to court with assault charges, and he can’t sleep in on the weekends because people assume being a hulking demigod means he’s obligated to get up early and save the city from whatever Nazi dinosaur threat has them in peril that week.

I also see it suggested quite frequently that if a character has similar beliefs, ideals, or opinions to the writer, the character is by default a mouthpiece. I don’t think this is necessarily the case. True, if the point of the character is to beat down strawmen in one-sided debates regarding issues near and dear to to the author’s heart, that’s about as soapboxey as it gets. However, I think for a writer to create a character that is even the slightest bit interesting, they have to put at least a little bit of themselves into it. It ties into the old saying that you have to write what you know.

If a writer makes a character that they completely disagree with on every front and cannot empathize with at all, that character is likely going to end up being the aforementioned strawman and the anyone who interacts with them, allowed to have a real human thought process, is going to seem like a mouthpiece by default. I’m not saying that a person has to agree with what a character thinks, but they should relate to them enough to understand why they would think like that. For example, if a story calls for a character to make a racist remark it’s easy enough to invent a one dimensional player who exists solely to say inappropriate things and be put back on the shelf. On the other hand, if you put some effort into figuring out why that particular character would say something like that you add another layer to them. It could be upbringing, or a violent run-in with some people of whatever group they’re prejudiced against, or a high-tension situation that made them say something they’ll regret later, or even just something volatile the character likes to do to watch how it makes other people uncomfortable. The writer can completely disagree with everything their creation just said or did, but they still put enough of themselves into it to rationalize the exchange from a different point of view. I’ve scripted out whole arguments before that were just based on me playing devil’s advocate in my own head. Neither side agreed with what the other was saying even though both were rationalized by the same person.

What it basically comes down to is that writing fantasy stories is like drawing fantasy creatures. Dragons may not exist, but people can tell if a drawing of one is believable or “realistic” based on how well the image seems to relate to what they know actual animals look like in real life. In the exact same way, the stories that stick around are the ones people can relate to real situations.