This is a follow-up to this post, which ends with the question: Can you write about wish fulfillment without creating a Mary Sue character? These are just some of my thoughts on the issue…
The first and easiest way to avoid (some) criticism as a Mary Sue is to have your protagonist already aware and settled into her wish-fulfilled circumstances. Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson is already a part of her network of male protectors and already well aware of her identity as a coyote shape shifter, and so we don’t see her ‘randomly’ receiving these attributes out of nowhere. Likewise, Lady Mary of Downton Abbey is not criticized for being wealthy and attractive, as she already is when the story begins, and thus owns her place within that identity. Now, if you write a character who’s a magically powerful princess beloved by all who know her (except that one jealous bitch who everyone hates and protects her from) and who never makes a mistake, you’ll get criticism even if she starts the story this way—because perfect characters aren’t interesting. Give your character a wish-fulfilled life, but also give her flaws, make her real.
Now, the downside to this strategy is that it can severely dampen the “wish fulfillment,” because the reader can’t always identify so easily with the character. Because the “wish” is “fulfilled” before the story even starts, there’s a distinct lack of “fulfillment” within the story itself. The title character of Thor gets to be a badass Norse God-alien hero, but while we are entertained by his adventures we don’t necessarily identify with him (we most likely identify with Jane Foster, who gets the wish fulfillment of having the attention of said badass Norse God-alien). By having the character already aware and identified within their specialness, you remove them from any sense of being “ordinary”—that is certainly not a reason to not write characters like that, as they can be fascinating and perfectly amazing protagonists, but it doesn’t necessarily qualify as “wish fulfillment.” But, keep in mind, they can have indirect aspects of wish fulfillment (watching rich people be rich can still make us imagine being rich, even if we don’t see them becoming rich). And, as I will always remind myself, story comes first, so this lack of wish fulfillment is not reason enough to avoid writing such a protagonist.
But let’s just say you’ve got your heart set on wish fulfillment—on the fulfillment of a wish within the story itself. You want to see that transition, to live within the shift from “ordinary” to “extraordinary,” but you don’t want to write a Mary Sue. Can it be done?
One option is to have the character act to obtain that transition, which requires them to be aware of their surroundings and current identity (and potentially somewhat special already), and then become more special. For example, Tony Stark begins as a genius billionaire, but he acts using those qualities to become the unique superhero Ironman. Sometimes, it can even be a negative event with inversely positive outcomes—such as the Elric brothers in Fullmetal Alchemist, who study alchemy and use it to try and resurrect their mother, an event with horrific outcomes, but which also grants them the ability to use alchemy without drawing circles and thus gives them a uniquely superior power. Choosing to go on the journey, to study a skill, to join up with a secret organization—all of this choice gives the character agency, and helps make that transition feel less passive, less random, and less “undeserved.”
Another option is to have the transition occur because of character elements instead of apparent randomness or coincidence. For example, J in Men in Black is chosen for the agency because he succeeds at the test—why he does so seems to be random character elements, but it at least feels somewhat deserved. This is the same as the example given for Steve Rogers in Captain America. The more explained the character elements, the more “deserved” the transition seems. Perhaps the character has a particular expertise (that they never realized could be applied this way), or has a natural curiosity that leads them to seek out this transition without fully knowing what it is. If it’s a matter of personality, at least attempt two things—to make the important personality trait somewhat unique (J’s empathy for aliens and Steve’s self-sacrifice are shown to be unusual), and if possible to understand where it came from (neither of the above examples really shows why these two men act in these unusual ways, other than having special personalities, and so I’d wager that if they were women they’d be accused of Mary Sue-ness, but I digress…). Elements of self that seem to “earn” the transition will go a long way in counteracting Mary Sue accusations, especially when compared to the seeming randomness of parents or hit-by-lightning coincidence.
If for whatever reason you must have a completely ordinary and unaware character who is thrust into the big time, and you want to avoid as much criticism as possible, at least make it hard for them. Have them fail, have them struggle, have them make mistakes. Don’t have them instantly learn new skills that are hard for others, or make friends immediately and for apparently no virtue of their own. Develop conflict that legitimately questions the very randomness of their transition, that uses their original ordinariness as a logical hindrance to their heroism, and that requires relationships to build through interaction and back-and-forth development rather than simple place-and-time or story requirements. The transition itself can be random and passive, but what happens afterwards as they develop towards heroism and friendship/love should be hard work and conflict and active goals that sometimes fail.
Finally, a simple technique to lessen criticism of the Mary Sue is to at least attempt as much originality as possible. A large portion of the criticism of Mary Sue storylines is their similarities and repetition, from the nature of the transition to the way they’re treated to the uniqueness of their power. Try and find as many original elements as possible, both in the story and in the character. This will help.
In the end, any (female) character who is special in any way will be called a Mary Sue by somebody. If she’s loved by a character who doesn’t love anybody else, if she has a power that no one else has, if she’s able to figure things out that no one else can—Mary Sue. Even if she’s just somewhat special, or liked by a character in a position of power, or a little more competent than others by virtue of luck or ‘natural talent’—Mary Sue (I’m thinking of Tris in Divergent, whose divergence is not unique to her, but is rare enough to feel that way and thus makes her “special”; or Meg in Written in Red, who isn’t the only cassandra sangue in the world but is the only one who encounters the Others of the Courtyard and is thus treated uniquely by them). The fact that these somewhat unique qualities are necessary to make this character the protagonist doesn’t create an immunity to criticism, and nothing ever will.
The best technique to avoid criticism is to not avoid it—write with love and passion, write what you want to read, and let the critics say what they will. Yes, I deeply understand the fear that criticism will prevent success, and it’s possible that if agents and editors and buyers feel this way about Mary Sues, your inclusion of one will affect your career (and you’ll just have to keep sending it out until you find someone who doesn’t care, or go back and write something new; either way, you carry on).
But chances are what you’re really afraid of are the online critics, the commenters and reviewers, the people who will form the basis of the public opinion of you above and beyond your sales figures. Remind yourself that they will only have the ability to make such a critique if you have sales figures, and in order to have such, someone out there has to love your book—enough to spend money and time on it. And that you have written a book, a huge accomplishment, something many of these reviewers can only dream of. And, ultimately, they might be right—but does it really matter? So you wrote a crappy book. If it entertains someone, and it must entertain someone to even get to the point of receiving criticism, then it’s done its job. And it’s just a book.