The outline for my next story is moving along, and as soon as I finish grading my next batch of papers, I think I’m going to start on my character profiles. And as it happens, I have already spotted a potential problem: my main POV character is handsome, smart, funny, and romantically successful. Oh, and he’s a pretty powerful wizard, too. And also a famous general. And of course in our fictional ‘verse, the fact that he’s a wizard means he’s gifted with nearly eternal youth, as well.
You can probably already spot the potential difficulty. If I’m not careful, the reader is going to absolutely hate this guy.
On the drive into work this morning, S and I were discussing something similar, in the context of our new favorite show, The 100. At what point does a character become so incredibly awesome that the viewer (or reader) stops being impressed and starts thinking, “Oh, come on. Give me a break”? I don’t think the writers on that show have crossed that line with Clarke yet, but they have occasionally danced awfully close to it. When readers run across a character like this, sooner or later, someone is going to accuse the character of being a “Mary Sue” (or Gary Stu, in the case of my main POV character). As a shorthand for various sins of characterization, I suppose that’s fine, though as TV Tropes points out, the term has been stretched to the point that it’s hard to say exactly what it means anymore.
In general, though, I think the term “Mary Sue” implies a kind of wish-fulfillment on the part of the creator that isn’t really present in the case of my hero. (For the sake of convenience, let’s call him Phil, though that’s not really his name in the story.) I’m not writing a story about Phil because I wish I could be like him, but because there’s a particular moment in his life that I want to explore.
“Oh, sure you don’t want to be him,” the cynical reader sneers. “You’re only writing this story because you wish you could be as awesome as Phil.” Honestly, I’m not. But I can’t just tell the reader that. I can only show it in the way I write the story. Execution, as always, is everything.
So how am I going to make Phil sympathetic? Well, basically I’m going to do the same sorts of things that make any character sympathetic, but I have to be more careful than usual, lest the reader think I’m making a Mary Sue or a Creator’s Pet. Here’s what I’m planning to do:
1) Disrupt his perfect life as soon as possible. I’m not going to let him wallow around in his awesomeness. In the very first chapter, he’s going to get raked over the coals by his boss, the emperor. Sure, he might have been a bit self-satisfied and overconfident in the past, but almost from the very beginning of my story, he’s going to be worried about losing his job (and possibly his life).
2) Give him serious doubts and conflicts. I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but the main conflict of the story is between Phil and an old friend of his. The emperor wants the old friend dead, and Phil doesn’t want to do it, even though he also doesn’t want to annoy the emperor.
3) Make him “Save the Cat.” He’s loyal to his friends. And he’s kind to people when he doesn’t have to be. One of the other (minor) POV characters is, shall we say, his new assistant. Even though this assistant doesn’t really know what he’s doing, and even though there’s nothing that Phil actually needs from him, Phil is nice to him.
4) Keep him from getting everything he wants. Phil is going to start the story believing he can balance his different loyalties and obligations. He’s going to think he can keep the emperor happy without having to kill his old friend. He’s going to discover that he can’t. He’s going to make choices that make people mad. Which leads to….
5) Make sure not everyone likes him. His awesomeness isn’t self-evident to everyone. There are people (including POV characters) who disagree with him and dislike him. Over the course of the story, he’s going to lose friendships and disappoint people who admire him. When he makes a hard decision, people aren’t just going to pat him on the back and congratulate him on his gutsy call; there will be people who think he screwed up.
Oh, and if at all possible….
6) Make him funny. Just like in real life, you can put up with a lot from a character if he makes you laugh.
Hopefully the end result will be a character the reader likes and sympathizes with, in spite of his magical powers and flawless dark good looks. It’s still a risk, though. S and I love the title character of Jane Austen’s Emma, who is famously “handsome, clever, and rich,” but we know people with excellent literary taste who can’t stand her. Oh well. At least in my case I’m going to have seven other POV characters. If readers can’t stand Phil, maybe they’ll find one of the other people to identify with.