All writers know the rule: Characters must have flaws to make them relatable to the reader. Without those little quirks and flaws the character becomes a Mary Sue, the bane of the written word.
We’ve all encountered Mary Sue in books. She physically perfect, her beauty a shining light of hope in an otherwise dreary world. Men fall to their knees as she passes, in love with her after one fleeting glance. To go along with that breath-taking face and body, she’s kind, generous and happy-happy-happy. Her childhood was perfect, her parents doting on her from birth, her siblings protective and adoring. She has a wide circle of friends who vie for her attention, a cushy job, gourmet cooking skills and automotive knowledge that rivals that of a NASCAR pit boss. If anyone dislikes her it’s because they’re, A) jealous bitches or, B) a cardboard cut-out Bad Guy who wants to destroy her because she doesn’t love him back. Oh, and, C) the reader, because she’s TOO perfect.
No one wants to read about a Mary Sue, so writers strive to make sure their characters have those flaws that make them human, relatable, sympathetic. But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately of the pendulum swinging too far in that direction, and Mary Sue is becoming her downtrodden twin, Ethel May.
I’m in the midst of reading a crime thriller, a genre I usually don’t enjoy. But I read an excerpt of this book and the premise drew me in so I downloaded the book onto my Kindle and started reading. I was hooked. The story is brilliant and fast-paced, the plot just complicated enough to keep you guessing without becoming overwhelmed, and just when you think you’ve figured out who the bad guy is, the author throws in an unexpected twist that makes it plain you’re dead wrong. As much as I’m enjoying this book, though, I hate the main female character. She’s a total Ethel May.
So much about her is stereotypical Female Cop. She’s a tough, ball-busting dame and all of her co-workers think she’s a total bitch. (And while we’re on that subject, all of her co-workers are men. In fact, all of her co-workers have always been men. She works for a police department in one of the largest cities in the United States and in every department in which she’s worked she’s been the lone female. Are we supposed to believe that in the 21st century in such a large city that there are no other women detectives? Right.) Ethel May is plain and unattractive, a point hammered to death whenever she happens to see her reflection. In fact, the only colleague who actually likes her thinks so, too, feeling sad that he would never give her a second look if they didn’t work together. She wears ugly, ill-fitting suits, has no friends or social life and no hobbies.
Not only is she unpleasant and ugly, her family doesn’t value her, either. Her parents dote on her brothers while ignoring the fact that she’s a tough, ball-busting dame of a police detective. Poor Ethel May is the brunt of sexist remarks and offensive practical jokes played on her by snickering detectives in her department, things for which they are never reprimanded. (Again, this book is set in the present day, not in the 1950s. Are large, metropolitan police departments really like this? Really? If so, I’m glad I never had the urge to enter law enforcement.) All in all, she’s a miserable, angry, hateful bitch. Not a Mary Sue by any stretch of the imagination.
In some ways, she’s worse. While I root for Mary Sue to get her come-uppance, I find myself hoping Ethel May gets killed off by the bad guy, the sooner the better. No, I don’t relate to Mary Sue and her perfect world, but I don’t relate to Ethel May, either, and her never-ending cycle of misery and despair. She may be the world’s greatest detective, but she’s so unpleasant that I don’t care. If the story and plot of this book weren’t so kick-ass, I’d have quit reading after the second chapter.
It’s tricky finding that balance between Mary Sue and Ethel May, not too perfect but not so down-trodden that she brings down the whole book and leaves a sour taste in the reader’s mouth. Yes, give Mary Sue some flaws and make her human, but don’t, for the love of God, turn her into Ethel May.