Throughout most of my writing history, my characters have had quite a few “Mary Sue” tendencies. That is, I’ve based them physically on myself, made them attractive, given them rather miserable childhoods, planned on telling them halfway through their stories that they were long lost relatives of people they hated, given them unusual/particularly meaningful gifts or disabilities, only let them do stuff I agreed with, and allowed them to save the world/fulfill the special prophesy. At the time I created these characters, all these ideas sounded really cool.
In the past few years though, I’ve read a little more fiction in the genres I’m interested in writing. Not as much as the advice columnists tell you you should, because to be honest, I don’t actually like a lot of the stuff written in my favorite genres. That’s part of the reason I feel the urge to write other stuff that I do like for those genres. However, I did poke my nose into enough books to become aware of the multitude of “special” protagonists that fill the pages of paranormal fiction. Among the most notable: the girl who finds out she’s a fairy, the boy who discovers his dyslexia is a symptom of being descended from Poseidon, that other boy who finds out he’s a wizard and then discovers the next day that he was the only wizard the evil dark lord wizard couldn’t kill, the misfit teenager who is somehow the only person her vampire boyfriend is in love with, the only person whose thoughts he can’t read, and the one person he wants to kill more than anyone else. Wow, what a coincidence.
Naturally, all of these stories left me a little wary of characters who turn out to be special. After all, what’s the point of having a character be secretly related to someone important if that’s the standard plot twist everyone can see from a mile away? That’s the whole idea behind Mary Sue: that specialness in fiction has become so normal the only interesting characters are ordinary.
Fortunately, when it comes to my current WIP, I’m pretty sure my protagonist is not a Mary Sue. She doesn’t have any kind of special powers. The main skill she develops throughout the story doesn’t just come to her, but requires time and a lot of work. She’s nice looking, but not everyone she runs into is attracted to her. And in no way is she in a position to save the world. Basically, I consider her to be your everyday person.
Trouble is though, I’m beginning to feel like the only characters who stand a chance of getting noticed are the Mary Sue types, that the reason they’re so common in popular fiction is that they really are the kind of character people want to read about. After all, if people want to hear about ordinary people doing ordinary stuff, they don’t have to read fiction at all; they just have to read newspapers or somebody’s diary blog online.
So, my question to you is: In a world obsessed with “special” characters, are ordinary characters more or less compelling than superhero, long lost son of Darth Vader, save the world type characters?