Liz B. at the Tea Cozy pointed me to Laura Miller’s interesting Slate essay on the danger of “Mary Sue” characters. Along with the usual warnings about how annoying such characters can be, Miller writes:
Because genre fiction tends to trade in wish fulfillment to begin with, you’re far more likely to find shameless Mary Sues in mediocre mysteries, science fiction and romance novels. Even in the most routine series fiction, however, there’s a distinction between the kind of character who embodies the fantasies of readers—Nancy Drew, for example—and a character who’s really only working for the author.The focus on literary wish-fulfillment does indeed help to explain where Mary Sues congregate. And genre fiction does offer easier wish-fulfillment since it tends to offer clearer stakes and resolutions: solving the mystery, finding true love, winning the big game, escaping the zombie,…
At the same time, if the acid test is reader response, that means that no character is a Mary Sue until the story is published and read. And then it’s too late. Miller’s definition seems tautological:
The Mary Sues of literary fiction are seldom as flat-out perfect as the ones found in fan or genre fiction, but they do share the defining quality of Mary Sues everywhere: They irritate readers. Not all readers, maybe, but most of them, which is why there are so few true Mary Sues in literary classics; great writers don’t do Mary Sues.So characters that irritate most readers are Mary Sues, and Mary Sues are bad because they irritate readers. Literary authors can create stand-in or autobiographical characters because they’re such great writers that they don’t irritate most readers.
So how do folks feel about Levin in Anna Karenina?
And are there genre writers getting their jollies through their characters but skilled enough not to irritate their readers?