Monday, April 1, 2013

Descriptions of Protagonists - Make it or Break it

Maybe a year ago, when my best friend and I were still mourning the loss of Borders (and thus found ourselves in a Barnes & Noble), I shoved Daughter of Smoke and Bone at her. "Read this too," I said as I placed the book atop an ever growing pile. "The writing is fantastic!"

As with the other books I had recommended, she read the first few pages. I didn't have to wait long for her reaction:  she laughed.

"An artist with dyed hair and a shoulder bag?" (I don't actually remember if she said shoulder bag.) "Please," she scoffed as she turned to the back flap, with the author photo to support her. "I understand why authors do this, but no, just no."

You all know that I love Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Laini Taylor is now one of my auto-buy authors, especially after her phenomenal follow-up, Days of Blood and Starlight. At the same time, I also know what my friend meant, no matter how sad it was to see her judge DoSaB that way. Whenever a main character is described in a similar way to how I perceive the author, I do tend to think of the MC as a Mary Sue/Gary Stu. It's something so small but so simple and so avoidable. While I understand the adage "write what you know," I'm not sure that describing the MC fits within that category. And I think that that's something that can easily contribute to the current problem with diversity--how little there is within YA, whether or not that's improving as of now.

What do you think? Do you tend to associate the description of the MC with Mary Sue/Gary Stu-ness? Are there specific details that you associate with a Mary Sue/Gary Stu?

14 comments:

  1. It's funny, because I can remember thinking the EXACT same thing about the MC in DoSaB. (I didn't get very far into that book, either--I think I just got bored.) I can deal with a character with appearance cliches, as long as there is a good reason for them and the character doesn't end up being a Mary Sue/Gary Stu in personality. I DO get hesitant when I realize the MC looks like the author, but that won't make me stop reading.

    Details that I associate with Mary Sue-ness? It's funny, because anymore I don't associate physical details with Mary Sue-ness--but if a character is described as having a greater-than-average selflessness, it's like a million warning sirens going off in my head.

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  2. Interesting, I've never looked at it that way before. I don't generally look at the author picture for very long and then forget what I saw very quickly. I care much more about whether the character's personality/actions screams author insertion, than what they look like. Unless, of course, it's that character who is so often and so lovingly described and their description is so unlike how actual people look (long silver tresses and amethyst eyes, I am looking at you), then I suspect a rat.

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  3. When everyone loves the hero/heroine. Romantically, I mean. To me, that's a clear sign the author is living out their fantasy life in book form. I'm skeptical of MC's who are authors, too. I don't know if there are specific things that scream Mary Sue/Gary Stu to me, but I've definitely read books where it's happened. Maybe it's intuition?

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  4. I guess it depends how specific the character/author look. An author with generic brown hair and brown eyes making a character with brown hair and brown eyes is a lot less of a direct insertion than an author with blue hair making a character with blue hair.

    Still, like Lindie said, I focus more on character/personality and, like Ruby said, over-fawning. Mostly it's when the author reminds the reader over and over about the amazingness of the MC. That's annoying and intrusive. I don't know if that's always the author inserting themselves, but it does feel too much like them doting on their "baby" too much. I want them to make me love their characters because their characters ARE awesome, not just because the author tells me everyone thinks they're awesome (and they have awesome blue hair, or whatever physical trait).

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  5. You know what? I've never really considered that. Not coming from a real fan fiction background, I'm not one to break out the Mary Sue thing very often, and I'm not ENTIRELY sure I know all of what it means. I generally don't consider the author at all when evaluating the book.


    I base the Mary Sue stuff more off of the MC being a super special snowflake that every guy wants for no discernible reason, but I might be wrong.

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  6. You know, I've never thought about it that way.. I don't pay much attention to it, because I just like to have some details about how the characters look (although some authors can go to far; Wavy blond hair cascade around her heart shaped face, while she looks with soft green eyes into the mirror, blablabla.)

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  7. Aw, you got bored in DoSaB? :( I could see you really liking the 2nd book because of the expansive fantasy world and the multiple POVs and moral ambiguity. But yeah, me too, I think. Appearance cliches--unless they're really, really extreme and there's nothing else I like about the book (rare)--I can deal with. And ooh, the selflessness. That gets me almost every time. I find it really hard to relate to characters when they're that selfless. Sometimes it gets to be this IDEAL or the character seems almost preachy too... and sometimes I honestly just can't believe that someone is that GOOD.

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  8. Oh, I never look at the author picture. If this happens, it's probably because of this new bloggerly atmosphere. I've heard of the book, read about it on GR, heard about the awesome author, etc. etc. LOL. Long silver tresses and amethyst eyes. Yes. Purple eyes. Even blue and green eyes. (Really, what about brown eyes? Can they not be pretty too?) And ahhhh, when everyone in the story is beautiful...

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  9. I was just thinking about this today, actually! I do find it weird when MCs are authors or readers themselves and refer to "other characters" in books and how "they" would react to the situation at hand. Sometimes I am reminded of a book in difficult situations, but when reading a book with this kind of description, I am reminded that I am reading. If that makes sense. And that's totally off topic....

    YES, though. When everyone is romantically interested in the protagonist, I am very, very skeptical. I've read many a book when that happens, and I find myself confused, especially since I think it happens most often when the protagonist is so quiet that I don't know how other people would get to know him/her very well!

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  10. Truthfully, I don't tend to think of Mary Sue or Gary Stus very often. I do think there is a level of intuition there, though, that immediately makes us suspect said character (and potentiall dislike him/her.) Which is what I think you're getting at with the special snowflake (lol I think I know which YA character you're thinking of... unless you like using that phrase to describe many characters.)

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  11. True. I think it doesn't even occur to me when it's a generic description. But non-generic descriptions, taken in combination with character/personality... Warning flags. And yes! Showing versus telling. I hate it when we're told that the character is X and X (strong, smart, insert positive adjective, woohooo!!) unless it's SUPER late in the book, and I've already formed an impression of the character.... then I can decide whether that's true or not. But, I think, most of the time it's done early. Even when it's done at the end, as an encouragement to the character in question (you're so strong! you can do this... when the character has done nothing the whole book), it can be done poorly.

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  12. Yeah, I think that having some details about how the characters look can help us visualize them... but I do think that sometimes it is taken too far. And yes, the mirror example is one of those occurrences that always seems to get to MC descriptions...

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  13. Oh man, and when grey eyes are described as silver. I have grey eyes, they are not now, or ever will be, silver. Silver has a metallic shine. Does the character's eyes shine metal-like? Are they a cyborg? The Terminator? RUN!

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  14. You have grey eyes? That's cool. I see that a lot in books and I've yet to see a single person with them :).

    But LOL to the silver eyes. Most of the metallic-ness, I think, is meant to indicate superpowers or supernaturalness or blah... hey, maybe they're implying you're the next superhero.

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