Let Your Protagonist Be Ugly

Mary Sue is a term originating in fan fiction, for a phenomenon that has probably existed since a Cro-Magnon teenager scratched a stick figure single-handedly slaying mammoths on a cave wall.

The above is a short list of stuff you can do with your characters to avoid the Mary Sue syndrome: that is, the creation of a too-perfect, too-beautiful, infallible main character who makes every reader roll their eyes. I used to think that this was stuff that other writers thought about all the time, and I noted that I had very few really beautiful protagonists because I wanted them to operate in a society where they didn’t have that going for them and had to rely on wits and/or brute strength or some other characteristic. At the same time, I’d make secondary characters who were beautiful and terribly flawed, so one of their best assets was their looks, and they knew it. Beauty is a character trait that will affect how you’re seen and treated in the rest of the world, just like gender, just like race, just like education and background. You have to take it into consideration.

I don’t remember who I was talking to, a couple of pro or semi-pro writers, and one of them said, in conversation, “You know, actually, now that I think about, all of my protagonists are traditionally attractive.”

It’s not that you can’t do this, of course: the Kushiel books do this. It’s just that it’s one more interesting thing you can put into your character’s pot, one more hurdle and/or obstacle they have to overcome, one more trait.

This goes for smarts, too. I think that, as geeks, we want to create people who never fuck up, who are smarter than everybody else, who never get into situations they can’t *really* get out of, and who don’t have to rely on other people; just their own smarts.

I remember reading the draft of a friend’s book and realizing, at the end, that every single plan that one of the characters came up with…. worked. And I don’t just mean “got the result they wanted,” but every single plan came off exactly like she said it would, in exactly the right way. Halfway through the book, I didn’t feel any sort of tension or suspense when she put a plan into motion, because… well, they always came off without a hitch.

I like to write about characters who fuck up. Not stupid characters, mind, but characters who fuck up because they weren’t well informed, or somebody was informed more than they were, or they anticipated everything but this one thing. I like putting people in a place where they fail, because seeing a character fail, and seeing how they react to that, tells you an incredible amount about them. And creates a hell of a lot of suspense.

Angst, done well, is a fantastic tool too, but angst to the point of inaction kills your book. I’ve read a lot of first drafts from morose, angsty, depressed writers who drink too much who then open their books with a morose, angsty, depressed hero who drinks too much. It’s not like you can’t *do* this (Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a good example of an angsty, depressed protagonist who drinks too much, but DOES something), it’s that yes, you must DO something. Your character can wallow, but they need to act, they need to move, they need to progress the narrative, and they had better be doing far more action than angst in the beginning, in particular. I’m not going to feel sorry for some angsty protagonist I just met.

Some of this is just going to be personal author preference, I know. I don’t like to write about beautiful protagonists: I like to write about unattractive but driven protagonists who angst after the beautiful secondary characters. I like to write about characters who fuck up. I probably default to this because that’s my experience of life, and writing it up any other way would feel dishonest. That’s not to say, again, that I haven’t written dumb, beautiful characters or wily, beautiful characters, because I have (indeed, those people exist too), but these aren’t the stories and conflicts I’m drawn to, they’re not the ones I best sympathize with.

There is, I think, certainly some wish-fulfillment in much of the fiction we all write (which is probably why all the genre writers – SF/F, thriller, romance, etc get all the shit form the literary folks who think writing about drunk writers who can’t get laid in New York is somehow realer and more noteworthy than writing about hard-up interstellar bounty hunters who save the world and get laid), though it’s not necessarily a wish-fulfillment embodied in the character; perhaps merely the situation. It’s the idea that we can all be powerful, we can all make a difference. And what I like to show, what I like to write about, is how we can all make a difference, we can all change the world, no matter how imperfect and fucked-up we may sometimes be (other writers’ mileage and motives vary wildly, but that’s mine).

If my protagonist can change the world while being illiterate, wombless, only carrying around one good kidney, with three fingers on her right hand, no money to her name, a not-beautiful face, a nice ass, a bad shot, and a fair ability in a boxing ring, I mean, really, you and me – with my faulty immune system, sprained ankle, graduate education and money in the bank – we really don’t have any excuses.

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