Q&A: Building Characters

What do you think about “character specialization”? I’m afraid of giving my female character too many skills like Rey in SW and make her a Mary Sue.

The problem with Sues (regardless of their gender) isn’t that they’re proficient in multiple areas, it’s that they’re, “the best,” at everything important. I’ve said this before, but a Sue is a character who doesn’t inhabit their own world, they’re simply an authorial power fantasy. Beyond that, they have no background to justify their ability. There’s no explanation for their skill, they simply are.

So, let’s look at a different character from Star Wars, who walks the line with being a sue. One of the many victims of Disney’s Star Wars purge was Mara Jade. She was, “The Emperor’s Hand,” a combination secret apprentice and personal spy/assassin/inquisitor for Emperor Palatine. She was first introduced in Heir to the Empire in 1991. Both women have access to the full suite of common force abilities, both are proficient with lightsaber combat. When we’re introduced to them, their backgrounds (and the source of their abilities) are mysteries. The difference is, you never had to ask, “why would Mara Jade know how to use force pull?” You’d never need to ask, “how did Mara learn to use a lightsaber?” In both cases, there’s a clear answer, “Palpatine trained her.”

Mara Jade has the kind of, “exceptional background,” that can easily signal a Sue, but it does explain her skill set, and her abilities do dovetail with who she’s supposed to be. She’s very clearly written to be part of the larger story, and not to dominate it. In case it’s not clear, I don’t think Mara Jade is a Sue, however the risk was there.

Maybe Disney’s expanded universe has compelling explanations for how Rey gained her force training, or where she learned to use a lightsaber, but, what I saw before I lost interest was, “she’s just that special. No explanation needed.” Literally every other character in Star Wars gained force powers from training and practice. But, not for Rey, she’s special.

You can make hyper-competent female characters without them being Sues. The important thing is that they must exist as part of their world. Their background needs to make sense, explain their skills, and mesh with who they are now.

So let’s talk about specializations in an entirely abstract and extreme way, using classes in role-playing games.

The class “trinity,” in RPGs is usually the Fighter, Rogue, and Wizard. The names change, but the basic idea is fairly central to that genre. You have characters that interact with violence, with stealth (frequently this includes social skills), or with magic. Alone it’s very reductive, but it carries a larger context that’s worth thinking about when you’re building your own characters. (This is unrelated to Tank/Healer/DPS. That’s MMOs.)

The fighter is a professional combatant. They’ve spent most of their adult life training for, or engaging in violence. They could be a professional soldier, a mercenary, hired muscle for a criminal group, they may have moved between these roles during their life. The end result is a character who is better suited to combat. Their background makes them better suited to violence than other characters, and that’s realistic. The class concept itself is an abstraction that limits who the character is, but the idea that someone who’s spent their life training for and engaging in violence is going to be a better fighter makes sense.

The rogue illustrates the weakness in simply lifting these systems without question. If you’re wondering why I chose the D&D names, it’s the rogue. Traditionally the rogue has been called “the thief,” and many games will use that name. The rogue may have been a thief, a spy, an assassin, or any number of other clandestine professions. Where the fighter has a clear identity, the rogue is a muddled collection of related ideas. There’s a huge difference between a burglar who sneaks into places undetected, an agent who infiltrates a foreign government to feed them bad information, and an assassin who covertly murders for pay. It makes sense if you have a character who worked as an assassin and, as a result, has a phenomenal grasp of human anatomy. It makes considerably less sense for your burglar who abhors violence to have that same knowledge, however they’ll frequently get the same sneak attack bonus.

D&D (and many games for that matter) address some of the limitations by adding (somewhat) redundant classes to provide more flavor. If your character is patterned off Conan, then you have the Barbarian class. If you’re looking at Aragorn or Legolas, there’s the Ranger. If you want your character to be a holy knight, roll a Paladin. This a band-aid solution that can be easily applied in game terms to address the limitations of the classes. Fortunately, as a writer, you have the freedom to create your characters’ history individually. You don’t need (and don’t benefit) from sticking to classes beyond the general idea of what your character does.

Your character’s skills and knowledge will be shaped by their history. People do specialize, and given enough time they can become quite proficient in a number of fields. They can also generalize. A character who spent twenty years campaigning across “The Empire,” will (probably) be a very proficient combatant. A character who studied magic for those twenty years will (probably) be quite skilled at it. A character who studied as a mage when they were younger, but was recruited to become an Imperial agent, never completed their studies, but has spent the last fifteen years working as a spy may not be quite as good at, “being a spy,” as someone who specialized in that exclusively, but they’ll still have their magical education, and whatever else they picked up along the way. In fact, they’ll be better able to deal with situations involving magic, where their limited training gives them an advantage over someone who spent their entire career as a spy.

While I don’t encourage rigid class systems driving your characters, the idea that your character has a background and history which inform their current skills and identity is very useful. Saying, “my character has 6 levels in Rogue and 3 in Wizard,” isn’t particularly useful, but the idea that your character may have been more than just one thing in the past, transitioning from one career to another can produce interesting, and unique characters. That said, there is nothing wrong with saying, “my character dedicated their life to being the best wizard The Empire has ever seen,” and actually making good on that.

There is another useful lesson in RPGs: In a well balanced game (either a tabletop campaign or a video game), your characters will face foes worthy of their power. For example, if you’ve created this once-in-a-generation mage, their powers will be wasted picking fights with bandits and goblins. This is the kind of character who spearheads investigations into a curse that threatens to destroy The Empire, or plays politics to try to get closer to the Emperor. The greatest thief will be looking for the greatest score. The greatest warrior will be the Emperor’s champion, facing off against things no one else could hope to stop. No matter how powerful your character is, they need challenges that will push them further. They also need to see those challenges through, it’s unfair to the players to take away the struggle and hand them an easy win, it’s equally unfair to your audience to pull that victory down for your characters and drop it in their laps. One of the major symptoms of the Mary Sue is that they don’t face these kinds of challenges. They glide over any opposition without facing any real threat.

A weakness in this lesson is that RPGs tend to get more bombastic as you climb through the levels. Weak enemies frequently fall off, and your characters start facing off against epic monsters, but if your character is still human other people may still be a threat. Getting the challenge “just right” becomes increasingly difficult as your characters become more powerful.

Having a character who is extraordinarily talented within their field is entirely valid. The problems start when your character is extraordinarily talented at everything, without giving up anything. Someone who spent decades of their life improving themselves gave up a lot along the way.

This idea that you need handicap a female character in case she’s too competent and becomes a Sue is very self-destructive. The misogynists you’re worried about placating will label any powerful female character as a Sue. No one else will care if she’s compelling.

The panacea for the Mary Sue is simple: Make an interesting character and give her legitimate challenges.

-Starke

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