So. Hello, blog. We haven’t spoken in a while. How are you? How are things? How’s life in your corner of the internet? I’m so sorry for treating you like that friend I speak to once every six months only when I have something exciting I want to share, but it’s a little hard to maintain close friendships when you’re so far away, you know? Besides, I’m been keeping busy in my internet life with Tumblr, and yeah, things are going really well between us.
Anyway, I wanted to come and talk to you about a problem I’ve been having. All around the internets you’ll find discussions about Mary Sues and while I certainly agree with many of the points various authors bring up, I have a problem of a different sort. You see, the term “Mary Sue” is something given to a female character by an audience, and I feel a lot of readers’ (especially female readers) problems with female characters has much more to do with societal baggage and internalized misogyny than poor writing or poor characterization.
My problem, you see, isn’t with Mary Sues. My problem is with the Plague of Perfect Boys in fiction.
I don’t understand the flak many writers get for their female characters, because most of the time, I’m fine with female characters in books. (Unless she becomes a satellite to a male character in her own goddamn narrative, but I digress. Or if she’s presented as idealized in some way, but that’s a topic for another day.) The poor female character has to dig herself out of a pit before she arrives at level ground when it comes to audience appreciation, but not with me.
On the other hand, I’ve become extremely wary of male characters in fiction. I see people cry “badly written female characters!” all the time, but never have I come across someone say, “Hang on, a minute, this male character is too perfect to exist. He must be terribly written!”
So I’m going to do it now.
BADLY WRITTEN MALE CHARACTERS!
There, I’ve shouted it. I’ve confessed it. 9 times out of 10, I’m going to find your perfect male character irritating, obnoxious, annoying, unrealistic, bland, and every other thing you’ve accused female “Mary Sues” of being. What I don’t understand is why no one is turning a critical lens on how cardboard, stock, and utterly un-nuanced male characters are when we will scrutinize everything “wrong” with a lady.
Oh, male characters can come in a rainbow of Perfect shades: Perfect Bad Boy Loner, Perfect Mysterious Hot Boy with a Deadly Secret, Perfect Boy Next Door, Perfect Angel-Demon-Vampire-Werewolf-Fae Hybrid, etc. They can have a dazzling array of perfunctory “quirks”: speaks French, has a British accent, is impeccably dressed, volunteers at the animal shelter on weekends, etc. The problem here is not an issue of using every colour in the Personality Traits Crayon Box, but an issue of drawing the same goddamn thing over and over with a different colour crayon.
The problem with the Perfect Boy is that he never fucks up. Ever. He’s always perfectly good-looking, perfectly the best at whatever it is he’s does, perfectly sensitive and attuned to the female character’s emotional needs, perfectly considerate (even when he’s been an asshole, he is SECRETLY perfectly considerate–really! he just loves you so much he needs to hide his good side!), perfectly mannered, perfectly smooth and suave, perfectly ANNOYING. That’s not attractive; that’s grotesque. It’s like someone cobbled together a Frankenstein monster of attractiveness traits, but this monster isn’t just scary–he’s also SCARILY BORING.
Look, it’s pretty easy to make a male character interesting to me: make him a little dinged about the edges. Make him well-intentioned but a little thoughtless. Make him so much a genius and wrapped up in his own head he’s totally socially awkward. Make him cocky but also make him eat his words. Make him an obnoxious little shit who likes to fuck with people’s heads–JUST BECAUSE. Make him so totally selfish he’d sell his own grandma to get ahead in life. Something.
Most importantly: MAKE HIM FUCK UP OCCASIONALLY. It doesn’t have to be on the world-destroying scale, it can be something small and domestic. One of my favourite things about Ron Weasley from Harry Potter is that he fucks up CONSTANTLY. He’s not always a perfect friend, he can be insensitive, and he can be a teeny bit of a skirt-chaser, but his flaws don’t make him a bad person or unattractive; they make him a real boy.
(And you know what the ironic thing is? I don’t even like Ron all that much–not compared to Hermione or Luna Lovegood or the Weasley twins.)
I’m going to quote Russell T. Davies again here:
Most people ARE likeable, or go through the world with some construct of character that they hope is likeable. That’s how you get through life. [...] The key with characters is to be HONEST. If a character’s actions are believable, then that character will work. Notions of like or not-like become irrelevant.
These Perfect Boys? I don’t find them believable. I honestly can’t find it in myself to believe that a 17-year-old teenage boy would drop all of his previous engagements to come comfort his female best friend/lady love at 2AM with chocolate cupcakes and poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I have a hard enough time believing 17-year-old boys shower with any regularity. Christ.
I like fantasy as a genre, but I dislike it when physical fantasy turns into emotional fantasy. Perfect Boys? Not only are they generally physical fantasies, they’re complete and utter emotional fantasies as well.
So! That’s my rant of the day. Sorry about that, blog. I know, I know, I should be a better friend and try and update you more frequently about my life–I mean, listen to you talk about yours. Anyway, gotta go. Talk to you soon!