Kristan Hoffman - Writing Dreams Into Reality
Mon May 14 2012

In defense of the Plain Janes and Mary Sues

A lot of people complain about Bella from Twilight. They say she is boring and plain — an insert-yourself-here paper doll of a character. I say, What’s so bad about that?

What’s wrong with telling girls — most of whom, let’s be honest, will be a bit boring and plain — that that’s okay? That you don’t need superpowers to make you special? That you don’t need to save the world to make you worthy? That you can be loved and admired even though you’re average?

Actually, isn’t that exactly the message we should be sending to people?

Look, I’m not saying Plain Janes or Mary Sues are the only kinds of heroines I want to see. (Far from it! I adore Katniss, Katsa, She-Ra, etc.) I’m just saying that I identify with the non-kick-ass characters sometimes. And I bet a lot of other girls and women do too.

(Note: I’m using feminine examples here, but you could switch to Plain Waynes and Gary Hughs. My point remains the same.)

My generation was raised to believe that we could do anything. That we were special, simply by virtue of existing. Aim for the stars, they said. Dream big. Nothing is too great to achieve. And while there may be some truth to the idea that we have more opportunities than ever before, thanks to Baby Boomer parents and a globalized economy, the reality is that, by definition, most people will be average.

So again I say that it’s probably not the worst thing in the world for us to have heroes and heroines who are “normal.” Who have nothing more to recommend them than good morals and a big heart. Whose biggest challenge is not saving the planet, but leading a quiet, honorable life.

Because you know what? That’s not the easiest thing to do.

filed Reading/Writing
23 Comments
  1. Carol says:
    Mon May 14 2012 at 8:17 PM

    I rather be plain than to be very fab. I believe that a girl is more wonderful if she is simple but natural.

  2. Emy Shin says:
    Mon May 14 2012 at 10:23 PM

    As a Plain Jane myself, I heartily agree with this post. I don’t particularly adore Bella myself, but it certainly isn’t because she’s “plain and boring.” The majority of us are normal and so very average — and it’s nice to have such heroines to identify with.

  3. linda says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 2:34 AM

    Ooh, I have complicated feelings about the way this post is written. I agree with the core message of your post — that it’s important to have strong female characters that aren’t kick-ass or have special powers — but some of the specifics kind of threw me off a little.

    First of all, I wish you hadn’t started this post with Bella Swan as an example! Like Emy said, I don’t think the main reason people complain about her is because she’s an every-girl (personally I think it’s because she has so few admirable personality traits). And anyway she’s not all that ordinary; she’s loved because she is magically impervious to Edward’s mind-reading powers and her blood is particularly tasty smelling. That’s not really such a great message either.

    And I’m not really sure Mary Sues are the same things as Plain Janes. My impression was that Mary Sues were one-dimensional, writer wish-fulfillment vehicles that were given piles of special ability and no flaws or weaknesses. So in that sense, they probably wouldn’t qualify as ordinary, whereas Plain Janes can be average but still fully-fleshed, lovable characters.

    But those nit-picky details aside, I absolutely agree with you that not all strong female characters should be kick-ass, have special powers, or save the world. And there are PLENTY of strong heroines in contemporary fiction, which by definition are full of characters that are ordinary people struggling with everyday, real-life issues.

    So what about speculative fiction? (I assume that is the context for this post because of the above re: contemporary fiction.) I think one of the reasons heroines in speculative fiction are extraordinary is because their worlds are extraordinary. And since the writer spends so much time on worldbuilding, it makes sense to match the scope of the world with an equally high-stakes plot for that epic, sweeping feel (thus the saving-the-world part).

    But yes, I’d like to see more heroines who save the world (even if “the world” in this case is just her world rather than the entire world-at-large) through more ordinary strengths (e.g. smarts, good social skills, courage, perseverance, self-sacrifice, etc.) instead of only kick-ass action or super special once-in-a-thousand-years magical ability (which, to me, is SO MUCH MORE annoying than fighting ability). More spec fic heroines like that would be awesome! (One author who comes to mind here — Gail Carson Levine! Love how Ella and Addie rely more on their inner strengths than on magical or fighting ability to save themselves and the people they love. :D)

  4. Irene says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 6:44 AM

    I agree!

  5. Shari says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 6:44 AM

    I am in total agreement. I think that’s one reason why I gravitate toward reading – and writing – women’s fiction. Sure, there are cases where the characters do extraordinary, out-of-the-ordinary things, but for the most part, they’re relatable. They’re every-day women (and men). They’re people we can see ourselves in, people we can understand. For as much as I loved reading about Katniss, these are the kind of main characters I find myself coming back to — because you don’t have to be Superwoman to have a super heart that inspires :)

  6. Kristan says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 7:20 AM

    Linda-
    I think your complicated feelings are totally justified. I almost started this post with a disclaimer: “This argument will not be as nuanced as it should. Let’s blame it on Monday.” Because to be honest, I was too lazy to go into all the fine points. :P

    Yes, Bella is magically impervious to Edward’s mind-reading, and her blood does smell particularly good, but again those are attributes that are “bestowed” (by the author/universe) upon a completely ordinary girl. To me that’s symbolic of her being “worthy” despite being plain/boring. As for admirable traits, I find her tendency toward self-sacrifice to be extremely redeeming — because she’s not doing it to be a martyr, she just wants to help/save the people she loves. I don’t really see any UN-admirable traits in her.

    But perhaps we’ll have to agree to disagree about Bella in particular.

    Mary Sues are not the same as Plain Janes, that’s true. And you may be right that my argument is weaker when it comes to them. I guess all I’m trying to say is this:

    Sometimes we need to be able to appreciate other people’s adventures; sometimes we need to be able to disappear into adventures ourselves.

    As a writer, it pains me to think that anyone would believe I’m advocating “weak” characters. Which again is why my argument may be less valid when it comes to Mary Sues. I guess I also think that label is given too freely nowadays. But for example, I think Jane Eyre is a “strong” Plain Jane. And Sailor Moon is a “strong” Mary Sue. Because while Mercury has incredible intelligence, and Mars has spiritual powers, and Jupiter is super strong, and Venus is extremely beautiful, Usagi/Serena is just clumsy and kind of dumb, and yet her big heart is what makes her “worthy” of the Sailor powers. It’s what allows her, time and time again, to defeat evil and save the world.

    (That said, she DOES save the world repeatedly, so she’s not the epitome of what I’m defending. But I think she does fall under the umbrella, because she is being promoted as the ultimate heroine, over the other Scouts who are all much more “special.”)

    Hopefully that clarifies what I meant a bit, and you can see where my opinions overlap with yours. Thanks for bringing up these details to enrich the discussion! Sometimes that’s easier for me than trying to think of them all upfront.

  7. Kristan says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 7:21 AM

    Shari-
    “you don’t have to be Superwoman to have a super heart that inspires :)”

    Exactly!

  8. Anthony Lee Collins says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 7:23 AM

    I totally agree with the general point. (I can’t say about Twilight since I’ve never read it — though most of the complaints I’ve read have been about the vampire guy being a creepy control freak, not about Bella herself.)

    Oh, and I agree with the previous comments that Plain Janes and Mary Sues are different, but who is a Mary Sue can be a matter of taste. The accusation of “Mary Sue” usually just means that this particular reader didn’t connect with this particular protag.

    This post reminded me of Emerald Barnes’ post over at YA Indie, “Why your Female Protagonist Doesn’t Have to Kick-Butt to be Liked.” (http://www.yaindie.com/2012/04/why-your-female-protagonist-doesnt-have.html).

    Any time there are rules (all protags have to be….), we’re in trouble. Because all people aren’t the same, obviously.

    That being said, my current protag is kick-butt (on a regular human level), but she’s got a variety of insecurities and flaws. And there is a reason she has the skills she has.

  9. Sonje says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 1:14 PM

    ” thanks to Baby Boomer parents and a globalized economy, the reality is that, by definition, most people will be average.”

    Actually, no matter what the circumstances, most people will be average. :)

    As for Bella, gosh, it’s hard for me to call someone who’s dating a vampire “boring.”

  10. Kristan says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 1:19 PM

    Anthony-
    Thanks for the link! It was an interesting read and definitely on a similar path to my own thoughts.

    Sonje-
    The grouping was meant to be: “And while there may be some truth to the idea that we have more opportunities than ever before, thanks to Baby Boomer parents and a globalized economy…” :P

  11. Mari Passananti says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 2:49 PM

    I am partial to the question: What happens when Plain Jane finds herself in an impossible situation? How does she deal with her ordinary life getting very exciting and intense all of a sudden, and NOT in a good way?

  12. T. S. Bazelli says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 4:43 PM

    I read mostly SF/F and most main characters have magical or special powers by default. Personally I’ve always found that those characters don’t interest me as much as the characters who lack it. I find it much more interesting to write about the normal or weak character caught in the middle of extraordinary circumstances. Nothing wrong with it, I think, though it seems to be a harder sell to agents.

  13. Anthony Lee Collins says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 8:58 PM

    Theresa: “I find it much more interesting to write about the normal or weak character caught in the middle of extraordinary circumstances. Nothing wrong with it, I think, though it seems to be a harder sell to agents.”

    Odd that that should be hard to sell in SF/F, since that sounds a lot like Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee to me, and those books sold pretty well. :-)

  14. linda says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 9:00 PM

    Thanks for your response, Kristan!

    Yeah, I think we just have totally different views on Bella. I mean, it can also be argued that plan-and-ordinary Bella would never have caught the attention of Edward without those magical special traits, so rather than seeing those as symbols as her worthiness I see it as a message that regular people (e.g. normal non-magical girls at Bella’s school) AREN’T worthy just as they are. I mean, if Edward had loved Bella for ordinary strengths like her intelligence or kindness or creativity or good humor, I think that would be a much better message. Otherwise, you can make the argument that ALL heroines with special powers are really ordinary people and their specialness is just a symbol of their worthiness as an ordinary person — know what I mean?

    I only read the first two books in the series (and couldn’t stand to continue), and don’t particularly remember her ever being self-sacrificing in a good way. My general impressions of her was that she was selfish and snobby and whiny and clumsy and lacks common sense and was utterly useless. So yes, we’ll just have to agree to disagree about Bella. :)

    I never watched Sailor Moon so can’t comment on Serena’s Mary Sue-ness or lack thereof, but from your description she doesn’t sound much like a Mary Sue. Here’s a tv tropes page on Mary Sues: originally it meant a character who’s more powerful and beautiful and awesome and special and perfect than everyone else because of author self-insertion. But yeah, the term has come to encompass a lot of different things, so I don’t really apply the term Mary Sue to characters because it’s mostly meaningless.

    Anyway, thanks for discussing this with me. I think we agree on the general concept but differ in specifics, haha. :)

  15. linda says:
    Tue May 15 2012 at 9:04 PM

    Ack, the link didn’t work. Here it is: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue

  16. Julia says:
    Wed May 16 2012 at 12:03 AM

    If everybody is extraordinary, does that make the extraordinary average? I think the fiction that draws me in is about people out of their place. Ordinary people faced with extraordinary circumstances. Extraordinary people faced with ordinary circumstances. I agree there is a need for all kinds of heroines in our fiction. Although I’d venture to guess that most people reading a novel don’t pick the least interesting character and say “hey, that’s me.”

  17. Jon says:
    Wed May 16 2012 at 3:01 AM

    Agreed. It’s more difficult in many instances to be honest than “super.” Anyway, people, regular, ordinary people, make better heroes than the kind who can defeat monsters with a super-sword.

  18. Kristan says:
    Wed May 16 2012 at 9:10 AM

    Mari-
    I agree, those are compelling situations as well.

    T.S.-
    How very interesting. I guess because I grew up with the Star Trek tradition, I’m actually not used to special powers/magic in my sci-fi.

    Linda-
    I would argue that he did LOVE Bella for reasons other than her brain silence/tasty blood, but those traits are certainly what attracted his attention in the first place. And I will agree with you about a lot of things in terms of her being whiny, clumsy, and lacking common sense, but the whole point of her character was self-sacrifice and its nobility, so I can’t give you that. :P Coincidentally I was just defending her on a discussion board, so I’ll just leave that link here: http://www.amazon.com/forum/young%20adult/ref=cm_cd_et_md_pl?_encoding=UTF8&cdForum=FxYYBPV8QIG2V4&cdMsgID=Mx3DE0ODMPXJP1C&cdMsgNo=15&cdPage=1&cdSort=oldest&cdThread=Tx285XOV2LX0704#Mx3DE0ODMPXJP1C

    Julia-
    Heh, in fiction, yes, “ordinary” sometimes seems like a dying breed.

    “I’d venture to guess that most people reading a novel don’t pick the least interesting character and say “hey, that’s me.”” — Maybe that’s just me then. >P

    (Half kidding. I often see PARTS of myself in different characters.)

    Jon-
    I’m glad someone else thinks so too. :)

  19. Les says:
    Wed May 16 2012 at 11:24 AM

    Ditto the Mary Sue thing. I’d way rather see a plain Jane than a Mary Sue, but in reality I’d rather see… neither? I’ve never read Twilight, my only opinion of Bella is what I’ve heard everyone else say and in general, as you know, the mass opinion of her is Not Good. Not because she’s just… kinda normal, but because she’s weak and relies on another person to hold herself up. I think there’s a difference between being normal and being what most modern-day women would view as kind of reliant and pathetic. That said, if I don’t want to read that kind of character, I don’t read that kind of book, problem solved :p

  20. Juliann Wetz says:
    Wed May 16 2012 at 6:02 PM

    I actually find the Plain Janes much more interesting. I like characters with a little more depth that you need to mine for than those whose merit is in-your-face.

  21. Bryan Thompson says:
    Thu May 17 2012 at 1:35 PM

    Hi Kristan,

    I think having those non-superhero main characters keeps the story more grounded. I think it’s more about having ordinary people who experience extraordinary things. Or the ordinary person does something that causes a chain of events to happen that are extraordinary. It happens in real life everyday.

  22. linda says:
    Tue May 22 2012 at 4:18 AM

    Hm, ok, but I still say Bella doesn’t count as ordinary, and saying that her specialness is actually a symbol of her inherent worthiness as a normal person doesn’t make sense to me.

    But I’m interested in hearing more of your thoughts on Bella! I didn’t feel strongly about her either way in Book 1, but by Book 2 I couldn’t stand her. Twitter/email? :)

  23. Kristan says:
    Tue May 22 2012 at 7:17 AM

    Linda-
    It’s not exactly that her specialness is a symbol of her inherent worth as a normal person… But honestly, I’m not sure how to explain what I mean with this. I guess (A) she could have been extraordinarily smart, or pretty, or talented, AND had tasty blood and special mind powers — but she didn’t. She’s normal. (B) The special mind powers aren’t actually revealed until later in the series, if I recall correctly, because Meyer added that after the fact. So originally Bella is even more normal / less special, until it became a necessary plot device.

    Anyway… Tweet tweet. :)

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