When was the last time you read a young adult novel featuring a Muslim protagonist, a black protagonist, a disabled protagonist?
You may not recognise her name, but you have definitely met Mary Sue.
She’s bland, she’s boring, and of course, she’s absolutely perfect.
You’ve seen her in films; you’ve seen her in TV shows; and you have definitely, definitely read about her in a book. Perhaps she has another name. Perhaps she’s stuck in the middle of a creepy paranormal love triangle. Perhaps she’s even fighting children to the death in an arena for the entertainment of rich people. Trying to find Mary Sue is like playing a backwards game of Where’s Wally, wherein, instead of searching relentlessly for Wally, you’re searching relentlessly for an interesting, diverse protagonist in a young adult novel. The only problem is, these protagonists are very rare. And that is a big problem.
Readers are diverse. Readers are different; readers are individuals; readers are, unsurprisingly, people, regardless of their age group. People are a bit like ice cream: they all come in a variety of flavours and cones, and some of them have a million different sparkly toppings. You don’t call every fudge or cookies or lime flavoured ice cream “vanilla”, because they’re all completely different. Bubblegum ice cream isn’t vanilla. It’s bubblegum.
So why, oh why, is it so difficult to find some of this natural variety in a book?
Lack of diversity in anything is extremely poisonous. Growing up, a lot of children see only one type of person in cartoons or on the pages of their favourite book. Without diversity in mass media, they grow up believing that anyone outside of what amounts to “the norm” of society is different in a bad way – abnormal, even. What makes this even worse is that in the adult world, it’s exactly the same; there must be about a million different romantic comedies with the typical Mary Sue and Gary Stu, falling in love in the same way. These views aren’t taken away.
One of the main culprits of a complete lack of diversity in media is, of course, young adult fiction. Over the past decade or so, teen fiction has grown until it’s what every children’s publisher in Britain wants. Which is fine. It’s wonderful that people between the ages of 14 and 21 have their own genre to look out for – people who consider themselves too old for children’s fiction, but too young for adult fiction. What isn’t wonderful is how very bland and dull this genre has become.
With series such as The Hunger Games and Twilight becoming extraordinarily popular, a lot of YA authors have written what amounts to carbon copies of the books in order to bring in an easy audience. Publishers encourage this, knowing that this sort of stuff sells, and will get them more profits than a gritty, risky novel. But not every young adult in the world is a beautiful, straight, white sixteen-year-old girl with ridiculous talent and two chiselled, perfect seventeen-year-old boys chasing her. The age between 14 and 21 is the age of growth and development; it’s a time for the people in this age group to test their limits and grow as people. Young adults are in the middle of figuring out who they are, and what they want from life. At a time like this, diversity is more important than it ever has been. It is when teenagers are turning into people and attempting to find themselves, that diversity is most needed.
And yet, it is in the young adult genre that the most poisonous sameness lies. When was the last time you read a young adult novel featuring a Muslim protagonist, a black protagonist, a disabled protagonist? When was the last time you read a young adult novel featuring a flawed protagonist, a protagonist you could actually relate to? How many LGBT+ characters can you name?
No teenager is ever going to be able to relate to a character like Bella Swan.
Mary Sues, and their male counterpart, Gary Stus, come from a certain place – everyone wants to think they can be more than what they are, and everyone wants to believe that ordinary people can be capable of doing extraordinary things. This is a beautiful concept, and if applied to young adult literature, could technically be very successful.
But there’s believing ordinary people can do great things, and there’s believing extraordinary people whose very flaws add to their overall perfection can do everything ordinary people can do, and look really good while doing it.
Young adult novels are supposed to appeal to young people who want to be great. But the problem is, the majority of these young people are not perfect. No great person has ever been perfect, because the great people we all aspire to be like have all been people. People have flaws; people have things that they find detestable about themselves.
People are the opposite of perfect, and that’s beautiful. If everyone was the same, life would be extremely boring.
So let’s make a change. Instead of introducing yet another bland, boring copy-cat character to hold up an entire novel or series, let’s introduce variety. Instead of having vanilla, let’s spice it up a bit – let’s have cinnamon and ginger and cherry.
No more Mary Sues.