It rather seems, reading some of the movie and book criticism from various angles and for various recent mass-entertainment productions (both literary and cinegraphic) that the necessity for a female character to be a strong, fearless, unstoppable Mary Sue, without flaw and above reproach has overridden any impulse to tell a good story with believable human beings … which ultimately makes for bad and unrealistic storytelling. There’s no dramatic potential in a basically flawless character. Apparently, the audience is supposed to stand about, slack-jawed in appreciation of the amazingness of such paragons of female perfection.

Which is kind of sad, really; an offense against the concept of an author being the creator of entertaining stories and interesting characters. It limits the story-teller to just a few predictable tropes; no room for creating real, human, relatable and sympathetic characters. I do like to think I have managed to avoid such tropes, mostly because I’ve always tried to simply create characters, interesting and complicated characters, whose maleness or femaleness is just one single aspect of their character and their story arc. For my first two historicals, To Truckee’s Trail and the Adelsverein Trilogy, the standout, and tent-pole characters (that is – the characters who hold up the whole thing) were male: Dr. John Townsend of wagon train fame (who was a real person, BTW) and early Texas Ranger and Goliad Massacre survivor Carl Becker. (Created out of whole cloth.) But as essential elements of the plot, they were matched with able and strong female characters. Dr. Townsend had his wife Elizabeth, who started as a near-invalid and finished as a member of the party chosen to be part of the horseback rescue party when the wagon train was close to being stranded by show in the high Sierras, as well as the temporary single mother Isabella Patterson, determined to get her wagon and brood of children safely over the wilderness trail to rejoin her husband in California. Carl Becker was matched with Magda Vogel, the immigrant German girl, who was by way of being a tentpole character herself – backbone of her family, wife, mother and eventually the matriarch of her extended family. But she started the arc of that narrative as a slightly awkward but intellectually inclined teenager.

Carl Becker’s sister Margaret was merely a walk-on in the Trilogy, but she was the main character in the next two novels. (Daughter of Texas and Deep in the Heart), growing from a dreamy girl into that strong woman – but it was in progression, and for a good part of the way, Margaret was mainly motivated by suppressed fury and resentment over how she had inevitably been let down by every single significant man in her life that she had really depended on. She finished that arc in finally appreciating and loving that brainy but socially unskilled man who adored her unreservedly, and who never had let her down … and whom she had rather overlooked for years. So much for a strong woman.

All the other historical novels save one, The Golden Road, focused on female characters, front and center. Golden Road featured an older teen boy, Fredi Steinmetz, and his adventures in the goldmines and boomtowns of 1850s California – adventures which mostly meant that the other main characters were male, although at the end, one of his associates there turned out to be a girl masquerading as a boy, for reasons of keeping a low profile in a society in which women were few and far between. As that disguised girl acerbically pointed out to Fredi, in that place and time, no one paid any notice to a boy – but everyone noticed a woman. And that character had darned good reasons for wanting to be persistently unnoticed. She also had specific knowledge of placer mining and a set of her dead older brothers clothing to make the disguise good, until … well, never mind. Don’t want to give up too much plot.

The next three novels, which were follow-ons to the Trilogy focused chiefly on female leads – but none of the women involved started as faultless, perfect, and overwhelmingly charming Mary Sue types. Isobel and Jane, in The Quivera Trail began as Victorian women, straitjacketed, and strangled in the expectations which their relative social class placed them: Isobel the lady, who knew herself to be fat, clumsy, and socially inept, and her personal lady’s maid Jane, hampered by the limitations expected of her comparatively lowly background. Both managed, once they were set loose in Bicentennial-era America, to discover that they could be a bit more than what had originally been demanded and expected of them. I had enormous fun writing that book looking at the manner in which a fair number of Victorian-era ladies managed to overturn all conventional roles and still live quite satisfactory lives on their own terms. The husbands whom Isobel and Jane attracted were also fully fleshed individuals, by the way. I did get a bit of ironic satisfaction out of making their characters authentically pure in a Victorian manner – that they really did long to be married to manly men and accepted without question that their ultimate role in life was to be a wife and mother … but also as a side-line, to support their husbands as the second-in-command authority of whatever enterprise their husbands operated. Sophia, in Sunset and Steel Rails also followed that path, although with a stint of work as an independent woman in one of those businesses which did offer very fair terms of employment to women in the late 19th century. That would be the fearsomely high-class and high-standard hospitality national corporation, Fred Harvey Company. The Fred Harvey Company was almost a hundred years ahead of anything else which could be classified as a national hospitality chain, so that book offered me an opportunity to explore that aspect of the late 19th century frontier.

As for the most recent historical, My Dear Cousin, the whole concept is based on a matched pair of mid-century American women experiencing a world war – one as a wife and mother, the other as a military nurse, holding her own as a woman in a male-dominated sphere. Neither Peg or Vennie are wonder woman, or Mary Sue; just two young women doing the best that they can in a world which went from tranquil to perilous in the blink of an eye. Comment as you wish.


  1. I had the pleasure recently of watching a YouTube video in which the narrator rips apart the “She-Hulk” television show from start to finish. The focus of his criticism was similar to yours; no character arc or development. There is no Jekyll and Hyde tension because the character is able to control her rage at all times – so what is the point? She literally is just a lawyer only now she has green skin. I want flawed characters who learn and grow and loved “My Dear Cousin” for exactly that reason.

  2. Critical Drinker: I watched the same video. And he had an excellent point – what room is there for a character to grow, when they start out perfect anyway?