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To Mary Sue or Not to Mary Sue (that is the question) September 6, 2010

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Characters.
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I learned about this term from one of my friends who knows more about the world of fan fiction than I do. And as soon as she explained what it was, I knew that I had heard about it before (albeit not referred to as a “Mary Sue“). New writers are often accused of putting in Mary Sues into their new fiction. And a “new writer” can either be an adult who is publishing their first book, or a young adult writer who is taking a creative writing class or publishing their fiction. And even when they’re not accused of it directly, a reader or critic can always tell. Take Lauren Willig for example. Her books are wonderful, but of course there were the to-be-expected questions from the critics: “So, did you base your main character on yourself?” And when she protested that there was no connection, they pressed her and said something along the lines of “You have to admit, it’s a huge coincidence, isn’t it. You were a grad student at Harvard, your character is a grad student at Harvard…you do the math.” (On that note, Harvard seems to be a tenuous and overly publicized place to begin your creative writing career).

Putting yourself into your fiction is only natural to the beginning writer. With all those people and books telling you to “write what you know” who better do you know than yourself with all of your dreams, ambitions, quirks, and experiences? And the main criticisms of Mary Sue characters is that it is yourself, only a better you. It is a braver, prettier, smarter, more courageous you having all the adventures that you would want for this alpha-version of you. But there are problems with the alpha-you character:

  1.  the wish-fulfillment controversy
  2. the 2D character quandary
  3. the darling-of-the-characters stereotype
  4. and the invincibility paradox

 These are the obvious downfalls that a Mary Sue character can exhibit. However, a very clever writer (or a very normal writer) can avoid these traps. Some people do a splendid job of the Mary Sue. Take Elizabeth Kostova, for example. Her first novel, The Historian, had a main character who is a citizen without a country. Her father was a professor and they would travel from country to country. This has obvious parallels to Kostova’s own life. However, this doesn’t at all detract from the depth of her characters and the parallel, though present, does not dominate the novel. This is an example of someone writing fiction based on what they know, rather than writing their lives into their novels.

Many good writers of young adult fiction do this admirably. Of course, a writer of teen fiction wants to really identify with their audience which often means channeling their experiences as a teenager. However, when channeling, authors need to remember both their faults and their virtues in order to create a likable character. In The Princess Diaries series, Meg Cabot (who looked through her own diary to channel her character) portrays a teenage girl who is clumsy, unpopular, imperfect, and, as a result, utterly likable. The more problems they encounter and the more imperfect your character is, the more readers won’t try to accuse you of Mary Sue-ing. And no one likes a character who faints every other page but still manages to somehow attract every male character in the book (and I’m referring to Evelina here), or even Evelina‘s modern equivalent in terms of character–Twilight.

And although Mary Sues are most commonly attributed to and criticized of women/girls writing novels, no one has really noticed the trend in “Male” novels that is rampant even on today’s New York Times Bestseller List. The 40-something man who is either unattached or has a loving wife, a high sense of the moral/ethical, the courage to speak up against the “system”, and almost superhuman survival powers when the “system” tries to take revenge. I’m particularly referring to Tom Clancy, Ian Flemming, Robert Ludlum, and yes, even Dan Brown. I’m not saying that these books do not have value, but I am simply pointing out that male Mary Sues are ever-present in today’s literary world as well. Everyone can fall into this trap.

So, if you do Mary Sue, do it responsibly:

Surgeon General’s Warning: Mary Sue-ing may lead to two-dimensional characters and bad publicity.

As a general rule, a good writer should be able to create characters that are inherently interesting. And interesting people make mistakes, and are imperfect. I like to think about it in these terms: would you want to meet your characters, even the baddies? Would they make interesting dinner conversations? Or would they drive you up a wall?

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Comments»

1. Jenny Torres Sanchez - September 12, 2010

Characters with flaws are so much more likable (and interesting) because readers can relate to them, and yet when we first start writing, most of us want write about those “perfect” characters! I guess it’s part of the losing yourself in the fantasy and all, but thanks for pointing this out. I mean, do we really want to read about the guy with the chiseled chin and piercing blue eyes? Okay, so maybe some do, but it is very two-dimensional. And great point about the male Mary-Sues. Never really noticed that!


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