Sunday, 24 July 2011

Hello, Mary Sue.


A “Mary Sue” is a character who is too good to be true. They have all the skills, they save the day, they sacrifice themselves to be the hero everyone remembers. In fiction this kind of character is derided as being the overly perfect man or woman who has the all best qualities and none of the flaws.

I think the general attitude towards this kind of character is a little misconceived. There’s always been the character who was good at everything, the hero, the beauty, the chosen one. Whether it’s James Bond or Cinderella or Neo. And in some genres, like Romance or Spy Thrillers, this kind of character is pretty much standard.

The thing that stands out with “Mary Sue” types I come across isn’t what they looks like, or what abilities they have, it’s what happens to them. And it’s what they do. Or don’t do.

The modern-day “Mary Sue” isn't perfect, she's lazy.

She doesn’t do anything. She waits for things to happen to her. She never asked to be the centre of attention, she just is. She tends to be blameless, without guile or ambition, yet fate decides to land her in the middle of everything. Somehow all the attention is focused on her.

The good looking boys are drawn to the girl who keeps to herself.

The bullied boy is the true heir to the throne.

The wish-fulfilment fantasy isn’t that Mary Sue is the best looking, most talented character, that’s too much like boasting (and more importantly very unlikely to come true). In a culture where people want fame and fortune to drop into their laps with the least amount of effort possible, Mary Sue is the character who becomes the most important person in the world without even trying.

If your main character stumbles into the middle of a plot in which they are the point of reference for everyone else for no particular reason, you may have a Mary Sue.

Why does she draw all the focus from the other characters?  What has she done that makes her so crucial to every single other character in the book?

If your character doesn’t have a goal in mind, if they’re all reaction and no action, if attraction is based on intangible qualities that cannot be named, you may have a Mary Sue.

Of course, if the MC has proactively done stuff that has brought the Eye of Sauron upon her, if she has a plan to get what she wants and the fallout has got people talking about her, then she is no Mary Sue. Active characters who drive the story forward are too busy to slump into a self-pitying heap until the local male-model/billionaire who has a thing for average looking brunettes happens to walk by.

A writer can snap his fingers and make every other character in the story be enthralled by Mary Sue’s every move, but he can’t do that with the reader.

Of course we would all like things to turn out like that in our real lives, the happy ending daydream fantasy we all have. But a story about chance encounters and contrived good fortune doesn’t  make a character any more interesting than they were sat at home wondering what to do with themselves. 

Mary Sue doesn’t earn what she gets. She doesn’t work for it and when things get tough, she gets a helping hand: the coincidence, the lucky turn of events, the convenient assistance at just the right moment. Avoid Mary Sue by giving your MC a goal in life. If the events in your story had never happened, what would your MC be doing? Don’t have life stop and start with the book, make your plot interrupt a life already being lived.


27 comments:

Patricia Lynne said...

Nice post, it definitely has me thinking about my MCs. I don't think I have any Mary Sues, at least, I'm not aware they are. Guess I'll have to think about it next time I read through an MS.

Laoch of Chicago said...

There are some unintentionally amusing mary sue stories available on the inter-webs.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Safe to say Byron is no Mary Sue!

Lauren I. Ruiz said...

Oh I didn't know there was a name for this kind of character! (Did you make it up? Lol.) I dislike Mary Sues very much, both the characters that are just too good to be true and the ones who become special just because. However, you're right, I prefer the former to the latter any day.

Harry Potter is the biggest exception ever, though. Actually, what do you think? Is he even a Mary Sue?

Carol Ervin said...

This is a great advice ... and it worries me a little. Time to review my MC.

Beverly Diehl said...

Never cared for James Bond, maybe this was why. And I loathe passive main characters with a passion (which they, usually, lack.) I'm in one group with somebody who writes passive MC and his MC's mostly just end up being tied to a tree spectating while everyone else around them is talking, fighting, or otherwise chewing up the scenery. Aaargh!

Alleged Author said...

I know of a TRUE "Mary Sue" in a series of novels. Sometimes I want to smack the girl even though I love reading the books.

Michael Offutt said...

It almost sounds like Bella from Twilight might be a modern day Mary Sue.

Charmaine Clancy said...

Great points, I agree with Michael that Bella fits this mould. Mary Sues are good to have - readers will love it when you drop a piano on her perfect head.
Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Donna Hole said...

Good food for thought Moody.

....dhole

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments.

I think Bella and HP are both Mary Sue type characters, which shows it isn't necessarily an obstacle to success. The Wizard of Oz had an 'it was all a dream' ending, as did Alice in Wonderland, so there are no absolutes in terms of what you shouldn't do.

Christa said...

That's a new and interesting description. It's sort of funny because I find that we are living in a generation of Mary Sues right now. We so much access to free stuff (whether illegally downloaded or not), there isn't the same appreciation for work or figuring things out for yourself. Nice post.

Ellen Brickley said...

I liked this post a lot - just because a Mary Sue has character flaws and isn't drop-dead gorgeous, doesn't mean she isn't a Mary Sue.

You may enjoy reading this: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue

It has quite a few examples of different types of Mary Sues. Also, like all TV Tropes articles, it draws you in. . .

Mac said...

The action element is interesting twist.

I've never really understood the hang up with the stereotype anyway. I mean, what would the Lara Croft character type be if she were like everyone else.

VR Barkowski said...

Excellent post, tangential to another issue close to my heart.

Don’t have life stop and start with the book, make your plot interrupt a life already being lived.

Exactly! This is precisely why I dislike happily ever afters. The crux of any good story exists within the complexity of the characters' day-to-day lives and flaws. Happily ever afters mean an artificial end, a story not delivered in the context of a real life. In the real world there are no HEAs.

Does that mean we can't write a happy ending? Course not, but for characters to resonate, there should always be the sense of a never ending story.

Suze said...

Vonnegut's take on Mary Sue.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oP3c1h8v2ZQ

Bit on the sublime side.

mooderino said...

Thanks for all the comments, very much appreciated.

@Suze - cheers for the link, always good to see the old man in action.

J.A. Beard said...

I spiked a novel I'd half-way completed over this issue. Something wasn't setting right with me, and when I thought about it, I realized the MC had absolutely no agency. She'd spent 150 pages just reacting, reacting, and reacting some more (and crying a lot).

Random Oz trivia: The Wizard of Oz novel actually doesn't have a 'it was all just a dream' ending unlike the movie.

In a later book, Dorothy's aunt and uncle have to move to Oz for a while because they can't pay their mortgage. :)

The book was rather successful even before the movie, but it's different in many ways from the movie, which, admittedly now vastly overshadows its source material in terms of direct cultural impact.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Great advice.... Thanks Mood.

Hart Johnson said...

Great summary (and exactly what drives me nuts about the Twilight books). I ALSO want differences of opinion across characters as to whether they like/are attracted to our character (and why)--not everyone LIKES the same freaking type of person, for pete's sake... and I want an explanation as to why she is good at what she's good at... Don't put a city girl in a survival situation and have her good at it unless she was a camp counselor for years... something like that... But definitely the MC has to play an active, not a passive role in the story. Great summary!

Lorena said...

I admit that when I wrote my first novel, my protagonist was a random Mary Sue (you have just described her, including that inexplicable attraction that had every male character drooling over her). It took three complete rewrites to make her a more fleshed-out and active character. When I wrote my second novel, I tried to avoid the waif at all costs, but here's my problem: a couple of readers complained that my new protagonist was an unsymphatethic character! Someone even called her "scheming". But I guess this is preferrable to having a passive heroine. I guess the trick is to find a balance between assertiveness and appeal. But everything in writing is SO subjective, this is not as easy to do as it seems.

Excellent post. Thanks.

mooderino said...

Thanks for the comments guys.

@Lorena-interesting how a woman with a plan is so often seen as scheming, and a woman who is aggressive about what she wants is a bitch, and one who enjoys sex is a slut. That's rarely how male characters are seen.

Lorena said...

My thoughts exactly, Mooderino...

tamarapaulin said...

Brilliant post!

I read on another blog, now that the term is getting used more frequently, the term is getting diluted to mean "any female character I don't like."

My friends and I have lots of exciting talks about whether or not feminist values stand in the way of mainstream publication success. :-)

People *say* they want "strong female leads" but what they buy is pretty girls looking wan in pretty dresses.

Heather Sutherlin said...

Ouch. This hits too close to home. I need to rethink my mc. She's dangerously close to Mary Sue.

ColdFusion said...

That's a definition I haven't heard before. I had mostly heard definitions like, "a major character without any flaws that affect the story", so I had thought my self-insert was in the clear because contextually inappropriate passivity IS a crippling flaw in an adequately consistent universe. Oh well...

mooderino said...

@Coldfusion-passive behaviour where the character doesn't have to do anything to be the centre of attention is what a lot of people would love.

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