Hello Mary Sue, Goodbye Readers
We all know them. Or know of them. Those people whose parents can not only afford to give them anything and everything they could possibly ever need, they also provide them. Right? I bet a name just popped in to your head as you were reading.
These people have had nothing but tail wind in their path through life.
They’ve never had to save to buy that awesome leather jacket or that powerful laptop. If they don’t have the cash handy, a phone call to Mum or Dad will do the trick.
They’ve never stood in a store with two items in their hands, weighing the pros and cons of each before deciding which to buy. They’d just get both of them and whip out the credit card.
Parents that raise their children that way, really aren’t doing them any favours. The same goes for writers. We have that too, sometimes.
We love our characters. How can we not? In a way, we’re their parents. We create them–bring them to life. And it pains us to put them through any suffering.
We’re tempted to pave their paths and litter the roadside with rose petals. Anything but cause them pain.
You know what we’re creating? Mary Sues. That’s right. Those dreaded Mary Sues you read about on every writing blog. By making sure their lives are long, happy and perfectly blissful, we deprive them of adversity and conflict and thereby, we deprive them of a chance to fight, to make tough choices, and to grow.
It’s sort of like having kids, I imagine, only without the diapers. But if you keep making your children’s lunches, they’ll never learn how to fix their own sandwich.
Genesis of the Mary Sue
Let’s have a look at this phenomenon.
Mary Sue first saw the light in December of the year 1973, when Paula Smith wrote A Trekkie’s Tale, a Star Trek fan fiction parody of 200 words which was published in the fanzine The Menagerie.
It was intended as a critique on the hordes of teenage girls writing fan fiction in which they vicariously lived out their fantasies of joining Starfleet and having hot men in tight uniforms tripping over themselves to woo them on the recreational deck.
The main character, Mary Sue, is a hoot. I strongly advise you to read the whole thing. But be sure to have tissues handy. You’ll laugh till you cry. Promise.
Originally, the term was used for a character that is poorly developed, flawless and a clear self-insertion of the author.
While it originated in fanfiction, it’s crossed over to the more original side of the writing spectrum. By that I basically mean the side that doesn’t plagiarise on the work and world that someone else has created.
Anyway, Smith later spoke at some of the early conventions, where she further cemented the term Mary Sue as a character which often seems rather out of place in the established universe of the writer. The Mary Sue is a means for the author to live out his or her dreams in his writing. Her presence pulls the piece and the world in which it plays out off balance, causing other characters to act irrationally and out of character.
However, the Mary Sue wasn’t born when she was named. In 1999, Pat Pflieger wrote Too Good To Be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue. In it, he examines earlier examples of the stereotype, concluding that they appear in literature going back to the nineteenth century.
Common traits both from these early Mary Sues as well as the Trekkie versions include great beauty, a tragic past, and the need or desire to fix everything the author considers to be broken. They’re usually also very charming.
Over time, the definition of a Mary Sue broadened and began to include other, related stereotypes. That’s how we came to the current definition of a Mary Sue, which doesn’t necessarily entail self-insertion of the author.
A Mary Sue can also be a character with no agency, no will of her own. Good things just seem to happen to her, and she undergoes them. Or she could be a beautiful specimen with a flawless personality. Or be so talented and accomplished that she makes us, mere mortals, feel woefully inadequate. Even her so-called flaws are not really flaws. They’re endearing or cute or in some other way flattering. Sometimes, all it takes is for her to be a female character in a piece of fan-fiction. While I have my own reservations about fanfiction, and the ethics involved, that doesn’t mean each woman appearing in fanfiction is by default a Mary Sue.
This disdain of all things Mary Sue, combined with the ever broadening definition of a Mary Sue, makes it all too easy to condemn characters.
I could make a checklist right now, full of Mary Sueish traits, and compare it to female characters. I bet I can’t find a single character that doesn’t meet at least one criterium. While there is such a thing as a male Mary Sue, often referred to as a Gary Stu or Marty Stu, it’s often the female characters that are unjustly condemned for their apparent Mary Sueness.
Especially characters who are accomplished in some skill or another, or display a certain amount of self esteem (how dare they?) run the risk of being heaped onto the Mary Sue Pile.
But let me tell you this. There is no shame in writing about a character with hopes, dreams, accomplishments and strengths. All you need to do is make sure those are balanced.
Talent is great, but without practice, it is largely unrealised potential.
A great swordfighter has to work hard for years to acquire his skills. He’s got to build muscle tone, learn all about tactics, learn the proper techniques and repeat those until he’s sick of them;all in order to train his body’s muscle memory.
A singer can have all the talent in the world. If she uses her vocal cords in a wrong way, she won’t be singing for long. So she works to build skill as well.
An artist may be incredibly talented. But he’ll never create an amazing painting if he doesn’t understand the properties of the paint he’s working with.
They work for it. So should your characters.
But what if your character’s Mary Sueness doesn’t lie in her skill or talent? What if she’s just too passive in your story? Dad paying the bills, everyone loves her, she’s got a great job, etc?
Well, that’s simple. Well, not really simple to do. But simple to explain. It all comes down to two important things: character arc and agency.
To be even remotely interesting to your readers, your characters need these two things.
The arc is the evolution they undergo throughout the piece. It can be either negative or positive, but they need to go through a transformation of some sort. If they remain stagnant, they’re boring. Like real people. For more on arcs, check out this kicker of an article by R. Jean Bell.
This brings us to point number two: agency. Imagine if you will, a person who goes through a series of events, one more surprising than the next. But they all happen outside of this person’s will or choice. Someone runs him over with their car. His mother is a control freak who never managed to snip the umbilical cord so she continues to tell him which sweater to wear with which pants. She also picks out a nice girl for him to marry. Of course the girl is as much of a control freak as his mother, so she takes the reins, and controls him for the rest of his life.
This reminds me of a character out of Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Thomas Lynde, referred to by all his peers as Mrs Lynde’s husband. As Marilla puts it, he was managed by his mother before his marriage, and by Rachel Lynde afterward, and it was a good thing or he’d have amounted to nothing much without either of them.
As it turns out, over the course of three books–which is as much as he gets before he’s killed off by Montgomery–good old Thomas speaks all of two sentences. Why? Because he lacks both agency and arc, and would bore readers to tears if he’d gotten more airtime.
You see, you can only learn and grow and evolve when you’re allowed to make decisions. Even if they end up being the wrong ones.
So allow your characters to fuck things up once in a while.
Writing Yourself Into Your Stories
This is another thing that will get you onto the Mary Sue naughty list. But even here, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s only a bad thing if you write a perfect version of yourself into your story.
I’ve done it myself. Write a character based on me. Her name is Minnie. She has my job, and she went through a traumatic event very similar to what I went through myself.
But like any human, she’s not perfect. Self-based characters can be a great tool for self exploration. In some cases, it can also be a great coping tool. My Minnie stories have become an outlet for the traumatic things I’m confronted with through my job, for example. Just remember to be honest with yourself when writing a self-based character.
Hello Readers, Goodbye Mary Sue
Think you might run the risk of having your work infested with that dreaded stereotype?
That’s OK. Everything is fixable. That’s what editing is for. Just ask yourself these questions, and be honest about the answers.
- Is your character based on you? If the answer is yes, which version of you? The you with bad morning breath and a flabby stomach?
- Does your character have flaws? Are those flaws real flaws or are they adorable in some way?
- Does every non-evil character in the piece love your character or fall in love with them?
- Does every non-evil character think the world of your character in terms of beauty and personality?
- Does your character undergo any growth, change or development during the course of your story?
While these questions are a bit exaggerated, I think you get the point by now. Answer them critically and honestly, and you already know what you’ll have to do in your editing.
Now go, grow, and evolve as writers. Don’t be Mary Sues.
Wonderfully put and educational. Even someone bound by others and forced or condemned to servitude has a choice and thereby can show agency, take initiative. Albeit a fruitless result, there can still be growth. A lesson learnt. A change of attitude.
I didn’t know of the origin of the name but I’m so glad I got to read that fanfic. Cringe-worthy but a great critique.
Now, I fear, I must tend to one of my drafts that needs some editing to insert agency the character lacks. Fortunately not a Mary Sue.
LOL. I pmsl-ed at the Genenis story. Couldn’t NOT share it, of course.
This is an excellent article. The aspect of agency is often overlooked. I had to give a book a really low review a few months ago. The fact that it had a cliffhanger ending didn’t help, but the real problem was that the character had no agency at all. Everything just happened to her. It sucked.
Thanks. I had a lot of fun working on it, but it was also a big learning experience. I thought I knew what a Mary Sue was, but it’s really a combination of various factors that makes or breaks your character.
This is really helpful. I knew the origins of Mary Sue as a fanfiction trope but I hadn’t taken in how the concept has developed, so I found it confusing.
Thank you so much!
I was confused by all the different definitions flying around as well. That’s why I decided to do a sort of roundup on them. But it turned out to be a very amusing project. XD