Friday, August 9, 2013

Friday Tidbits: The Mask of Mary Sue

Absolutely ages ago, I promised to write up a Friday Tidbit dealing with the issue of Mary Sue. In response to a post where I urged writers to use pieces of themselves to create believable characters, readers asked me how they can do this without falling into the clutches of Mary Sue. Here (at last!) is my tidbit on that topic.

First of all, for those of you who don’t know Mary Sue . . . 
“Mary Sue” is a term used to described an idealized character used to represent the author in a story (often fan fiction) of wish-fulfillment. The character is typically the youngest, smartest, prettiest, best-liked, most awesomest character, who never ceases to impress those around her with her brilliance and know-how, not to mention fantastic good looks.
There are variations on the Mary Sue theme, of course. Some Mary Sues suffer from an inexplicable case of Nobody Likes Me Syndrome (which I will discuss in a future post). Some Mary Sues are feisty and sharp-tempered, lashing out at anyone and everyone around them for no particular reason. Some Mary Sues are geniuses, able to solve every problem that comes their way while the rest of the cast looks on, baffled. Some Mary Sues, by contrast, emotional, helpless, prone to weeping, and need to be rescued by the handsome hero.
The point is, Mary Sue represents how the author wishes to be viewed. She is distinctly lacking in motivation, but is possessed of singular skills in—you name it. Art. Karate. Science. Fill in the blank.
But here’s the thing: Mary Sue is never an honest representation of her author. She is a proxy. She is an idealization. She is a dream and wish. She is not a character.
By contrast, when I talk about taking a piece of myself and putting it into one of my characters, I’m talking about an honest piece of myself. You notice that Princess Una is not an exquisitely beautiful dancer/singer/swordswoman. She’s not an opportunity for me to write myself, in an idealized form, enjoying the attentions of invented suitors. She’s not a fantasy . . . she’s a person. And I gave her a piece of me—the immature, waiting-for-prince-charming to ride to the door piece of me. The spoiled piece of me that wants my own way, even when my own way would prove harmful.

There is nothing flattering about the bits of my heart which Una represents. There is nothing "Mary Sue" about her.

A little more flattering, perhaps, is Dame Imraldera. For I gave her what my husband calls my, “stray-kitten complex.” Imraldera has an enormous sense of empathy, and she wants to rescue and save any “stray kitten” that comes her way—be it a Black Dog, a selfish Faerie cat, a cowardly prince, a traitor etc. This is a virtue in me, and it is also a virtue in her.  But, like most virtues, when taken out of proper context, it can quickly overbalance and become a vice. It’s happened to me before! And it will happen to Imraldera, quite soon. Thus, she will continue to be an honest character, not an idealization.

But do you see the difference here between Mary Sue and a piece of your heart? Mary Sue is a mask, a dishonesty. A character truly based on yourself is a revelation. It’s even an embarrassment. It takes courage to write an honest character—to expose yourself to ridicule. Take a glance through my one-star reviews on Heartless, and look at the hatred spewed my Una’s way. My Una, who was an honest representation of a not-so virtuous part of my heart.

Mary Sue does not stimulate hatred. Mary Sue is safe . . . because she stimulates nothing.

So what do you think, dear readers? Any other thoughts to share on our friend Mary Sue? Do you feel more at liberty to use yourself as a “character reference” in the future? Are you currently writing a Mary Sue? I’m all ears!



Anonymous said...

Excellent post! You did forget one aspect of Mary Sue, though: she needs to be a secret princess/heiress/goddess/insert completely unrealistic position, except she was never told of her birthright (for reasons that are never quite clear). (I may be being unfair here. Some authors, like Marissa Meyers, make this work by having their princess in disguise so non-Mary Sue-ish. And I have nothing against princesses.) :) I love discussing this; Mary Sues litter the young adult market, stamping their exquisite little feet in ill-tempered yet still attractive frustration. And, for the record, Imraldera and Una were always my favorites. :)

AB said...

This is more of a question, but I always find writing about crazy, spunky people harder because I'm a more quiet person. How do I stick parts of myself into a character who needs something I don't have?

Jenelle Leanne said...

I had never heard of a Mary Sue before... but I can definitely understand the need to avoid her. Thanks for the explanation.

And I am really loving Una.

S.F. Gorske said...

Great post! I have a hard time creating characters, Mary Sue or otherwise, but I'll definitely try to stay out of that trap. Thanks for the help you give us young writers!

Unknown said...

In "Ice Roses", as you know, Anne Elisabeth, I teetered on the verge of Gerda being a Mary Sue through the "Nobody Likes Me Syndrome". But I love these tips on how to avoid that--and currently Anya, my character in my other WIP, is definitely a representation of the less nice sides of myself: a tendency toward keeping everything to myself rather than trusting others enough to let them in, etc. She's a very frustrating character to love, especially since she's gotten herself stuck in the midst of a bloody revolution. But this only solidifies my resolve to keep her from being a Mary Sue.

Which leads me to a point you may have missed about Mary Sues: they get their happy ending with limited blood, sweat and tears. When things are at their worst for her, suddenly something happens and she gets what she wants without loss.

In that sense, poor little Anya's definitely no Mary Sue, thankfully. And neither is Gerda. So I'm good on that count....for now, I suppose. ;) I think it's harder to avoid Mary Sues than we think. It's human nature to want to glamorize ourselves. XD

Clara said...

I've been trying VERY hard to make my main character have problems, but still be likeable. Like Una. She has her problems, but you still like her because you can relate to her.

Hannah said...

Wonderful post! I try hard not to make my characters Mary Sues.

My very first novel (when I was a ten) had a Mary Sue main character, though I shudder to use that term to describe her. Until I created her, I had been discontent with my brown hair, green eyes, and my month's gem. When I created this heroine, I gave her brown hair, green eyes, named her Emerald, and made her the most beautiful woman in the world. She was elven princess turned war commander turned Jedi knight turned Queen of the world. Yep. :)
To be fair, she did struggle with her temper every once in a while.

Nonetheless, despite all her perfections, Emerald still remains close to my heart and has inspired aspects of some of my current characters.

Rebekah said...

Ooo... ouch, convicted. I have a novel on hold while I work on something else, and my heroine, Estella, is teetering on the cliff of Mary-Sue-ism. I will need to put some serious effort into fixing that.

And the people whole gave Heartless a one-star review have no depth and do not see the truth in honestly rendered characters. Shame on them.

Thank you so much for another Friday Tidbits!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the great explanation of Mary Sue. I found that in my book, I did use a lot of myself without meaning to do so. Once my son brought it to my attention, I was astonished to see how much of me my son was able to see; it took great insight and perception on his part. Mostly, these were aspects of myself that I never even knew were there. You know how everyone tells themselves lies about themselves, whether they be positive lies or negative lies; we rarely see ourselves how others see us. In addition to my son, my mother saw other pieces of me in my books as well. All of these were not necessarily Mary Sues, since I was not doing it consciously. Some were idealized or wishes that I incorporated into my characters, others were like you mentioned, more real and less virtuous than what I would have liked to admit. I thought about changing some of them, but then I decided to leave them, as I felt that they gave more authenticity to the story. Like you said, the critical emails did pick up on some of those and used them to criticize my characters, and without knowing it also criticizing me. The funniest thing is that their criticisms were usually that those characteristics made the characters less believable. I guess I, myself, am just unbelievable as a fictional character. It also explains a lot.

What would you call the male idealized version? Not the one that would represent a male author, although that actually would be the male version; but I am talking about the idealized male hero. The hero written by a female author and who so many women wish was true, but never is. I guess most people call him, Prince Charming or Knight in Shining Armour. I am just wondering if he has an actual name, like Joe Wonderful. However, I don't think Joe is a particularly idealized name for a hero. If I have to name him, I guess I would choose something like Awesome Adrian or some such exotic name.

Meredith said...

I really enjoyed this post, and I've never come across the "Mary Sue" terminology. Not sure about characters I've created, (they're definitely not super-women). However, the "nobody likes me" Mary Sue might be a different matter. You've made me want to go back and examine my heroines more closely. Thanks for your invaluable advice.

Like Rebecca, I am saddened by the one star reviews that attack Una. She's so endearing, and I like her precisely because she is not the typical stereotype of a sword-wielding princess. She is vulnerable yet so relatable, and her stuttering is priceless! Of course, I've learned that reviews are so subjective. One review can be glowing, and another person can dislike a book for the very reasons the positive reviewer loved it. Of course, its easy for me to say this, but I readily admit I'm a sucker for the positive reviews. My pride at work, I suppose. Anyway, Una is great!

God bless you.

Kessie said...

For the person who asked, the male version of a Mary Sue is a Gary Stu. :-)

I'm writing books around my husband's Gary Stu, and its been a chore to make him into a likeable character. He was all good qualities, so I gave him bad ones and made them too strong in earlier drafts. Trying to strike that balance. He's a tough character to write. I kind of write around him, the way Jordan wound up doing with Rand in Wheel of Time. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Kessie. :)

Rachel6 said...

I enjoyed your description of Mary Sue; I've never really thought of her as an author's wish fulfillment, but I do believe you're right on the money with that!

My Garys and Marys tend to be impossibly glib and witty. I'm pretty quick-tongued already, but they are never misunderstood, never outtalked, and never mocked. :P

AB, about your question: I'd say study crazy, spunky people and see what traits and actions would cause you to label them as such. Take your quiet reaction to an event and figure out what the opposite would be! For me, my opposite would be a quiet hero. Instead of voicing his opinion, he just nods, or just listens. Or, another opposite, a flirtatious hero! Instead of ignoring the opposite sex, as I do, he'd go strike up a conversation!

Crazy spunky people tend to lead situations, and tend to try things that others wouldn't. They're the ones who sneak into the abandoned building, the ones who argue with the villain instead of cowering, the ones who come up with a hair brained plan to save the world. Good luck :)