Friday, February 27, 2009

Understanding Mary Sue...

Mary Sue, where are you?

For those of you who’ve dabbled in writing fan-fiction (fiction based on the lives of various popular characters from comics, TV shows and movies, such as Superman, Star Trek, Star Wars, Alias, 24, etc), you know what the dreaded Mary Sue happens to be. Paula Smith coined the term after writing a satirical Star Trek spoof featuring a protagonist named Mary Sue.

In short, a Mary Sue story is one in which an author writes a wish-fulfillment character of all the things the author wants to be. Mary Sues tend to have no discernable flaws, are often idealized as being stunningly beautiful, with Cinderella type tendencies (kind, compassionate and picked on by nearly everyone), and if writing in the paranormal realm, have special powers only she can control. Mary Sues must also always save the hero, the day, the entire town, and possibly even the entire congregation or country. Basically, a Mary Sue is stronger, better, faster, kinder, more lovely and not egotistical about any of this at all.

There are many online “tests” where you can answer questions to determine if your hero/heroine is a Mary Sue. The ones for fiction are generally covered here:

Not everything in the test is accurate. Because of the nature of writing a newly formed character, it is possible to say yes to some of these questions without having an actual Mary Sue.

Mary Sues show up in romance fiction quite often. Now, let me say upfront, there is nothing inherently wrong with writing a Mary Sue character. Tempered with some reality, a lot of Mary Sue’s are actually quite likeable and fun to read about.

However, there are issues if any of the following happen more than a few times in your manuscript:

Every time someone meets Mary Sue, they exclaim over her stunning beauty. This includes people who’ve seen her before, exclaimed over her beauty then, and continue to do so every time they meet her.

Every time something bad happens, Mary Sue accepts it so stoically she is universally loved by all. And she is loved. No one hates her except the bad guys or the Other Woman. No one thinks she’s pushy, aggressive, gossipy, or nosy (despite her shoving her way into other people’s business to get the scoop so she can solve all their problems).

Every time something good happens, Mary Sue gets all the credit.

Every time someone needs something good done, Mary Sue is called upon to do it.

Every time someone is mean, heartless or cruel, it is directed towards poor Mary Sue.

Every time a hero appears, he bypasses every woman in the area to zero-in on Mary Sue, despite her rags, her bare feet, her state of cleanliness or her circumstances.

Only Mary Sue can save everyone.

Only Mary Sue does all the good things in the story, while every other woman is portrayed as mean, catty, heartless, cruel and stupid. This woman also tries to go after Mary Sue’s man, who is often noticeably disgusted with the woman. The exception to this may be Mary Sue’s mother, who is a carbon copy of Mary Sue.

If Mary Sue does have a woman friend, she is only there to stoke Mary Sue’s ego. She has no real thoughts of her own and agrees with Mary Sue on everything. Oh, and she NEVER, EVER, entertains the idea of going after the man Mary Sue has decided shall be her own.

If there are people in the book whose circumstances are less-than-stellar, only Mary Sue notices and tries to do something about it, often with a trusted friend who may have fallen below their means or who has had tragedy in their lives, too. The friend usually does all the actual work, Mary Sue simply attracts the right attention to right the wrong.

When Mary Sue does anything evil, wrong, or bad, there are massive extenuating circumstances that explain why this saintly woman has to go against her principles. These circumstances usually involve trying to save someone else.

If Mary Sue has extraordinary powers, she usually doesn’t know about these powers until she’s called upon to save another and when she realizes she has them, she is often appalled, and will deny them until she is forced to come to terms with the power. Once she has, she saves everyone.

Only Mary Sue is outraged so much by the injustices heaped on the hero, the day, the town, the congregation or the country that she decides to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. No one else in the story can take this initiative because they are too weak, too scared, too sick, too upset or too beaten down by the circumstances to do anything for themselves (despite these same people holding powerful positions or having amassed great wealth without Mary Sue’s help).

As I stated above, a well-written Mary Sue can be a rollicking, fun read. If any of the above applies to your heroine (or hero) simply make her character have one or more flaws. Round out the other characters with realistic attributes. Everyone is not all good or all bad. By showing a more sympathetic set of individuals, readers will identify with the characters more. Mary Sue can save the world, she can have special powers. Just temper that character so that every reader can understand why she’s so special.


Cate Masters said...

Great info, Jamie! I'd never heard of Mary Sue before, but now that I do, I'll avoid her! I scored a 31 on the Litmus Test - a borderline Mary Sue, so I have some work to do. Thanks for sharing!

Emma Lai said...

Love the post, Jamie! I never knew there was a name for these perfect characters, but Mary Sue fits. I don't write Mary Sues by any means. Too many of my own personal insecurities to achieve that. However, I do tend to fall in love with the perfect hero. Is there a name for Billie Ray?

Linda LaRoque said...

I've book marked these sites to use in future. Very interesting. My upcoming character scored an 18 so I guess she's okay. The test does make you think.
Thanks for the info.

Cindy K. Green said...

This was great Jamie! I've never heard of the Mary Sue either. I tested the heroine and hero in my latest ms. She got a 20 and he a 23. So, not too bad. :)

Inactive Account said...

Wow! Nancy Drew was a Mary-Sue!

Rebecca J. Clark said...

You know, I've heard of Mary Sue's before, but never knew what it meant. Thanks for enlightening poor, ignorant me. :)

Clare Revell said...

Hmm I scored a 3 for my current heroine. But my RP charrie on the other hand... Good job i'm not writing a story about her. Bookmarked the page for future reference. Ty