Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

 

Who is Mary Sue?

By Kat Feete
2005,
Kat Feete


Many of us have heard the term "Mary Sue" floating around writing communities. A Mary Sue is a character that the author identifies with so strongly that the story is warped by it. Sometimes male Sues are called "Gary Stus," but more often the name is used for both sexes of offenders. The term was coined in fanfiction, made its way from there into the publishing world, and has slowly been filtering into the writing community as a useful shorthand for a frighteningly common error in characterization.

Along the way the definition of a Mary Sue has become muddied. For some, it is any self-insertion of the writer; for others it is when the character is obviously acting as wish-fulfillment for the writer. Sometimes it is a character who is excessively stylish or romantic or over-traumatized, or who never does anything wrong.

But these are all symptoms of the same literary crime: a character who, by the writer's obsession with her, subverts the truth and power of the story. Mary Sue fights to appear in all our stories. She is the story equivalent of the spoilt brat who always gets her way, with the writer-parent running before her anxiously smoothing her path; she is lovable to no one but that parent. Mary Sues sometimes appear in valid works of fiction, but more often they render the story unreadable, a source of satisfaction to the writer alone. Spotting her and learning to discipline her is as important for writers as it is for parents.

Mary Sues in the Wild

There are three reasons why Mary Sue appears in a story. The first is laziness. "Write what you know," the fledgling writer thinks. "That means I don't have to do any research, right?" Shallow characters who are difficult to tell apart and main characters who share their author's profession, hobbies, sexual orientation, and gender (and in extreme cases name) are both symptomatic of the lazy Mary Sue.

The second reason is nervousness. "This character isn't sympathetic enough!" thinks the writer, reading her story. "I want everyone to like her. So I'll have to make her better... make her special... throw in some horrible experiences so that everyone will feel sorry for her...."  This type of Mary Sue can be easily spotted: look for excessive trauma, unbelievable perfection, reams of explanation for any faults, and minor characters who regularly step up to defend the main character from criticism.

And, finally, there is wistfulness. The third Mary Sue comes from the writer who thinks "I wish I could... I wish I was more like...." An overly romantic portrayal of her circumstances, be it lady of the manor or fighter pilot; inexplicable popularity; an overabundance of fashion sense, friends, parties, sex, and all the other things the writer feels she lacks; an abundance of minor, temporary setbacks, quickly resolved in her favor; a lack of consequences for every action she takes... these are the signs of a wish-fulfillment Mary Sue, the most insidious of her kind.

Mary Sues are frequently accompanied by trite plots, generic backgrounds, and a cast of minor characters who define their existence only through the Sue. They may love her or they may hate her, but no one is allowed to be indifferent.

Why care about background, after all, when it's the main character you're writing for... and of course you want the reader to sympathize when you're writing about yourself. If we didn't want to be our characters, then they wouldn't hold such a fascination for us that we'd write about them. If we didn't love them, they wouldn't be ours.

Avoiding Mary Sue

We can never do without Mary Sue, but you can keep her from bending a story until it breaks.  Few people are able to write objectively about themselves, and fewer still able to do this in a way that is interesting to other people. The nearer and dearer our Mary Sues, the closer to our hearts, the narrower other people's interest becomes, until we limit ourselves to an audience of one.

If the signs of a Mary Sue that I list are things you see in your own stories, don't despair. Work. Examine your assumptions. Look hard at your conflicts: how can you change them to serve the story, rather than the Mary Sue? Try writing a scene from a minor character's perspective. If she does nothing but eulogize the main character, start over. If she does nothing but revile the main character, start over. Write from the point of view of a stranger, if you must, but create something that focuses on more than that character.

Remember that what "everyone knows" about anything is wrong, and that everyone includes you. Do not skimp on the research. Do not cast yourself as the main character; chances are you don't know yourself as well as you think and will end up with a flat, boring shadow of you on the page -- not to mention the raft of minor characters who also look like you. Easy doesn't mean right.

Afraid people won't like your character? They don't have to like her; they just have to respect her. Either way it's a choice they'll make for themselves, based not on what you tell them but on her actions. You cannot force readers to be sympathetic. Heaping trauma upon trauma on the main character, explaining away all her mistakes, and having other characters defend her against the reader criticisms you fear will alienate more and more people by pounding them over the head with what they should think, rather than standing back and letting them draw their own conclusions.

Take a long hard look at your character's life and you will see the drawbacks. No one is perfect. No one's situation is perfect. No one is universally loved. The more you try to convince readers of this impossibility, the more skeptically they will regard your work, and the less they will trust you. You may wish to live the perfect life all you want, but the wish has no place in your fiction.

Finally, remember: you are not your characters. Their faults do not reflect on you. People's opinions of them are not the same as their opinions of you. Realize this, and you will write better fiction that touches a universal dream more poignant than the Mary Sue's wish that the world revolved around her.