“Oh Mary, my Mary Sue-oo-ooh……” No, wait. That’s not it. So who the hell is she, then? You may not have realized it at the time, but you’ve met her–we all have. You may even have written her.
When I started writing, I had never heard this term before. I know, I know. But I don’t read sci-fi/fantasy, and I had no clue fan fiction existed. I knew there was such a thing as the internet, but its function for me was primarily shopping. So when I began researching craft and frequenting the various writer’s websites for critique and submission advice, I kept running into the term.
When I discovered the meaning, I got scared. Were my beloved characters Mary Sues? But my awesome characters were awesome, weren’t they? Weren’t they? My super sexy hero who doesn’t realize he’s hot, my naive but lovable heroine, the wise-cracking-yet-truly-wise grandpa, the sassy gay best friend? Not the sassy gay best friend! Nooooo! How could I save them–and save myself from being a newbie laughingstock in the process?
Here is a detailed definition. In a nutshell, a Mary Sue is an overly idealized character who resembles or serves as a stand in/wish fulfillment for the author. This term originated in fan fiction, but is now well-established literary criticism for original fiction, too. That’s where it becomes tricky, especially in these three ways:
First off: wish-fulfillment. Aren’t we, as writers, trafficking in wish-fulfillment every time we put fingers to keyboard? Even dark and angsty stories with problems we’d never want to see in real life serve some internal purpose for the writer. And what about the fun stuff? I’ve got a story where much of the action takes place on a sailing yacht in the Florida Keys: um, yes, please!
Secondly: Idealized characters. We all want our characters to stand out in some way, be it physically, mentally, or supernaturally. Brilliant detectives, spunky heroines, shape-shifting Navy Seals, whatever. We write them larger than life because they are larger than life–and that gets readers to respond. But go too far, and the only reader response you’ll get is a gigantic eye roll. Surely, the most truly authentic characters will be everyday Joes and Janes who overcome (or don’t overcome) their real-world life, love, and money problems–but in what percentage of books you’ve read lately do those characters dominate?
Third: Author similarities. One of the quickest ways to have your character pegged as a Mary Sue is to have too much in common with him/her: hobbies, profession, beliefs, and/or physical appearance can all bite you. This is especially tricky for us writers of contemporary fiction who have been told over and over again to “write what you know.” It’s probably a good thing to make your main character look physically different from you, if only to retain a crumb of dignity when your relatives read your book and get to the sexy parts. I also believe that this is the reason why natural redheads in Fiction Land are so much more prevalent than they are in real life. But dang, what about those of us with the dominant hair/eye color on the planet? What if I want a main character with dark hair? Maybe the redheads get to write the brunettes? I don’t know.
Mary Sue-isms are subjective, and the triggers are different for everyone, but some things are universal: your character is awesome because you say she is, not for reasons discernible by the reader. Or she’s sooo perfect you just want to puke. She’s good at every damn thing in the world, and, of course, modest about it. Her “flaws” are about as flaw-like as “working too hard” when asked your biggest weakness in a job interview. You think she’s the bee’s knees, but your reader is totally rooting for the serial killer. We’re hard on our female characters, aren’t we? But Mary Sues aren’t just females. There are plenty of Gary Stus out there, like James Bond, the granddaddy of them all. If your hero is a walking catalog of desirable male attributes but he’s aw, shucks, too shy around girls to find love (except for the heroine who sees the real him, of course)…. then he might be a Gary Stu.
The problem is, despite these and other, way more thorough guidelines (try the Mary Sue Litmus Test and you’ll see what I mean–and you’ll have yet another sweet internet time waster in your life), it’s subjective. Sort of like pornography: hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Trust your instincts, gauge your crit partners reactions to your characters and try not to get mad. If you do get mad, that may be a sign your precious character hits a little too close to home. As for me, I’m off to write a story about a David Bowie-hating redhead!
So go on, don’t be shy: what are your Mary Sue moments, as a reader, or a writer?