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Mary who?

November 20, 2010

Some 15 years ago, I wrote possibly the worst character that I have ever written. She was the love interest of the protagonist. She was beautiful, intelligent, sweet, heroic, selfless and an orphan who had been abducted by an evil witch. I put her into one outrageous situation after the other. And nothing worked. At all. She remained uninteresting.

Let’s talk about the concept of “Mary Sue”. Traditionally applied to female characters of fan fiction who more or less are just an idealised representation of the author herself and who gets to interact with the (male) characters of the already established fictional universe, Mary Sue is more than just that. Men can write Mary Sues, there are male versions (named Gary Stu or other puns on the name), and in order to make a “believable” character, the Mary Sue may have certain flaws that are supposed to make her easier to identify with. And, of course, Mary Sues can be part of original fiction and literature, which is what I am going to talk about here. There is a lot more to be said about the nature of Mary Sues, but Wikipedia covers the basics rather well, and as this is not an explanation of Mary Sues, but a comment on them, I’ll hurry on.

The poor girl I mentioned above was definitely a Mary Sue, though I didn’t know the term then.
I also wrote a Gary Stu once. I knew that I couldn’t make him entirely perfect, because that would not be believable. – But if he had not made that near-fatal mistake because he was drunk one night (that caused him much angsting afterwards), everyone else would definitely have been killed …
I hope, and think, that I have learnt something since then. I try to write about real people. – Never mind the fact that some of them are supernatural beings. That doesn’t make them less real. By real I mean believable, three dimensional, characters who feel and think and act in a human way (be it normal or abnormal). My readers don’t necessarily need to like them, but I do hope that they find them interesting.

There is a number of online tests that writers can haul their characters through to see if they are Mary Sues. I think the best known ones are The Original Fiction Mary-Sue Litmus Test and The Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test.
The question is, having gone through the tests and having reached a score that tells you that your character is a Mary Sue to a certain degree, what do you do? It is no secret that none of my main characters go through those tests unscathed. Trying to justify myself, I initially went, “Well, the whole point is that his name is invented and kind of symbolic/odd because it says something about the character that he would do that, so it’s not because I think it’s cool” and “but I only started to listen to the same kind of music after I had written about this character.”
Now I’ve reached the conclusion that it would be odd not to score anything at all on those tests. If anyone can find me a character who does score nothing, I would like to know it. But that said, a very high score probably is not a good sign, not if the writer is aiming for a believable character.
I haven’t tried running one of those tests on a fairytale princess, but I am certain that most of them would score an amazing number of points. Why? Well, my guess is that they are just tools to tell a story and not relevant as people, or characters, in their own right. They are archetypes who can quickly be established to get the story going.

I recently read a book which is actually what spurred me on to write this. Usually I have no quibbles with that particular author’s characters. Some tend to be leaning towards stock characters or stereotypes, but they usually do the job and work really well. But this book … Oh dear. There is a redeeming feature to the female character in it who screams Mary Sue because she is mostly seen through the eyes of a man who idolises her, but there is too much of her in the book for me to be able to fully accept it.
The problem with this Mary Sue (and I think it is a general thing) is not really the big picture. I can accept that characters have special powers, an extraordinary past, look absolutely stunning, and so on. It’s the small things that do it. This particular Mary Sue had been in the book for just about half a page before she started singing and it was stated that her voice was absolutely wonderful. Is this relevant to the story? I hoped it was. It turned out not to be. Now, if the character had been unattractive or unintelligent, I would have bought it. Then it would have been an irrelevant but endearing fact. The way it is, however, I would have been so much more inclined to liking this character is she had sung and thought it sounded good, but really she was rather off key. That’s one example. The book goes on in the same fashion.

What saves a character from Mary Suedom often seems to be unredeemed flaws or a nice portion of irony or humour. If a quirk isn’t just charming and cute or brought about because of a traumatising past, it is probably a good thing. If other characters dislike her with a good reason or she happens to trip over something and make a fool of herself just once, it is too. I am certain that there is a number of characters out there that are technically Mary Sues or Gary Stus, but no one thinks of them as such, simply because they are well-written. I suppose that what can be said (and has been said very well, eg. here) about clichés in general applies to characters as well.
I believe that a good writer can successfully write a character that would have been unbelievable if written by another. It’s not the background story or how the character looks; It’s what you do with the character.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Karina Gyldenkaerne permalink
    December 17, 2010 6:05 pm

    I think the first test says it best at end of the result explainations: “Morpheus from the Sandman Comics scored nearly 70 points, and yet we don’t believe he’s a Mary-Sue.”
    You may actually benefit from a little Mary Sue-ness, to spice up your character.

    In the first test my protagonist Sofie (yes, I finally settled on a name) scored 17 points: “The Non-Sue.”
    It the second test she bagged a total of 12 points: “Most likely Not-Sue.”
    But now I’m left wondering if she is too bland? Ah well, she is what she is, and that’s how I write them. No overthinking things, I just let them devellop as I write.


    • December 17, 2010 9:45 pm

      I think it’s generally “safer” to be on the non-Mary Sue side than going overboard with special powers, names, tragic past, etc. And like you say; characters tend to evolve along the way.



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