Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Dreaded Mary Sue

Both Spock and Kirk had the hots for Mary Sue
The term Mary Sue was inspired by Star Trek fan fiction where original female characters were being introduced into the Star Trek universe who were young, beautiful, talented and loved or envied by all.  They were believed to be author inserts, a way for the writer to interact with their beloved series and its characters.

When these stories were shared, other fans of the show hated them.  They didn’t like their favorite Star Trek characters fawning over and being shown up by some annoyingly perfect new character.  Since then, the term has moved to other fan fiction universes and to original fiction.  It now describes any character that appears to be an author insert or one that seems to be loved too much and protected by the author.

How do you know you’ve created a Mary Sue?

There is plenty of vitriol for Mary Sues on every writing board and tests to see if you have indeed created the abomination (like this one and this one and this one). The fear of creating a Mary Sue often keeps aspiring writers up late at night, making them fight their urges to give a character unique or good looks, question if their character should really be the chosen one or a half-breed or exceptionally talented in any way, and clutch their manuscript tightly before handing it over to a beta reader while repeatedly stating that the main character may be a little bit of a Mary Sue.

The thing is that the term Mary Sue has been thrown around so much that it has little meaning.  Some people use it for any character they do not like or any character that is larger than life.  But some stories, like epic fantasies, call for larger than life characters like Aragon, Rand (wheel of time), Harry Potter, etc., all of which have been labeled as Gary Stues (the Mary Sue male counter-part).  They do have many of the characteristics cautioned by the Mary Sue litmus tests, but they also fit the story being told.  

But Mary Sue is a real problem because readers usually dislike her/him.  A real Mary Sue can undermine the story and alienate readers, but it is hard to determine if your character is just larger than life and works in the story or has truly passed into Mary or Gary Suedom.

I don’t think it is the character that is causing the problem in original fiction (fan fiction is another story), but how the other characters and the world treat that character.  Your MC can be the chosen one or a hidden heir or exceptionally gifted in some way as long as every other character doesn’t fawn over him/her or be secretly in love with him/her or be constantly in awe of him/her, and as long as the world where the story takes place doesn’t bend over backwards to accommodate him/her.

How to avoid a Mary Sue

Bella from Twilight is often referred to as a Mary Sue, and I’m not saying that she is, only that I can see why people see her this way.  I’m going to use her as an example because most people have read Twilight or seen the movies or at least have heard about it.  I could use Harry Potter as an example, but honestly, I really don’t see how he fits (other than being the chosen one).  But then I’m a true, devoted Harry Potter fan, and J. K. Rowling can do no wrong.  :)

Bella, as she describes herself, is pale and clumsy, rather shy and socially awkward.  She has little interests and never mentions missing any friends from Phoenix (I’m guessing she didn’t have any).  Honestly she doesn’t sound like a Mary Sue type character at all.  There is little that is special about her, at least initially (that does change). 

WARNING:  massive spoilers.

How the other characters react.

When Bella moves to Forks, the whole town is a buzz about her.  I get it, she’s the sheriff’s daughter and new in town and Forks is really small, but that newness is going to wear off really fast especially when she gives everyone the cold shoulder.  Instead, Bella is asked to some dance by three different guys (none of them are Edward or Jacob).  I know Forks is a small town, and the local boys are excited to have someone new to date, but unless she’s some smoking hot goddess (which she isn’t) or very outgoing and flirtatious (which she’s clearly not) the boys are going to lose interest fast.

But it doesn’t stop there.  All the vampires except Rosalie (who seems jealous of her), love her and accept her into the family.  The werewolf pack easily accepts her too even though she had dated the enemy vampire.  These two powerful supernatural forces join together and risk their lives to protect her.  It really feels like every character in the whole Forks universe seems to revolve around her.

Why is this annoying?  When the world seems to revolve around one person, it makes that person appear selfish, conceited, and self-absorbed even if they aren’t.  It also is unrealistic.  In real life, everyone has their own problems and issues to deal with.  While people care about others, they can’t devote their lives to solving other people’s problems.  In a book when it feels like the supporting characters’ only concern is for the main character (MC), it makes the supporting cast feel shallow and undeveloped  (I’m not saying this happened in Twilight, just that it can happen when the focus is too much on the MC).  When all the characters seem to only care about one character, that character feels like a Mary Sue.

How to avoid this.  I think this is tough because your plot should focus on the main character.  After all, it is his/her story you are telling.  Sub-plots are great, but they need to be connected somehow or they feel distracting.  I’m not for adding scenes just to prove that the MC isn’t the center of everything.  I think this needs to be done more subtly. 

Give the illusion that there is a world beyond the MC, filled with people who don’t know or don’t care about the MC.  For example, if the boys at Forks high school seemed to ignore Bella after the first day and go on with their lives after she clearly so demonstrated she wasn’t interested, it would at least have shown that Bella wasn’t the center of her group of high school friends.  Also secondary characters need their own motivations for helping out the MC.  Everyone can’t just do it because they love her/him.   They all need realistic motives for risking their lives.

A world that accommodates the main character

An important part of every plot is forcing the MC to make some hard decisions.  Bella does make some tough choices throughout the Twilight Saga.  She chooses Edward over Jacob.  She chooses to become a vampire, to carry the half-vampire baby, to get married out of high school, to stay and fight the Volturi.  When she makes these choices they all have serious consequences or risks, but Meyers seems to protect Bella and doesn’t make her suffer any of the long term consequences.  In the end, Bella gets everything she wants without losing anything.

Bella chooses Edward but in the long run, she doesn’t lose or even hurt Jacob because he imprints on her daughter.  Thus, Bella gets to be with Edward, keeps Jacob as her friend and future son-in-law, and no one is really hurt by her choice.

She chooses to carry a half-vampire baby.  The half-vampire baby could be a monster.  The werewolves fear it and want to kill it, and Jacob even breaks away from his pack to protect Bella.  The baby grows too fast and sucks all the life from Bella threatening to take her life.  All of the vampires except Rosalie, who now loves Bella, want Bella to abort the baby.  But everything works out perfectly.  Bella survives and becomes a vampire which was what she wanted anyway.   Jacob imprints on her daughter so the werewolf pack no longer sees the half-vampire baby as a threat and are now willing to protect it.  And all the vampires are just thrilled to have two new members of their family.  There is no fall-out at all about her making this decision.

Bella chooses to become a vampire.  There is a huge lead up to this decision.  In Eclipse, we see what new vampires are like.  Strong, blood thirsty, with no self-control.  Bella is told that if she becomes a vampire, she cannot have children, she will never be able to see Charlie or her mother again, and she will spend a few years blood thirsty and murderous until she learns to control herself.  Also by turning her into a vampire the Cullen clan will null the treaty they have with the werewolves and have to leave Forks forever. It is a big sacrifice, but she is willing to do it to be with Edward. 

Only she doesn’t suffer any of those consequences.  Bella has perfect self-control from day one.  In one day, she manages to control those urges that Jasper still struggles with.  Before becoming a vampire, Edward gets her pregnant, and although she nearly gives her life to have the baby, she still gets her baby.  Since Jacob has imprinted on Bella’s daughter, the werewolves will no longer attack the Cullen clan.  They have kind of joined with each other as one big happy werewolf-vampire family.  And furthermore, Jacob lets her secret slip to Charlie, who is fine with it.  So Bella gets to be a beautiful, graceful vampire without any of the nasty urges to murder.  She gets the gorgeous husband, a baby, and doesn’t have to leave Forks or her father.  I’m guessing at some point in the future, Bella will visit her mother who will be fine with everything as well.  In the end, Bella gets everything she wants. 

I could go on, but this is getting rather lengthy.  The point is that Meyer sets up some hard decisions, and Bella makes them expecting to face the consequences for those choices, but through plotting and world-building, Meyer makes sure everything works out perfectly for Bella.   This makes Bella feel like a Mary Sue.  I’m not saying she should suffer from all of these consequences, it is okay for some things to work out, but she never suffers the consequences of any of her decisions ever, at least not long term. 

Why this is annoying.  In real life, unless you are evil, when you see someone suffering, you feel sympathy towards them.  When you see someone who seems to get whatever they want without any difficulty or sacrifice, you tend to feel envious or annoyed or at least unsympathetic to the person, especially if they whine about how hard their life is.  It is no different for characters in a story.  Characters who never really have to suffer for anything are annoying.

How to avoid this.  Main characters need to make tough choices, but the author cannot protect the characters from every consequence.  Sure it is okay for things to work out once and a while, but if it happens every time, if the character seems to get everything they want without paying any sort of price, some readers will get annoyed and cry out Mary Sue.  

Make your characters suffer the natural consequences of their actions at least some of the time.  Remember, you are not your character’s parent.  :)

So go ahead and make your character special or larger than life or even beautiful, but remember, the story may be theirs, but the world you create and the characters in that world do not revolve around your character.   If you build a world to challenge not to reward your MC and fill that world with characters who have their own problems and goals, I think you will be able to avoid creating the dreaded Mary Sue.



  1. I've never hear that term but what you say makes a lot of sense. Good post!

  2. I see the Twilight contagion has reached far. ;)

    Excellent article as usual. I must say I had to laugh at that picture of Bella. She's suppose to be beautiful and deadly but all I can do is laugh.

    There's only one predator I can remember that actually gives me goosebumps and that's Dexter. He's more dangerous and deadly than any vampire (Lestat and Louis included).

    1. LOL, I'm frequently inspired by the insightful folks over on hatrack. :)

      I find serial killers more scary than vampires too. Mostly because people who are that evil really do exist. I've never read or seen Dexter, but Silence of the Lambs was pretty creepy. I do think Bram Stroker's Dracula (book not movie) is pretty creepy. Especially the beginning.

  3. Yay for Sarah! Have a good time, MaryAnn!

    Mary Sue scares me, especially after looking at your first linke. I have a tendency to make, not my heroine, but the guy she falls in love with into one. This was a great post.

    1. Yeah, I'm excited to have Sarah back again too. I'll try to find other excuses to coerce her into subbing for me in the future. :)

      I worry a lot about Mary Sues too, for both my heroine and her love interest. Yes, I am one of those aspiring writers who obsesses over these things. I think this is one of those things that you can over think. Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts and do what feels natural.

  4. It is super annoying that Bella gets whatever she wants. Too bad Stephenie Meyers didn't do the Mary Sue Litmus Test. I just wonder why the series is so popular. It makes sense that teenagers love it -- they already think they should get everything they want with no consequences. But Twilight is popular with adult women too who should know better. mm

    1. Maybe even adults like the fantasy of getting it all. I don't know. Personally, I would have preferred Bella to have to sacrifice something. I think it would have made the story stronger for Bella to have to give up something to be with Edward. But I think that real love is sacrifice.

  5. Spot on, on the Bella analysis. You've given me the vocabulary to finally describe what bugs me. And, I agree with your above reply that it is all about the fantasy of having it all - it's a fairy tale. I sure was hoping for my happily ever after when I was a teen (though maybe not an eternal bloodsucking one...)
    Great post.

    1. I thought that too when I was a teen, that once you were married everything was smooth sailing. Yeah, that's exactly what happened. ;)

  6. I'm with Susan. What a great explanation of all the things I dislike about Twilight. It's also an eye opener. I have been struggling to figure out what is wrong with the fantasy story I wrote several years back, and now I know. Excellent post!

    1. Thanks Trisha, glad it was helpful. I think it is a common problem. It is really easy to get too attached to you characters. I know sometimes I do. :)

  7. Great post! When I say Wesley right off the bat, I laughed pretty hard. It's definitely tough to write a 'good' character and avoid the Mary Sue. Thanks!

    1. LOL, glad someone appreciated the Wesley picture. I wasn't sure how many people would get that. :)

      Thanks for stopping by.

  8. I just realized that Mary-Sue-isms are one of the reasons my current WIP is stalled. I'm trying to protect my leading lady too much, and making her too special.

    This is awesome. Great work, MaryAnn!


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