Friday, June 5, 2009

I Was A Mary Sue!

"A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers..."

From Wikipedia

Have you ever met my friend, Mary Sue? She's the nicest, bestest character you'd ever want to meet. She's flown on the Starship Enterprise, and fought off Voldemort with Harry Potter. She's had quite a few adventures in bed as well, with far too many characters for me to name. Yet though she does get around, she's a real lady, not a slut.

Okay, enough fooling around. We're here to talk about getting inside someone else's skin, right? How do writers create unique, believable characters that readers want to connect with (and spend their hard-earned dollars to read about)? The answer is, quite honestly, you write a hell of a lot of Mary Sues.

I'd be willing to bet every good writer has somewhere in their home a box of stories that have never seen the light of day. I know I have one (and do not look in my closet for it, or the alligators in the moat will get you!). These stories are universally terrible, mainly because they all feature a character who's too good to be true, the character we'd all like to be, but would kill if they moved in next door. You know the kind - perfect hair and skin, dazzling smile, a genius who graduated from Harvard at the age of 12, helps the poor and sick, and saved the world from alien invastion at least a dozen times. Oh, and she's dating both Spock and Jean Luc Picard (it's a cross-generational story, you'd LOVE it!).

If it sounds like I'm picking on fanfiction writers, I'm not. Writers are writers, regardless of the genre. Besides, we've all written those kinds of stories, though maybe we didn't all play in someone else's universe to do it. Many of my early stories were about the incredible things I had always fantasized about doing with my life - sailing the world, discovering the cure for cancer, seducing certain sexy celebrities and tying them to my bed. Yes, I had a tendancy to put a little more of myself into my writing than I should. And while I've never written fanfiction myself, I can tell you from experience Mary Sue is not limited to that realm. Girl gets around, I tell you. She shows up everywhere.

Or he shows up everywhere. Marty Stu is not quite as popular as Mary Sue, but he appears in many a story too.

But Mary Sue, I believe, is important to all writers. We all have to have an ideal character when we start writing. Consider it a reference point. Yes, Mary Sue is the ideal hero, and being ideal she irritates the fuck out of readers. But keep writing Mary Sue long enough, and you know what happens? Same thing that happens to anything perfect. She gets a little dinged up. The shiny wears off. That new character scent starts to fade, and before we know it, Mary Sue is Diane Horner, a forty-something divorcee with a gay porn habit and a penchant for much younger men. She's not perfect, not at all. In fact, she's seriously fucked up. And very, very interesting.

It takes time to figure out how to get into someone else's skin, to knock the shiny perfectness off your characters and make them real and sympathetic. So I say go ahead and write your Mary Sues, put them through their paces. Don't be afraid to fill a box with bad stories about flawless, irritating characters, and then tuck that box away in the back of your closet behind the security of a gator-filled moat. Eventually, you too will wear out Mary Sue. And then she'll show you what a really great character she can be!! };)

Okay, confession time. I did write this one fan fiction story... and yes, Mary Sue is the star! Go read it. Right now!


  1. Hi Helen,

    Mary Sue's... sigh. That does take me back.

    I did the fanfiction thing for a little while before I moved on to original ficiton.

    Strangely enough considering the way fanfiction tends to go, and the way my original focition goes, all of my fanfiction stories were PG rated :o

    The thing is, while I make up Mary Sue stories in my head (a lot of them at times!), I've never been able to put them to paper - not even in fanfiction. I get bored with perfection way to quickly, lol.

    Take care,

    Kim Dare.

  2. Ah! I remember the plot bunnies!

    Excellent post, Helen. I do wonder how Mary Sue morphed into Diane Horner though. It seems like an awfully long way to go!


  3. Kim,

    Thank you! My Mary Sues were rarely rated below R! But there were a few who just led nice pleasant fantasy lives with nothing more exciting than the occasional chaste kiss. Funny how that happens.

    Lisabet, I know what you mean, the trip from Mary Sue to Diane Horner is a long one indeed, and I suppose I should add a few more details. But when I sat down to think about it, it seriously came down to, I wrote a heck of a lot of stories. I really did just wear Mary Sue out. There's only so many times a writer can write the same character without seeing some sort of character progression. I'll have to think a bit and see if I can add more to the description of that process later today, maybe add an addendum.

  4. LOL, what a hoot. You mean those perfect babes with their perfect guy friends, girlfriends aren't perfect?!

    I'm so shocked... course I'm laughing my ass off to cause I have a folder full of these ones. Wouldn't dare open it for fear of escaping ick!

    A lovely post Helen.


  5. Thank you Jude! I knew I wasn't the only one guilty of having such stories locked away in a secret place ;D

  6. Oh my god, Helen, your Torchwood-centered fan fic story was brilliant! Although Mary Sue wasn't really a proper Mary Sue at all!

    Brilliant post!