Writer’s Workshop Wednesday

I prevented last week’s post from turning into a rant on Mary Sues by the skin of my teeth, and I have been chomping at the bit (is that mixing my metaphors? They’re both tooth-related) ever since to write this one and really devote myself to the rant. Although I usually attempt to ease myself into the post with a humorous intro, this week, I’m gonna cannonball right in the deep end (now I’m mixing them) and get to it. So without further ado, it’s time for—

Fans Who Fic

Part Five

The Curse of Mary Sue

So what is a Mary Sue? The male variant is called Gary Stu or Marty Stu, although my mom called him a Marty Steve, mostly because there was a guy in her Star Trek LARP-ing group named Steve and his fanfiction was legendarily awful, thanks to overpowered OCs. But I digress. I think most of us can recognize one when reading easier than we can explain what makes one, but I’ll try.

A Mary Sue is a fictional character, most often associated with fanfiction although her perfect head can pop up in any medium, who serves as a kind of self-insert wish-fulfillment on the part of the author. In fantasy otherworld stories, they are often inexplicably from modern-day Earth, and just magically teleported to the hero’s world, where everyone who meets her instantly loves her and wants to protect her.

The theme of rescue/nurture as a means of character introduction is stupidly common, with Mary either being ‘saved’ by the hero or Mary nursing the wounded hero back to health, pretty much just so they can be alone together with one of them in a state of semi-undress, on a bed, with lots of staring into one another’s eyes, and sexual tension simmering beneath the surface of vulnerability. Without the hero, Mary would die. Without Mary, the hero would die.

Their actions within the story’s frame are usually portrayed as pivotal, yet are little more than narrative devices to push Mary Sue and the canon characters together. For example, Mary is The Chosen One of prophecy, or has vague information desperately needed by the villain but which she herself may not consciously know, or she has some world-ending power that she can’t yet control. Pretty much the point of the story is Mary has to go somewhere or do something that is only tacitly addressed at the end of the book because the REAL point was to have Mary wander around being incredibly powerful and desirable and also lost and unhappy except in the hero’s arms.

Mary is beautiful, although she’s usually totally unaware of how gorgeous she is. The hero is instantly drawn to her, the villain is obsessed with her, and pretty much everyone she meets rotates around her in a cloud of mingled loyalty and concern. She’s often an orphan or has an abusive home life (from which the hero rescues her). If she does have a loving parent, God help them, because they’re only there so they can dramatically die. She’s brilliant, absolutely the best at everything she does, except those things that are just so hard for her that the hero has to do them for her. If she has flaws at all, it’s usually charming clumsiness, charming forgetfulness, or bad luck taken to a charming extreme, but most often, her ‘flaws’ are the mean girls who she’s nothing like who instantly hate her and want to ruin her life.

In the unlikely event that they are not portrayed as uber blackbelt badasses from the start, they are shown as strong-willed, yet ultra-compassionate, so pure of heart that the hero is drawn to her instantly. They rarely have to deal with real-world consequences of their well-intentioned actions and are often given way more respect and attention than they earn. Every little thing that Mary does is painted with a halo. Something as simple as throwing a backyard barbeque is portrayed as an act of courage and is both rewarded and punished far out of proportion to the deed. She will sacrifice everything she has by the end of the book, necessitating that the hero swoop in and save her in a showy demonstration of his equally over-the-top love and devotion.

In short, she’s just the worst.

Now let’s take a look at some of the notes I took at the last writing convention I attended. The topic of the seminar was How To Write A Great Hero.

A hero should be attractive (not necessarily physically good-looking), fit, strong, sympathetic, kind, reasonable, loyal, self-controlled, intelligent, aware of his flaws, an active participant in his story, and always seeking to do better.

A hero should have a talent or power that others lack or be the best at something, more than anyone else around them. Naturally, he shouldn’t be the best at everything, but his inner circle should make up for whatever the hero lacks, and their talents should be an extension of the hero’s. Hermione may be smarter than Harry, but it’s Harry who decides when to use what she’s learned.

No hero is an island! Even the Lone Wolf type has contacts in powerful places loyal to the hero. In fact, every character within the hero’s inner circle And the hero is always faithful. If there is betrayal in the inner circle, it is always the hero’s friend at fault, never the hero. If the hero rejects his friends, it is always due to a misunderstanding or manipulation by a villain (Smeagol and the Ring twisting Frodo until he sent Sam away). In romance, the hero is always monogamous and faithful once he meets the heroine, regardless of his past attitudes.

A hero should be representative of humanity as a whole. If a mythic hero type, then be sure to show everyday struggles. If an everyday hero type, then be sure to show that he aspires to an ideal.

When creating flaws, be sure to keep your hero on the ‘right’ side of wrong. Know the difference between a commander and an asshole, stubbornness and stupidity. If a hero is arrogant, it should always be justified, because he really is the best (Sherlock Holmes never apologizes for his attitude nor should he; his contemporaries should be embarrassed to be ignorant in his presence). Avoid relying upon unsympathetic weaknesses such as substance abuse or sexual deviancy. Even a hero’s flaws should be strengths.

Yeah, that was my expression, too.

So…on one hand we have Mary Sue, who is good-looking and just the best and has lots of friends even if she’s an outsider and the whole story revolves around here and that’s bad. On the other hand, we have The Hero, who is attractive and the best and has powerful friends even if he’s an outsider and the whole story revolves around him and…that’s good?

Okay, look. Mary Sues DO exist and they ARE annoying, but I think a lot of characters, especially in fanfiction and particularly-especially if they’re female, get the Scarlet M sewn to their chest unfairly.

My advice? Be aware of the pitfalls—making OCs too perfect, too pretty, too reasonable, and too important—but also be aware that hyper-vigilance is just as much of a trap. Nothing ruins a good story like overthinking it. It’s okay for your hero to be the hingepin of a story. That’s what heroes are—the primary character. But if that’s their role, they need to earn it. That’s true of every book, but in fanfiction, with OC’s, it’s especially important. I’ve said before that OCs in the hero-role should not be considered a book-breaker just ‘cuz. We, the fans, are the outsider in every fandom. It’s a role to which we can all relate. In fandoms with an established episodic theme, there is nothing more natural than having a beautiful stranger appear out of nowhere and dominate that episode’s plot. It’s okay to do that in fanfiction. The problem is, you can’t just tell the reader, “This is the most interesting character;” You have to prove it.

So here we go, R Lee Smith’s Three Simple Rules for Avoiding the Mary Sue Label (Bearing In Mind That Literally Every Last One of My Female Heros Has Been Called A Mary Sue At Least Once, But I Don’t Agree So I’m Still Qualified To Set Guidelines, But Just, You Know, Be Aware):

First and foremost, remember this:

I apologize for the nightmares I just gave you, but it’s still the best advice. You are not perfect. No one is. And people who think they are, no matter how sincerely they are presented, just piss off everyone around them. It’s like a people-version of the uncanny valley; we can just sense that ‘that ain’t right’ and are repelled, no matter how well-intentioned the idea was. Real people have serious flaws. They are uncomfortable and off-putting, but they are necessary to the development of a character that feels real. Ignorance is what makes discovery thrilling; being lost is what makes coming home so sweet; risk of failure is what defines success. So yes, by all means, give your character strengths, but give her weaknesses as well and don’t sugar-coat them. Perfection is not something we necessarily want to see in a character.

This brings me to my second tip: Don’t focus too heavily on looks. Some of the most attractive people I’ve ever seen are not what anyone would call stunning beauties, and those that are often come down to one or two remarkable features that augments, rather than defines, whatever ‘it’ is that makes them attractive. In true Disney-fried fashion, it’s who they are, not how they look that really matters. Your OC can be pretty, but avoid making her the most beautiful woman the other characters have ever seen, and if you can’t avoid that, at least don’t make that a substitute for a personality! We are attracted to others based on their looks, and that’s fine, that’s only natural, but we fall in love with people. Think about what you find sexy and once you get past the purely physical traits like nice eyes, strong collarbones, dat booty…

…dexterous tentacles…

…you’ll probably find things like a sense of humor, stability, confidence, compassion or an air of command. Those are the things you want to focus on (but not all of them; see Rule Number One).

Thirdly, if you beat her up, let her wear the scars and make sure they leave a lasting mark. Time and again, you see the Cinderella-type, who, although impoverished and forced to endure grueling hardships, has soft hands, an unblemished complexion, and more astoundingly, can fit right in with the upper classes without effort or resentment (her purity and disingenuous ways are usually what attracts the jaded billionaire who falls in love with her). If the villain subjects her to torture, she bounces right back, with the only lasting effects being nightmares, easily soothed away in her lover’s arms. She can joke around in a firefight, make out over a twitching zombie’s severed arm, and generally skip unscathed through the very worst that Life can throw at her, emerging even stronger and more beautiful at the end. Yeah, great, but in the real world, actions have consequences and people hold grudges. If she gets hurt, it will take time to heal and the scars may not all be physical. If she used to be in the villain’s inner circle, she will not and may never be welcomed without suspicion by the good guys. If she slaps a guy—I cannot say this enough—she should not be surprised to get slapped back, and let me tell you, that’s going to hurt her a whole lot more than she hurt him. She needs to be aware of that before she throws that slap, and if she wasn’t, she needs to remember it afterwards. You can’t just go through life throwing slaps around willy-nilly.

In this country, we solve our problems with guns!

As a writer, it’s easy and often tempting to let my character ‘win’ at every conflict, but that is the very worst thing I could do. It is my responsibility to knock her down from time to time. Beat her up. Feed her insecurities. Lead her down dark paths and leave her to find her way out alone. When she makes mistakes, don’t clean them up for her or be too quick to pile on the forgiveness. Make her apologize. Make her suffer some consequences. Oh, and when she does everything right in spite of the odds, let her fail anyway. In books, as in life, it’s how we react when things don’t go our way that best show our characters.

And if you do all this and someone still calls your character a Mary Sue…well, so what? Can’t please ’em all.

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2 responses to “Writer’s Workshop Wednesday

  1. I was waiting for this rant, it always irritated me when people scream Mary sue for a book that didn’t warrant it. Every character has Mary sue traits, its when they take over the story and its nothing more than a shallow ego stroke when it becomes a problem. Even then a well written ego stroke can be a good read!

    • Absolutely. Especially in fantasy or supernatural-genre works, where we, as readers/viewers/whathaveyou, came to it from the outside, so to speak, NOTHING is more natural than to introduce a brand-new character through whom others can relive that sense of discovery. I’m not just saying that because I’m writing an OC-heavy series, either. I personally think even fanfiction should be able to stand alone as a work, meaning anyone, even non-fans, should be able to pick up that book and follow the story. It’s hard to do that without an outsider OC meeting canon characters for the first time.

      It’s only when she’s better than all of them at everything and everyone loves her that it becomes annoying.

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