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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Even if she’s a shape-shifting, telepathic starship captain for the Fae, MARY SUE MUST DIE! by Carol A. Strickland

Mary Sue is such a lovely woman. She’s witty, extremely talented in multitudes of fields, gorgeous, and can rise to take command of any occasion. Everyone she’s ever spoken to, adores her without limit.

And that is why she must die, die, die!

According to the never-wrong Wikipedia, “A Mary Sue... is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. It is generally accepted as a character whose positive aspects overwhelm their other traits until they become one-dimensional.”

It was with immense horror that I recently retrieved an old manuscript from its “resting” drawer to discover that the heroine was a bona fide Mary Sue. Though she’d begun life as an introverted native of Earth—a rather backward planet in the galactic scheme of things—in this novel when she unexpectedly traveled off-planet she became a Grand Leader of Men (and Women), and deftly handled all things Intergalactic and mega-tech that faced her. The people around her stood slack-jawed in wonder at her marvelousness. And beauty, of course.

Insert heavy sigh here.

I never liked Star Trek TNG’s Wesley Crusher. He is usually cited as the perfect example of a male Mary Sue. Smirking sunnily, he could get the Enterprise out of any jam in which it found itself, tra la. The one episode that gave him a significant flaw occurred too late in the series for his salvation. To me he remained the Great God Wesley.

I do not want any Great God Wesleys in my books, nor do I want to read others’ books with him (or her) in it.

We deal with fantasy, even if it should get a bit scientific around the edges (what Heinlein termed “pseudo-scientific fantasy”). More importantly, we deal with characters and shaping stories around them. I’m a plotter; it took me far too long to admit that character is the most important part of a novel. A great character can set a reader’s imagination afire even when given a poor plot. The same can’t be said for the opposite.

A Mary Sue is a kind of shortcut character cliché, but more importantly she is cardboard. In her utter perfection, she has no weaknesses. She isn’t human.

Recently I read an FF&P novel that had received high praise. How surprising to find that the heroine was a blatant Mary Sue! Of course the triple-alpha hero (and his band of merry alpha men) adored her, but we really didn’t know the why of it, other than who wouldn’t adore Mary Sue? What made her particularly special to him? Why did he love her as a person instead of worship her from afar?

Worse, this particular Mary Sue reshaped herself according to plot needs. Since she held so little substance, the plot defined her instead of the other way around. If she began timid but then had to show P.T. Barnum-level chutzpah for the plot to progress, she easily did so. Then when the plot demanded that she be meek and helpless again, she did that.

This character didn’t go through a character arc. She morphed a handful of times, flip-flopping and never developing a real direction. She was never tested by anything because she was always an expert. As a result—and this is the worst of it—the reader never got a chance to root for her learning a new and better way to interact with her world. The reader couldn’t hold their breath and then celebrate the final breakthrough with her. She was perfect in the beginning as well as the end and all points in between. Where’s the fun for the reader in that? Where’s the entertainment?

A great character should reveal definite faults and limitations so that the reader can identify with them. Not necessarily with the same exact faults, but with the shared humanity that those faults imply.

In the same way that the story shifts through its phases from Act I through the Big Black Moment and into the climax and resolution, the characters in it need to grow, returning in the final act to the original plot question to view and react to it differently.

To misquote Spock: the needs of the character outweigh the needs of the plot and the original story outline/idea. Just because Mary Sue has to get from Altair to Vega by Sunday doesn’t mean that in addition to all the other marvelous things she can do, she should have graduated top of her class in starship navigation. Instead, she can encounter problems trying to find a pilot who will get her to Vega on time. Perhaps he’ll teach her a little navigation along the way so that when next she needs to be somewhere, maybe to save his kidnapped hide, she can muddle through by herself. Or not. Perhaps, defying the original premise, the character will rebel to learn her story lesson better and much more entertainingly by not traveling to Vega at all. She can thumb her nose at where the plot wants her to go. She can force it to follow her in new directions.

The plot should support her arc and hint of multiple possible paths for her. (An entertaining heroine will of course choose the most difficult one.) A plot shouldn’t pick her up and transport her to her goal while she sits around in cushioned comfort eating bon bons.

The character also needs to “share the wealth.” For my own precious Mary Sue, I’ve already made notes to make her less skilled—in fact, completely clueless in many areas—to allow the colorful characters around her to show off their own talents while she sits back to learn from/appreciate them. Instead of coming up with the entire idea of how to prevent a world invasion by bluffing the enemy, she can say something that gives Our Hero the idea of a bluff, and then add her own ideas along the way of how they can play aspects of the game. This not only lessens the Mary Sue-ishness, but gives Our Hero more spotlight time, allows Our Heroine still to have an active hand in the deviousness, and gets them to share on many levels in formatting a plan—which may lead later to sharing hijinks in bed!

So if it’s true that character is the most important element of a book (it is!), and that Mary Sues are cardboard characters without depth and thus diminish the entertainment a reader wants when they hit that “buy” button—We should all set our cursors to “kill.” Death to our own Mary Sues!


Thanks, Rebecca Zanetti, for having me here today!

Blurb for Applesauce and Moonbeams, whose hero and heroine are both rather hopeless non-Mary Sues:

After a hit man blasts telepathic psychiatrist David Lumen’s mind into the body of a pampered kitty on its way home to the moon, David’s desperate plan to make himself whole again is hampered by his new feline life. The only person close enough to communicate with is struggling avant-garde artist, Pippin Applegate.

Pippin has problems of her own. The Fashion Police ticket her unmercifully for appearing disheveled in public, even though her accidents are never quite her fault. Her aunt is pressuring her to quit art and become VP of the family’s Lunar apple business. And now Pippin has to deal with a telepathic cat?
Together they spot David’s body walking around... with the hit man’s mind inside. Can David regain his true body when it’s leaving a trail of chaos and murder that leads to Pippin’s make-or-break art show?

About the author:

When you think of fiction's strong women and strange worlds, think Carol A. Strickland. Carol has published four novels, three of which are FF&P. She has also become an award-winning painter from her home in North Carolina. She exercises this skill in her secondary hours (both of them) along with writing as she waits for the lottery to free her 9-to-5 time to more fulfilling pursuits.
The e-versions of her books are inexpensive. Carol reminds all that readers who post honest online reviews get a free pass into Heaven (if needed). http://www.carolastrickland.com/fiction/index.html


EilisFlynn said...

Mary Sue would be tolerable if she had more personality flaws...but if she did, she wouldn't be Mary Sue! Good reminder, Carol, and a good post!

Carol A. Strickland said...

Thanks, Eilis!

Who's your least favorite (or favorite) Mary Sue?

We're having a little discussion on Facebook now about whether Bella Swan is a Mary Sue. She's gorgeous enough to fit a primary M.S. rule, but completely inept until the final bit where she becomes the Total Warrior. However, we're arguing whether in Bella's ineptitude she reveals herself overflowingly adept from start to finish at attracting gorgeous men to fulfill all her needs without her lifting a finger. That would be a Mary Sue.

Cathryn Cade said...


this is truly one of the best essays I've read on why it's crucial for our heroes and heroines to have flaws.

thanks so much for sharing your wisdom!

Cathryn Cade

Mona Karel said...

Way back, before I knew of Mary Sue...heck before I knew of RWA, I had a friend's husband read my first book. He praised the fact that I'd finished the book since his writing friends had agonized for years over the first chapter (page!) of their opus/opuses/opi(?). But he pointed out in his ex truck driver way: "She's gorgeous and has her dream job; he's handsome, rich, and has a huge family ranch. So who gives a [fill in with your choice]?"
I didn't have an answer, since this is a typical romance plot. But it resonated with me to the extent I avoided Mary Sue before I even met her! Having now encountered her far too often in books and shows, I continue to be amazed at her existence.

Paula said...

Excellent article, Carol! It seems to me that Mary Sue's tend to show their perfect faces in many new writers' manuscripts, including my own. The main character in my first story started out as a Mary Sue, except... he was a guy. But in every other way, he was a true Mary Sue. Fortunately my husband opened my eyes by saying, "Why should I worry about him? He's Superman." At which point I deleted everything I'd written (all five chapters) and started over again.

Thank you for the words of wisdom! And it's always nice to hear from another NC writer. I live in Statesville, and do a little art on the side as well!

Thank you, Carol!

Paula H