Do you know the term “Mary Sue?” I am sure most of you have at least heard this term in passing, but just in case, the Mary Sue character is an idealized, almost entirely perfect main character.
The Mary Sue character originated in a Star Trek parody by Paula Smith in 1973. It was shortly thereafter defined as “the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three,” meaning, Spock, Kirk, or McCoy.
The idea is associated with the author surrogate technique; a literary technique in which a character expresses the ideas, questions, personality, and morality of the author; but it goes beyond the author surrogate idea, wandering into the realm of no personality and a complete lack of complexity. And it is not just female characters, as male characters can also fall into this realm of unbelievability, though they are not quite as criticized as their female counterpart; James Bond and Indiana Jones anyone?
Whether male or female, the Mary Sue/Marty Stu idea (from now on the MS phenomenon) takes away from the fundamentals of good writing.
As a student of literature, I spent years psychoanalyzing the reason behind character actions, writing papers as if the novel/poem/short story character was a real person with real psychological issues. There is plenty of tongue-in-cheek references to this idea that English students analyze stories much more than what the author originally thought, which is likely true most of the time, but the study of literature is the study of humanity. We might analyze a piece of writing to death, looking for the hidden meaning because there really are truths hidden in the depths, even if the author did not intend that to be the case.
You see, characters are reflections of the author’s world, even if the author does not intend for them to fulfill that role. Without meaning to, we write what we know even if we are writing in an entirely imaginative space. We cannot help translating our lives into the world of our stories, and as such, students of literature are able to delve into times and places they might not otherwise be able.
It is the brilliance of literature.
That being said, this way of studying humanity is valid unless one comes across a MS character, which happens on occasion. A MS character, in its truest form, will detract and can severely lessen a piece of writing. Some of my peers argue that even MS characters have something to tell us about society (very interesting example of MS characters in 1500 century monastic literature and how that reflects idealistic God traits), but overwhelmingly MS characters are a mark of lazy writing.
Too harsh? Perhaps, but that is my take on the technique.
How to Avoid the Mary Sue
As writers, then, how do we avoid writing an MS character? Many of you might know the answer already: create flawed characters. But one must be cautious here. I have experience in this as I have been known to create female characters that are a little too complex, a little too flawed in an attempt to avoid the MS phenomenon.
To avoid either extremes this is what I have developed through the years:
- Base your characters on real people. I know! This is not supposed to happen, we have all read the statements at the beginning of books that states that all characters are fictional, but there is no better way to create reality then base your characters on real people. Mix it up, as to not identify a character too much with a real person, the idea being to study humanity around you. Study the traits of your significant other, your child, your mother and father, or your cousin. What does your best friend do when he/she meets someone they do not like? What is the reaction of your co-worker when they are given a promotion or are fired? Study the complexity of life so you can, in turn, write about it.
- Study historical figures. One of the hardest things for me to do is create realistic villains. We have countless examples of superhero bad guys, with all of their lack of complexity; however, real life villains are a gold mine of interesting traits. Pick someone like Hitler, a bad guy if there ever was one, and then study his mindset. Why did he do what he did? What were his reasons? The wonderful thing about living in a postmodern age is that there are scholars writing about these type things. Find out the complexity of historical characters and use them in your own writing.
- Write the character’s stories out. Take your character out of the story and write him/her as they were when they were a child. Make it a complete story, as if you were writing for publication with all the nuances and attention to detail that you would give to a regular piece. I tend to sketch out my character’s lives, but I rarely want to take the time to write a complex back story; though when I do, the character is so much richer and believable. And, who knows, maybe those back stories will one day sell.
Still a Place for Mary Sue
Of course, as with all things, there can be a time and place for MS characters. I have read beautifully done parodies in which the MS characters are used to great effect, and if you are talented enough to do this kind of writing, do it! I am, sadly, not that talented in the area of parody so I must be aware of the MS characters in my writing, as is likely the case for most writers. Awareness is key. Be aware of your characters and how they fit into your story. Don’t do lazy; color in the characters, breathe life into them, and your writing will immediately elevate to another level.
What about you? Do you like using MS characters for fun? How do you avoid falling into the MS traps? Do you find your characters are reflections of you, or those around you?