Most of the reviews were gushing, as you’d expect, but there were a few arguments on whether or not the main character, Rey, was a “Mary Sue” character.
It got me thinking. To me, a Mary Sue character is when the author places himself or herself in the story as one of the main characters and saves the day. Like the author is living out his fantasy or something.
But that’s not really what was going on in The Force Awakens, so what was the deal with all of the Mary Sue comments?
Well, let’s head on over to Wikipedia…
A Mary Sue or Gary Stu or Marty Stu is an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.
Okay, I get it now. Saves the day through unrealistic abilities? By that definition, Rey is not only a textbook Mary Sue character, she might as well change her name to Mary Sue Skywalker.
Anyhow, when it comes to writing fiction, we tend to focus more on the self-inclusion part of the Mary Sue definition. In fact, if you scroll further down in the Wikipedia entry, you’ll find:
“Mary Sue” today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment and is commonly associated with self-insertion. True self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author; most characters described as “Mary Sues” are not, though they are often called “proxies” for the author. The negative connotation comes from this “wish-fulfillment” implication: the “Mary Sue” is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting.
I couldn’t agree more, and that, in part, is where I intend to take this post.
The thing about writing fiction is that everything we write is a byproduct of our own experiences. No matter how fantastic the setting or exotic the character, everything we write comes from within our own heads and is therefore an extension of our own selves.
And that’s what can make it very difficult to avoid placing Mary Sue in the lead protagonist role.
Why Mary Sue is evil.
Fiction should not be an autobiography. When you are telling a story–creating characters, actions, setting, and plot–your job is to make it as believable as possible. It’s your job to be honest with your reader. The character you create should be realistic in every way, with talents and flaws that can make him or her someone the reader can relate to.
When you insert a Mary Sue, you run the risk of creating a protagonist that is no longer relatable to the reader; he’s relatable to you. When you serve the role of God (or maybe it could be better said “as Dungeon Master”) in your story, you need to look at the problems that need to be solved by the characters and have the characters themselves solve them.
In other words, don’t ever catch yourself writing a scene and asking yourself “What would I do?” Instead, you need to be asking yourself “what would your character do?”
Another problem with a Mary Sue character is that she can be distracting. I’m currently reading The Tommyknockers by Stephen King. Everything about the alcoholic poet Jim Gardener reminds me of King himself, to the point that the character looks just like Stephen King in my head. It’s distracting, an slightly annoying.
Perhaps the largest problem with Mary Sue is stated in the Wikipedia entry above; that the character may be poorly developed. I believe that to be the case. If you’re writing about yourself, you have nothing to learn about the character as the story progresses. How can a character grow and develop if you already know everything about him?
How to kill her.
Let me first talk about my novel, Holy Fudgesicles. From the minute it was first published, I was in fear that people would think that it was a story about me. That I was the narrator. And sadly, I brought that on myself. The casual first person narrative I use in the novel certainly does sound like me at times. At least as far as the prose and language are concerned.
Now, I bring this up because I see this as a huge problem for newer writers writing with a first person point of view. When you choose to write in the first person, you run a huge risk of your narrator sound exactly like you.
While you may not intentionally be creating a Mary Sue, your style of narration alone might turn your character into one. This is troubling to me personally because of all my published short stories, roughly a third of them are written in the first person and I wasn’t even aware of the fact that the narrator in each of those might simply sound like versions of myself.
I wasn’t aware of that, but you are now, so really take caution when you write in the first person.
Another way to kill Mary Sue is to actively write characters that are nothing like you. Try to be a little more diverse in your writing. Don’t go over the top with it, or fall into any stereotypes, but try it. If you feel like your main character is too much like you, then stop what you’re doing and rebuild him as somebody else.
Something else to consider comes with writing dialogue. When writing your character’s dialogue, try to write with any single person (who exists either in real life or in the imaginary land of TV and movies) who is not you. Don’t have characters say things you might say. Your best friend? Sure. Jack Bauer? Maybe. Leslie Neilsen? Definitely.
Finally, it’s like I said earlier, you have to create a real person that will grow, change, and develop throughout the novel. Think as that person, not as yourself writing that person and you should be fine.
Have you inadvertently written a Mary Sue character? What do you do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Leave a comment and let us know!