Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Hunt for Mary Sue

The Culpepper Hunt,
John J. Porter.
oil on canvas, c. 1858.

Is your heroine beautiful? Sexy? Admired? Extraordinarily competent?

You sad little sod.

Without doubt you have created a Mary Sue.

Or so say some critics.

I'm getting tired of these endlessly negative classifications.

If the jibing genre mavens stuck to criticism of superficial stereotype, the inevitable lack of genuine conflict, etc., I'd concede the censorship was just, though every superior character is not automatically a Mary Sue.

Too often, however, the savants predicate their definitions on ad hominem presumptions about other writers. That strong and personable hero/ines are entirely the product of wannabe, wish-fullment - alter egos of pallid, perpetual incompetents - rather than merely, but not necessarily, an amateur stage in a progressive skill.

They seem to assert, if your hero/ine is lovely, talented and sexy, you're fugly, impossibly awkward and barked at by neighborhood dogs. You are fan-ficing a dream-self. And you are to confess and be re-educated, and follow the Light.
Back away from the Star Wars conventions, people. All writers don't fit that stereotype.

Sometimes, such lists seem more elitist, ha-ha-finger-pointing-let's-dump-on-everyone than useful.

OxyJen, who mentioned Mary Sue's a few posts ago, with links, is a promising new blog.


kmfrontain said...

I'm of the mind that if the character is nice looking, fine. We like nice looking. That's the way people are. But shallow characters are definitely out. Characters complicated with too much "think" on their sucky lives, are out (this seems to be a way for some authors to pretend they didn't make a Mary Sue). I'm more worried that the character has sufficient challenge, whatever his or her native gifts, for the plot to be interesting.

kmfrontain said...

BTW, I didn't look up this term until yesterday, when it showed up on ERWF. Somehow, I managed to miss every introduction to Mary Sue the last few years. Funny circumstance, but probably a good thing, because I don't like terms that end up being used to put down characters that are actually well written, even if they are better than average, or more gifted than average.

Anonymous said...

There are lots of beautiful people in the world. Creating a character that is full of great traits is okay in my opinion. As long as it is a good story.

Bernita said...

Quite, Karen!
Does it matter if the hero/ine overcomes all challenges, as long as those challenges are sufficiently interesting?
And internal angst is sometimes more complication than conflict, as you say.

Seems the only acceptable protagonist is a klutzy geek - if one takes the condemnation to the extreme.

"As long as it is a good story"
Exactly, Steve.

Ric said...

Non-writing beta readers ALWAYS look for the author/friend/writer to put himself into the story.

It is nearly impossible for that first/second/third attempt to not include a few "this is how I would have done it if given a second chance" moments. Which makes Mary Sue the champion we all know we could be.

I can see the criticism - in many cases, clearly indicated.

And don't we all view ourselves as that superman?

Rick said...

Dumas is supposed to have said that D'Artagnan was the man he wished to be, which is pretty much the definition of a Mary Sue. We should do half so well in creating a character!

Anyway, isn't the whole point of Romance AKA "the genres" the reader's wish fulfillment? The only test is the good old willing suspension of disbelief.

Bailey Stewart said...

My heroine has flaws, just like I do.

I know in romances a lot of readers put themselves in the place of the heroine - so they would want to be beautiful, flawless, intelligent, etc.

Charles Gramlich said...

I remember being irritated in the same way when critics said that the only readers of heroic fantasy characters such as Conan were pimply faced adolescent males with power fantasies. Perhaps some are, but not everyone has to enjoy a piece of literature for the same reasons.

bunnygirl said...

The problem isn't that a character can't or shouldn't be attractive, talented, or whatever. A Mary Sue, IMO, is one who is excessively so, for no credible reason.

Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are brilliant, but that doesn't make them Gary Stu characters.

The real issue is whether or not all the good stuff adds up to a cliche or flat character. If you've dumped every trait you wish you had into a character, she's probably a Mary Sue. But merely having green eyes, talent, beauty and a favorite cat isn't going to do it.

A Mary Sue is more than just the trappings, it's something that goes deep to the (absent) soul of the character.

Gabriele C. said...

Lol, I'm a 45 year old woman and enjoy the Conan stories. :)

Larger than life is ok for a hero(ine) in certain genres, as long as they don't win every fight.

Jaye Wells said...

Maybe this argument could be turned around on the critics. Perhaps they themselves are the fugly ones, whose only joy in life is criticizing others to make themselves feel better.

Bernita said...

"Non-writing beta readers ALWAYS look for the author/friend/writer to put himself into the story"
Some writers deliberately encourage that, Ric.
I tend to agree with PBW in that you're selling a story, not your ass.

Good example, Rick. It's not the transference/idealism alone that makes a Mary Sue.

"Flaws" doesn't mean weak or incompetent, Bailey.

Yes, Charles. Sometimes, the claims sound more like a "y'all suck" vendetta in support of a mere difference in taste.

"A Mary Sue is more than just the trappings, it's something that goes deep to the (absent) soul of the character."
Well said, Bunny.

Bernita said...

I enjoy them too, Gabriele!
Without apology.

At times, one may catch a whiff of that in some of the carp, Jaye - that they simply don't approve of hero/ines at heart.

Kate Thornton said...

I am going to be more interested in a character with one or two good points about them and a whole bucket of quirky or unattractive things about them than in a character who is some super paragon of smart, beautiful, strong, tender, intelligent, yadda-yadda.

Beautiful & smart is as far as I would go - and that is a helluva stretch for the average person. That smart beauty had better have some major drawback or she's not going to be believable.

You don't need a klutzy geek; you do need a hero/heroine who has at least some of the same human foibles we all have. Nice looking is fine, but think about it before nice-looking turns into the "everything I ever wanted to be myself and then some."

Bunnygirl said it with the "absent soul."

A Mary Sue is more than a pail of charm and talent - there has to be more missing in the story for Mary Sue to emerge.

I like the idea that awareness of the Mary Sue syndrome may help writers to avoid shallow characters and unnecessary action in favor of development and a sound story.

As always, Bernita - great topic!

Bonnie Calhoun said...

We wouldn't read about ugly people...that's why most of Hollywood is so beautiful!

That's kinda sad, because people are reaching to be something that is not real, but air-brushed and filtered!

Even when your talking about abilities or personalities...nobody want s to read about the ordinary!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.

Dave said...

Gee - Ugly characters -
How about Lennie Briscoe on Law and Order. Not a person I would call pretty. A rare exception to the supposed rule of pretty or not pretty but interesting.

Bernita said...

She can be anthing, Kate, but she must be intelligent on some level for me!

Ordinary, we see everyday, Bonnie. It's the elusive, exclusive we want; and that was so for characters long before television.

Meant to be helpful, Seely, but, inevitably, the advice becomes a broad stick to beat writers with.

Bernita said...

Men have always been allowed more latitude in the looks department, Dave.

Erik Ivan James said...

I usually describe my women characters as beautiful, sexy, comptent, etc. Why? Because I genuinely like women and focus on their strengths instead of their flaws.

None of us are perfect in looks and appeal. We all have our blemishes which I prefer to ignore. We all also have our attractive attributes, and those are the ones I prefer to describe.

And for the critics, I sure as hell am not a hunk. But I sure as hell am not fugly either---I'm not "too" disappointed when I look in the mirror each morning to shave.

Scott from Oregon said...

I would guess the other drawback to describing beauty in a character, is that since most lead characters ARE described as beautiful, the descriptors have all been used to death.

Bernita said...

A charming approach, Erik.
And I'm sure you are a "hunk."
I'be heard that Lee Child is a "hunk," too.
Actually, if one examines the available photos of various writers, one finds many and many don't fail in the looks department - so the "wish-fullfillment" angle does not compute for either men or woman.
Perhaps they just write what they perceive the reader wants - a hero/ine.

But language is both our tool and our challenge, Scott.

Jon M said...

Am I right in assuming that this may be a case of 'damned if you do and damnred if you don't?' ie: They'll criticise if your characters is a Mary Sue and if they aren't then something else will be wrong? The character has to work with the story and obstacles/crises can vary but it would seem pointless to add a whole list of flaws to a character just for the sake of dodging a label.

Bernita said...

Always, Jon.
You just have to pick your "damns."
The one that sets me muttering is known as the TSTL heroine - Too Stupid To Live.
I'll take a Mary Sue any day over that one.

LadyBronco said...


TSTL - I hate books with heroines like that.

My main female character is a lot like me - sarcastic, speaks her mind whether you like it or not, dry sense of humor, loyal, and stubborn as all get out when the situation calls for it.

She's taller, though.

spyscribbler said...

"They seem to assert, if your hero/ine is lovely, talented and sexy, you're fugly, impossibly awkward and barked at by neighborhood dogs. You are fan-ficing a dream-self."

Yikes! I'm starting to think that's me! My characters are all my heroes, and I always wish I could be them! (Except when I'm putting them through hell, that is.)

Well, I'm not impossibly awkward.

Bernita said...

If that's a Mary Sue, Lady B., give us more Mary Sues!

Hee, Natasha!
I've often thought being a hero/ine would be a major pain in the ass.