Saturday, May 23, 2009

When Is An Original Character A Mary Sue?

At Kelly's new blog, Crossover, Twilight was being discussed and someone mentioned how Bella is a Mary Sue. Gail Gauthier at Original Content takes up the question, How Do I Avoid Writing Mary Sue?

So my question is, how do you identify a Mary Sue in an original book, when he or she is not in a fanfic context?

Wesley Crusher is often pointed to as a Mary Sue. And this is probably why, to put it mildly, there are fans who don't like him. From Wikipedia, "A "canon Sue" may also refer to a character whose canon portrayal itself is seen as a "Mary Sue", rather than a character who has been altered in fan fiction. Typically, this refers to a character accused of being overly idealized or having other traits traditionally associated with fan fiction "Mary Sues", such as being "special" by having a gratuitously tragic past, unrealistic skills, or a seeming inability for the character to do wrong." The Urban Dictionary has an amusing list of the various ways Mary Sue can manifest.

JL Bell, in comments to Gail's post, cautions,"I'm seeing some Mary Sue witch-hunting out there. People have learned so strongly that Mary Sues are a sign of bad writing that they stamp the label on characters too quickly. Any sympathetic, capable character might be labeled a Mary Sue, which would leave out a lot of the heroes of literature. And suggesting that an author who expresses a sympathy of feeling or outlook for a character is inserting a Mary Sue is to miss a major point of storytelling: authors are supposed to be able to understand all their characters."

I don't think a "sympathetic" character is a bad thing; but thinking the way to create a sympathetic character is via a tragic backstory? Is bad writing. You know what I mean -- "she's an orphan! so now she's sympathetic, right?" Um. No.

Keep in mind, "overly idealized" does not necessarily mean perfect; often the way the character is kept from being perfect is to be given a negative trait. However, if that trait is turned into another reason to lurv the character? It doesn't stop the overly-idealized. Yes, I'm talking Bella's clumsiness.

Gratuitously tragic past means the past tragedy has nada to do with the present situation, except to make the reader/other characters feel sorry for that character and "feeling sorry" translates immediately into "liking them and being friends." Bina in Madonna's English Roses series (her Mom's dead? Oh, now we're her friends!).

Unrealistic skills. This is why Ally Carter's Cami is NOT a Mary Sue. Within the context of the Gallagher Academy, Cami's skills are not unrealistic; plus, she's surrounded by people who share the same skill set, sometimes doing it better than she does.

Inability for the character to do wrong.

OK, so that's Wikipedia for you.

When you're reading an original story, what about it sets off your Mary Sue Radar? What book?

For me, a big thing is usually when a "plain Jane" girl has a "too cool for school" boy instantly fall for her for no apparent reason. But, frankly, it comes down to poor characterization. The Mary Sue never becomes a real, breathing character; rather, she or he is a list of characteristics and back story. The "inability to do wrong" means not that the character always makes the right choices; but, rather, her choices are never questioned and always championed by the author and the other characters.

EDITED TO ADD: I had no idea there was a Mary Sue discussion over at TOR. I'm linking to it now and off to read it myself. Also, the conversation continues at Gail's blog, link above.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy


Wendy said...

I was mystified when someone wrote a goodreads review for Impossible that read only: "I hate Mary Sues forever". Lucy never once struck me as a Mary Sue, just as a nice, intelligent, relatable girl. Canonical Mary Sues a. don't seem like real people to me, and b. don't leave room for any other characters to do anything. The first example I think of is Ayla in the Clan of the Cave Bear books, after the first one. (I have GOT to stop citing COTCB all over the internet, or people are going to think I'm a Fan.)

Anonymous said...

I read that Wikipedia article once and it really kind of freaked me out. It seemed that the standards it set for MarySue-dom were WAY too, well, like ANY character could be a Mary Sue depending on how people looked at it. I decided the term ought to be applied only to fanfiction characters that are clearly wish-fulfillment based. Actual books with characters with similar traits to Mary Sues couldn't actually have Mary Sues, they just had boring or unbelievable characters, and for an author to be accused of writing such a character, the character better CLEARLY suck-- not some of the famous characters they list here that happen to have some "Mary Sue" ish traits! Calling a character a Mary Sue implies that you know the author's secret intentions in creating that character, which isn't fair. But maybe I am just reacting gutturally to something I don't really understand, and it isn't a big deal after all. But on the whole I agree with JL Bell, and it's an overused term people use to describe any character they don't like....

tanita✿davis said...

I've never thought that this one is limited to fan fiction -- but I like the term "wish-fulfillment" character. Mainly because that's the only way a Mary Sue could exist -- in someone's dreams... definitely not a real and fleshed-out character at all.

Thanks for the heads-up on the conversation!

Gail Gauthier said...

When the whole point of a book is to set up a woman who becomes the beloved of a well-known type of male hero (a hot vampire, for instance) or an established male character, I hear Mary Sue calling. For me, Mary Sue is a female character women readers want to identify with because she's so wonderful that the romantic monster, the brilliant detective, the wealthy rogue, whatever, recognizes that she is the only woman for him, the one he's been waiting for.

Steph Bowe said...

Head here:
(Not related to the post, sorry..)

Sarah Stevenson said...

Great post & discussion--I'll have to head over to Gail's and read the rest, but I just wanted to echo what everyone's saying about the Wikipedia definition of a Mary Sue perhaps being a bit too broad to be useful (or even fair). I agree that good, fleshed-out, realistic characterization is probably the biggest key to avoiding Mary-Sue-dom, and trying to avoid using a trope when you could be giving your character uniqueness and depth.

Liz B said...

I do see Mary Sue's in original work; but I also agree with a. fortis, that sometimes "mary sue" is used over broad. Not every annoying character, or even obvious author stand in, is a Mary Sue. The Bridges of Madison County was ruined for me, in part, when I realized the author had described himself as the main character; but when something is so deliberate, I don't think it is MS. On the other hand, some books have main characters that start out normal enough yet become "overly perfect" during a series to the point of almost being a MS (but I think ovelry perfect is a better description): Dirk Pitt from Clive Cussler, and Kay Scarpetta.

Anonymous said...

Wendy, that is my goodreads review of Impossible, and I said a lot more about why I didn't like the book than just hating Mary Sues.

As for my opinion on whether or not Lucy is a Mary Sue, I made that statement after reading an interview with the author where she went on and on about her love life, and given that the book was seemingly about this fairy tale/family curse and somehow dissolved into page after page of young love with a little curse stuff thrown in, it did seem like there was some wish fulfillment/author stand-in stuff going on there. Hence my Mary Sue comment. But it was truly only one of MANY issues I had with the book.

Wendy said...

Definitely wasn't your review, thatames, unless you modified it and it was originally one sentence. Probably it wasn't on goodreads, then--because it was the review being only one sentence that struck me.