Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Where Are You, Mary Sue?

Salon has a terrific post up about the Mary Sue in Original Fiction.

In A reader's advice to writers: Beware of Mary Sue, Laura Miller writes a great essay explaining what a Mary Sue is and how she has crept out of fanfiction and into published books.

I have so many favorite lines from Miller's essay:

"Whenever a character serves as an improved or idealized version of his or her author, as a vehicle for the author's fantasies of power, allure, virtue or accomplishment rather than as an integral part of the story, that character is a Mary Sue."

Right there, ladies and gentlemen, is a key definition of a Mary Sue: things about her are not an important part of the story. I would add another element here: when the tragic backstory (usually involving death of family members, torture, or rape) has nothing to do with the present story? Entering Mary Sue land.

"Because genre fiction tends to trade in wish fulfillment to begin with, you're far more likely to find shameless Mary Sues in mediocre mysteries, science fiction and romance novels. Even in the most routine series fiction, however, there's a distinction between the kind of character who embodies the fantasies of readers -- Nancy Drew, for example -- and a character who's really only working for the author."

I'm a genre reader; I'm proud of it. But I totally agree that Mary Sues are easy to find in genre. I don't read enough literary fiction to say how often she pops up there, but lit fiction has its own issues and weak spots, so lit fiction and genre are even when it comes to strengths and weaknesses. I've rarely seen such a succinct (and obvious!) explanation of why a character becomes a Mary Sue rather than, say, a Harry Potter -- it's a character who is the author's fantasy, rather than the reader's.

Man, I keep on wanting to quote over and over and over. There's this: "Instead of contributing to the seamless fictional experience readers want from a book, this character, they sense, is really a daydream the author is having about herself. It's an imposition, being unwittingly enlisted in somebody else's narcissistic fantasy life, like getting flashed in the park. And just about as much fun." I'm giggling here, because I sometimes think of Mary Sue books as being literary masturbation, where the author is only concerned about their own pleasure.

Miller ends with a question that was raised in this blog a little while back -- creating a true litmus test for When Is an Original Character a Mary Sue.

Frankly, the best litmus test is what Miller states over and over: Is it about the story? Does it add to the story? Look at your character's characteristics, her talents, his backstory. Is it part and parcel of the whole story? The story should always be the guide. Second, because Mary Sue is a fantasy version of the author, check out such things as, does Mary Sue have your fantasy life? How many languages does she speak? What talents does he have? Where does she live? How much money does he have? Are all those your dreams, as opposed to a reader's dreams? And do they all make sense for this character, this story?

Since I am never one to pass by an opportunity to self promote, don't forget to read the School Library Journal article about fanfiction, When Harry Met Bella, that Carlie Webber & I wrote.

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


sassymonkey said...

I am not going to be able to get the phrase "literary masturbation" out of my head all day. I'll just be over here giggling to myself.

The1stdaughter said...

I concur with sassymonkey. That's just hilarious. Oh Mary Sue...it's hard to believe anyone would truly think she could make it big time, but apparently she does, somewhere. Great post.

Liz B said...

then my work here is done if I've entertained!