For Boris: Writing Mary Sue

>> Thursday, August 19, 2010

Boris said: As a writer, do you struggle with Mary Sue? If you are unfamiliar with the term, it arose from fan fiction, and means more or less that the writer will identify with the main character to such a degree that she/he will ultimately give more and more power to said character, until the story devolves into some kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy. Rampant in fan fiction of course, but professional writers have been known to fall prey to Mary Sue as well (coughLaurellKHamiltoncough). In my (very) limited experience as a writer, I have found that this can be a problem for me too, especially when writing in first person. Do you or your husband have the same problem? Who acts as the voice of reason?

This is a very interesting question, one that does not lend itself to a simple answer. At least with me. I did have to look up the term "Mary Sue" to get better definition so I could answer the question appropriately.

I don't write fan fiction. I do write fiction, particularly speculative fiction where magic and skills are quite common. I also tend toward larger than life characters. That tends to go with the territory, too. Additionally, I do identify with my characters and always have.

So, am I prone to this? Actually, I don't think so. First off, although I'm usually the seed of my characters, what I generally do is take a few of my traits and build a new characters with a different background. I play, what if someone with X,Y,Z traits was raised in this environment. I love what if. By the time I've tweaked this and that to fit the environment and the background, I usually discover that this character, based on me, is completely different from my other characters, even though they are also based on me. They have to have limitations (generally different ones than I do) because a character must have balance. Nothing I personally hate more than a character that can do no wrong, make no mistakes, never lose. They have to grow.

Many of male characters are actually a hodge-podge of characteristics that appeal to me. They tend to be funnier, though I'm not sure why. I love my male characters. But they have to have limitations, too. They can't be good at everything, never fail, never falter, either. I often have ensemble casts so that different people can bring their particular skills into play.

If I have a character that's "too good to be true," for instance, like Xander, my shapeshifter/telepath who can turn into a dragon, I make him insecure from mistreatment growing up, positive that his dragon nature makes him prone to violence. He doesn't trust himself and takes control to an extreme to overcompensate. And, under it all, he's human, which is why I'm giving him meningitis in the second book, making him inadvertently hurt the woman he loves.

I do that because he has to be limited. He can't be perfect. And, I admit it, it's my doing. My husband is more superhero prone. For instance, I wanted to give him PAM (amoebic meningitis and cure him via magic) but Lee absolutely couldn't stand the idea of parasites in him. But he'd tolerate a virus so that's what we did. So, Xander, star and nearly single-handed savior of the first book, is out for the count (as well as his healer girlfriend) in this one so all the rest have to find solutions without him.

Do I do wish fulfillment? Yes and no. Sure, it's fantasy and we play what if, if that's not living out wish fulfillment, I don't know what is. I also put my characters through things I'd never want to live through myself, with pain and hardship I wouldn't wish on an enemy.

For me, that's balance, good with the bad, responsibility with the power.

On the other hand, I'm hardly objective. :)

Update: I asked my husband. He said I didn't have a problem with it, that I was always adding imperfections and ruining their badassedness. He didn't say it like he approved either, so I'm clearly the one who keeps it from happening.


  • Shakespeare

    OMG, this says as much about your husband as it does about you.

    Fantastic... now I have to look at my own books and see what I am doing. I'm so glad I read this now, while I'm still at the beginning of my Thomas novel overhaul. He's the character (of my several novels) who is most likely to have the perfection disease... but he's overwhelmingly insecure, and he's also pretty jealous at times. The insecurity comes from me, the jealousy... someone else. Jealousy really doesn't fit me at all.

  • Shakespeare

    BTW, where do I get one of those novel progress thingies? I want to put one on my own blog... since I'm now actually working on something.

    Also, my daughter has a question, sparked by our birds and bees talk: Is it possible for a person to have a child without sperm and egg coming together? Why or why not? Has it ever happened, or might it become possible in the future?

  • Stephanie Barr

    NaNoWriMo has several of these type widgets:

    Then I found these:

    I got mine from writertopia, apparently (I'd forgotten and had to search):

  • Jeff King

    I try not to, but I am sure all writers find the character they love and fight to find an equal share between characters... good luck.
    Awesome response Steph.

  • Boris Legradic

    Thanks for the long response to my question! Makes me want to dig out my abandoned NaNoWriMo novel and give it another go...

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