Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Who the heck is Mary Sue?

Okay first off, in case you don’t know me, I’m Sharon. I blog here. Just not very often. Mostly I lurk and sometimes comment. By way of excuse I have a young child and a recent book release and just in general find it hard to get posts written on any kind of regular schedule.

On top of that, early this year a comet rocketed into my atmosphere: breast cancer. WHAM. 

A very rare form (adenoid cystic carcinoma), and very treatable. But regardless, it rocked my world. Have you seen the movie SLIDING DOORS? You could actually almost classify it as SFR, with the parallel timeline plot. Anyhow, at one point in the film -- I believe it’s shortly after the heroine gets fired, goes home early, and catches her boyfriend cheating on her -- this conversation happens:

HERO: You know what the Monty Python Boys say.
HEROINE: “Always look on the bright side of life”?
HERO: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

Nope. They don’t. And I didn’t. And for several months, going to doctors and undergoing painful and stress-inducing tests and procedures -- and just trying to get my brain around all the information and the hard decisions I had to make -- was like a second job.

I’ve been pretty open about it from the beginning, posting about the diagnosis and the events that followed on my personal Facebook page. But this is the first time I’ve discussed it publicly. I don’t think we’re meant to go into a cave at times like these. We need each other. I feel like every good wish or positive vibration sent to me during that time helped me. I am eternally grateful for all the amazing love and support, from dearest friends and relatives to writing colleagues I may have only met once, or never.

So thank you friends, and thank you universe, for adding your strength to mine and carrying me through one of the more trying periods of my life.

And now you may ask . . . What does Mary Sue have to do with all this? Nothing, probably. Or everything, possibly.
My debut novel GHOST PLANET is April's main pick for the Vaginal Fantasy Hangout book club, created by actor/producer Felicia Day. (We’ll post more about the upcoming review this weekend.) Since this was announced, the reviews are POURING in. I have to thank Felicia for that, as well as for her hilarious series THE GUILD, which kept me laughing instead of freaking out the night before my surgery.

Anyway, one thing I have seen pop up a couple times in the book club’s Goodreads discussion thread, as well as a recent, wonderful 5-star review by Vaginal Fantasy reviewer and The Sword & Laser book club co-host Veronica Belmont – is the term “Mary Sue.” My understanding of the meaning of this term is when an author writes herself into a main character in an idealized way. (See Wikepedia.) Although it also seems often to be used in reference to a character who seems too perfect. Too . . . too.

George Eliot
My first awareness of this concept (though not by the name "Mary Sue") came when reading the introduction to one of my favorite novels, MIDDLEMARCH, by George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans). The person who wrote the intro referred to the story's beautiful, intelligent heroine, and suggested the character was a stand-in for Evans herself, who was intelligent but apparently not considered physically beautiful.

The term Mary Sue has a negative connotation in most cases. In the aforementioned case I felt the intro writer was implying Evans should have been above such a thing. But I can’t help wondering – why so? For me -- and I would wager for a lot of writers -- development of authorly aspirations began with daydreaming, and with fantasies that prominently featured (drumroll) ME.

I know when I was writing GHOST PLANET, the first time I’d (1) attempted first-person point of view and (2) completed a full-length work, I found it much easier to get in Elizabeth’s head when the outside of that head resembled my own. There are resemblances between the insides of our heads as well.

Yours Truly
Would I like to be as young and pretty as Elizabeth? You bet. As bright and determined? Heck yeah! To have a brilliant, blue-eyed Irish psychologist for a boyfriend? Are you seriously asking me that?

Does that make my heroine a “Mary Sue”? Well, yes. Probably so. Am I bothered by that? No. Not even a little.

I would venture to guess that most authors’ debuts have someone very like themselves (but better!) somewhere in the story. And thank goodness for that! The first piece of advice you get as a writer is “write what you know.” And as for idealizing that person … last time I checked we were writing romance. We WANT to read about beautiful heroines, whether that beauty be outward, like Dorothea, or only inward, like little Jane Eyre.

Personally, I think readers can handle a Mary Sue. (Case in point: Veronica’s review uses the term and still gives GHOST PLANET the top rating.) What they absolutely can’t stomach is a passive heroine, or one without faults. (And that's a whole other blog post.) I think in some cases when readers use the term Mary Sue, this is really what they mean.

Okay, your turn! What does Mary Sue mean to you? Do you think it’s a bad thing?


  1. I absolutely want an exceptional hero and heroine! But you are wrong. You're beautiful! And I'm so happy for your Rita nomination . So deserved! Your book is 5stars!

  2. That's not how I've heard Mary Sue. As I understand it, a Mary Sue is a better-than-life character -- someone who can do anything and everything, and do it well. Oh, there may be a fault, but that fault is either very shallow or can somehow be turned into yet another strength.

    Honestly, I don't really see Elizabeth as a Mary Sue. She's smart, and maybe she comes up with the answers, but she has to work to find them. To me that's the protagonist's role.

  3. Yeah, I thought the same as Melissa on the concept of Mary Sue. A character so flawless and unrealistic, you can't help but dislike her. And I too didnt think that of Elizabeth.
    I'm so glad things are working out for you on the cancer front, and yippee, here's hoping those reviews keep rolling in showing more and more people are reading GP.

  4. I never perceived your heroine as a Mary Sue. The website I'm about to link to defines a Mary Sue as "a character who is created to be admired, envied, or even pitied rather than empathized with." It's not just someone a little exceptional. I think nearly all romance fiction features exceptional characters, but most of them aren't Mary Sues.

    Here's a test you can put a character through to determine how Mary-Sue-ish he or she is. It's long, but kind of fun:


  5. Sharon, so glad to see you back and sending more good wishes your way for a fast and complete recovery. You shall overcome.

    And what a great topic. I've often wondered the same thing. What, exactly, is a Mary Sue? I think the definitions are so diverse it really loses all meaning at all.

    I suspect that sometimes reviewers use it because they've seen it used somewhere else and made their own determination of the meaning. As a result, it has become "the term used for a character that bothers us in some small or large way--and may or may not be too likable, beautiful, smart, funny, etc.--for which we have no other words to describe our beef." (heh.)

    Even using those terms I'm scratching my head how anyone could label Elizabeth a Mary Sue. Smart, attractive, determined, (dead), yes...but like you pointed out, aren't heroines supposed to be? (Well, all but the dead part, of course.) It just seems to be one of those reviewer "buzz phrases" of late.

    And many congrats on GPs many successes and spotlights. There'll be more to come, I'm sure.

  6. @Nan - Aw, THANK YOU, on all counts!!! :)

    @Melissa - Yes, I've heard that description of the term as well! And that aspect is in fact a part of the other definition - a MC who is like the author, but PERFECT. Definitely there is nothing more vanilla than a flawless heroine. Thanks for that assessment of Elizabeth!

    @Arlene - Thanks so much, Arlene. I really appreciate your support and encouragement.

  7. @Amy - Whoa, cool, thank you for sharing that link! This question cracked me up:

    Is/does your character's name:
    Your name, variation of your name, nickname, screenname, or any name that has been applied to you? (Spelling it differently or changing it a little counts.)


  8. @Laurie:

    "As a result, it has become 'the term used for a character that bothers us in some small or large way...'"

    Yeah, I think you may be onto something.

    Honestly I don't mind it at all - I'm thrilled people are talking about the book. And the review I mention above presents this aspect in such a flattering way no one could possibly take issue!

    In the discussion thread for that review, someone points out that Elizabeth looks like me. That made me think, "True!" and I thought it would be fun to address it. LOVE talking about character development.

  9. Congratulations on all you have done and continue to do! Here's to many more great reviews for years to come. Cheering you on. http://cheekylibrarian.blogspot.com

  10. Here's to your complete recover and GH's continued success.
    And same here - my character Quin is all the things I aspired to be as a teenager, but has taken on her own personality over the years since I first created her. As for Mary Sue - I'd never heard the term before.

  11. Ditto to the complete recovery, Sharon. I hope the future shines bright! The Mary Sue thing must be an American concept but I do know one thing, I AM the heroine in all my stories.

  12. Actually, I'm glad to be ancient enough to shine some light on good ole Mary Sue! She dates from the earliest days of TREK fan fiction, and refers to the typical heroine created by a newbie fanfic author. Mary Sue is perfect, is loved by everyone, especially Kirk (or Spock or whomever the author chooses as her lover), comes aboard the ENTERPRISE fully capable of running the ship, fixing the engines, swapping out the computer mother boards, doing emergency surgery, fighting hand-to-hand and, of course, bedding said lover. She's also incorrigibly optimistic. Gaaah!

    Now, it's possible Mary Sue in some form may pre-date STAR TREK and go back to the SF fanzines of the Fifties or earlier. They so seldom featured women at all, though, that I'd doubt it.

    Anyway, the term has escaped the fan fiction world to become a universal reference for an unrealistic heroine, who, yes, is an avatar for the fantasies of her creator. I don't see Elizabeth that way. To some extent EVERY character we write is part of us-- heroes, heroines, secondary characters, all of them. The point is to make them REAL for the reader. You've certainly done that.

    My thoughts have certainly been with you this week. Hope you are feeling better every day as your recovery continues.

  13. @Teresa - Thank you so much, and thank you for the link to your blog!

    @Pippa - Interesting about Quin (love her name!). I think something similar happened with Elizabeth. She was a lot like me in early drafts, and gradually she evolved from that into her own person.

    @Barbara - Thank you! Yeah, I imagine we are ALL all of our heroines to some degree. I probably identified most with my heroine in ECHO 8.

  14. Very interesting, Donna. So maybe out of that original meaning of the term, people began to assume that the writer was wish-fulfilling through that character, and that's how the notion of the author inserting herself into the story came into it.

    There is some criticism of the use of the concept on Wiki. Basically saying that authors are being stifled by going to lengths to avoid the label. They then deliver characters that are flat or unbelievable. Which is of course exactly what they were trying to avoid in the first place.

    Interesting stuff!

  15. Hugs on the challenges, Sharon. That is a truly tough gig.

    I've been watching the discussion and thought how fun and how hard that must be! Glad the book is getting so much attention though. It deserves it for sure!

  16. Aw, thank you, Pauline! Yes, it is both fun and hard! Before all this I used to get only an occasional negative review. Reading is so subjective, and though a review might sting I usually recovered pretty quickly. Once the daily back-and-forth really got going I had to take a step back. Too much of a roller coaster! Now when an especially nice one pops up one of my friends prompts me to go take a look. :)

    It is all VERY worth it for the exposure! Just a matter of managing your own head.

  17. There's self-insertion and then there is Mary Sue.

    I'm writing a self-insert piece. The character has all my kinks, all my social problems. But he does not deform the story. Getting over those, with some help from his lover, and becoming better adjusted is rather the POINT.

    The problem of Mary Sue is that she deforms the story and characters around her. Previously stoic men will gush, previously competent women will lose all their skills and stand and fume. If AJ were a Mary Sue (Gary Stu), his lover, Roman, would fall over himself about how cute his social quirks are, ignore how dangerous some of the kink he wants is, and cheerfully go along with his request for no safeword...all of these things Roman would not do under any circumstances.

    Specs the librarian in David Gerrold's novel _The Galactic Whirlpool_ is a self-insert. Bella Swann is Mary Sue.

  18. Exactly, Angela! Couldn't have found a better example.

  19. Donna, you're always a wealth of knowledge. I was floored to learn Mary Sue emerged from and dates back to fanfic. I figured it was just the flavor-of-the-day "writing fault" for judges and reviewers to zero in on.

    Do you know if Mary Sue was a particular character from fanfic or where did the "Mary Sue" come from?

  20. Really nice explanation, Angelia. Makes it easier to distinguish between something that is pretty common in romance -- a heroine who arouses strong emotions in everyone (love or hate) -- and a character that compromises the story.

  21. No, Laurie, I don't know whether MS was originally an ACTUAL character in someone's work. By the time I was writing fanfic, she was already an established hobgoblin to be avoided. TREK fanfic was 20 years old (at least) by that time. I suspect Jackie Lichtenberg could answer that question, though!

  22. Wow, actually I discuss this question in one of my online articles (if you'd like me to share sometime). But the general gist of my thoughts on Mary Sues is that there is no shame in wanting to write about the most interesting character in the room (and readers like to read about that character). It's when the characters are unrealistically good at everything, pursued by everyone (whether it's to fight them or, uh, love them), and has no real flaws that the Mary Sue vibe takes over. What's weird is they're usually pretty unlikable and yet everyone in the story likes them (or if they don't, they're punished or killed, just to show everyone what happens if you don't like the protagonist!).

    As long as people have realistic flaws (not grafted ones) and aren't just perfect living dolls, they can usually survive being special in a story. I think some readers are too quick to dub certain characters "Mary Sues." I think one of the telltale signs of a Mary Sue is that the story obviously bends around them, changes the rules so they can be awesome, and creates an environment in which the author is clearly infatuated with the character's amazingness. But when they're just special--even if they're the most shockingly special and amazing person in the story--they're interesting characters, not Mary Sues.

  23. You rock and I'm happy to know you and to lend a shoulder or a kick in the pants at any time, not that you ever need one of those. I know I don't. *G*

    I never heard the term "Mary Sue" so I've learned something new here. I'll have to be on the lookout for that in my heroines. I honestly don't think I did that with Aileana, but time may provide a different perspective.

  24. This is great, Julia:

    "creates an environment in which the author is clearly infatuated with the character's amazingness"

    Please do share your URL!

    I am trying to think of whether I've ever read a story that had such a severe Mary Sue I couldn't finish the book. I don't think I have.

  25. Aw, thank you so much, Willa! And I am pretty much in need of a daily pants kicking. :)

    I think the Mary Sue thing is probably as subjective as everything else about reading - what is a MS to one person isn't to another. I have several times heard the term applied to Twilight. And oh how Meyer's sales have suffered for it! ;)

  26. The history of Mary Sue is also entwined with the history of Cartwright Syndrome. Cartwright Syndrome, for those who may not know, is from Bonanza. On the show every time one of the men fell in love it meant she was going to die a horrible death and leave him broken-hearted. It might even take three or four episodes, lulling you into a false sense of security if you didn't know the history of love interests on the Ponderosa.

    The Mary Sue trope was and is very prevalent in Bonanza fan fic because of course she won't fall prey to Cartwright Syndrome.

    To me Mary Sue is bad. She's perfect. Perfect characters are BORING. A good romance is all about the flaws and how they help each other overcome them so they can find their HEA/

  27. Sharon, since you asked for my URL regarding Mary Sues, this is the link for that particular article:

    On Mary Sues

    Oddly enough I also recently made a YouTube video that's kind of an adaptation of my article:

    JulieSondra on Mary Sues


  28. @Rachel - I had never heard that about Cartwright Syndrome, that is awesome.

    @Julie - Thank you for the links!


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