Characterization and the Alter-Ego: Mary Sue, Evil Incarnate

An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere. –  Gustave Flaubert

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. –  G.K. Chesterton

Writing comes from within, so it’s only natural that fiction writers will often, consciously or not, create miniature, flatter versions of themselves with which to act out their stories.  The feat of creating good characters can be a tightrope walk between the person we are and the people we would like to be, particularly when we are trying to create heroes.

And when we fall off that rope, the impact is painful, even deadly.  No exciting plot, no in-depth exposition, no prose of pure beauty can overcome characters that put the reader to sleep while they’re rolling their eyes.

And so we must beware the horror that is Mary Sue.  She has a heart-shaped face and violet/emerald eyes.  She wears her long, luxurious hair in a ponytail, but sometimes she releases it to fall as an entrancing cascade around her shoulders.  She is smart, funny, brave, and loyal.  She’s incredibly, effortlessly stylish.  In fact, she is incredibly, effortlessly everything.

The male version looks a little different, and is often a child, but he shares many of Mary Sue’s other features. Male or female, Mary Sue is, in short, the author’s idealized alter-ego.  They frequently save the day and marry the hero/ine.  Or sometimes they die, and everyone gets to cry at their funeral and talk about how wonderful they were.

Mary Sue’s Background

The name was first used by Paula Smith in “A Trekkie’s Tale” (1973), where Lieutenant Mary Sue was the youngest lieutenant in the fleet, “only fifteen and a half years old.” The label caught on quickly and was even applied by Trekkers to Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), created by Gene Wesley Roddenberry, a boy genius who keeps saving the ship by being so gosh darn earnest.

Mary Sues pop up in many published novels.  Think of Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, who is beautiful and kind to the point of being saintly, or Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta, who starts off just being smart and a good cook, but by the fourth book can do everything but catch bullets in her teeth.  Or think of Isaac Asimov’s cameo in his own Murder at the ABA, in which we are told of his many amazing abilities.

A Mary Sue need not be perfect.  She may be slightly overweight (and proud of it with a boyfriend who loves curves).  He may have trouble at work (for being too moral and/or a maverick.  She may have too many cats (which are all adorable, especially the one missing a leg).  He may be divorced (because his ex is a total bitch).

Danger, Will Robinson!

The many ways one can write a Mary Sue is, in fact, his most dangerous trait.  Disguised as he is, it can be quite difficult to discern him in your own story, even though it’s dead easy to spot someone else’s overly wonderful mirror-self.

Mary Sues are so stomach-turning that some critics apply the label to any too-sweet, too-nice, too-strong-and-silent character they don’t like.  But it’s vital to define Mary Sues exactly, for only by knowing exactly what they are can we exorcise these devils from our work.

Mary Sue is the author’s wish-fulfillment, which why she is frequently described as self-pleasuring.  She defies the basic parameters of writing a fictional character in that she is not only unrealistic, she is inconsistent.  She tends to sprout powers and abilities on demand. She often corrects others and is always right, yet people don’t want to punch her in the face.  In fact, others will admire her beyond measure, especially after she’s dead.  A true Mary Sue is relentless in her perfection.  Even when she is wrong, she is right.

These tailored paragons are so awful, in fact, that it’s easy to believe that you personally would never fall into the Mary Sue Trap.  But take heed:  that’s the first step to writing the worst Mary Sue of all.

Face Your Worst Character

Instead, if you truly wish to tame the Mary Sue Impulse, you should embrace your base humanity.  Sit down, take a deep breath, and write the story of your most private and personal dreams.

Give him big muscles that come from real labor, not working out at the gym.  Make him a self-made billionaire who made his first million while he was still in sixth grade.  Make him a superhero who can control others with his mind but never uses his ability for anything other than the public good. Or perhaps your Mary Sue is bitter, and the whole system has screwed him over.  He has nothing left but his guts and his gun.  He doesn’t need anything else to take those bastards down.

Your personal Mary Sue may be able to tame wild animals with her calm soul.  Perhaps she can walk into any department store, anywhere, and spot the best bargain in fifteen seconds flat.  She might worry about being too skinny and force herself to eat pizza and ice-cream.  Or maybe she has transformed her ability to do yo-yo tricks into a wildly successful national campaign against child molestation.

The thing is, you will never know your Mary Sue until he or she appears before you in black and white.  Give everything to your story.  Don’t make it a parody, or a children’s story, or an outline.  Put your Mary Sue in the perfect environment.  Have them meet a challenge and overcome it (usually with minimum effort, but your mileage may vary).  Give them a victory moment worthy of King Henry V or a funeral worthy of Dumbledore.

Most importantly of all, don’t hold back.  Don’t worry about quality, marketability, or demographics.  Do whatever the hell you want, and do it big.

Once you’re done, print the story out, or otherwise get the hard copy together, and never, ever show it to anyone else (especially if they’re going to tell you it’s good because they love you).  Put it in a drawer somewhere safe.  Wait a few days, then pull it back out and read it through.

Whether you enjoy the story or not isn’t important.  All that matters is that now you know the details of the Mary Sue within you.  This is your ultimate self-indulgence, exorcised and disconnected, contained and tamed.  And now you have it on the page to exploit at your will.

Yes, exploit.

If you want to take the Mary Sue concept to the extreme, then every character ever written is a Mary Sue.  Everything you write comes from you: your demons, your goals, your idea of how the world should be, your idea of how the world is.  Authors are just people, and no one can imagine a character that isn’t somehow connected to their own life.  (Or, if they could, I doubt many would want to read about it.)

Writing down your ultimate fantasy of yourself means you can examine what makes that fantasy intriguing and what is just….er…playing with your super-self. Read your own work carefully, look at it as a fiction editor would, and you should be able to see where you cross the line from hero to messiah, pilgrim to Truth, career woman to Wonder Woman, plucky explorer to Indiana Jones in The Temple of Doom.

Mary Sues in Mainstream Fiction

Let’s look at just a few professionally written characters from different media who are heroic and larger than life, but do not cross the no man’s land into Mary Sue-ism.

Harry Potter.  Yes, he basically conquers all challenges, but every victory costs him.  He must accept the fact that his father was a bit of bully (Draco-like) in his youth, people he cares about die and are mourned in their own right, not just because they were his friends, and – most importantly – he ends up an ordinary guy, not King of the Wizards.  Hermione is used as a foil, in fact, as the smartest wizard of her age, to keep Harry out of the position of “best most wonderful ever.”

Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) in Pretty Woman. Based on Cinderella, Vivian’s character is in grave danger of being a Mary Sue, and her being a prostitute isn’t enough to ward the specter off.  So additionally we find she is a “bum magnet,” loses her temper, is more than a little materialistic, and is sadly searching for a father figure.

Leroy Jethro Gibbs (NCIS). He comes a little close to Mary Sue at times, but ultimately he fends off the title by making the occasional mistake, being too rigid, and, of course, having that long line of ex-wives where he was as much to blame as the women.

In other words, a little bit of Mary Sue can be good, as long as the character still  possesses familiar, believable traits that make them all too human.

Think of the decidedly non-Mary Sue Sherlock Holmes.  So smart, so deductive, so insightful, and yet so introverted, even anti-social.  Seriously, did the guy ever go on a date?  And he does drugs.

Mary Sues can also be useful when they aren’t the main character.  Melanie in Gone with the Wind is definitely a Mary Sue, as I said, but she is both a loved and hated object in the story, a subject of Scarlett’s extreme jealousy for the equally Mary Sue-ish Ashley.  Moreover, Mitchell seems to recognize her for the idealized Southern example that she is.

(For those of you who had have the pleasure of seeing Carol Burnett’s parody, think of the wild laughter when “Scarlet” pushes “Melanie” down the stairs.)

A quirky Mary Sue can make a good sidekick (Tonto, Little John).  A Mary Sue too full of themselves is a wonderful character to make fail in some horribly embarrassing way.

Putting Mary Sue to Work

By  capturing your own Mary Sue on the page, you have a truly limitless resource into which you can dip for heroism, sex appeal, smarts, beauty, and whatever else strikes you as desirable.  Just remember, if you want to get published, to take an aspect, a trait, a little bit here and there, not the whole kit and caboodle.

And hey, take something and turn it on its head, and there’s your villain.  Her heart-shaped face and emerald eyes lure people to invest in bogus stocks.  His gritty determination and empathy for the common man comes in mighty handy when he’s torturing the hero with a red hot poker.

From time to time, update your Mary Sue adventure.  Put it in a pretty binder with glitter.  Cover it in NRA stickers.  Bury it in your underwear drawer.  Give it sunlight and lots of praise.

After all, Mary Sue is you: perfect, powerful, efficient, effortless, and completely available for your writing needs.

What a gal.