Portals to Darkness: The Mary-Sue
For the last few weeks, I’ve discussed the major influences that led to the conception and development of The Lightrider Journals. But like any learning process, it’s very easy to make mistakes along the way, especially in literature. While my biggest challenge is in grammar and punctuation, as well as reining back on the number of characters, I have learned of other mistakes authors can easily make. This mistakes have ruined countless stories and characters, and if I can do one thing for new writers, I want to make them aware of these mistakes so they can avoid them in their work. So as Points of Light takes a breather, I ‘d like to begin my new series- Portals of Darkness, and at the first mistake that can swallow writers- the Mary-Sues.
What it Means
Mary Sues were first named by parody author Paula Smith in her story “A Trekkie’s Tale,” as a satire of Star Trek fan fiction. That story focused on Lieutenant Mary Sue, the youngest Star Fleet Lieutenant history at only fifteen years old (knocking the abundance of such ‘gifted’ women in ST Fan-fiction). Since then, the term has gone to mean a character that represents an idealized version of the author, and is used primarily for said author to experience wish fulfillment. MS’s are most commonly found in fan-fiction, allowing the others to make themselves the heroes of established works, or as catalysts to change the established story to the author’s wishes. Since it’s inception, many characters outside of fan-fiction are sometimes considered as Mary-Sues (or the male equivalent, Gary-Stu’s).
Why It’s Wrong
To allow readers to truly embrace a protagonist, that character must have some quality that the audience can relate to, usually through some flaw, or central trait that readers will see in their own lives. It can be broad, such as a character that is bullied, or looked down upon, or more specific, such as a half-demon character pulled between two worlds. Regardless of the manner, this ability to relate to the characters is what makes them interesting and memorable to the reader. A Mary-Sue does not allow for that. Because they are idealized, they are generally written with almost no flaws- they make the right decisions, are smarter then everyone around them, physically attractive, and in some cases, heroic martyrs that are mourned by all following their death. These characters are failures because they are not relatable. No reader is at that level of perfection, nor are they likely to be enthralled by a character that never has anything go wrong for them. Therefore, the protagonist becomes boring and the reader loses interest, while the author is left with a piece of writing that only serves as a vanity mirror.
While more an example of self-insertion, Dante’s work is an excellent example of an early Gary-Stu. In The Divine Comedy, Dante is taken through the realms of the afterlife during a period of self-doubt. In the first section, The Inferno, it is explained this is brought about by Beatrice, the beautiful love of Dante’s life. He is guided through Hell by the spirit of his favorite poet, Virgil, and meets several men that wronged him in life suffering eternally. These men are not only cursed by Dante, but readily accept his damnation and that he was right on cursing them for all their sins. It is a good example of some of the traits that can be seen in Mary-Sues.
Wesley Crusher- Star Trek: The Next Generation
An example from the series that coined the term, Wesley Crusher is seen by many as a Gary-Stu for series creator Gene Wesley Roddenberry (even by Wil Wheaton, the actor who played Wesley). The character, who travels on Starfleet’s flagship, which is crewed by it’s finest members, was often credited with saving the ship singlehandedly, despite having trouble being accepted by Starfleet Academy. While this portrayal may have been influenced by writer’s strikes (during which several prototype scripts of Wesley saving the day had to be used) having such a young character constantly being portrayed as more competent then his experienced superiors are well-established traits of a Gary-Stu.
Milo Thatch- Atlantis: The Lost Empire
A lesser-known Disney film, Milo Thatch is a young archeologist that wants to find the lost city of Atlantis. Over the course of the film, the materials, ship, crew, and money to do so are literally handed to him by a wealthy man that knew his grandfather. Milo then manages to save the ship, despite his more experienced crew, decipher the long dead language and centuries old secrets of Atlantis, successfully battle the evil and greedy captain, and then remain in Atlantis as King, with a beautiful Queen by his side. A near perfect example of a Gary-Stu.
Bella Swan- The Twilight Saga
Perhaps the most current example of the Mary-Sue in popular fiction. Most of Bella’s MS traits are established in the first book of the series. Bella moves to a new to make life easier for her mother, is instantly given a new car by her father, is found fascinating by the student body, complains about how her classes are beneath her, and instantly grabs the attraction of a vampire and werewolf who then fight over her. The reminder of the books show her starting a vampire war but constantly being protected by her handsome lovers, having no harder choice to make then which of them to choose, and eventually being granted power and immortality by said vampire lover.
Bella has been criticized for many problems, but for writers, her MS qualities (some which are seen in the picture above) are the worst. Her actions towards her mother are saintly and unlikely for any teenager and the rewards and adulations by her father and schoolmates are complete fantasy. Her intelligence is spoken off but not displayed, as are any reasons for her supernatural relationships beyond physical attraction. The following books never show any growth beyond her finally decide ding between two suitors and then eventually being made into a perfect being despite causing tremendous unrest and war between everyone involved. Her personality is also barely existent, which allows readers as well as the author to project themselves onto her character, making Bella a wish-device instead of a character.
How to Avoid
While some have rightly criticized the Mary-Sue term for causing a lack of strong female characters in writing, (as such characters are often wrong saddled with the term) the negative qualities these characters represent should be avoided for characters of any gender. For writers, this means taking a few basic precautions.
- Remembering Perfection Does Not Exist- perfection is an ideal, but not a realistic one. If you write a character that is perfect, you have written a character that is dull and boring and does not exist in any reality.
- The Rocky Rule- it is much more exciting to see a character work to overcome his or her flaws then it is to see someone simply get everything on the first try. Rocky’s loss was a still a win because of everything he went through to get there.
- Flaws Are Fun- being imperfect means that characters are more real and more interesting to watch, because the reader can find a kinship with them.
- Readers Want Your Voice, Not You– readers pick up a book and stick with it because they enjoy the author’s voice- their way with words, how they shape characters and plot and whole worlds. They do not read it to hear about your personal fantasies and how you want to be heroic, loved and admired. Real heroes, and authors, have to earn that kind of recognition.