It's been a while since I had a guest on my blog, so there's one today! Sophie contacted me and said she could deliver a great blog post for Against the Odds. I think she did an amazing job! When's the last time you did some Mary Sue-prevention? Read on...
Mary Sue is an evil, credibility-devouring harridan who must be eradicated from your fiction at all costs. She is a crafty and duplicitous wench, her presence often going undetected until it is too late, by which time she will have sunk her poisoned claws into the narrative of your work, requiring you to pry her loose with the Crowbar of Plausibility and beat her to death with the Mace of Realism.
Identifying the Infiltration
In case you may be unaware of the dangers that Mary Sue poses, there are many warning signs to look out for. The best accounts of her describe someone utterly insufferable to all readers, but her psionic camouflage blinds her intolerability to the author whose work she has invaded. Consider these simple questions:
- Is there repeated mention of how beautiful everyone finds your main character?
- Is she possessed of skills far beyond which someone of her age could have been plausibly had the opportunity of accumulate?
- Do supporting characters seem to go out of their way to accommodate her wishes?
- Does her very presence dominate a scene, rendering all in attendance merely secondary?
- Is a disproportionate amount of time spent describing her – often using superfluous adjectives – to the detriment of the actual story?
If one or more of these symptoms are present, it could very well mean that Mary Sue has already infiltrated your fiction, and possibly even your very mind! However, do not despair; assistance is at hand.
Put simply, any character who has been deliberately elevated to advanced levels of awesome, but has little or no justification for their myriad talents is in serious danger of becoming one of Mary Sue’s mind clones.
The ethereal presence of Mary Sue was first identified in 1974 by a writer named Paula Smith, who noticed a lack of variation in the prevailing styles of Star Trek fan fiction and wrote a parody to warn others of the dangers. The text of the cautionary tale can be read here. Straightforward, concise and a mere four paragraphs long, it nevertheless showcases many of Mary Sue’s integrity-eroding traits. Highly skilled; improbably young; implausibly beautiful; spotlight stealing; beloved of all those around her, the showcased girl is a prototypical example of just what characterization may descend into if Mary Sue is allowed to keep roaming free.
If the patronizing morals of 1980s children’s TV have taught us anything, it’s that Knowing Is Half The Battle. Often, simply being aware of Mary Sue’s devious nature can be enough to safeguard against her.
It’s a common misconception that Mary Sue can only infest the works of fifteen-year-old female fanfic writers, but beware! That’s just what she wants you to think! Any author is at risk, not just ones whose work consists of adolescent wish-fulfillment or a preponderance of twinkling undead.
Indeed, the character in question need not even be female. One of the most famous and vehemently detested examples of disregard for the dangers of Mary Sue is the universally despised character of Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation. His irritating qualities are Legion and have been articulated by irate fans the world over too numerous to count, but few as concisely as was expressed by Wil Wheton – the actor who played him – in a review of first season episode The Battle.
Beware that attack from Mary Sue can affect any character of any age or gender and from all walks of life, be they a misunderstood schoolgirl who one day discovers she is descended from a race of Warrior Space Elves, or a middle-aged office worker who displays improbable skill in dual-wielding katanas.
If the worst has happened and Mary Sue has lodged herself within your hallowed literary creations, steps can still be taken to eliminate her. Characters are part of a story, not the purpose of it. If the presence of one character eclipses all others, try to dial back their significance and possibly share out their dominating traits among the supporting cast.
Too often a Mary Sue infected character will end up as such a paragon of perfection that she becomes impossible to relate to. To counter this, have her actually make a mistake or two to show some fallibility, and then to really drive the demon out, have her actually learn from the blunders.
People are defined by the things they do, not what has happened to them. While an exotic (and possibly tragic) backstory might have originally motivated a character, ensure it does not dictate their every decision. If it has, show how the character has developed from experiencing the consequences of such choices.
Most important of all, obey the primary rule of writing: Show Don’t Tell. If you’re informing readers how they should be reacting to your prized character, rewrite these dictations into descriptive character building that will invoke the desired response through natural empathy.
Refuge in Audacity
It may be that Mary Sue has driven herself in too deeply to your work for you to manually eliminate her, in which case a change of tactics is in order. Instead of toning down the implausibility of the infected character, ramp it up exponentially until it reaches critical mass, thus incinerating Mary Sue within the white heat of pure awesomeness.
Consider this: if the Mary Sue character is loved by everyone simply for being so beautiful and amazing and special and wonderful, instead have everyone love her for being a courageous shield maiden famous for once riding into battle astride a mutated zombie sharktopus, brandishing a rapier aflame with cold fire, screaming an incomprehensible Celtic war cry and beating back marauding eldritch abominations with the blazing fury of a thousand suns!
Also, remember to breathe in afterwards.
It’s a fact of literature that Mary Sue will never truly be defeated. Like the Daleks in Doctor Who, no matter how roundly defeated she will always find a way to return.
To defend against any future attacks, ensure that you favorite characters are not granted undue attention, prominence or abilities simply because of how much you adore them. Treat them equally with your supporting cast and the parasitic clutches of Mary Sue will be forever unable to grasp them.
Sophie Hardwick is a freelance writer from England. Fresh from a stint at a finance magazine covering the best current accounts and credit cards on the market she has turned her attention back to her novel. Let's hope Mary Sue is nowhere to be seen.