Mary Sue gets me thinking

Recent conversations over at Slacktivist have increased my interest in writing again.  Hopefully this will lead to some actual writing in the near future.

The main conversation that has gotten me thinking was the discussion about Mary Sue‘s taking place in the comments section of Fred’s latest Left Behind post.  Wikipedia defines a Mary Sue thusly:

A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers.

The discussion of Mary Sue’s made me wonder about my own writing and my own characters.  I began to wonder if I have been creating any Mary Sue’s.  So I ran three of my characters through the Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test.  All three came out with a score that fell in the “most likely Not-Sue” category, though they were all on the high end of that range.  And a separate litmus test did suggest that Berit may be shading into “Borderline Mary Sue” territory.  This is a fair assessment, I think.  As such, I’ll be watching her character and how she affects the story somewhat carefully.

I think that what gets me about Mary Sues is that one of the seemingly primary traits is their ridiculous degree of perfection and capability.  Cactus Wren offers a powerful example of this trait when she describes a Mary Sue from a particular Harry Potter fan fiction author:

Callmebuck always reminds me of a particular Pottersue, a fifteen-year-old transfer student from America who was impossibly beautiful, slender yet curvy, had an IQ of 520 and ten given names, and besides being a more talented witch than Hermione was a brilliant actress and singer and stage director and filmmaker and was friends with all the characters from CardCaptor Sakura. (Who just happened to also be studying at Hogwarts.) And she was rich (her family had “estates” in about eight countries) and fluent in a dozen languages. Whenever anyone pointed out that this character was just too perfect to be tolerable, that she needed some flaws to keep the rest of the cast from killing her, the writer wailed, “But I can’t think of anyyyyy!”

Now personally, I can’t imagine writing such a Mary Sue, at least not that one extreme.  None of my characters are masters of every trade out there.  Nor can I picture them being so perfect.  I like my characters to be more human than that.  After all relatively ordinary human beings are what I find most interesting, personally.

Of course, reading through the litmus tests, I do find myself wondering if I’m not in danger of writing my characters as all being too likable and too agreeable.  After all, a story needs conflict, and personality clashes offer a great source of conflict.  So maybe I need to think a bit more about actually showing the conflict between Berit and Brother Jens that I’ve imagined all along.  Perhaps I need to work on those grating personality traits.  And of course, I need to working on having characters respond appropriately when those traits manifest.

It gives me a few things to think about.  And all this thinking is creating a desire to do some writing.  Now that’s a bonus.

2 thoughts on “Mary Sue gets me thinking”

  1. I thought about this, and then tried it on some of my characters, but gave up. I must have got about half way through and decided that none of my characters were Mary Sues.

    Perhaps that is because I’ve been influenced by what G.K. Chersterton said about fairy stories — that fairy stories are not about extraordinary people, but about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people.

    But after going halfway through the test, I’m beginning to think that the protagoinst in the book I’m reading right now may be a Mary Sue. I won’t say any more until I finish the book and decide to write a review on it; or if I give it up and write a review on it.

  2. I’m not surprised your writings would be free of Mary Sues, Steve. You just don’t strike me as very big on wish fulfillment, anyway. (That’s intended as a compliment, by the way.)

    I look forward to hearing more about the book your currently reading and your pronouncement on whether the protagonist is a Mary Sue. In the discussions over at Slacktivist, it’s become clear that published fiction is not immune to the phenomenon, that’s for sure.

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