Mary Sue: The Real Villain

For many of us, writing is a form of wish fulfillment. For me, this is especially true. If I can’t do something in real life, I write about doing it. If I can’t be something in real life, my characters tend to be manifestations of traits I do not possess or people I cannot be. This is dangerous because it leads me into the territory of the Mary Sues, who are the true villains in fiction.

A Mary Sue character is typically the author’s idealized version of herself. A Mary Sue character can do no wrong because she is perfect. She has no fatal flaws, and nothing truly bad ever happens to her. She is the death of a story.

Creating a Mary Sue is taking the easy way out. Instead of doing the work to create a character different from ourselves, we use ourselves as the model because we know ourselves. We draw only from our own well of experience and don’t bother to explore other options. In a way, a Mary Sue is “write what you know” gone wrong.

To counteract the Mary Sue problem, I put my characters in situations that are not ideal. I give them flaws that are worse than my own. I surround them with conflict. If their lives are too easy, I’m not doing my job as a writer. The essence of a story is conflict, and in the realm of a Mary Sue, with everything all hunky-dory, there’s no room for that.

4 thoughts on “Mary Sue: The Real Villain

  1. Good approach to the Mary Sue problem! And I like your perspective of who Mary Sue is: the valiant heroic can-do-no-wrong self. I suppose in a way, many writers do this. I probably do this myself. But my MC tends to be way more gutsy than me. Through my MC, I can be as cynical and snide as I want! Because I dare wouldn’t do so in real life. Thus, the various joys of writing.

    Experiences definitely affect writing (think Poe, Lovecraft, Dickens, Dostoevsky, etc.), so in a way, I think the majority of writing is “role-playing.” Or as a quote I recently saw, and I paraphrase here: “fiction is a collection of various lies to say one truth.” Fiction is issues and people that we’re convicted of. It’s creepy when I see my characters feeling things that I felt…and the words flow so naturally because I’ve been there.

    Great post as always!

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  2. “She has no fatal flaws, and nothing truly bad ever happens to her.”

    For mystery stories, the danger (or at least one danger) is that the detective will be too detached, just swooping in and solving other people’s problems. Sometimes, no matter how detached and professional your detective is, you have to have cases that hook her (or, you know, him) more deeply than that.

    The entire series of Nero Wolfe mysteries can be read as a series of failures, large and small, in Wolfe’s attempt to control everything around him and insulate himself from the world and other people (in the final book, and not by coincidence, the front door of his brownstone is blown open by a bomb, wielded by one of his trusted assistants).

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    1. Yes. Characters have to grow, just like people. They have to realize that they’re wrong and try to make things right (often screwing up again in the process, but still learning).

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