What’s a Mary Sue, and why is it bad?
Okay, this one is cheating. Nobody actually asked this writing question, but I’ve thought about it a bit in the past, and a bad review I just got reminded me about it. Super Author John Brown and I had a good discussion about this “rule” while we were on book tour as well. This one is actually a sore spot for me, because I swear that every single negative review I’ve ever gotten for MHI has accused me of doing the Mary Sue thing.
Well, maybe. And then that brings up the next thing. Is it bad? And to what degree?
I’m going to go out on a limb here. A “true” Mary Sue would be bad, just because it creates a character that the readers won’t enjoy, but I think the vast majority of the time the term is used incorrectly by a dumbass internet reviewer who has never written anything in their life, that thinks they’re clever because they once read TV Tropes.
First off, what’s a Mary Sue? From the always 100% reliable Wikipedia:
A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as “Mary Sues” is that they are too ostentatious for the audience’s taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the “Mary Sue” character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an “author’s pet”.
The term comes from fan fiction. This is when the author makes up a thinly-veiled version of themselves to stick into their fanfic. Of course, they will be super awesome in every way, and Captain Kirk/Reynolds/Sheridan/Nemo will fall madly in love with them. They’re amazing. They save the day. They’re wish fulfillment in a fictional form. If it is a boy scoring with Uhura/Kaylee/that chick with the thing on her forehead/ or Mina Harker, then it would be a Marty Stu.
The problem comes in when idiot critics accuse writers of normal fiction of having Mary Sue characters. This is usually done in a manner of smug superiority, as if they’re a brilliant literary big-brains, who’s poop smells like fresh wildflowers, because they’re just so damn intelligent that they caught some foolish author violating a “rule”.
Well, I’ve already stated my opinion on writing rules. If you break a rule, but it works, it doesn’t suck, you can sell it, and entertain your audience, then screw the rule. You can break any rule you want if you can pull it off. This goes double for stupid rules.
My main issue with the wild Sue accusations is that A. They’re often not even true Sues, and B. If it creates an enjoyable character, then who gives a damn?
NOT A SUE –
My biggest pet peeve is that if the character shares any, and I mean any traits with the author somebody is going to accuse you of creating a Mary Sue. Author X likes Wheat Thins and her character Y likes Wheat Thins. Both are female humans between 35-50 years old. MARY SUE!!!! Burn her!
That’s just stupid. One of the other rules, which I happen to actually agree with, is write what you know. So let’s say that before you tried your hand at fiction, you spent the last twenty years as an attorney. You know a lot about the legal profession. You believe you can make it interesting. So you create a character that is also a lawyer. Perhaps you even put that lawyer character in some similar situation that you yourself experienced at some point in time. Perhaps that time/place/difficulty was very interesting, and makes for compelling reading. It tends to be easier for males to write males and females to write females, so the character is the same sex as you. Perhaps you are both Caucasians. (and as we’ll see, you don’t even need that much).
Guess what? Some asshole is going to accuse you of creating a Mary Sue. Deal with it. It doesn’t matter if you cut both his legs off in chapter three and horribly disfigure your lawyer with acid. The Sue Card has been played. Just carry on.
The important thing is to create compelling characters. People who’ve actually written know that there will be some elements of your personality in every single character that you create. That’s how the process works. Even your bad guys are going to have insights from your dark side.
My really scathing negative reviews (I’m talking the One Stars) that I’ve gotten for my first novel (luckily there are very few) all have a few things in common. They didn’t read the whole thing. They feel the need to comment on my personal politics. And they accuse me of writing a Marty Stu.
So let’s analyze this. Not the first two, because really, if they gave a bad review but didn’t even bother to read it, they’re imbeciles. And second, if I went out of my way to post negative reviews for everyone I disagreed with politically, I would be a sad, pathetic, little person (but I’d have posted a lot of reviews of Ben Affleck movies!). Is the main character of MHI, Owen Pitt, a Marty Stu?
First the similarities. Both of us are large and ugly. Both are accountants. Both love guns. The large and ugly came about because most action heroes are too damn pretty. I wanted to write a book that couldn’t star Brad Pitt. Accountant? For the plot I needed the most stereotypically boring job ever. Having worked in that field for a long time, I know how people see accounting. (it is actually way more interesting than you’d think!). Guns? The book is about killing monsters for profit, and I originally marketed it to internet gun nuts. Duh. Other than that, we’re born in the same place, because I thought I was being cute. We share a sense of humor. Because I was writing in the first person, and I set out with the goal to interject as much humor as possible. Once again. Duh.
On the dissimilar sides, our backgrounds are nothing alike. Our relationships with family and others are nothing alike. We did not grow up the same way. He’s more Libertarian than I am. We’re not the same religion. We’re not the same ethnicity. And as I write him, he does many things that I would not do. He’s good at things that I’m not, and bad with things that I excel at. Because first and foremost, Owen is a character, who is going to do what I want/need him to do. And if I’m a decent writer, he’s going to grow in the process.
I’ve been accused of letting my personal political biases slip in. (Usually by whiny liberals who probably don’t notice the inherent slant their way in 95% of the rest of the stuff they read). That’s definitely not Mary Sue. If you’ve worked with military contractors, (MHI is kinda like Blackwater for monsters) then you know you can count the number of Obama supporters you’ve met out of that crowd on one hand. That’s realism.
Okay, so Owen has a lot of similarities to his creator. Does he fit the rest of the Mary Sue “rules”? Is he extra perfect? No. Not even close. He makes bad decisions. He’s got a stupid temper. His primary motivation to not murder somebody is based on the fact it is too hot to dig a hole. Do I treat him extra good? You mean when he gets torn to bits in the first chapter? Or when he gets his ass handed to him throughout the book?
The only thing he gets to be above average on is shooting and physical endurance. Shooting, he’s about a GM, which considering his background, isn’t even a stretch. And the toughness is a requirement to write a giant book filled with violence, and have the 1st person narrator actually make it all the way to the end.
But even then, let’s say that Owen Z. Pitt is a Marty Stu.
SO WHO GIVES A DAMN?
Critics. And they take their internets very serious.
Remember that thing about if you can break a rule, but it is better, then screw the rule? The vast majority of my readers love Owen. They relate to him. I’ve had people say that they could imagine him as a very real person. He’s the kind of guy you could go shooting with or have a conversation while standing in line at the DMV.
“Dur! But Correia broke a rule! He’s bad! Sue! SUE!”
So how did my Marty Stu do? In the last year: Two best seller lists. Four printings. Two books coming out shortly. Deals for four more, including being invited to do a collaboration with one of the top writers in science-fiction. For a total of three different series sold. All that, and if I really want to piss people off, Julie Shackleford is based on my wife, and she really does look like the Baroness from GI Joe. Yes. It is good to be me.
The reason the Sue Card bugs me is that I want writers to love their characters. If they have to put some of their personal quirks into their characters to accomplish that, then so be it. The important thing is that they entertain their audience. Period. That’s it. I don’t care if the character is based on you, your grandma, or your mailman. Entertain me!
Is Dirk Pitt really Clive Cussler? I don’t know, but he’s sold a bazillion books. I don’t care if Luke Skywalker is George Lucas. Do you think that most of Stephen Kings characters are mopey, drug-addled, writers from Maine by coincidence? I don’t care if that droopy chick from Twilight is Stephanie Myers’ sexually-frustrated alter ego. She now sleeps on giant piles of money in a house made of gold bars because she’s got a rabid audience that loves her stuff. (not my cup of tea, but I’m a little jealous of the piles of money part).
I’ve actually heard some authors say that they go out of their way to make their characters not like them at all. That way they can’t be accused of being a Sue. That’s ridiculous. You know what that gets you? Flat, boring-ass characters. Booooring. Female authors get accused of these even more than men, so you’ve got some female writers that won’t have a female main character. All because of critics.
Also, to be fair, there is the backwards Sue. This is when the idiot critic assumes that they know something about the true character of the author based upon the behavior of a character. Poor Dan Wells. He writes great books about a sociopathic would-be serial killer and ends up scaring his neighbors and in-laws.
I’m waiting for the inevitable negative reviews of Dead Six, but at least I can’t be accused of Mary Sue because I’m obviously not a five-foot-four snarky, narcissistic super-criminal, or Hard Magic, because I’m not a jaded war-hero, ex-con (oh, wait, Sullivan is big too. I’m screwed). Well, at least I’m not a borderline psychotic teleporting teenage girl… But then again, reviewers are way smarter than writers. So yes, I’m Faye too…
Actually, writers are all their characters. Every one of their characters sprang from their brain. That’s the beauty of what we do. As my mom tells people, I get paid to lie and make crap up. (I love you too, Mom). Aspiring writers, just get used to it. People are going to think you’re weird no matter what you do. Just make the sales, cash the checks, and figure out how to make your audience happy.
WHEN IS IT ACTUALLY BAD?
When it sucks. Earlier I said that if it is awesome, sells, and people love it, do it? Well the opposite is that if it sucks, people hate it, and it doesn’t sell, then don’t do it.
It isn’t just Mary Sue, it is bad characters, period. I’m not talking about bad as in evil, nasty, brutish, mean or any other negative descriptor of the actual character, I mean boring, as in the reader starts to skim looking for the next good part. Just keep in mind that you can’t make everybody happy all the time. You can have something that a hundred people love and one hates. Well screw that guy. Unless he’s your editor or the publisher you’re trying to sell the book to, then he wins.
You, the writer, are the ultimate judge of whether something works or not. Don’t limit yourself out of fear of what some hack might say about you.