Writers have all heard of a Mary Sue. In truth, these days even non-writers have probably heard of a Mary Sue.
In short, a Mary Sue is a character who doesn’t have to try very hard. She is talented and loved by all without having paid her dues. Mary Sue might be an orphan, but she’s secretly a princess. She’s unusual and beautiful. She seems to inspire love and loyalty for no reason. She never faces the possibility of failure when it comes to the stakes of the story.
And it’s a fine line. One of my favorite novels, Perilous Waif by E. William Brown, seems to be a deliberate send up of the idea of a Mary Sue, complete with the violet eyes, the orphan condition, the inexplicable love and loyalty, and the secret princess. Everything. And yet, the character works because she makes mistakes that have weight and you know that she may fail at the stakes of the story at any point. So the definition of a Mary Sue is not just being overpowered or uncritically loved and beautiful. A Mary Sue is more. But what is she?
Most people know a Mary Sue when they meet her on the page or in a movie. That doesn’t mean that they always know exactly why one character is a Mary Sue and why another character shares the same traits and yet clearly isn’t Mary, or isn’t even her sister.
So what is going on? What is the difference? Essentially, what is going on is that the character as a whole fails to be real. And often, the reason that the character fails to be real is that Mary Sue starts out as a self-insert from the author.
What is a self-insert?
A self-insert is just what it sounds like and it’s not always bad. Many fabulous stories start out in an author’s mind as “this is the adventure that I want to have”. Sometimes the self-insert character is a secondary character and I doubt that it matters much that they have Mary Sue traits since it’s not their choices and actions that are central to the story. A good self-insert main character usually just starts out as the author and quickly goes in a whole new direction.
The self-insert Mary Sue is the one that remains as she started out and, very reasonably, the author wants to protect Mary and to keep her safe, loved, and successful. This protective instinct is why the character is never allowed to be real.
Protective instincts ruin storytelling.
Authors insert themselves into stories in lots of different ways. We insert ourselves as a character. We insert our philosophies and world views and priorities. We insert our religion and faith and values. We insert our politics.
And if we remain protective of those things as we write, they become Mary Sues. They break the world and make it false. They ruin storytelling.
There are many battles fought over complaints about message fiction or check-box fiction and twisted up ideas about just what someone else is complaining about. Most of the time we “know it when we see it” but it’s not often that a person is able to clearly explain the problem and even less often that someone is willing to listen to the explanation.
Obviously, a story with no message is flat. Obviously, politics, ideology and the author’s world view exist in all fiction. So what’s the difference? What’s going on?
The difference happens when the author gives in to their protective instincts.
We don’t solve the problem of a Mary Sue by writing a book with no characters in it, do we? Of course not. We solve the problem of a Mary Sue when we stop protecting her from the prospect of failure. We solve the problem when we let her be real.
Sarah Hoyt, one of my favorite authors, created a libertarian space colony in her book Darkship Thieves called Eden. She could have made it a libertarian paradise. She could have let protective instincts dominate her writing but she didn’t. Eden has got its good points and the people there seem to value their society but it’s also got its weaknesses and its points of potential failure. Those points of failure make it real.
That’s just one example. I’m sure that people can think of many more examples where an author faced and examined stresses or points of failure or character well, and many more where the author let their protective instincts dominate.
The message, the politics, the social issue, whatever it is that an author cares enough about to write about can turn into a self-insert Mary Sue. When an author announces the intention “this story is about a very important thing” people have learned to be wary of that story. Some people may welcome that protective instinct because they will feel protected, but the cost is that the story is comforting rather than good. Meanwhile the message to everyone else is lost because the story fails.
Preaching to the choir saves no souls.
One of the nearly ubiquitous author inserts in fiction these days is Representation. Representation risks (some might argue ensures) that the represented characters will be protected, that they’ll be some level of Mary Sue because they won’t be allowed to fail. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If my identity is represented in a novel I hardly want my self-insert-by-proxie to be unlikeable or to face failure. Would you?
And yet, we don’t solve the problem of a Mary Sue by taking all the characters out. We don’t solve the problem of politics in novels by taking all the politics out. We don’t solve the problem of message fiction by taking all the messages out. We don’t solve the problem of self-insert-by-proxie “Representation” by taking all the diversity out.
We do it by putting on our big girl pants, sitting down at the keyboard, and kicking Mary Sue to the curb.