Mary Sue is the Root of All Evil
In setting straight my own mind on some matters before starting a new book, I came to the conclusion that one of the major annoyances of writing was even more of a nuisance than her dubious reputation said. For those of you familiar with the title character of this essay, please bear with me while I recap her career in slightly different terms than usually used to talk about her before getting to the substance of the matter.
Novice fiction writers hear many warnings from experienced writers, some gentle, some harsh. But of all these, one is always delivered with a certain savagery and frustration: "Get rid of Mary Sue."
The mere presence of this character in a story is enough to have it consigned with disgust into any editor's discards. But who is this innocent child, this poor woebegone saintly girl who everyone in her stories loves, and yet everyone in the real world except her writer hates? Who is Mary Sue?
She's the protagonist of nearly everyone's first story. She is beloved of every good character in that story, hated and feared and yet desired by all the evil ones. She triumphs over all adversity, either effortlessly or with a melodramatic struggle with forces and opponents who hate her for her goodness.
The first whiff of Mary Sue can be found in the descriptions of her, a combination of innocence and power, beauty and willfulness, and always, always justice on her side. For Mary Sue never makes mistakes except sometimes she is briefly misled by someone who will get their comeupance by tale's end.
Mary Sue does not have to be female, but no one has come up with a good name for the male equivalent. We'll just call her Mary Sue, remembering that she's really gender neutral, even if everyone of appropriate gender (appropriate is determined by Mary Sue's interests, not anyone else's) adores her.
What else does Mary Sue do? She invades other stories. She pops up into popular books, movies, and television shows. Sometimes these are thinly disguised, but often not. When she steps in she resolves all the issues in these stories that frustrate readers (or at least one reader). She may reconcile hero and heroine. More often than not she rescues and romances hero and/or heroine. She destroys annoying villains (particularly recurring ones who otherwise do not stay dead) or she reforms the villains and romances them. But whatever she does to wreck someone else's works and ideas, Mary Sue will receive the endless admiration of everyone in the tale.
But Mary Sue does not stop with conquering other people's stories. She also invades real people's lives. In her stories, Mary Sue often confronts caricatures of people whom her writer suffers under (or perceives him/herself as suffering under), the stuck-up and the distant creatures of glamour who ignore the writer, the bullies and the brutes who have given torment, teachers who have looked down upon the writer, authorities that have rejected him/her. In the tales of Mary Sue all these and their ilk fall before our heroine's strength, wit, and charm.
Mary Sue stories always look wonderful to their writers. They seem perfect in ways that no other tale can seem. Mary Sue writers are generally startled by the reactions of readers and the savage dismissal of professionals. Sometimes these rejecters of Mary Sue become the villains of later tales, but that's another story.
Learning to write, really learning to write fiction requires shucking Mary Sue out of one's tales. She may poke her head up now and again, not in her full robust form of omnipotent glory, but in small ways. She may peek through in the likes and dislikes of the characters and in the particular villainies or tragedies that must be dealt with by the heroes (if there are any), but on the whole she goes away or the novice writer stays a novice.
In later years professionals may look back with embarrassment on their Mary Sue stories. If they are very lucky no one remembers these stories at all. Indeed, they may have been fortunate enough to have the stories barred or blocked by the savage words of earlier pros, writers who saved themselves, then turned their attention to the next generation of writers who were in need of the same dire warnings they received (or should have received if they were not so lucky).
But this essay isn't just a warning to novice writers. -- Advice against Mary Sue can be found all over the place. Googling her name is enough to find those needed red flags. -- No. See, in the years since I pushed my own Mary Sue out of my stories (He was kind of dark and brooding and sulky and I'm glad the book I wrote with him in it never made it to a publisher), I've come to see that there's a lot more to be concerned about in Mary Sue than just bad writing.
Mary Sue's omnipresence in early stories begs the question: Why does everyone -- not just budding writers, everyone -- start out with Mary Sue stories in their heads?
What's so special about Mary Sue?
Mary Sue is nearly every person's fantasy self-image. There is a rule of good writing that each person is the hero of his/her own story. Everyone makes up tales of what happens in their lives in which they are righteous victors. But when they imagine these stories, they are creating Mary Sue in their imaginations. This principle and process are important to writers, since it makes it easier to see the world from multiple perspectives. One good writing exercise is to write a scene, the same set of events from the point of view of each person involved, knowing that each will see him/herself as the most important actor in the scene. In each of those stories, the character whose perspective it is is imagining his/her own Mary Sue.
But this principle, each of us is the hero of our own story, also shows a truth of our own self delusions. In a world full of people being jerks to each other (to say the least), how can each one think themself the hero?
The answer to this is easier to experience in ourselves than it is to understand in other people. After all, we know that we deserve the world to work our way, that people should do what we want, should look up to us and respect us (regardless of our accomplishments or lack thereof), should see our obvious good qualities and divine our hidden ones. In short, everyone else in the world should just plain know that we are the coolest person they have ever seen.
It follows naturally from this view of the world that the people we want to befriend and more than befriend will be eager for our company; that the people we don't care about will not bother us; and, vitally important, that the people we hate will either realize the errors of their ways and seek our forgiveness or will have the decency to spontaneously combust or fall before our terrible vengeance (depending on our predilections).
Obviously, that's the way the world should work for us.
The thing is, everyone else is thinking the same way. Each person has a little Mary Sue in their heads showing them how the world is supposed to be. They tell her story in their heads.
But there's a slight problem. In one's own mind one can imagine what one wants. The world in our minds, which responds to our imagination so we can fly if we want or turn into giant rampaging monsters or handsome gods, exists only in our minds. The people who fall in love with or fall before Mary Sue aren't people; they're mental images, shadows we conjure in our thoughts, characters, not human beings.
Strangely, the world refuses to act like the world of our imagination.
What happens with this refusal? People get angry that others do not go along with their Mary Sue stories. They feel hurt when their Mary Sues are insulted. They become resentful that other people have the attention that should be theirs. The imagined Mary Sue is buffeted by this outside awareness, treated roughly by the events we ourselves experience.
Mary Sue is, among other things, an open wound through which the real and imagined insults and offenses of others come into people's minds and create emotional pain and resentment.
Let's just imagine for a moment what it would actually be like to be Mary Sue, to be able to convince anyone of anything, to triumph without effort, to have anyone one wanted. Mary Sue, striding through the real world, commanding and compelling by force and charm. What kind of a person is that?
Hint: Do the words absolute dictator mean anything?
Mary Sue is actually worse than that. The best a dictator can do is force someone to say they love the dictator while being abused. Mary Sue could actually make people love her so that they would eagerly and gratefully do whatever she wanted.
And if anyone did not do so? If anyone dared to stand up to Mary Sue? Why, they would be the villains. Anyone who dared to say something against her rule would be the unrighteous defilers of the true and proper order of the universe. And anyone who dared to hurt Mary Sue, what would they not deserve in retribution? Mary Sue could do whatever she wanted to them. She could kill them, torture them, inflict any revenge she feels like and feel completely justified because they had committed the ultimate offense, assaulting the world's one true hero.
Mary Sue, despite her trappings of heroism, is the ultimate villain.
And she's in our heads.
What's she doing there? Seriously, why is this jerk of all jerks on everybody's mind?
I think she's there precisely because of the gap between the way our imaginations work and the way the real world works. Our imaginations respond to us. They create what we have them create. We can build phantasmagoria in our minds, imagine whole new worlds and fascinating new conceptions in art and science. Or we can think about getting rid of annoying people and romancing unobtainable other people, or having what we want magically appear without work on our parts.
Most of us feel that the world inside our head is the right one, the one in which things work correctly, and that this annoying world outside with its gravity and other people with free will is wrong. For a lot of us that gap between worlds creates frustration.
Frustration breeds a lot of things: Anger at the inability to make the world go as one wants it to; envy at those who seem to be more in the place of Mary Sue than we are (such as those who have more stuff, or actually are romancing the objects of our affections, or who just seem to have a better time of it); greed for the things we don't have, but Mary Sue should be able to have because she's Mary Sue; the same for lust and gluttony; pride in the hidden truth that we are the hero of the world; and sloth because, hey, the world should hand us things, aren't we Mary Sue who deserves whatever she desires?
All these vices are bred because Mary Sue gets to have what she wants and we don't.
If that sounds petty, it is. Mary Sue is also the root of petty thinking.
The cure for this in mind is close to the cure in stories. Remove the effortless, take away the perfection. Stories can have heroes if they work for what they need. Sometimes they will succeed, sometimes they won't. That will make them more true to life. In life, it's not enough to want. One has to figure out first whether having is good idea, then second how to get, and third whether or not getting will be a good idea.
Those three questions can be used to turn a Mary Sue story into a decent story, and a Mary Sue-formed resentment into a morally decent plan of action in the real world.
But first one has to get rid of Mary Sue.
What is to be done with her? What's to be done with this self-important sulk-master Mary Sue? What purpose can she have in a story that is not hers and in a world that will not bow down before her?
Don't worry. She doesn't have to be destroyed entirely. She can still serve a purpose.
Mary Sue is a good bad example. Mary Sue is a clown.
Not a clown as we have them these days, an annoying scary person at a circus. Clowns in most cultures are people whose job it is to show everyone else how not to act. They are goofy and absurd and ridiculous and they are a warning that indulging in bad behavior won't make one the cool, powerful bad boy/bad girl, but instead will reveal a silly self-absorbed person who can't do any more than want and whine and tell stories about how great she is.
If that doesn't sound funny, it doesn't have to be. Most villains are Mary Sues at heart. They may claim grandeur and power, mystery and majesty, but they're just greedy and lazy like her.
In this way, Mary Sue can still be put in stories and in our hearts, not as the hero, not as our self-images, but as the fool who fails time and again and shows the reader how not to get things done. She can also serve as the villain who needs to be opposed by someone willing to look reality in the face, see what needs to be changed, see how it can be changed, and be willing to do the real work necessary to change it.