1. archerfenris
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    archerfenris Active Member

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    Dodging Mary Sue

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by archerfenris, Jun 29, 2013.

    Mary Sue, the enemy of character creation (for those you who don't know it's a name associated with a character who is generally too good/ perfect). I'm currently writing a High Fantasy novel and the problem is walking the fine line of the "tropes issue". Now tropes aren't an issue if you can do them your own way, and I'm not too worried about mine.

    What I am worried about is the Mary Sue, which is a name that many times seems to be unjustifiably stuck on any character who is really good at something, smart, athletic, personable, or...a woman. Yes, anyone else notice if it's a six foot tall white dude doing good then all is well, but the second a five foot nothing girl starts kicking ass HOLD THE PHONE!

    Here in lies my issue. I often have to walk a fine line with mine. Because my character is in a fantasy world and she is gifted with a LIMITED few special abilities, and the fact that she is female, makes me worry my character will draw this name when she doesn't deserve it.

    There's nothing wrong with writing about a normal person. I have read these books and many are great (big fan of James Siegel and he only writes about the average Joe). But having a character who is really good at something is fun. And honestly what would a Sherlock Holmes novel be without his keen observations? Or a Bourne film without his quick wits and ability to speak any language known to man? Or a political triangle without Tyrion Lanister spinning the webs he's ever so clever at?

    What do you guys think of this "Mary Sue" title being placed on women more so then it is on men (not even sure what the male version of the name is!)? How do you avoid a Mary Sue? And when you do bestow a talent or group of talents on a character (be they magical or learned/ a natural talent) how do you avoid the pitfalls?
     
  2. blackstar21595
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    blackstar21595 Contributing Member

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    The definition of a Mary Sue is "In fan fiction, a Mary Sue is an idealized character representing the author." It has nothing to do with a character who's very good at something. if you noticed people are very good at something, but likewise, there are things they suck at. For example there could be a character who is very smart, but he sucks at being brave. There was never anything wrong about writing about a normal person. What matters is if the writing is good. Mary Sue is used for female characters because it's ana rchtype for a female character. The male equivalent is called a "Marty Stu." And you avoid pitfalls by giving characters weaknesses that you, the writer, exploit by challenging them to overcome their weaknesses. An example of this is Superman. His weaknesses are that he needs to be near a yellow sun or Kryptonite. Therefore his enemies challenge him with Kryptonite and he has to find some way to overcome it.
     
  3. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Mary Sue is nothing but a lazy way of condemning a random character without actually having a reason. It's about as meaningful as Tail Gunner Joe's label of "Commie sympathizer."

    Blackstra is correct about the "true" meaning. My favorite example is Eugene Wesley Roddenberry's character created for Star Trek: The Next Generation, Wesley Crusher. But author self-insertion isn't inherently bad, it's only a problem if the author is too self-indulgent about it.

    All the other definitions glommed onto the Mary Sue label are mere name-calling bitching and moaning.

    The best thing you can do with the Mary Jane label is to laugh your ass off when you hear it, and unless the person who invoked the curse has something more substantive, ignore it.
     
  4. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    'Mary Sue' is a really useful blanket term for annoying characters. Unfortunately, a lot of people misunderstand the term, and subsequently are dismissive or overinclusive.
    Special powers aren't a problem. Think Ripley from 'Alien', or Buffy, or Beatrix Kiddo from 'Kill Bill'. Or the Queen from Narnia. There are dozens of examples where a totally 5ft4 105 pounds waif kicks ass believably and nobody thinks to mention 'Mary Sue'.

    Mary Sue is a bad author insertion or a fantasy. A female character that is so lame, it makes you roll your eyes. It's two-dimensional, boring. Sort of how most characters by first-time novelists are. This is why it is useful to guard against a Mary Sue. You try to be honest with yourself and see whether your character is annoying. If they aren't, you have nothing to worry about.
     
  5. jorel
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    jorel Member

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    As Long as I can believe the reasoning behind a characters traits, I don't even question them - and if that reason is simply the fact that they live in a phantasy world where it's possible, that's often enough.
    Try not to make it too easy for your character, though. If their powers enable them to somehow get out of every situation, it gets boring.
     
  6. heal41hp
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    heal41hp Contributing Member

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    I'm actually not all that familiar with this whole "Mary Sue" thing. I've read a few guides on the website deviantART on how to avoid them (because I had no idea what they were) and have gotten somewhat of an idea. I don't know if blackstar21595's definition is the official, most accurate one but I get the impression they're more like what jazzabel mentioned, "two-dimensional" and "boring" characters. To avoid these traits, just balance the flaws and the "powers" of your character. Limitations on positive abilities are great but don't stop there. You need your character to have weaknesses (more than the kryptonite that only sometimes works and with variable results that Superman has... man I hate that character) that cause legitimate problems and legitimately challenge them in their life and their quest. Characters can be badasses in one respect but weaklings in another. It's all about the balance. I personally have no interest in characters that are all badass. It's clear they're just going to whoop on everything in their way and they're going to win in the end no matter what. It's boring and predictable. Why even bother reading that story? Sure, there are ways to pull that off but they're special products with special purposes (so I think, obviously).

    I have a badass secondary character in my book that could be easily considered a "Marty Stu"... were it not for the fact that he has severe psychological problems stemming from various events in his past. I may have even gone a little overboard with giving him more flaws than necessary to counterbalance his merits.
     
  7. Bjørnar Munkerud
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    Bjørnar Munkerud Contributing Member

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    Tropes are tools. Texts become exhausting to read if everything within is contrary to what experiences have told us to expect. We didn't learn to read in one day, we perfected our skills one day, one hour, one sentence, one word at a time, and we didn't do so only to be confronted with texts deliberately constructed so as to break down every possible technique our brains have developed to handle the information therein and its format. We don't want boring either, though. Be careful.
     
  8. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Hold the phone because in real life five foot nothing girls tend to get their little asses thrown around :p

    Though I have also noticed that women get to be labeled annoyingly perfect quicker than men -- as has been the case with the novel I'm working on with my partner.

    And in all fairness, I got my 5'7 frame tied to a knot by a five-foot nothing cannonball-hard (and shaped) woman who was way better at jiu jitsu than moi. A lot comes down to experience.

    If she has traits that make her more "human", readers will be able to relate to her and won't find her annoying ie. Mary Sue. Besides, you're writing high fantasy, so I'm guessing the hardest critics aren't your audience (I don't read high fantasy for the very reason that it's too escapist for my blood).

    Maybe, for one, make them believable. If she's a pro-swimmer, she has to look the part and has to have paid her dues, live with the sacrifices that come with the career. Also, pro-atheletes in non-teamsports are self-centered, often with an ego the size of Jupiter, so that's rather 'human' and not very perfect. If she's a fencing master or great at horseback archery and the things the writer has written there aren't ridiculous, being that good is only cool.

    Another way is humor and self-irony. That usually "saves" the story from too much marysueness, as is the case with Buffy, imo. At least that's what me and my writing partner like to do, even though what we think is funny might really not be funny for someone else. Oh well.

    On a sidenote, I remember when reading Tanya Huff's Valor series, the MC was super-good at everything. It got really boring rather than annoying, because for the most part the action was written well (apart from that ridiculous 50K morning jog), but if the reader knows she (or he) is going to kick everybody's ass, it gets boring.
     
  9. T.Trian
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    T.Trian Overly Pompous Bastard Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yup, it sucks out all the suspense when you know the MC is always going to win, and in Valor's case, usually without any particular injuries except a few bumps and bruises.

    Our current WIP has faced this problem. My MC has been called a Mary Sue because she's physically "gifted" (good reflexes, strong build i.e. strong joints & builds muscle well etc) and skilled (semi-pro swimmer turned soldier with some past shooting experience). However, I still think she's not an MS because I've given her weaknesses, they're just mental / social rather than physical. Another thing that, in my opinion, draws her further from the Valor-type MS character is that my MC gets hurt. Badly and often, injuries that result from errors in judgment, hesitation, or overwhelming odds (which cause her to fail and get hurt in the process).

    To me these weaknesses combined with all the mistakes the character makes (mistakes with severe consequences) are enough to make the MS tag undeserved. But of course that's, again, just my opinion and I'm sure some would disagree, but I feel a lot of people see Mary Sues everywhere, especially in the case of female characters. For instance, in the same story there's a guy who's much better at everything than the female MC (except swimming), but nobody has ever complained that he's an MS (or whatever its male equivalent is), he always passes muster, which makes me think a lot of people have sex bias when it comes to using the MS tag (and incorrectly to boot, as Blackstar explained).
     
  10. archerfenris
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    archerfenris Active Member

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    Depends. If we're talking five foot nothing wisp in hand-to-hand combat with a giant, then undoubtedly. But there are tales upon tales of female kick-assery, particularly in the military. Apparently a few Russian female snipers during WWII racked up kills numbering in the hundreds, it doesn't beat the male record of 500 some, but it's still undeniably kickass. I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of a female who killed four insurgents with a .50 cal machine gun. With the right tools my character can be a 5 foot nothing terror. However, indeed you are right, without said tools she's in incredible danger. I'd imagine a rather large male character could seriously harm her in a manner of seconds if he catches her, hope she's smart enough to slip away!


    Not all genres are for everyone. But honestly I do not like the latest "gritty dark fantasy" because...it's not really fantasy. I've been curiously paging through some of these novels. Namely "Red Country" by Joe Abercrombie. I finished it. It was good. But at the end I thought "How was that fantasy?"

    Even then it depends. Brad Thor typically likes to write about perfect men whose only flaw is they're a "hot head" which is a rather weak...weakness? Can I say that? Of course he's on the ski-team, of course he's a hollywood looker that all the girls swoon for, of course he can always pull out that one liner during situations where anything but humor is acceptable. I accept the fact that secret service agents are probably giant over-archievers who every guy secretly hated in high school for being so much better at [insert sport here], however, such characters, I'd imagine, would also have this giant ego complex you speak of. Something missing from his characters.

    Ah, but could you counter-balance super good hereos by feeding them super good bad guys? (although not too good)

    I think it is evident that male characters are typicaly not looked at as being too powerful over female characters. I think your character is perfectly acceptable. Honestly, Lebron James and other professional athletes are real life MS. I think it's perfectly reasonable to have a character who is, simply put, a genetic freak. I also think the metal/social problems are perfectly reasonable. One of my good friends from the military is a 6'5, 260 lbs beef cake. The ladies love him, and even while boasting fair book intelligence, has the common sense of a field mouse.



    The more I read the replies to this the more I'm convinced my character is perfectly fine. Although there are elements of high fantasy that people criticize I don't feel like I have to change anything to appease those that don't enjoy the genre to begin with. And I can't agree more about the characters getting beat up. I like my characters thoroughly harmed if they're going up against a really good bad guy. Coming out with just a few bruises wouldn't do the antagonist justice. I think I may have achieved this so far anyway. Two chapters in and the MC has technically died twice and been shot with an arrow.
     
  11. Ian J.
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    Ian J. Active Member

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    I wonder if an alternate definition of a 'Mary Sue' or 'Marty Stu' could be where a character and its actions/thoughts/motivations aren't planned or thought out by the author (either in advance or at the time of writing) but instead those actions/thoughts/motives are written only from the author's own experience and without sufficient reasoning or explanation?

    It therefore follows that a 'Mary Sue' isn't necessarily a bad character, but has a higher chance of being so due to the limitation of life experiences most authors have.
     
  12. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Yup, I did mean literal kick-assery x) but that's why I also pointed out how a shorter woman was able to hand my ass to myself pretty darn easy. Yeah, I put up a fight every time, but I think I won like 10 % of the rounds x) she could've probably handled a few inexperienced guys too. I think your little lady will be fine if she carries e.g. a rapier if your world hasn't got firearms. Women can be very deadly with that. Bow & arrow is another option, but... archery is tough! Riding+archery = double tough! A man/woman will be bound to develop some muscles if they do a lot of physically taxing stuff like that.

    I haven't read it. In his First Law series there was magic quite a lot, and it wasn't anywhere realistic when it came to action. I do enjoy some high fantasy, come to think of it. Andrej Sapkowski for one, but it's really the humor there that appeals to me. I haven't finished Brent Weeks's Night Angel trilogy yet, but it's been quite enjoyable even though it's not that humorous, but I guess it's more the writing and world-building I like.

    You probably have to do that so as to make the story exciting. As pointed out with the Valor-series. There was no excitement 'cause you knew the MC will make it through everything pretty much unscathed.


    I bolded the bit I consider important. No, don't try to appease any certain audience. You write what you love to write.

    Putting the character through bad stuff (and that she makes it through on her own at least every now and then -- no man running to her rescue), makes a character sympathetic at least to me. Of course anything can be taken too far; when it's masturbatory victimization, then it just gets annoying.

    Oh, another thing. Another rather typical trait in Mary Sues/Marty Stus seems to be their ability to make every man/woman fall in love with them and devote to them and eventually fight over them like silly cocks/tits. Yeah, pun intended. If you approach this more or less realistically, you'll be "dodging the marysueness".

    Good luck with your story!
     
  13. maskedhero
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    maskedhero Active Member

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    Just don't make perfect characters, those are dull.
     
  14. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    [MENTION=54545]archerfenris[/MENTION] - My advice - don't worry about what it's called. Don't worry if an ill-defined term (that wasn't very useful in the first place) has its definition expanded to mean something that was never intended. Don't worry if said ill-defined, misused term is applied more to one gender than another. These are all side issues that keep you from writing (or at least slow you down).

    If this is your first attempt at a large-scale writing project, then your goals should probably be 1) to actually get something down on paper; 2) to test your writing "chops" - see what you like to do, what you do well and what maybe needs some work; 3) enjoy the process. At this stage, worrying about how your characters might be perceived, or your story ideas or your writing style is likely to be counterproductive. Just write. If, on the other hand, you have written before, know your style and are curious about what you might need to do for your work to be of publishable quality, then that's a conversation worth having, just not constrained by said ill-defined, misused terms.

    Good luck.
     
  15. archerfenris
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    archerfenris Active Member

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    Indeed. I've paired her with an exceptional archery skill and a talent for learning things faster than normal. Her weeknesses though, at least physically (let's not get into the metal) are obvious as she's a fly-weight.


    That I did not know. I assumed he did not use magic in his stories after reading this one. I'm on the next book (King of Thornes) and just cannot get too much into it to tell you the truth. This one is even darker. It's like...gothic fantasy.

    Oh I have plans for her to be saved by her buddies (who are mostly male). But also her saving her male counter-parts as well. I'm hinging alot of the character development on her relationship with a rambunctious crew of mercenaries who the reader will fall in love with (at least that's the plan).

    Hmm. This is indeed an issue. Mostly, however, the major supporting characters look to her as a sister more than anything. Any romances which occur will happen with an outside character. And I've also inserted some humor on this topic. During the first half of the book she's a stereotypical woman (Quiet, reserved, doesn't speak her opinion regardless of how she feels, avoids confrontation) and her best friend (the only other female in the group) is always teasing her about it, as the best friend is something like the anti-female (confrontational, devils advocate, bit of a "bad-girl"). I think she can only take so much teasing before she decides to prove her friend wrong.

    Great advice. In bold is the one that is taking all the self control I have. Every time I sit down to write again I read a bit of what I wrote before to get myself into the mood and see where I am. Everytime I do it I want to EDIT EVERYTHING! Resisting the urge to edit until I'm through the first draft will be the greatest challenge it seems.
     
  16. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Me, too. I have devised two rules for myself that I follow most of the time (sometimes, one simply can't help oneself): I will correct obvious SPaG errors (because I simply can't stand leaving them in place), and I will only make changes of words or phrases. Anything more than that, I will leave for the editing process. Also, the last paragraph I wrote is always subject to full editing, especially if I was tired at the end of my previous session.
     
  17. rachyroo
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    rachyroo New Member

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    IMO it is really important your character isn't perfect, after all, nobody likes a goody two shoes. This doesn't mean they can't have extraordinary talent in something or even magic powers but a reader will relate to a character with human qualities (and therefore failings) superhero or not. Perhaps the girls more so as women are traditionally more driven by emotion and thoughts and feelings and men action and logic - sorry if this sounds like too much of a generalisation or anti feminist but it is a bit true isn't it? If you look at the contrast between Bridget Jones and Bravo Two Zero. I know, big stereotype but even so...

    Gender stereotyping is something that is ingrained in our culture even now and perpetuated by everything from marketing and media so you're always going to have an uphill struggle. Look around at so called empowering female literature like Fifty Shades. Sexually liberating or tedious submissive heroine meets slightly rapey weirdo man to redefine the term "romance novel"??
    Is there a reason that every little girl grows up thinking she should like pink and wants to be a princess? Don't get me started.

    By making your heroine ordinary in appearance aren't you already avoiding a Mary Sue? Have some aspect of her personality which maybe isn't that likeable?
     
  18. Man in the Box
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    Man in the Box Active Member

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    Listen to Cog.

    The protag of my current story has the potential to become a real powerhouse. But a character is only overpowered in the context of a story. Doesn't matter if you have fast healing when fire can burn you to ashes and is the weapon of the main villain.

    When we create characters, we're in a way playing God, and it's very difficult to go beyond God in the creation of a character while still keeping it realistic. Basically, if it's susceptible to human failure, and even gods and demons are (especially demons since they're susceptible to vice), it's not a Mary Sue in my book.
     
  19. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Does the story happen in some sort of a medieval setting? (archery kind of implies so). Because it might be possible that food is scarce which means your characters definitely won't have weight problems :p but again, archery and horseback riding are both tough business, and some people's bodies respond to that type of exercise differently, some become bulkier, some remain fly-weight (which is probably rarer? I know I haven't met anyone who's my weight but still looks normal). I don't think this has anything to do with marysueness anyway, so I'd stop worrying over it :)


    Well, since you seem to be a guy according to your profile, you probably have a better understanding of how a group of men act around an attractive woman. Some may consider her sister-like, some may resort in an arms race to get her attention. It also depends on the society and culture how a lone woman would be treated. In some contexts things would probably turn badly for her. Depending on the tone of your book, this setting also allows humor.

    While some stereotypes can be used for humorous effect, I think this is one that can be thrown out the window. I admit sometimes this becomes a self-fulfilling profecy, but in general it depens on the individual how they are driven. A man can go apesh*t over some emotional trigger just as quick as a woman.
     
  20. archerfenris
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    archerfenris Active Member

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    Yes, it's medieval. I have a unique character in that I deploy a modern world girl somehow transported to a magical word. When she winds up in Aevoria, the fantasy land (or continent, rather), she is no longer in her own body, but seems to have taken over the body of a new woman. She used to be about 4'11 and 90 some pounds, blonde hair, etc (she had a health defect) but wakes up 5'5 about 130 ish lbs with short black hair and a nose ring. Her defect left her able to eat anything without putting on weight. She still eats like this in the new world
    but does not put on weight because of the amount of calories she burns in a day based on her adventures. In general: The body she inherits will not change much, since that body has already lived 20 some years doing archery, riding, walking, running, fighting, etc. All that changes is the soul which resides in the body.

    And my wonderful fiance deserves thanks for all the invasive questions I ask about being a girl. Lol. Yes I am indeed, a guy. Though I never said anything about her being attractive. I'm largely thinking of giving her striking features (short black hair highlighted with heyna, nose ring, etc) and having her just be average looking. As far as how men act around an attractive woman it totally depends. I work with an attractive woman but she drives me nuts and we both hate each other. Your comment makes me think you think they'll try to impress her, etc. Which may not be the case depending on the men she's with. The male characters are largely good people (though some may be murderers, pirates, thieves, traitors, and outcasts) who are looking to move on from their troubled pasts, and none of them are capable of being classified. You'd maybe say the dwarf in the group is a womanizer, yet he values the opinions of the woman in his group same as the men and forbids any type of violence (sexual or otherwise) against them. And lastly, she's not the only female. Her future best friend (female) is also in the group. And said best friend happens to be very outspoken, confrontational, and a fairly powerful mage. No one would mess with her or her friend (which they wouldn't do to begin with). I do have war break out in this book though, so sexual violence against women will be present and will lead to a strong negative response by the females, and males, in the group.

    Further, I remember reading "Timeline" by Michael Chrichton as a child (the book memerized me!!) that was very interested in the middle ages. One of the female characters remarked at how young everyone was in the middle ages. She noticed most of the people she passed were young, dangerous men. The world at this time was extremely perilous, particularly for a young and attractive woman.
     

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