Monday, February 10, 2014

The Real Problem With Mary Sue

By DeAnna Knippling

Mary Sue. She’s a nice girl. She never really does anything wrong. And she’s not really all that special or noteworthy. Just an ordinary girl, you might say.

When she’s a guy she’s Everyman.

From Small Town, USA.

And when things happen to her (or him), they just kind of happen to her. She didn’t do anything to start it, really; it was just bad luck.

She’s a poor, poor character in a world in which terrible things come along and happen to random, perfectly nice people. Not a hero. Just a person. Only it turns out that Miss Mary has amazing personal resources that she never would have suspected.

In the end, things work out for her. She gets the man (woman) of her dreams and has a prosperous life in which she (or he) is well-liked and nobody criticizes her (or him).


Mary Sue (if you don’t know) is the name of a trope in which the author turns themselves into a character in a story, and then doesn’t play fair about it. What I described was just one of the variations. Of course there are variations; as writers, we all have different fantasies about what we’d love to happen in a given situation.

The one similarity between these fantasies is that the writer doesn’t play fair with the character.

The character gets everything they ever dreamed of without consequence--and is generally held as all-around likable, desirable, lovable. And powerful. Any flaws are mentioned only so they can be laughed aside as unimportant. The Mary Sue is the ultimate combination of goodness and power. The Mary Sue can never be fully defeated.


The Mary Sue is a kind of monster, isn’t she?

She’s an evil vampire that comes into the story and hypnotizes the good guy into accepting her as one of the group. A cuckoo, if you know that story--Mary’s a bird that kicks out the character who should have been the main character of the story, replacing them with a big fat egg of her own.

The Mary Sue is that horrible creature of ego that arises when we’re picked on one too many times as a kid, when we feel like the universe is against us, and we feel like we’re justified in doing whatever it takes in order to get revenge.

Mary Sue puts high school bullies on the page and has them killed off by the supposed villain of the piece. Mary Sue does the noble thing to bring the killer to justice, when really she just wants to pat him on the back.

Mary Sue wins the heart of the boy she had a crush on in sixth grade, whether he wants her or not.

Mary Sue saves the universe from a horrible fate. One that, really, Miss Mary arranged to happen in the first place. She’s really the author, after all. She arranges everything.

(Sometimes Mary Sue isn’t just a person, either; sometimes she’s the collective “good guys,” the forces arrayed against “evil,” which is really just everyone that happened to annoy the adolescent psyche of the writer when they were a teenager. I don’t mind a little good vs. evil, but it irks me when “good” is just a face of Mary Sue.)


When we start out writing (and I was no different), we write a lot of Mary Sues.

We put characters on the page who are “definitely not us,” but then we don’t play fair with them. We don’t give them flaws; we certainly don’t make their flaws the reason that problems come crashing down on them. We separate the story into an “us” and a “them,” and we do all kinds of horrible things to the “them” when the interesting thing is to do them to the “us.”

We don’t make our characters active--because victims come across as more innocent, and the last thing we want to do is expose our characters to the kind of criticism that’s so painful in real life.

In real life, our intentions go awry. “Why did you do that?” people ask us, and it hurts. So we arrange it so that the bad guys are the ones who started the fight--the good guys are just the ones who finish it.

It’s a crap way to live, really. Waiting for things to happen to you; finding people to blame when they do.

And it’s a crap way to write stories.

Mary Sue stories are boring. It’s a cliché of writing advice: don’t write Mary Sues.

But the real problem isn’t that Mary Sue stories are boring. It’s that Mary Sue stories cheat readers out of the real gift of stories: taking us outside ourselves.

Stories plant seeds of wisdom and insight into us--even the cheesiest romance does this--they help us deal with pain, they make the world more bearable. Some studies are showing that stories help us practice getting through the worst parts of life; others show stories as the root of empathy.

A Mary Sue cheats that. There is no wisdom in blaming others for our own shortcomings; there is no insight in being universally loved. In fact, a Mary Sue is too easily seen through as a window into despair--that admiration must be forced, love bribed, and victory bought by lies.

She’s a sad, slow death, that Mary Sue. Best to just let her go.

About the Author: DeAnna Knippling started freelancing in May 2011 and wouldn’t be able to do it without her wonderful family and friends, especially her husband. In fact, she owes a lot to Pikes Peak Writers for helping her be a better writer, especially through the Write Brains, both in the lectures and in meeting lots of other writers.

Her reason for writing is to entertain by celebrating her family’s tradition of dry yet merry wit, and to help ease the suffering of lack of self-confidence, having suffered it many years herself. She also likes to poke around and ask difficult questions, because she hates it when people assume something must be so.

For more kicks in the writerly pants, see her blog at or her ebook How to Fail & Keep on Writing, available at Smashwords, B&N, Amazon, and OmniLit. 

1 comment:

  1. Great post! Well articulated. I'm going to go hunt down my own Mary Sues now. They must be eliminated!


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