Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Plot Issues: The Mary Sue

In my last writing post, I got into the subject of Idiot Plotting. I thought I'd continue with other potential plotting problems that frequently arise. This next one sounds like a character problem, but it's a character problem that affects the plot: The Mary Sue. This is a term that comes from the world of fanfiction, where a new character is inserted into the established world of whatever TV series, movie or book is being written about, and this new character seems to be living out all the writer's fantasies -- everyone loves her, she's good at everything, the hot character the writer is in love with falls in love with her, and she ends up saving the day while the regular characters just stand around uselessly. When it comes to original fiction, this is the character the author is incapable of being objective about, whether it's because the character is a self-insert, a figure out of the author's romantic fantasies or just so much fun to write.

And this is where that character can become a plot problem. A Mary Sue often violates the established rules of the universe. For instance, becoming a wizard may be established as something requiring a lot of study or training, but the Mary Sue manages it on her own or after one lesson. Or some action may be established as impossible under certain circumstances, but the Mary Sue manages to do the impossible and save the day. That results in a very unsatisfying plot because it comes across as Mary Sue ex Machina -- nobody else in the story or anything else built up to in the plot has anything to do with the resolution because the Mary Sue pulls the resolution out of thin air, with no reason given as to why she was able to do this when no one else could. It's an even bigger problem if the story has focused at all on the struggles of the other characters to resolve the problem -- those wizards who've dedicated their lives to this, who've done the research, who've gone on quests to find the right magical object, who've made all kinds of personal sacrifices. If readers have spent a lot of time following the efforts to deal with the problem and then it's resolved by the Mary Sue waltzing in and saying, "Here, let me take care of this for you," like it's no big deal, the book is likely to be thrown across the room (that is, if it even gets published).

The Mary Sue is often used to skim past difficult parts of a story rather than actually dealing with them. People who can do this thing that's necessary to win are incredibly rare? No problem! The Mary Sue will discover that she's had this ability all along. Need a specific skill to make something happen? The Mary Sue is a natural at it without any training or experience. Need to gain the favor or support of someone in power? Everyone loves the Mary Sue, so she can plead the case and win them over.

This is different from an overall awesome character whose skills and abilities have been established. It's also a bigger problem if the Mary Sue isn't meant to be the main protagonist. We kind of expect the hero or heroine to be a bit of a fantasy figure -- smarter, stronger and more capable than normal people. You expect the main character to save the day in a crisis. This character still needs human flaws, needs to face consequences and needs to have the background of all those crazy skills at least somewhat established. But where I often find Mary Sues that are probably unintentional in more amateur works is in the secondary characters that sort of take over. It's like writers know that it's a bad idea to cast themselves as the hero or heroine of their books, so they avoid that and work very hard to develop the main character as a real character. But there's no harm in giving themselves a minor role, right? But since they relate so strongly to that character, they can't be objective, and the Mary Sue traits start creeping in. By the end, it just seems so obvious for the main hero to be the one to save the day. Wouldn't it be more unexpected and exciting if this secondary character suddenly stepped up?

Or else the writer falls in love with a character along the way, and that affects the story. The character who's supposed to be the hero isn't much fun to write, but the secondary character can get away with more, gets all the fun lines, can be more morally complex, and that character gradually takes over the book.

How can you avoid this problem? This is where a beta reader or critique partner or group can help because other readers aren't going to have the same emotional attachment to the characters as you do and can be more objective in evaluating them. You just have to drop the defensiveness that might come up when people criticize the character you identify with. You need to also learn to take an objective look at your own work -- are you treating all the characters fairly? Not everyone has to love everyone, but consequences should at least sort of match actions and flaws should be noted by other characters on a reasonably equal basis. Are you breaking your own rules for any of the characters? If you establish that one thing is true, you need a really good justification for making it not be true for one character. Is the resolution at all set up in the story? No one wants to spend three hundred pages reading about someone's struggle to achieve something, only to have someone else pop in and save the day at the end. You need to make those struggles have some bearing on the outcome, and you need to set up the possibility of the other person being able to save the day, maybe by showing that character's struggles to learn to do whatever it is that saves the day.

What if you discover a Mary Sue in your own work? It may take a lot of rewriting, depending on how far you've gone because this could change your whole plot. You may need to mentally divorce yourself from that favored character and force yourself to treat him or her the way you treat every other character, and that could alter the plot. If this secondary character really is more interesting to you than the main character, you need to either switch roles and make the character you like better be the main character or you need to make the main character more interesting. If you switch roles, then you need to show this character's struggles and lay the foundation for the miracle solution -- she may have to train or study instead of magically having the special talent, for instance. If the main character isn't as interesting to you, try to analyze it and figure out why so you can add interest to the character.

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