What Exactly is a Mary Sue?

You’ve all read the story.  The protagonist is a fantastic person.  Their devil-may-care attitude and unwillingness to abide by the rules make them completely incompatible with real life, and yet everyone loves them anyway.

A casual perusal of the protagonist and the author links themselves in mysterious, preternatural ways.  Perhaps it’s a piece set in medieval times, and the main character hums a Metallica tune.  Perhaps there’s a fixation on tuna-and-cheese sandwiches, a lunchtime favorite.  When too much of the author is inside the character, it can be less fiction and more insertion.  That’s when you have a Mary Sue.  

How can we overcome this?

Make Your Protagonist Different From You

The urge to write through our own experiences is something many first-time authors are told to do.  And while it’s certainly normal to pull from our own experiences, and even necessary, you must be careful to avoid self-insertion.  What is self-insertion?

Wikipedia defines  self-insertion as ‘a literary device in which a fictional character who is the real author of a work of fiction appears as an idealized character within that fiction, either overtly or in disguise.’

It should be carefully noted that self-insertion is different from telling a non-fiction story about yourself.  A story of your own actions is fine.  But is it really necessary to craft an entirely new universe, only to have everyone bow down to you?  Popular fiction is rife with self-insertions of one sort or another, and while they can be done effectively, it’s far better to make interesting characters to play in this world.

Making Interesting, Unique Characters To Provoke Conflict

The main issue with self-insertions isn’t that the author references themselves, but that they are entirely without flaws.   They have quirks and manage to have amiable relationships with practically everyone around them.   Everyone likes them, loves them, adores them. The problem here is this character isn’t realistic enough.  This creates dull, flat character interactions that are devoid of conflict.

Stories need conflict.  A story without conflict is a mere recollection of a thing that happened.  Take The Lord of the Rings, for instance.  Frodo has a very pressing need to get rid of the One Ring.  If he was loved by everyone he could have very well sauntered straight into Mt. Doom with a swing in his step.  Instead, he fails—his resolve grows weak, and he is bolstered by Sam at numerous times through the story.  This dramatic tension is heightened by the character flaws Frodo has as an individual.  

Consider Harry Potter.  Harry is a scar-faced fish out of water.  Because of his reputation, yes, almost everyone loves him, but in his heart he’s basically an orphan with a chip on his shoulders.  He’s miraculously good at flying, yes, but he’s anti-authoritarian, sarcastic, and grows bitterly sullen as he moves, book by book, through puberty.  By the end of the series, his progression to hero is one well-earned as a result of conflict over time.  

Margaret Murry, from A Wrinkle In Time, is another example of a complex, flawed character who is nevertheless interesting.  She is not insanely smart unlike her genius her youngest sibling, Charles Wallace.  And yet she still succeeds as a heroine in her own right, despite her inability to play along with any of the rules.  Her stubbornness is a defining characteristic, which makes her character and the story such a memorable novel.

In Conclusion

Mary-Sues are usually easily detectable in a piece of fiction.  Authorial self-insertion can damage or destroy the imagination an author has put into crafting their universe.  By focusing on interesting, unique, flawed characters an author can create compelling conflict that moves the story forward and makes it a tale worth telling.