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Algebra for Mary Sue: Writing the Female Lead


posted by Lucy V Morgan on , , , ,

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This might come across as a little patronising to some female readers since it deals with why we like certain tropes in fiction. If you keep reading, I promise that you'll see it isn't intended that way. 

From Wikipedia: 

A Mary Sue is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyedwish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as "Mary Sues" is that they are too ostentatious for the audience's taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the "Mary Sue" character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an "author's pet".

Ah, Mary Sue. You're so frickin' wonderful; you're attractive without being threatening to my low self esteem as a female who reads this kind of stuff (apparently); you're good at everything -- except that one little flaw which apparently stops you being threatening; all the men want you (especially alphas. You're a bit of a pushover when it comes to them so this makes no sense, but still).  You're my little candyfloss-flavoured piece of wish fulfillment, and when I'm reading, I fall straight into your pretty shoes.

So why are you so whiny? Why do you hang around a hero who appears to hate you to begin with? And why, when you are so perfect, is nobody annoyed by this aside from the token villain?

Mary Sue's got some complex algebra going on with my pysche. She is  
 D + S = A 
and this, my friends, is a very bad equation. 

Here's what Mary Sue makes me do:

Demonise. Firstly, I hate Mary Sue. She gets on my nerves. This might because she's annoyingly perfect, or does things which make no sense (but conveniently fit the plot). If I met her in person then I would smile nicely, but secretly want to cut all her hair off while she slept. Screw solidarity and the sisterhood, Mary Sue -- I HATE YOU.  

(What is interesting is that some women don't realise that they demonise Mary Sue at first, just as one can't admit to jealousy. It only becomes apparent later on when they chemically revel in her pain).

Sympathise. But then...I can see where you're coming from, Mary Sue, because this guy doesn't seem to like you very much and though you don't want it, you're falling for him anyway. Your self esteem is just as low as mine on the inside, and you want this guy's approval. Hell, this describes most of my teen years (and possibly my early twenties, gah). Or maybe you're this new breed of Bloody Mary Sue -- you're all kick ass and save-the-day, but inside you're cold and you can't make a commitment. Yeah, been there. We've all been burned. Bloody Mary Sue, I sure hope you get a happy ending with less casual sex! (Casual sex isn't bad, but since only Bloody Mary Sue has it, one would think the writer was insinuating that it's the stuff of emotional detachment only).

= Anaesthetise. Now I've come around to Mary Sue, I'm a bit anaesthetised to all the unpleasant, un-pc tropes that she embodies. She speaks to parts of me that want to be rescued by men who will hurt me before they "approve"; she speaks to parts of me that want my addictions and vices to be symptomatic of a situation instead of being part of me. And I've stopped judging her for wanting that because God, I want to stop judging myself (this is fine in theory. Of course we shouldn't beat ourselves up. But when it starts creeping into our judgements of real men, or God forbid, men start to think that this behaviour is what women want, we've got a problem).,

Now a lot of you are probably saying, what's wrong with this? If Mary Sue lets us connect with these parts of ourselves; if she is able to make us feel these emotions and escape into a fantasy, isn't that what good writing is about?

Not exactly. And here's why:

When we demonise a heroine, the writer has a problem. A reader's first reaction to a heroine should not be "she's a moron," because a lot of them won't carry on reading long enough to sympathise, if they may be so inclined (in fact we're calling Mary Sue out way more these days and asking questions about this stuff, which is a good thing). Even if you're not writing fiction where you must have a heroine (as opposed to a main character), you're still in trouble if she's that dislikeable.

When we sympathise with the heroine we used to hate, we're not always sympathising for the reasons the writer wanted. We're pitying her and it is not the same (and yes, subconsciously, we're having a lovely wallow in self-pity, too). Pity only stretches so far and if something bad is going to happen to Mary Sue later on in the novel, there are going to be some sympathisers who are secretly cackling, "ooh, but she deserved it!" -- because we think we deserve it, too. This isn't what taking your reader on an emotional journey is about; where's the character development?

When we get anaesthetised to these kinds of tropes, we sometimes start seeing Mary Sue and the behaviour of her often rude, controlling hero as ok (without realising, a lot of the time). We forget that they are there to tap into something that is thrilling in fiction, but a very bad idea in real life. If we're younger when we start reading this stuff, we might get a rather twisted view of relationships and that does not bode well for our personal lives (or the terrible writing we'll go on to inflict on our poor betas. Sorry guys :P). I know this sounds a little like "violent video games will make you murder people," but it isn't the same. Mary Sue isn't prescriptive -- she's not giving people ideas -- she's validating a complex already present, and that can be an unpleasant thing. How many women do you know who let a man treat them badly? Was that you, once?

(There's a little sub-category of women who don't need the demonising or the sympathising. They love most romance heroines because they're romance heroines. They were done with the first two stages years ago; they won't demonise her because they want to be her, and they can't sympathise because you can't sympathise with yourself. These are the readers who get angry at the author when something bad happens to the heroine. These women are literally Romance Junkies -- they've been on it so long, they're anaesthetised to the inherent problem within the story. This was teenage me, alas. A non-junkie romance reader, however, spots Mary Sue at fifty paces and will rant and rave because they so desperately wanted the book to be better).

In summary: not only is Mary Sue bad news for the women with low self esteem that she tends to speak to, but she's also ridiculously patonising. The assumption that a certain shape of character will appeal to women because they want to be her is rather insulting to the intellect; just because we'd like to be in those pretty shoes does not mean that we don't realise poor Mary needs therapy (and a couple of vodkas).


Help! How Do I Not Write a Mary Sue?

Mathematically, it's simple: remove the D. Don't throw a heroine at the reader that she's likely to instantly demonise. Contextually, it's a hell of a lot more complicated because this doesn't mean that you have to make her all likeable; you've just got to make her sympathetic. Everyone sympathises with something different and this makes it hard to do.You might even think about the word connect as opposed to sympathise -- on some level, your reader needs to be sucked in (not like that, you pervert).

(At this point, I'd have used quotes from a dozen popular novels but I don't want to piss anyone off, ok? :P).

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) It's not all about the aesthetic. Mary Sue doesn't have to be ugly, or even plain; a lot of women still want to read about pretty heroines. Look at the rise of BBW erotic fiction; we've just got BBW Mary Sues. Your heroine can be pretty so long as everybody is not constantly fawning over it and as the writer, you don't go on about it and rub it in. Which leads into...

2) She needs a strong supporting cast. One of Mary Sue's most annoying points is that everyone likes her. Give her a friend that resents something other than her perfection. Make the reader see the heroine's flaw (because she needs that flaw, and for the love of god, don't just make it her weakness for the hero!) through the eyes of a secondary character. Make them wonder who's in the right. Aim for that shade of grey.

3) Don't force your heroine into the hero's company with a flimsy excuse.  This is particularly relevant in contemporary fiction when writers will still attempt to employ tropes which aren't really culturally relevant, such as arrangements of convenience (nice girls don't enter into these kinds of things unless they are call girls, and that's a whole other kettle of fish. So call a call girl a call girl and tap into all the juicy conflict there, at least). Yes, being "forced" to spend time with that hot guy is a fantasy -- make it plausible! If they've got to do something together, why can't she say no? What's at stake if she walks away, and do we really feel her dilemma as readers? Here's your chance to make us sympathise with her; here's your point of conflict.

4) Perhaps your character does have self esteem issues; perhaps she does seek approval, needs it even. If you want to de-Mary her, you need to address this in a fashion that doesn't cloak it as a normal part of building a relationship. This is where your character development comes in.

Then there's the other problem: Mary Sue's predicament with the hero is still intoxicating. We want to see her win his love (which is different from gaining his approval, because your heroine is a person worthy of love, not a commodity waiting to be stamped as fit-for-purpose on a production line), and we want to see him finally give in because she -- and we -- are that awesome. Where this is concerned, you're going to need to tweak your male lead so that your new Jenny or Hayley or Anna Lee hit buttons other than "degrade me." It can still be sexy and hot and fun, but it's got to get way more complex than that; you might find my article on writing the alpha male helpful here (although one way to get rid of Mary Sue status is to make your hero a beta rather than an alpha. Consider it). Yes, your hero and heroine can play cat and mouse, but they need some other stuff going on to in order to mellow out the edges and make them real.

Let's be honest: it's much harder to write a likeable female character than it is to write a likeable male when you're writing for a female audience. We like to demonise, even often don't even know that we're doing it. Which female leads do you think bypassed the algebra; who has been done really well?  If as a writer, you can slice through that -- if you can strike a reader right in the heart and get to a place that Mary Sue never touches -- then you've got skills.

And I'm going to have to kill you.

RUN!

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