Mary Sue-ism: How to Put Yourself into Your Writing, Without Writing Yourself as the Main Character

In my previous post, I wrote about knowing yourself in order to write with passion and emotion. Maria pointed out that sometimes writers take this too far, and she was absolutely right. The thing with fiction is that everything should be done in moderation. Dialogue, description, action, emotion, characters; they all have their place and time, and using anything to an extreme will ruin your story. Inserting too much of yourself into your novel and your characters can push you over the line from passionate to nauseating, because it usually creates a Mary Sue.

So, just what is a Mary Sue? It’s basically a character created to be admired, envied or pitied, rather than one your reader can empathize with. One of those “too-good-for-this-shithole-planet” characters designed to be a role model, but failing at it miserably. Instead they come off as sanctimonious and too good to be true. Mary Sues are the author’s pets. Whatever the character wants, needs and desires comes to them with ease. How could an author create such an annoying character? It’s easily done, particularly when we take self-insertion too far. When we try to identify too much with the character, we often run the risk of creating a Mary Sue.

Let’s be clear, though, that self-insertion is not bad. If it was, then no novel would be worth reading. We can’t write believable and relatable fiction without inserting a bit of ourselves into our novels. The characters we create all contain a piece of ourselves, whether it’s the bad or the good pieces. There’s no other way to breathe life into your character than to put yourself in his shoes. But the trick to creating a character that is us, but not us, is to use only small pieces of ourselves, and only from certain parts of our subconscious.

What the fuck?

I’ll explain in my usual long, rambling, convoluted way.

I read somewhere that Freud believed that all literature is self-insertion at its heart, and all stories are a simply a writer’s wish-fulfillment. The difference between good literature and bad is in how well the writer can mask his self-insertion by giving the work some type of social value. While I feel Freud was batshit crazy about a lot of things, which any decent psychiatrist should be, I think he hit the nail on the head. If all of the characters we create contain some small amount of ourselves, then self-insertion to the point of Mary Sue-ism is only the extreme end of something that is natural and positive. Blatant self-insertion is bad writing, but subtle self-insertion is good writing. Are you still with me? Okay, let’s examine Mary Sue-ism.

Mary Sue-ism is not averted by making your characters suffer. Readers just hate this shit and you end up worse off than just letting that perky, perfect character la-di-da her way through life. (PS: Mary Sue’s can also be male, just so you know) Tedious wish-fulfillment and martyrdom are pretty much the same thing.

Mary Sues are named after you, work at a job you wish you had, possess all your good traits or the traits you wish you had, dress like you, think like you, and act like you.

Mary Sues are perfect, unbeatable, and overwhelmingly awesome. They’re gorgeous, tough, can kick ass and take names. They cannot lose and they get everything they want and then some. Their faults are inconsequential for the most part, like maybe they have big feet or can’t spell Mississipi. (See what I did there?) They tend to portray themselves as really cool, and no one is really cool except Clive…maybe Alexander. Oh and let’s not forget Richard. But I’ve fallen off the track here….

Mary Sues have cliché qualities, ridiculously deep backstory, or cliché plots.

Orphaned at the tender age of seven, she has unusual eyes the color of lavender, through which she can see into the minds and hearts of others but she hates this gift and tries not to use it. She will die, but then be resurrected by the god who can’t bear to see her light extinguished so soon.

Hey, you might not write something this awful, but even a little cliché opens the door to that bottomless pit of yawning desperation. So, are you guilty of blatant self-insertion? That depends. Do you find yourself defending your characters with any of these statements:

The character isn’t me, she only looks/talks like me and has a name similar/the same as mine and loves/hates all the same things I do.

My character has flaws. He’s not perfect. There’s a ton of things he’s not very good at doing. (Sadly, the character flaws usually include caring too much or giving his all despite the cost to himself—puhleeeeeease. Just because your character can’t sing to save his life isn’t relevant to the story, so it’s a useless “flaw.”)

Why are such characters bad? Writers that craft characters that are basically avatars of themselves lack the skill and imagination to create anything else. Self-insertion is not the mark of a bad writer. In fact, self-insertion done to the right degree indicates a very skilled writer. But the self-insertion is usually intentional in cases of skill, and it’s always relevant to the story.

My belief is that writers guilty of Mary Sue-ism want to be liked, so they make their character (aka: the mirror of themselves) likable. All the other characters want to be close to this character, and the writer believes this will make the reader like the character too. This usually works the opposite way, though. Readers don’t want you to give them someone to like or admire, they want a character they can identify with. Nobody wants to see someone else’s wishes come true. Pfft. There’s no fun in that. A good writer puts the reader into the role of protagonist, but Mary Sues are designed so that nobody can relate to them except the author. They’re meant to be observed and admired from the outside. See how that might be annoying?

Never fool yourself into thinking that drama can camouflage Mary-Sue-ism. It only makes it more obvious. And for the love of Pete, let the character enjoy his good fortune if you’re going to make him the luckiest bastard on the planet. Those guilt-ridden, morose assholes that can’t enjoy good fortune are beyond annoying. A real person would be all “Right on, man!” if something good happened. Don’t fool yourself into thinking your characters are more appealing or interesting just because they suffer from conscience or whatever you like to call it.

Mary Sue-ism is easily avoided if when you create a character, you consider how he relates to the story. Do you need this character to make it work, or are you writing the story to suit the character? If you’re doing the latter, ask yourself why the character deserves to be in the spotlight. If the answer is because she’s so beyond awesome that readers will just eat her up, then you’re treading into Mary Sue waters. It’s also helpful to ask yourself how well you take criticism of your character. If you find you take it personally, then that is a big flashing sign saying “Mary Sue right here!”

But Renee, you still haven’t explained how self-insertion is done properly.

Sorry. Now that we know what Mary Sue-ism entails, let’s look at how knowing yourself, and putting that self in your writing is a good thing. Imagine you don’t know yourself past what everyone sees on the outside; the mask you wear when going out in the world. You might insist you feel no envy toward that disgustingly perfect model on this month’s Cosmo cover, the one who has a boatload of money and men lining up to do God knows what with her, but you’re lying. You lie so well, you start believing it. And you lie about other shit too. You convince yourself there’s goodness in everyone, that some unknown bloke living in the clouds has a plan for everyone, and your neighbor would never steal your weed-whacker, even though you see it in his shed. You refuse to believe that the person inside of you is anything but a good person. You don’t acknowledge the uglies hiding under your skin.

If you write a book based on this strong character you strive to be, readers would see through to the shallow person you are.

But when you allow the inner voice of your subconscious to speak to you, and lower your rose-colored shield, you’re able to talk with that voice, to argue, cry, and laugh with it. Your subconscious becomes a trusted friend; the kind you’ll never know outside of yourself. When you get to know this person inside of you, the book you write will not be mere text. It’ll be written from the real you, warts and all. A writer cannot create memorable stories and characters unless she’s removed her skin and viewed herself without the pretty trappings society has forced her to wear. She might not like what she sees. Hell, most of us know what a letdown we are to our egos. We see a stranger at first, but soon we appreciate the grit and scars that hide behind our skin. To insert ourselves into our writing properly, we must write with this self in mind, because readers can easily identify with that. We all have ugly bits beneath our skin. It’s what makes us human.

No, it doesn’t mean that you craft a character that is like you. It’s not about writing a character like you physically or even intellectually. It’s not about what you wish you were or what you think other people want you to be. It’s about writing about the feelings you’ve experienced. That’s the self-insertion readers want. We write about a vast number of things, but the feelings that show through that writing are the only thing we can claim as ours and no one else’s. This is not Mary Sue-ism, because it’s not skin deep. It’s far beyond that.

There. Is that coherent and whatnot? Have I left anything out?

7 thoughts on “Mary Sue-ism: How to Put Yourself into Your Writing, Without Writing Yourself as the Main Character

  1. You make a number of good points. We're all in danger of accidentally creating a Mary Sue, so it helps to be aware of how it happens.By the way, I love the Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey ticker on your blog. I had to go get one after I saw yours!

  2. I've created more than a few Mary Sues, but realized (thankfully) on rewrite what I'd done so I fixed them or deleted them completely. Somehow my Mary Sues are never the protagonist, they're usually a secondary character, which is odd. That probably says a lot about me psychologically, but I'd rather not know what that "a lot' is. And I love Jack Handey. The ticker is glitchy sometimes, but funny. Glad you liked it. 🙂

  3. "Just because your character can’t sing to save his life isn't relevant to the story, so it’s a useless flaw."– exactly! I believe the tendency to give characters talents and flaws that sound awesome but don't serve the story at all, is very near to the core of the Mary-Sue problem. And I'd bet, of many other problems too.Great post, Renee. Totally agree.

  4. I think almost everything that's mentioned or that happens should be relevant. Of course, there is room for the occasional indulgent bits and pieces, but only very occasionally. I'm glad I made sense. It's not unheard of for me to ramble on in a nonsensical manner.

  5. You nailed it. I think what cured me of ever writing a Mary-Sue was the first time a group of veteran authors critiqued my work. They skewered me ALIVE and showed me in living color what I had done.I quickly trashed that draft.Since then, I've been able to divorce myself from my characters. I empathize, but I don't become them.We're just ships that pass in the night.

  6. I think we all have to experience the Mary Sue thing, so that we know the difference, if that makes sense. I had my Mary Sues too, and I endured some skewering. Nothing slams a message home quite the same way. I tend to become obsessed withe every character, which in a way helps me remain separate from any one in particular. Maybe that sounds odd, but it works. I think. I haven't been raked over the coals in a while anyway, so I think it's working.

  7. So in other words, Mary Sue is the author's fantasy self? I've seen this a few times where every hot guy falls in love with the main character. I find it annoying.

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