Narcissism or Negligence: Mary Sue and Your Characters

By Mike Cluff

Creating and developing characters in your fiction can be a challenging process. Even though authors are more capable of developing multiple unique entities (look up ‘theory of mind’, it’s fascinating), there is a certain crutch that authors can lean on too heavily if they aren’t careful.

The Mary Sue.

The Mary Sue is a form of author self-insertion or personal wish fulfillment that manifests in fiction. Wikipedia gives a good explanation of why it is called the ‘Mary Sue’, so if you are curious go look it up. Personally, I prefer the term because I can say ‘Mary Sue’ without my inner, dorky, adolescent self giggling like it does when I use the term ‘self-insertion.’

There are two reasons why an author might find themselves Mary Sue-ing in their writing. Narcissism or negligence.

Some authors, like Clive Cussler, use the Mary Sue intentionally. A good example in film is how Stan Lee briefly appears in all of the Marvel movies. Even if narcissistic, it adds another facet to the experience. The technique, when used by established and popular authors, works well to quickly create characters and, like most Easter Eggs, can be fun for readers. Luckily, lesser or unknown authors usually know better than to purposefully Mary Sue.

However, it is the unintentional use or abuse of the Mary Sue that can leave your story, specifically your characters, flat. Bottom line: blatant Mary Sue-ing is often a sign of an amateur and negligent author. The negligence is made manifest in the inevitable line-up of under-developed characters. We write what we know, but if we stop at the first example for characters that we have, ourselves, then we aren’t dedicating enough effort to create rounded, three dimensional personalities that form strong connections with our readers. And readers, even if they don’t recognize the Mary Sue for what it is, will recognize flat and transparent characters.

Of course I am not going to present a problem without bringing solutions. Here are a few that I have found to be effective.

1. Free write. Writing can be a cathartic experience, a source of release. But your issues with your mother-in-law probably don’t have a place in your space opera. So before you start into your main project, do some finger warm ups and let loose on some of those life problems with a few hundred words of free writing.

Hopefully this will provide a stress release and keep you from throwing too much of your personal life into your writing. Plus, many people use this technique and call it blogging.

2. Develop, Develop, Develop. When I said at the beginning of this article that developing characters can be a challenging process, I should have said ‘it needs to be a challenging process.’ From the least important to the main, each character deserves to have some effort put into their development. Of course, time spent in developing a character should have direct correlation to how big of a role they play in your stories or book.

Personally, I like to interview my characters, really grill them, get the dirty secrets, find out their hopes and fears, find out what makes them do what they do. And if I find that they are too much like me, I take them back to that dark room, shine that 100 watt bulb in their face and tell them to cut the crap. Or in other words, it’s back to the drawing board.

So find out if your character thinks facial hair is unattractive, or if they prefer coffee to tea. The little details will open up greater questions of ‘why are they the person they are?’ and you will have characters that you know intimately. Characters that aren’t a Mary Sue.

3. Voice. Unique characters have unique voices. Whether it is the one character that never uses contractions or the hillbilly whose dialogue is riddled with apostrophes or the street ruffian that expresses his inflections by throwing in a curse every other word, each personality has their own voice.

Yet dialects, diction, and dialogue play only a part. The form in which a person perceives their world will determine their voice. As an author, you must step out of your usual perceptions and allow your characters their own.

While difficult to master, distinction in voice is probably the easiest way to ensure that Mary Sue stays away.

4. Revision. As much as we would like to think ourselves impervious, we all have chinks in our armor, a Mary Sue or two in our works is inevitable. So in those final steps of perfecting your fiction find those infiltrating self-insertions (queue the giggle) and squash them.

Turn to your alpha-readers for help, they should know you and be able to recognize you in your writing better than you can yourself. In fact, they will probably be eager to point out your virtues and your failures made manifest in your writing. What else are friends for?

Still, no matter what you do, including yourself to some degree in your work will happen. Consider this quote from author Anne Lamott:

“You are going to love some of your characters, because they are you or some facet of you, and you are going to hate some of your characters for the same reason.”

As stated before, writers write what they know, and, whether we like it or not, we know ourselves best. So don’t alienate yourself from your writing, just make sure that your presence in your writing is far from overbearing. Unless you are a narcissist, then by all means, have fun with yourself, probably by yourself (queue giggles.)

2 replies
  1. Tim Go West
    Tim Go West says:

    I dunjno about Clive Cussler, but Bill Burroughs has Mary Sued himself more times than naught. Bret Easton Ellis did it in Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms. Even JG Ballard used himself in Crash.


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