Recognizing Mary and Marty

We’ve all seen it. The character who the author clearly adores and is described in glowing terms, but whose deeds fail to live up to the hype. This is the character who is supposedly an innocent victim of everything, the sweetest, nicest person imaginable, and so on and so on (otherwise known as Mary Sue/Marty Stu).

Some of these get published, both trad and indie. The ones that are just good enough to gull readers like me into a purchase get summary flying lessons if purchased in hard copy and the delete button if purchased electronically.

It’s not often they get me, simply because authors who write these characters simply aren’t that good (usually).

So how do you tell? Or rather, how do you recognize that you’re dealing with one of these in a book, and for the writers among us, how do you avoid writing one?

The first big sign (and this is true in real life as much as in fiction) is that with very, vanishingly few exceptions, nobody is an innocent victim all the time. If everyone is always doing your poor character (or, Dog forbid, your friend) wrong, it’s time to take a closer look at what’s going on. In my experience, even people with severe problems dealing with people aren’t always innocent victims of predators using their lack of social ept against them (and don’t take the author at their word here, either. Think of the author as the ultimate unreliable narrator).

If someone is always being victimized, look for signs that person is trying to manipulate or cheat others – or is using “I got no social skills” as an excuse to be an asshole. Observe the interactions between the person and other characters. Chances are good that the sainted one’s halo has slipped a ways and is very tarnished.

Other characters (or Dog help you, friends) might rush in to support and help the poor dear, but somehow never seem to gain much of anything for it. Or – and this one is a guaranteed flying lesson for a book – everyone raves on about how intelligent or good at something the darling angel is, then the darling angel goes and does something ridiculously stupid that proves the author has no idea about whatever it is that dearest is supposed to be wonderful at (yes, I’ve seen this in real life too, but people frown on being given impromptu flying lessons via the nearest window. Imagine that).

Honestly, if you take your emotions out of it, they’re pretty easy to recognize. The ones I call bullet-makers are worst, and I’ve seen plenty in life, and a few (usually inadvertent) in fiction. These are the innocent saintly ones who don’t ever seem to do anything overtly bad, but somehow chaos and confusion erupt all around them, friendships get shattered, and the cause of it all comes out smelling of roses – unless you’re watching very carefully.

How do you avoid writing them?

That’s where “Show, don’t tell” comes in. You don’t tell people so and so is innocent. You depict an actual innocent who is confused and scared by a situation. People who have nothing to do with bad stuff happening (whether emotional, an online explosion, or something else – real life or written, the principle is the same) don’t react the same way as people who were stirring the pot. People who wouldn’t know innocence if it bit them tend to be unable to write it, so if you can’t, ask someone who can to help you and when they tell you you got it wrong, listen to them.

Similarly, if you’ve got problems recognizing chronic liars (many people do, either because we don’t want to believe that someone is going to deliberately lie when we don’t see a reason for it, or because we don’t really believe that people can be evil and do things to cause harm), read up on some biographies of known liars, watch the behavior of public figures caught lying, and take notes (because oddly enough you’re going to have trouble finding someone willing to tell you that yeah, they’re a pathological liar and sure they’ll help you write one properly – and yes, I do recognize the irony here).

It can be done. When it’s done right, you get characters who don’t make you want to go and shake sense into the author.


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39 responses to “Recognizing Mary and Marty

  1. I think part of the problem, too, may be that what the author wants to write about is not necessarily what the character–or anybody–would want to experience.

    You see this most often in action stories, where characters who are described as professional “men of action” (soldiers, spies, jewel thieves, covert security ops, whatever) engage in some elaborate and dangerous operation to accomplish a goal that could have been handled in some other way that is much safer and easier.

    People who take risks as part of their profession general also look for any possible way to avoid those risks before planning something dangerous. As a repo man I learned quickly that you don’t pick up a car from someone’s home in the middle of the night if you can get it from the parking lot of a supermarket in broad daylight.

    I think this same thing applies in a lot of emotional drama in fiction. The author wants to write a big tearjerker scene in which the heroic protagonist is betrayed by her best friend and so manipulates the story to make that happen. In the real world, however, the whole situation could have been avoided by a little common sense on the part of either party.

    • The author wants to write a big tearjerker scene in which the heroic protagonist is betrayed by her best friend and so manipulates the story to make that happen.

      Exactly this. That’s always been my definition of Mary/Marty that they warp the story to have things happen to them rather than have things happen organically in ways that make sense in story and by character.

      • That makes me feel better. There has to be a reason in mine for enemies, allies, and friends. Even politics out of the hands of the main character is a reason. One main character I worried about being a Marty/Mary started out as a jerk but got better, because the theme was respect is earned, not demanded.

    • Kate Paulk

      Oh, yeah. The classic “stupid” plot, where if the characters used even a tiny bit of sense the whole thing folds up and goes away.

    • Mary

      I was just outlining a situation, where we had the plan that tried and failed, and improvising ensued.

      Except that when I looked back, I realized: that was a suicide mission. They would not have set up a suicide mission as their first plan to take out the villain.

      Back to the drawing board to design a better failure.

      • They would not have set up a suicide mission as their first plan to take out the villain.

        They would if somebody involved had a death wish. You could use this as an opportunity to reveal something about one of the characters.

        • Mary

          Nah. They don’t have a death wish.

          And if they did have a death wish. someone would have sat on them. Even with a non-suicide mission, they take three-quarters of the novel to get to the point where those in charge would even think of letting them — and the one with the most authority gives the advice in the guise of talking them out of it.

  2. TRX

    > chronic liars

    I grew up with two, and somehow I’ve run into quite a few of them since. Or maybe they were “pathological”, for whatever meaning is assigned to the word nowadays.

    They’d lie about anything. *Trivial* things, that they were certain to be caught in minutes, if not immediately. Things that don’t gain them anything. And if you call them on it, it’s like they don’t even hear you.

    Many of them get away with it in open society because normal people simply can’t believe other people would say things like that. Maybe they misheard. Maybe the liar was just wrong. Surely they didn’t say *that*. After a while they learn that if they want to know if there’s any paper in the copier or it’s raining outside, they’ll have to go check for themselves.

    • Oh, lord, I worked with one of those chronic liars ,,, a one-stripe airman at a broadcasting outlet in Spain about 1990. She lied like she breathed – over trivial stuff, for any or no reason at all. And yes – it did take a while for it to become apparent.
      The other nasty thing about here was that she was vengeful – get on her bad side by calling her out on her lies, she would figure out away to get back at you. Our det chief was so worried about what she could do – that he always had either our first sergeant or me in his office whenever he had a meeting with her to administer a reprimand.
      She eventually got discharged on a less-than-sat, and was escorted to the plane to take her home by the security police, after turning the whole damned base upside down. It takes real talent to get hated by everyone over and above your working-say peers.

      About two years later, I had a letter forwarded from my old PO box in Spain – a letter from her, asking for help in administratively upgrading her discharge. Guess she wanted a job in the civil service or something. I tore the letter up and threw it away. That woman was pure poison.

    • I think that if people don’t know how to recognize chronic liars, they should learn how to right away. That’s a strong survival strategy, and can save you no end of heartache.

      • Luke

        Oh, I’ve been learning. For some forty years, now. Still have problems with it on occasion, but I try to be on my guard.

        It’s the understanding I fail completely at.

    • Kate Paulk

      One of my siblings. The instinctive response to any kind of pressure is to blurt out a lie.

      Makes family get togethers… interesting, and one of the reasons I’m thankful to live on the opposite side of the planet than most of my relatives.

  3. The only book I’ve read with a 99.99% pure soap, er, character was F. H. Burnett’s _The Little Princess_. It is 1) a YA book written 2) in the Victorian world and 3) the protagonist has a spine and tries to find ways to stand up to the “bad guys” in polite, humble, and seriously escapist ways. But that’s one book. (You know, it might be an interesting exercise to look at it as a way to write what looks like a Mary Sue/Marty Stu that isn’t quite.)

    • aacid14

      I’d say if your character gets what’s coming so to speak you can have that childlike innocence. But some characters will shun them because of innocence, some will take advantage and some will help. And it won’t just be the antagonists and protagonists respectively.

    • Sara the Red

      Well, and let’s face it: Sarah Crewe really WAS a sweet, kind-hearted girl who happened to come from wealth. (I believe the tropes term is “spoiled sweet” ie, someone who has all these wonderful material things, but remains generous and good. It’s rare–and it’s even rarer that it’s done well in fiction–but it happens.) She rang true. Even for a Victorian ‘pure’ character. (And is one of the few that does. Others…man, you just want to drown ’em.)

      Same reason the Cinderella in the recent Disney live-action version worked for me: she was innocent, she was good, and all these awful things happened to her. But. She worked as that kind of character because she stayed true to what her parents had taught her–“Have courage and be kind”–and that can be a powerful character motivator (for good or ill, depending on the parents), and she clung to it all the harder the more she suffered. (Which in turn pissed off Stepmum, who had allowed the bad things that happened to her to make her bitter and cruel, and whose daughters were NOT spoiled sweet, and so she tried all the harder to break Ella.)

      Not many writers can pull it off and make characters like that ring true. There are several out there who can ALMOST manage it–though that usually results in “pure” characters that make me roll my eyes, but not actively hurl book/delete file. And then there are the Mary Sues…::shudders::

      • Yes. Everything in the story fits, and even though modern readers may roll their eyes at times, Sarah Crewe and the people around her do what they do for good reasons. “Spoiled sweet” indeed, and quite a contrast to the two kids in _The Secret Garden_. I wanted to reach into the book, grab the boy by the collar and drag him out of the book just so I wouldn’t have to read him whine and throw fits any more, at least for the first half of the story.

      • And there’s at least one point when Sarah has to fight the impulse to be snappish and surly. That’s the point when she realizes how much poverty and privation can affect one’s outlook, and she does resolve to try harder, but the fact is that she almost fails and it takes an act of will to still act nice. One of the best parts, IMO, because it makes what she does a choice instead of just a character trait.

        • Kate Paulk

          Exactly. A genuine innocent and genuinely sweet person responds differently than a Mary/Marty whose author is constantly claiming they’re innocent and sweet and showing zero evidence of innocence or sweetness.

          I find the genuinely innocent and sweet characters difficult to handle in large doses, but that’s because of who I am, not a reflection on the author.

          • Interesting fact: A Little Princess is actually Burnett’s response to Fatherless Fanny, a wildly popular Gothic /comedic novel. Burnett’ s mom used to tell her bedtime stories based on old Gothics, with the mom improving the story. When Burnett actually looked up the old Gothics, including FF, she was rather disappointed that they were not her mom’s version. (And Vanity Fair by Thackeray also seems to be FF in a funhouse mirror, while Heyer seems to have borrowed some of its authorial voice. )

            Fanny is not a Sue, exactly, and she has a lot more spine than a “moe blob.” But most of the other characters are far more vivid. She is almost a Macguffin in her own book, for certain stretches of time. However, this may be part of the author ripping on normal Gothics.

  4. Luke

    I have to say, I’m fond of innocent characters.
    But most of their problems really should come as consequences of acts they didn’t understand the repricussions of. (And at the end of the story, they should be less innocent, if rather more good.)

    • In my experience, good and innocent characters (and people) tend to get severely beaten with cluebats that not everyone is like that. Smooth sailing for the good guys is a sweet fantasy, but not very credible.

      • Kate Paulk

        Nor does it make an interesting story… Stories need conflict, and stuff happening without meaning to the wide-eyed innocent is not conflict. It’s sadomasochistic Mary/Marty Sue/Stu

        • Confutus

          I imagine I could write a credible clueless sweet innocent victim. Whether I could make him entirely likeable is another question. For instance, in my experience, if a child gets bullied, it is usually because his peers find something obnoxious about him: he’s too smart, too dumb, too fat, too skinny, too clumsy, too slow, too weak, too strong, too easily provoked, too goody-goody, too foreign, too much liked by grownups, too dirty, too poorly dressed, too whiny, et cetera. Practically anything that makes.him stand out will do. He doesn’t have to be consciously stirring the pot. He doesn’t even have to be a child. Some adults can be astonishingly juvenile in their behavior.
          What I certainly could not do is keep him sweet, clueless, and innocent. He would naturally evolve, becoming bitter and cynical, or more self-aware, or less innocent, or more reclusive, or gain some control over how he presents himself socially.

          • Kate Paulk

            I’m in the same situation with the innocent and clueless – they wouldn’t stay that way for long.

  5. Hmmm. Interesting discussion, if only because the definition of a Mary/Marty Id always heard of relied not so much on innocence as on unearned competence and or popularity. Then again I first heard the term in reference to comic books which has it own unique tropes. This is honestly the first time Ive ever seen anyone tie the mary/marty concept to innocence. That may be why there is so much disagreement in general as to whether Rey in TFA was a Mary Sue or not.Thank you Kate, I had genuinely never heard of Mary/Marty’s judged by this criteria and it made me look at the concept in a new way.

    • Mary

      There are certainly Mary Sues that fit the perfectly innocent paragon type.

      Of course, part of the problem is that the concept of “Mary Sue” suffers incoherence, partly because of the fights over usage.

      • Am I correct in assuming that the innocent type of Mary/Marty appears more often in romance books? Based on the descriptions and examples that Kate gave I kinda got that feeling.

        • Kate Paulk

          Romance, and some childrens books. They’re particularly ranci… er… rampant in the Victorian moralizing children’s books (one reason many of those are so nauseating now).

          • Ahh ok, thats why I never encountered this type before I don’t read either genre. Cool. I always love it when I learn something that makes me look at concepts in a new way.

        • Mary

          Also in fanfic — but particularly older ones.

    • Terry Sanders

      Yep, unearned competence was the way I always heard it. The trope, IIRC, started in early STAR TREK fanfic–supposedly, the worst example of it was actually named Lieutenant Mary Sue something-or-other. Outfights Kirk, outthinks Spock, advises McCoy on treatments, and then walks off with whichever lead the author happened to lust after.

      I suppose it has gradually morphed into something like “author’s pet.” Sigh. Which would make Rey something even more frightening: the DM’s GIRLFRIEND!!!

  6. Um I think maybe my comment got swallowed. by the internet. anyway Ill try again.

    Hmmm. Interesting discussion, if only because the definition of a Mary/Marty Id always heard of relied not so much on innocence as on unearned competence and or popularity. Then again I first heard the term in reference to comic books which has it own unique tropes. This is honestly the first time Ive ever seen anyone tie the mary/marty concept to innocence. That may be why there is so much disagreement in general as to whether Rey in TFA was a Mary Sue or not.Thank you Kate, I had genuinely never heard of Mary/Marty’s judged by this criteria and it made me look at the concept in a new way.

  7. Mark

    There are two kinds of politician: Those who lie to get elected, and those who lie to push an agenda. The latter see to believe that all their calumnies are as good as true, because their enemies MUST be stopped at all costs. When called on the lie, they say, “I never said it was true. It was an open question. And besides, we won the election, didn’t we?” See Chesterton’s Diabolist (found in Tremendous Trifles): ” An Imperialist is worse than a
    pirate. For an Imperialist keeps a school for pirates; he teaches
    piracy disinterestedly and without an adequate salary.”

  8. I can spot a liar 100 yards away, I think. However, I can’t imagine anyone being innocent one hundred percent of the time. After reading your post, I’ll watch out for this and ask for help in my writing of such a character.