Mary Sues, But Better

Today, class, we’ll be doing a thought exercise. Okay, you’ll be doing a thought exercise, because I can’t be trusted to treat the subject fairly right now.

If you were a character in a book, what would you be like? The idea is to take real details of your life and self, and make them interesting enough to read about. Most people like to read about characters who are as good as themselves, or a little better, so you have some room to make yourself faster, smarter, more successful than in reality.

Since this is the internet, don’t share your actual location, place of employment, or sensitive information. No one will know or care if you fudge the details, and the whole point is to make yourself slightly better- or at least different- from the real you.

What role would you play in a story? How would you handle some of the basic plots that turn up in most stories? How do you, a real person, alter the story in ways that a character fulfilling an archetype might not? Which skills and hobbies would your story-self have, and in what situations would they be useful?

Maybe you’re the plucky comic relief, or the guy who knows everybody, the person who makes sure the hero eats a decent meal every once in a while. Maybe you are the hero who needs to be cajoled into eating real food.

The world of your story matters, too. Giving your perfectly ordinary self wings is fine, if ordinary people have wings in this universe.

As I said, I can’t treat the subject fairly right now, but when I can, fictional me is usually still a horse nerd, likes books, and has no social life. That should surprise no one. Basically, I’m Phoebe Marlow from Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester, except not as good with children.

Re: the title of this post- most of you probably know this, but for those who don’t, a Mary Sue is an obnoxious self-insert character. If I recall correctly, the original Mary Sue was a Star Trek character. She was younger, prettier, smarter, and generally better at everything than all the other characters, never faced any obstacles that she couldn’t overcome, and everyone fell in love with her for no reason other than, the writers made it that way. The term is also used to describe characters who are blank slates that the reader can imagine themselves as (Bella from Twilight is often used as an example of that type of Mary Sue). The male version is sometimes called a Gary Stu.

Mary Sues can be annoying, but if you treat the concept seriously from a writer’s perspective, it can be useful for developing characters that read like real people instead of archetypes. Just make sure to leave off the ‘obnoxious’ part of ‘obnoxious self-insert,’ lest your readers chase you and hit you with sticks.

I’ve also done a version of this exercise where I imagine what I’d be like if I lived a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years ago. The obvious answer is, I’d be dead from lack of medical care, but discounting that opens up some interesting possibilities. It’s also fun to do this exercise at different points in your life and see how getting married, having a child, moving to another state, or working a different job changes the results.

Go forth and use your imagination, dear reader! If you were a character, what sort of character would you be?

42 thoughts on “Mary Sues, But Better

  1. If you were a character in a book, what would you be like?

    :big grin: If the author LIKES me? Mrs. Weasley, but with computers.

    I’m a support character, but I hope to be a very effective one.

    1. :Absent minded professor type homeschooling mom pulls up, driving somewhat beat up mega-van:
      “Stop arguing and get in. I packed snacks, but the big kids can only watch the little kids for an hour or two before the house explodes or we’ve got a serious chance of finding out what a tesser looks like.”
      “You have a strange sense of humor. Mrs Fox.”
      “Who’s joking?”

      1. :group is moved to where they need to be, and then Support Character vanishes back to Plausible Reason She’s Not There all The Time, King of the Eagles bumper sticker optional:

  2. A hundred and more years ago, as a character – I rather think I would be the terribly and terrifyingly bossy spinster-type, of somewhat independent means. The MC in the current work in progress has some of my own personality traits – such as a tendency to be blunt.

  3. In order for a character to be interesting and relatable, there has to be something that makes her/his life difficult. Problems that have to be overcome.

    One of my characters looks like a Mary Sue at first glance. She’s a gorgeous super-soldier from a civilization thousands of years more advanced than ours, impervious to all of our modern weapons, with the power to stop or destroy any military force sent against her.

    Her problem is, she has no memories. She has weapons of apocalyptic power that she barely knows how to control, some of which she is not even aware of until she instinctively uses them to ward off attacks. Once brought to her attention, she still has to figure them out.

    Besides, she doesn’t want to fight. She wants to live in peace, but…she also doesn’t want to be made a prisoner by all the selfish, greedy people that want her technology.

  4. Well, I once made a drug deal in the police department, wearing a uniform, and after explaining to the young lady (I may not be a biologist, but I can figure some things out on my own) that what she wanted to do was illegal.

    Other than that, my life has been fairly boring, so I’d probably be a support character of some sort. I’d like to think the sarcastic one with all the esoteric information that the hero needs. Alas, I can’t think on my feet that fast, especially since the cancer treatments (chemo, radiation, and surgery really screwed with my memory and empathy).

    1. I still think that’s one of the best cop stories I’ve heard. I still want to work it into a story where the young lady was *trying* to get arrested because the person/object she was after was in a cell in that department.

  5. I got written into one friend’s story as the semi-crippled retired pilot who arranges for a spaceship to be hidden in her hangar. It tickled me pink!

      1. Did you see the review that was complaining about how improbable the people were, and how nobody would have those kind of connections?


        1. Reality is not required to be believable.

          Did you ever read David Drake’s Reaches trilogy? I remember how people bounced off of the handmade plasma cannon shells, and other handmade high tech.

          Thing was, based on his description of how they work, I knew people who would know how to make them, by hand, repeatably, at industrial scale.

          (Zero-g manufacturing got you the perfect spheres. Vertical dielectric mirrors got you the lasers. Gas deposition got you the ability to apply the layers inside the sphere. Gas control by volume (constant temperature, constant pressure equals constant molarity). Access to hard vacuum means you can do all of it without complex turbo molecular pumps. You can run all of that by hand, without computer controlled much of anything and have it work.)

        2. Reality can be pretty hard to top, for example, although I can’t find an internet link for it, back in the 70’s/80’s, some guy built his own Lockheed F-104 Starfighter (he got pieces from various sources, and put it all together).

    1. If I swear that what I really want is to be a Dorothy Grant heroine will you tell me what the book was?

      1. A secondary character in one of the books in the Alien Brides series by CV Walter.
        I’m not big on romance novels, and it’s definitely not a “sweet” type, but book 2 and “3.5” are freakin’ hilarious and she’s got really good world building. (Oh, and The Alien’s Christmas Baby is cute and sweet and also makes you fall in love with one of the guys.)

        1. Country Roads is the specific book that she appears in. I started howling when she showed up, and had to explain to my husband that I knew who it was. 😀

  6. I would absolutely be the motherly innkeeper who kits the adventurers out with good food and a freshly-mended pack before they go off to fight the goblins and DAMMIT NOW I HAVE AN IDEA. Gonna stomp off and swear before I hit the notebooks.

  7. I’m the Deadpan Snarker. I’m somewhat like Tyrion from Game of Thrones, except I’m far too lazy to want a position like Hand of the King. I guess my most likely role would be the semi-mad scientist who’s left alone in her lab with her toys until the heroes need anything. At least, I hope I would have the moral fortitude to only work for the heroes.

    As far as Mary Sue goes, she might have started out as a self-insert, but I think the term has moved beyond that at this point. What makes Bella Swann a Mary Sue, for example, is not that she’s a blank slate, it’s that everyone falls all over themselves to try to be her friend, every boy in school wants to date her (along with some of the men), and she effortlessly snags the hottest guy in school. Oh, and the fact that we’re constantly told how kind and selfless she is when in reality she’s nothing of the sort, doesn’t help. I think the term has more to do with how much the audience likes the character vs. how much the narrative does.

    1. Lieutenant Mary Sue was always an annoying, all-powerful, all-beloved character, who also happened to have the same name as the author. Very rarely was she a self-insert in any but the loosest way, because she was always improbably gorgeous and could learn everything instantly.

      But she usually used to die tragically, saving everyone and making her few and exceedingly evil enemies sorry and worshipful. Not a feature of most modern Mary Sues.

    2. One of the best definitions I’ve heard “The Mary Sue is the fictional equivalent of the dude who shows up at an SCA event, draped in sequins, who tells everybody that he’s a Really True Elf and expects their world to warp around his.”

  8. I suspect that I’d be the poor soul that gets killed early on in the novel because he was the diligent and careful one.

    I’d kind of like to be that guy in the isekei story that throws everyone because he’s polite, kind, and just does right-even when it doesn’t directly benefit him.

  9. Probably Piter De Vries, or maybe that guy in Apocalypse Now who hangs around Kurtz and rants to his prisoners about how he’s expanded my mind.

    Possibly Soundwave from the Transformers. Or a saner version of Renfield.

    I’d selflessly serve the charismatic lead villain and carry out his every whim until he sacrifices me without a qualm.

      1. No, but I liked her Those Who Hunt The Night books.

        Also her Star Wars books were great – in my opinion.

      2. No, but I might have to check it out. I loved her Those Who Hunt the Night and some of the sequels.

        And Let The Right One In really hit me in the feels.

  10. The desk is on fire. I’m not sure why, it isn’t made of anything that should burn, and I’m pretty sure nothing we were doing on it was supposed to be flammable either, but there it is.

    And apparently it’s asking for more coffee. The desk, that is.

  11. It’s interesting that this topic should come up shortly after I sat down and made a list of the author avatar characters in the Grissom timeline stories. Looking over them, I notice some characteristics in common: they’re misfits who often struggle because they can’t win the approval of the gatekeepers of success, but when they’re moved into situations where they don’t have to hand their efforts in to a gatekeeper for approval, they succeed. A lot of them are artistic or otherwise creative, and most are insatiably curious autodidacts. And interestingly enough, a number of them are actually *not* the protagonist, but in that second tier right behind him or her. Sidekicks, mentors, chiefs of staff and executive officers, administrative assistants and critical advisors, etc.

  12. I’d be the middle-aged technician who stumbles across an uncanny occurrence and has to use his professional skills to try to survive the situation–or, in other words, the hero of about three quarters of my published short fiction. I tend to write what I know.

  13. Dick Francis wrote a lot of jockeys and he also wrote a lot of loners, characters with odd sets of knowledge that they used to overcome a situation in interesting ways. I always thought he must be in a sense beginning with himself. I wrote a book in which I was the aunt of a child with cancer, but the twin of his mother. The mother was a saintly character and the aunt was a bit snarky. I did have a child with cancer and later wondered what was slopping around in my subconscious to split the caretaker of the child into twins.

    I had a different introduction to Mary Sue. There’s a terrible movie adaptation of Watership Down with a female rabbit who is the classic, better than everyone else and she dies. (I think that’s also the Mary Sue in The Hobbit movies.) The practically worst thing about her was that in dying she ruins one of Hazel Rabbit’s greatest achievements in the book; he gets his whole crew which includes a lot of less than optimal rabbits safely to a new home. So I hate Mary Sues with a white hot passion.

    1. I ran across a Mary Sue rabbit in Watership fanfiction once. She had purple eyes, purple fur, and a big white star marking on her butt.

      I am not making this up.

  14. If the author doesn’t like me, probably Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice-the pompous, introverted bookworm who’s not as smart as she thinks she is. If the author does like me, Rachel Weisz’s character from The Mummy-the charming, ditzy, well-traveled bookworm.

  15. I’m the one full of esoteric knowledge (or the ability to gain same quickly) who doesn’t appear phased by any of the shenanigans going on until they’re over. Steady and dependable in a storm, flakey in the calm. Not the MC or even a sidekick, but one of those characters in a series that gets fleshed out because she keeps popping up with answers.

    Also, I transform into a secretary bird for relaxation, and make pies for my friends.

  16. My older niece and nephews consider me the one they would go to if they needed bailing out… so I’d probably be the one the MC heads to for help, information, contacts, money, etc.

  17. ” If you were a character, what sort of character would you be?”

    As a self-trained nexialist, I would probably be the character that other characters go to for information. I’ve occasionally had some success at offering ideas to actual writers that solve sticky problems they’re having in whatever they’re writing, so I suppose I could be a planner. Or I could be the person who is asked to find holes in plans and then find ways around them – as a computer programmer IRL, that’s part of my job.

  18. Well, I did that once.
    IT person with weird combination of knowledge that just happens to be relevant to the current problem. Trouble telling people apart. Easily startled — no peripheral vision. So I’m the third tier support character who is only relevant in one particular situation and only once. And solving a problem that needs to be solved but not the big one.
    I just write fanfic (mostly Fullmetal Alchemist, based around Mustang and his team).

  19. Same thing I’d want if I could live my life again: Something completely different. I know what it’s like to be me. Fictionally (or alt-universe-ly), I want to be someone else. Rocky – what would it be like to have that level of determination? Darth Vader – what would it be like to have everyone terrified of you? Just about anyone in-shape – what would it be like to enjoy exercise?

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