Cameron Diaz, Your Time Is Up – Charley R. On Mary-Sues

A female character who is so perfect that she is annoying. The name originated in a very short Star Trek story that mocked the sort of female characters who showed up in fanfiction. It usually refers to original female characters put into fanfiction, but can refer to any character.
Mary-Sues are characters who are usually extraordinarily gorgeous, amazingly talented, unusually powerful, and exceedingly attractive to whoever the author has a crush on. They often possess ridiculously fancy and pretentious first names — Angel, Raven, Jewel, Lorelei Bianca Julia Marizza Snape — and are very, very annoying.

Or so says the urban dictionary.

And so says my co-author Charley, who has jumped in to rescue me with this guest post while I struggle to keep up with the MWiDP launch.

Last week we had book-sage Gerry McCullough here on the subject of male role models, and today Charley gives us more thoughts on female role models.

Hello world, it’s me again!

After my last post regarding Toxic Sparkly Ick-Beasts … sorry, Mary-Sues, I felt as if I should offer some more clarification on what ( I think ) denotes a well-crafted female character. Please bear in mind that most of this is my own personal taste, and I really don’t expect everyone to think as I do – I’ll get to that once my mind control device stops turning my test subjects into hamsters.

But enough about my plans for world domination, on with the show!

A few key words for you to remember before we go: onions and old tomatoes. Just humour me for now, it’ll all make sense later. Trust me! (Famous last words…)

For some reason, female characters always seem to receive more criticism for being unrealistic than male ones. To a certain extent, I find this is true; females are females, and – please don’t pelt me with rotten fruit for saying this – we’re more complicated than we look. Just because we can rip heads off demonic hordes until the cows come home does not mean we can’t coo over a kitten, nor does the fact that we happen to like listening to Taylor Swift and Aqua mean we will refrain attempt from removing your innards with a sharp stick if you antagonise us. It’s a hard job to capture all the layers and quirks that make up a person – and conveying them onto paper, while still maintaining the “wow” factor for the reader, is harder still.

As a result, I’ve always had particular admiration for authors who can pull off strong women without turning them into bricks, or reducing them to helpless sobbing wrecks at the sight of a vaguely attractive male. Both are easy pitfalls to fall into – I know that from experience! – but there are plenty of places to look where one can find excellent, engaging female characters.

Tamora Pierce’s “Terrier” and “Bloodhound” are brilliant in the respect of having a well-balanced female lead – the narrator, and main character Beka is a lovely mix of kick-ass training, dogged determination and typical teenage shyness. Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series are also favourites of mine because I love Tiffany’s “screwball hero” aspect. After all, quirky characters are often a lot more interesting – and unintentionally loveable – than straight-forward ones at times. Sure, the literary world needs its professional demon slayers and sexy super-sleuths, but where would we be without the clumsy thieves, overenthusiastic police chiefs and the failing wizards who always manage to turn things into radishes at the worst possible moments?

Quirks and foibles are a very easy – and very effective – way of creating a balanced character. People aren’t perfect, and a few well-placed weaknesses will help your heroine become more real to the reader, and thus encourage them to engage and relate to her. When the readers like a character, they are far more likely to enjoy your story. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Making a story that people enjoy?

However, it saddens me to say that there are also some great examples of how to create She-Zilla out there in the literary world. Both of my prime examples come from two of  today’s most popular “Dark Romance” bestsellers – not out of personal bias, mind you, they were honestly just the best examples I could find.

The first is Twilight. I know it’s generic and the world and his dog have all taken a dig at it, but every time I read them I want to smash Bella’s head into a wall. She’s so incredibly, unrealistically stupid? Why does she not have enough common sense to know that dating a bloodthirsty killer is a bad idea? Why does she never stand up for herself? Why does she never do anything of her on intuitive rather than hiding behind some buff werewolf or overprotective vampire? Whyyyyy!?

Secondly, and perhaps even worse, is Zoey Redbird of the House of Night series. Ridiculously overpowered whine-fests anyone? And let’s not mention her terrible home life, collection of hot male “admirers” who, no matter what their background or position in the plot, are determined to throw themselves at her. Nor, for that matter, could I leave off her “loyal” (coughirritatingcardboardcutoutcough) friends, her earth-and-spirit-shattering powers, or her speshul tattoos, or …. just don’t get me started. What I will say, is she’s a perfect example of a Mary Sue, and I’ve ranted enough on that already…

But, I hear you ask, what has this got to do with the vegetables I mentioned up there? What on earth was that all about? Well, in an attempt to condense all this wittering, I’ve come to think that the best characters are like onions, and the worst ones are like old tomatoes.

Onions may smell bad, look a bit odd and have a peculiar penchant for furry scarfs, but they work deliciously well to improve the flavour of your food, and make your meal more enjoyable as a result.

Old tomatoes, however, once you look past the enticing, shiny exterior and mouth-watering picture on the label, will result in nothing more than disappointment, and serve no better purpose than being splattered all over the kitchen wall.

Eloquent as ever, Ms Charley. But don’t think that excuses you for any tardiness with the new chapters of St. Mallory’s Forever! (which of course is Mary-Sue free – everytime I try introduce one Charley & Miriam edit her out).

So, is Charley right? One thing that really strikes me is that while these characters are unquestionably aimed at appealing to the lower end of the male audience spectrum, the core readers and viewers are usually female.

And don’t think us male readers and viewers don’t feel exactly the same about the Gary-Stus with their dashing good looks, rippling abdominals and perfectly ironed boxer-shorts.

What say you guys?

  1. I waned to put Gary Stus in there, but I guess I forgot to … dammit.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with Charley and her examples are SO spot on it made me laugh. Out loud. Like a dork.

    This is why my Morgan is a bit overweight, goes on REALLY bad dates, and has ISSUES with commitment. Yes, her hair shines in the sun, but that’s ’cause it’s thanks to Lady Clairol. Because she’s a real person.

    Um, well not REAL real.

    Aw, heck. You know what I mean.

    This is also why one of my favorite female leads is Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. She’s clutzy, lazy, addicted to donuts (and other junk food), and has a penchant for getting her cars blown up. She’s also quite possibly the WORST bounty hunter ever. But doggonit, she’s fun.

    • With both you and Ann R Allen recommending Janet Evanovich it’s clearly time I joined in and added some to my Kindle!

      • They are pretty awesome, Mark. And freaking hilarious! Her Stephanie Plum series is one of the few that has me actually laughing out loud while I read.

  3. I looove the picture. I’ve done a six-foot-tall heroine, but she was a geek and a klutz. 😉 I think it’s just a matter of giving them flaws (preferably flaws that actually matter and can get them into trouble…) and traits that make them stand out from the stereotypes. 🙂

  4. I’ve been planning a post on Mary Sue (and Gary Stu) but I can’t do it better than this. Hilarious. And yes, Bella is kind of a Mary Sue, isn’t she? Mary Sue doesn’t have to be gorgeous, but if every male inexplicably falls in love with her, she always wins, and nobody can survive without her, she’s still a Mary Sue.

    It’s fine to create perfect-looking characters, as long as they’re evil and we get to give them their come-uppance

    • Thankfully this lot have exams to contend with, in between writing St. Mallory’s, so we have a short while longer before the next generation take the reigns and shunt us off to wherever it is bloggers go to die.

  5. This is just perfect. Charley, you really nailed it. That picture is wonderful.
    Did you create it?

    • Thanks for joining us, Barbara!

      Btw, for everyone else, Prue Batten is over at Barbara’s site today!

      • Barbara, you’re an absolute angel!

        Hmm, Mary-Sues… must admit I’m going back over Gisborne to make sure Ysabel isn’t one, nor that Gisborne isn’t too much of a Gary-Stu.

        I think, Mark, you said one thing which has great relevance: the vast majority of readers of certain genres are women and they do quite like the typical Gary-Stu. They really aren’t going to be interested in a pimple-faced, B-O endowed, fart-smelling hero with no brains… not unless just before the end of the novel, he’s been kissed by a Princess Frog and turned into a handsome prince. I guess what I am trying to say is that the Handsome Prince-Cindarella syndrome has been with us since the dawn of fable and is the kind of thing women have loved to dream through the centuries. The twelfth century troubadours’ success was because their poems/songs/stories idealised their characters and had women AND men crying with the beauty of what they were being told. It’s a hard mould to break free from although i am not denying it can’t be done.

        In addition, many women like the idea that the handsome bastard is capable of redemption… it’s what makes them read further.

        PS: I have to confess I think Gisborne (dark, moody, tall and a potentially redemptive bastard) is welcome to knock at MY door anytime!

  6. Haha… great post. I think some readers want to see themselves as those kinds of characters… take Bella. She’s so dumb, sure, but some women enjoy imagining themselves in the arms of a vampire or werewolf or whatever. They enjoy the sense of being saved… the “dumbness” of the character can relate to the “bad” in their personal lives, if that makes sense.

    I prefer to see strong lead characters, but I understand why it’s easy to fall back to a Mary-Sue.


  7. I recently took a very unofficial poll on what readers want in a male second banana or love interest. Happily most of the women chose Clark Kent over Superman. It made my case for my heroine’s love interest to be vulnerable and in need of being rescued. He also knew enough to put the seat down.

  8. Thank you so much everyone for all the lovely comments! I can see where you’re coming from with the reader-character dynamic with Mary Sues, but personally I’d rather be the clumsy mage who turns things into radishes than Stella Moonstone Jasmine Snape-Potter with her stunning sapphire eyes and pouty cherry lips any day.

    Everybody loves misfits, right? And isn’t the point of reading to get away from day to day stuff? That, and it’s no fun reading about these people if we know every challenge is just going to bounce off them! I, for one, want a bit of blood and gore … just occasionally…

    • gerrymccullough
    • October 3rd, 2011

    I love this post, Charley – so funny and true! But I have to say that I still enjoy Lara Croft and her predecessor Modesty Blaise – definitely not Mary Sues, in my opinion, but maybe a bit too close to them!
    My own female leads, Sheila and Phil and Mary in Belfast Girls for instance, are, I hope, real people with plenty of flaws, even if they are fools for the men in their lives – but hey, which of us isn’t, alas?

    • Miriam Joy
    • October 9th, 2011

    I agree about the tardiness. I handed over responsibility ages ago, beast! 😉

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