I Am Sue
I’m not going to define the term ‘Mary Sue’ for you, because that’s been done.
What I want to talk about is why we write characters like this- the psychology behind the Sue, as it were. A Sue is not made by her (I would say his, but for everloving reason, when was the last time you heard a character called out as a ‘Gary Stu’ or whatever watered down variant you want to call it) traits, (someone in our Disqus mentioned someone with naturally white hair with purple eyes and etc.- but I do believe that George RR Martin has a character with that coloring, and he did fine) but rather the feeling that the reader picks up from her. Don’t ever discount your instincts as a reader or your readers’ instincts, because they are what make or break a novel.
What are a ‘reader’s instincts’? It’s your normal instincts, applied to fiction. There are some people that you just don’t like and some characters that you have boundless faith that they are actually good under the baddie persona. In both cases, you are picking up on small signals that give you information about the person, and allowing you to make calls about them.
When the characters aren’t strong enough to hold a reader’s attention, however, they start to analyze the author in the same way, whether they are aware of it or not. Self-insertion, author opinion, etc, are usually frowned upon, simply because we came here to read fiction, dammit, not meet a new real person (if we wanted to do that, all we’d have lifted our head out of the book already).
Sometimes, though, readers don’t mind a strong narrative voice overlapping into that kind of territory (at FYCD, for example, you are all rather tolerant of when the other mods and I show a little personality), because they like the author.
I’ve heard that every disguise is a self portrait. That’s why every character is born from the author, in one way or another. Even the most autonomous character is created from the author looking inwards and then writing about it. Sues tend to not be autonomous. Which is why I normally prefer to just say ‘badly developed character’.
But why do we react so strongly to the portrait known as Sue? Because we all remember, and hate, the person that we were when we wrote Sues. The person that I typically imagine writing about Sue and her wild adventures is someone of roughly middle-school (that’s 11-14ish, ye that have not the hell known as middle school) who is immature, creative, and up to their eyeballs in the angst that is part and parcel of that age group. Think back *harp strumming sound* you’ve all been there.
- You desperately want to be ‘different’, to show your differences on your exterior, because otherwise you are lost to the lowing herd of stupid preteens. But your parents won’t let you or you may not be into the hassle of dying your hair purple and wearing color contacts- and besides, that wouldn’t show that you were born different, it wouldn’t show that you are inherently, genetically separate from these idiots.
- You are not special or particularly good at anything, or at least, you feel that way. From this root, we grow ‘Overly Average Sues,’ or on the other end of the spectrum ‘Massively Talented Sues’, because honestly, after an hour of Spanish class in which tu comprende nada, who wouldn’t want to just learn three languages instantly?
- Everyone else sucks. There are nice people at that age but a lot of people act bitchy. This is a true fact. So that’s why you’re desperate to show that you are ‘not like other girls/boys’ and you’d really rather just be besties with a great big wolf or some other kick ass animal that would follow you around and not judge.
- Your sense of what is ‘romantic’ is underdeveloped. That’s actually it on that point. Shudder.
- You feel powerless. This one more than anything else is what makes a Sue, because Sue is, at heart, a power trip. She’s everything about strength and power that you thought or were taught were important at that age that were most invariably wrong.
Seriously. Go reread a journal or something you have from that time, it’s sickening.
Which is why we react to Sues. They come from an old, visceral place. We can sense the writer’s hand very strongly, and that forms for us a portrait of the writer- a portrait that reminds us of ourselves at a time when we likely did not like ourselves, that still remains in certain ways. I know I used to be like that, in some ways more than others. I freely admit that I was a bit of a bitch in those years, and while my characters weren’t rainbow colored, they lacked maturity. While I have mostly outgrown it, as I hope you have by the time you’re my age, some elements remain, if only as memories of how not to act. I am Sue.
So, rather than rolling with your emotions and using the ready-made label next time you are out critiquing a story, think of where the author is coming from.
It’s not about shaming.
It’s about growing as a writer.
We’ve all been there, so sit back, look at who is probably writing this, and then put your emotions on hold and look at it as objectively as you can.
Try to imagine their writing with a fat helping of maturity, experience, and growth. Now, leave that parts that will be fixed by that alone, mention specifically the parts that are bad and why you feel that, and remember to think about what is good, and mention that as well.
That is all.
I hope that that was helpful or enlightening to you.