Thursday, December 16

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, December 16, 2010 10 comments
My Tuesday post, "No Mary Sues: operating at maximum capacity," was intended to get you all thinking about ways to keep your characters perpetually striving towards goals, or at least pondering them, worrying them, feeling strongly about them--rather than letting characters give up and walk away too quickly when conflicts arise.

I'd used the term "Mary Sue" in my title, believing this to be the proper term for the coddled character. I linked THIS "Mary Sue litmus test" which seemed to take the term in a somewhat different direction. The testmakers identified Mary Sue as a "wish fulfillment character" who is not only coddled, but also too precious by half--too much fantasy, not enough reality.

Turns out this link was only very peripherally connected to my point, but it did generate some intriguing concerns and questions in your comments.

Susan Kaye Quinn @ Ink Spells said:

"I think you have to be a little careful with the Mary Sue generalization (like any sweeping definition, especially one with so many requirements). It is undeniably true that Mary Sue characters exist, just like any stereotype. But just because your character may have a "Mary Sue" type characteristic doesn't make them an egregious thing that must be banished from the face of the earth (I think the authors of the test even say this).

Question 1.e. Does your character's name ...
Involve a noun or verb not usually used as a name, spelled normally or not?

Tally - MC in Scott Westerfeld's Uglies. Um, that's a verb (and a noun) normally not used as a name. It's a FANTASTIC name. Also a best selling series.

Question 54: Does your character have the ability to shapeshift?

Never mind that this rules out any story about werewolves, but Modo from The Dark Deeps is a a shape shifting quasimodo character in a steampunk setting. TOTALLY original, fun, and one of the most sympathetic characters I've seen in a while.


The Mary Sue phenom is real, but also a trope itself...."

I think Susan brings up a very helpful distinction--trope versus cliché.

Here's a useful definition:

"Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word clichéd means 'stereotyped and trite.' In other words, dull and uninteresting."
--TV Tropes wiki homepage

Think of a trope as a genre rule. An element your audience expects to be present to make your work a fit for the genre.

For example, it is a trope for YA novels to feature a teenaged main character. No one would dream of calling it cliché to have your protagonist be 16, even if ten million other YA books do. Make your protagonist 47, however, and you're going to have problems convincing anyone your story is YA.

I think one could easily go through the "Mary Sue litmus test" and find some aspects that the testmakers labeled "Mary Sue" traits are actually EXPECTED in some genres. To not include these tropes would put your work out of synch with the genre and make it harder to sell.

What do you think? Which elements labeled "Mary Sue" in the test would you argue are viable tropes and for which genres?

Are elements of wish fulfillment part of audience expectation for your genre? How so?


  1. I think you have to go with your instincts and not necessarily let a "test" determine what you write.

  2. Fascinating topic! And I like your distinction between trope and cliche. It can sometimes be a subtle difference though, one you do need to be mindful of when you are writing for a particular genre.

    One Mary Sue trope that leapt out at me is the idea of overly beautiful characters. Yes, this is absolutely wish-fullfillment: the young girl who thinks she's not beautiful, but in fact she's so devastatingly lovely that all the boys want her. On the one hand, this can easily be over-done and cliche; on the other hand, many teens (and adults) WANT beautiful characters in their stories (this is fiction after all); on the third hand, many very successful stories (Uglies again comes to mind) take this trope, turn it on it's ear, and make fantastic fiction out of it.

    Being cognizant of these tropes/cliches is important, but as Angela says, they can't rule your writing. :)

  3. I don't know about this Mary Sue thing, but I definitely agree with you on having characters always working toward *some* goal. How else to keep the tension alive? Now to go google M.S... :D

  4. I have learned so much from you and Susan this week!! :-)

  5. Susan said it all so well, there isn't much left for me to say.
    I will only add: chose tropes (and every device) mindfully. Know WHY you are using them.

    Another wonderful writerly post, Laurel.

  6. Interesting post! There certainly are boundaries between trope and cliche; I agree with Angela though, that sometimes instinct has to play a part in deciding which is which.

  7. I'll admit, I didn't go through the litmus test. ;) But I think knowing your genre is the first step. Then making your story the best it can be.

  8. Angela: I think it's essential to read very widely in your genre to develop good instincts. I think the test was really intended to help those who haven't ready widely enough to know what kinds of character traits have become overdone.

    Susan: Thanks for stimulating my thinking on the subject! And I love, love, love the idea of taking a trope and turning it on its ear.

    Leigh: When characters lose sight of a goal, the story tends to flounder. Enjoy the link, it's pretty interesting.

  9. Shannon: Glad to be of service. :-)

    GE: I'm going to have to disagree a little here. Things become cliched by wide overuse, so it's the wider world where books are being produced and read that decides whether something is cliche. In isolation, all our ideas seem brilliantly original. As Janet says, keeping current in your genre is essential. :-)

    Janet: Hear, hear! I couldn't agree more.

  10. My impression of a Mary Sue was someone who is pretty much perfect, and everything works in their favor. But sometimes I wonder if readers don't mind Mary Sue's as much as we think. When I was young, I loved reading about characters that were beautiful, had awesome powers, were intellegent and fierce, and an all around bad ass. Because it was a fantasy I could escape to- I didn't want to read about some plain jane, depressing chick who had a bad thing happening to her every other page. But too much perfection can be annoying (and just as depressing) as well. So I think there should be a balance between all the cliche's, stereotypes, Mary Sue's, and downers. YA literature definitely has a wide variety of these.