The concept of Mary Sues is common nowadays, and I know I run into it especially as an urban fantasy writer given the preponderance of kick-ass female protagonists with nifty powers. Unfortunately that shades all too easily into Sueism.
Plenty has been written about the definition of Mary Sueism, but I find what interests me more as an anthropologist is delving into what makes people write Mary Sues—and then what makes people buy published Mary Sues. I’m going to use Twilight as my illustration for this post, not because I feel it needs to be raged against, or torn down more, but because it’s a published, very popular Mary Sue that most people will be familiar with.
Over time, I’ve come up with something I call the Theory of Mary Sue Resonance. It has two parts, the writer and the reader.
On the writer side, many peoples’ unconsciouses seem to resonate at a particular Mary Sue frequency. It changes over time based on where you are in life—when you’re single, maybe your Mary Sue frequency has a boyfriend, when you’re unemployed, maybe your Mary Sue has townsfolk falling over themselves to hire her for dragon-slaying. Of course, those are overly simplistic examples, and the unconscious mind is anything but simple. For instance, when I was a teen, my Mary Sue frequency addressed my shyness by having all the important plot-related characters seek her out, rather than the other way around, something that’s only obvious now I have a different frequency.
So what about the readers? Why is Twilight so popular? (Or what’s one of the factors of its popularity at least?) Here’s where the rest of the sound metaphor comes into play. In the science of sound, an object’s resonant frequency is the frequency at which it vibrates. When a writer’s published Mary Sue tone matches a reader’s Mary Sue resonant frequency, it’s like a piece of crystal ringing when a singer produces a particular note. They can feel the vibrations right down into their unconscious, and it can be an amazing feeling. They love the book, because it speaks to something they can’t even quantify inside themselves.
And I think what happened with Twilight was that its tone matched a lot of reader’s resonant frequencies. So what’s the trouble there? Isn’t vibrating down into a reader’s unconscious something we’d all like to do as writers? The real trouble is twofold:
First, Mary Sue tones are generally profoundly dissonant where they aren’t resonant. Sure, some people will feel vibrations, but most of the rest will feel like fingernails have been scraped down a chalkboard. There’s very little “meh” middle ground. Not only that, but as people’s lives change, and their Mary Sue frequencies do too, they’ll start hearing fingernails as well. Your own Mary Sue speaks to you, as do Mary Sues that are similar, but other people’s Mary Sues are incredibly grating.
Second, Mary Sues cause the strength of vibration they do because they are so damn loud in their one tone. They don’t have the ability to touch two different kinds of resonances at once because they’re putting all their energy into that tone. So your one resonant audience is it. That’s all you’ve got to work with. If you as a writer have an unusual Mary Sue frequency, and three other people in the world resonate at that frequency, well…damn. You’re SOL.
So a published Mary Sue is a lot like an opera singer belting one note, on and on. It’s cool if it makes you vibrate, but what about music? That’s where rounded characters come in. They’re chords in a song. Some notes in the chord will resonate with people, some won’t, but dissonant chords can be an important part of music, as long as they’re not the only part. It may be that no note in the song ever gets loud enough to vibrate right down into the reader’s unconscious, but that’s not the be-all and end-all anyway. Having the bass of a subwoofer right next to you rattle your innards is an…interesting feeling, but not one I’d consistently choose over really beautiful music.
So what’s the takeaway from this? You can tell that my goal, like that of most writers, is to make well-rounded characters rather than Mary Sues. What’s the utility of this particular metaphor? I’ve distilled a couple things specifically from this metaphor that I use to bolster my personal writing:
- Know your own Mary Sue frequency. Like anything else from your unconscious, it’ll want to creep into your writing when you least expect it. But beyond checking your writing against a long, general list of Mary Sue characteristics, knowing your Mary Sue frequency can help you spot it the very moment it starts to slip in.
- Give your Mary Sue frequency free reign somewhere private. This is the most personal thing on this list—I have no idea if it works for anyone else, but damn, it has worked for me, so I thought I’d bring it up. I set aside time to daydream my Mary Sues. Pain of death could not make any description of what I imagine about them pass my fingers to the keyboard, but since I let them out into the fresh air, they don’t build up in my unconscious and ooze out into my writing for other people. And it feels good to imagine them! Everyone’s Mary Sues make them feel good, so why not allow yourself that? The trouble is inflicting them on other people, not having them. So have, don’t inflict.
- Give those who read published Mary Sues a break. When a published Mary Sue is dissonant for you, it’s easy to dismiss those who it is resonant for. It’s the proverbial grandfather yelling at his grandson for playing death metal. “How can you like that?” But published Mary Sues are not evil incarnate. They’re resonant for someone, whether it’s the author and three other people or the author and millions. And me, if someone can find something that resonates with them, I’m not going to blame them for reading it. I’m just going to avoid it if it’s dissonant for me.
- Note readers’ resonant frequencies to use as single notes within your chords. This is another “just because a lot of people like it, doesn’t make it bad” one. When you write to your own frequency blindly, you can only use your one frequency. But if you write knowingly to a frequency as part of a larger whole, you can write to anyone’s frequency, and write it so it’s not as dissonant to everyone else. Rather than pining for a boyfriend, perhaps your character asks out her crush. It’s still something that will speak somewhat to people with Mary Sues pining for boyfriends, but it will also hopefully not annoy everyone else.
Mary Sues aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so you might as well harness them to your will!
Rhiannon Held’s novel Silver, the first book in her urban fantasy series, is out this year from Tor. In her day job she works as a professional archaeologist. Unfortunately, given that it’s real rather than fictional archaeology, fedoras, bullwhips, aliens, and dinosaurs are in short supply. Most of her work is done on the computer, using databases to organize data, and graphics programs to illustrate it.