On the notion of the Mary Sue and the ubiquity of fan fiction

I’m a fairly non-social writer, by which I mean when I’m working on something I’m alone with it until I’m reasonably certain it’s truly and actually done.  I have not historically taken advantage of writing groups or posted partials for comment, or really shown anything to anybody when I knew it still needed work.  When I want to put up something for immediate public consumption it’s usually in the form of a blog (see: this page) or a social network posting on Twitter and Facebook.

All of which is to say I don’t spend any time on sites that are designed for community writing, such as fan fiction sites.

(Aside: Fan fiction, if you really don’t know, is “non-canon” writing of stories spun off of the work of an established creation, such as Star Trek or Twilight or… well, anything.  It is written without permission from the original creators– usually– and is designed solely for the consumption of other fans, rather than profit or fame outside of the fanfic site itself.  I am still formulating my opinion on fan fiction, but my preliminary findings are it is an enormous waste of time.)

Because of my lack of experience with fanfic it took until this summer for me to encounter one of its more interesting notions: the Mary Sue.

The what?

A Mary Sue is a character that is an idealization of the author.  She (or he, although nobody has apparently come to full agreement on what the male version’s name should be) is always prettier/smarter/better than all of the other characters.  Essentially, Mary Sue is the naked fantasy realization of the author’s desire to directly enter the fictive world she/he is writing about.

The term can also be applied to fiction that is not fanfic, where a writer might create a main character who is everything he or she wants to be and do.  (This is the context in which I first encountered the Mary Sue, in an article by Laura Miller on Salon.com.)

And now maybe you can see where I’m going with this.

Is Adam a Mary Sue?

Short answer: no.  Probably.

I spent a lot of time telling people who were reading Immortal who also knew me that Adam is a decidedly different person than I am, and for people who didn’t know me this wasn’t a problem.  But the ones that knew me, well…

“I couldn’t get your voice out of my head until page 15o or so,” said one coworker who read the ARC.  In some ways this makes a lot of sense because the book is written in first person, and he knows me personally, sees my emails and so on.  On the other hand, Adam is a fully realized fictional character I pretend to be while writing him.  His decisions are his own, and many of them surprised me when he was making them.  So his voice may be similar to mine, but he isn’t me.  (My answer to the coworker: I created Adam six years ago, he’s known me for three.  I’ve been quoting Adam all this time.)

But is Adam an idealized version of me?

And is he an asshole?

The question was on my mind when I read a new review (SPOILER ALERT) written by friend @annikawoods the other day.  It’s an interesting review because:

A: she said she couldn’t put it down

B: she gave it five stars

C: she thought Adam was an asshole.

This is in no way a bad thing, because really, if one can create a character a reader both dislikes and can’t stop reading about, one has done one’s job well.  And Adam is often described as “untrustworthy” and an “anti-hero” which are both shorthand versions of “he’s a bit of an asshole.”

But now the Mary Sue question seems even more complicated.  If Adam is a Mary Sue that would mean that:

A: I am an asshole

B: in Adam I am aspiring to be an even bigger asshole.

Now, while I am clearly biased, I don’t think I’m an asshole.  My wife, who is also biased, doesn’t think Adam is “me” and agrees with Annika that Adam IS an asshole.

In the beginning

I’ve told the story before about how I started writing Immortal, but it’s worth repeating: I didn’t have much of a notion of the plot, I just wanted to write from the perspective of an immortal character and see what happened.  And in that sense I think Adam did begin his life as a Mary Sue.  But while we might share a sense of humor, I think he grew into a distinctly different person as I wrote.

That’s my take on it, at least.

On that note

And now I’m off to prepare for the launch party, which is tonight!  Hope to see you there.

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No Comments

  1. Madison Woods on October 22, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    OMG, I’d never heard of a ‘Mary Sue’ before. And now I might get writer’s block while I take a closer look at my character, lol. It’s not something I’d thought about, was just writing a story…but now you’ve got me worried.

    • genedoucette on October 22, 2010 at 4:44 pm

      If you read the link to the wikipedia article there are some dissenting opinions. I think stretching the Mary Sue criticism to original works of fiction– not fanfic I mean– is problematic. One could, for instance, criticize The Catcher In The Rye that way.

  2. Jaleta Clegg on October 22, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    I think all of us writers write Mary Sues to some degree. If we didn’t get that far into our character’s heads, we couldn’t write about them the way we do. It’s easiest to write what we are familiar and comfortable with when we first start out, which is why many first-time manuscripts are full of Mary Sues. That’s one reason you should probably ditch the first few manuscripts you write. But once you get some experience it’s easier to make the characters more distinct.

    • genedoucette on October 23, 2010 at 11:02 am

      I think you’re right. To be crude for a moment, I once subscribed to the “write men you want to be and women you want to f*ck” approach to fiction writing. Less so now, but I think that’s a basic mentality.

  3. Annikka Woods on October 22, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    i’ve written a few Mary Sues in my day. Like Jaleta said, I don’t think there’s a writer who at some point or another HASN’T written a Mary Sue. But if you can recognize the Mary Sue, then you know you need to fix a few things. If you can’t recognize it as a Mary Sue…there’s a higher probability the character isn’t one. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it does happen.

    And yes, I stand by my first assessment. Adam is an asshole. And you’re not. 🙂

    • genedoucette on October 23, 2010 at 11:01 am

      I’m still really curious as to whether that’s a gender-specific reaction. His voice has a lot in common with detective novel characters, which is traditionally a male-read category.

  4. Dushan on October 31, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    Mary Sue? It’s more like Jerome Bixbys Man From Earth – but I loved it and I can’t wait when your book goes ebook.

    • genedoucette on October 31, 2010 at 4:00 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! Do you want the email address of my publisher so we can convince them to get the ebook out sooner? I’d love for it to launch in that format too.

      As to The Man From Earth, you’ll find a funny story about that in my blog post “While We’re Waiting”. Here’s a link: http://wp.me/pXlXL-7j

      • Dushan on October 31, 2010 at 7:57 pm

        Hahaha, I just read your While we’re waiting post 🙂 The man From Earth seems written as a short-story-turned-to-screenplay and it had me longing for a lot more – that is why I’m really happy to have found your book.
        I’m sorry – with English as not my native language I misplaced my words – I loved The Man From Earth and since I use my ebook reader avidly I said to myself: What the heck, lets ask him! If there’s no ebook release in the near future I’ll just kill some trees and get the paperback version.

        And I seriously doubt it my email will make any difference with your publisher – since most (good old paper book) publishers are still stuck in distribution ice age and are actually thinking that these “time windows” between releases are benefiting them/you while forgeting that in todays age obscurity it a much bigger obstacle than (potential) piracy of your book. But sure, I’ll give your publisher a thought or two to mull over and I’ll be very civil about it. 🙂

        • genedoucette on October 31, 2010 at 8:03 pm

          Ah! Well then by all means run on over to Amazon and get yourself a dead tree version of the book. I think Adam is much more interesting…

  5. Dushan on November 2, 2010 at 5:17 am

    I’d love to but until it gets a normal shipping rate, I’ll have to wait:
    Items:EUR 11,16
    Shipping & Handling:EUR 22,74
    Total Before Tax:EUR 33,90

    🙂

    • genedoucette on November 3, 2010 at 9:07 am

      Alas, yes we haven’t worked out international sales as yet. Hopefully we can deliver an e-book soon…

  6. WotV on February 16, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    I’m in the “not an asshole” camp. Adam is rakish and occasionally lecherous, but he is what he is and he doesn’t really pretend to be anything else. I may not agree with what he does, but he shows little morsels of caring now and again that redeem him… at least in my eyes. But I may be an asshole.

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