Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Mary P. Thornburg: Mary Sue and the Shark

My guest today is fellow Uncial Press writer Mary P. Thornburg. I always enjoy Mary's posts and when she sent me this one, I laughed out loud because I've never heard the "Mary Sue" concept before. But she has a very good point: who wants to read about a perfect character? Please welcome Mary P. Thornburg!

"Mary Sue Gets Eaten by Sharks"

A couple of years ago, one of my novels got an Amazon review entitled "Mary Sue Gets Eaten by Sharks." I was baffled – my heroine's name wasn't Mary Sue, and I didn't know what the reviewer meant until I found that the name refers to a character type, female or male, who is basically perfect, who's thought to serve as a wish-fulfillment figure for the author. At that point I became offended. What did this guy mean, anyway? My character is far from perfect. She's often petty, she's dangerously impulsive, and she's been known to take a mean pleasure in using her unusual talents to scare people she doesn't like. When people don't appreciate her as much as they should, she sulks. Her besetting sin is pride, and translated into specific actions it gets her into serious trouble every few pages.

I didn't complain, because that's counterproductive and also because it was a funny, funny review. But it did get me thinking about all my characters. Are they believable? What are their flaws? How do their flaws and weaknesses contribute to the conflicts the plot challenges them to resolve?

A good story in any genre needs strong characters. But strong doesn't mean perfect – it means well-rounded and real, people the reader can believe in and sympathize with. Just as a totally evil villain is less effective than one with some complexity (think of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, a homicidal maniac who's polite and honorable and strangely gentle), a totally good protagonist is unbelievable and finally boring. She not only runs the risk of making readers dislike her (because after all, do we really like Little Miss Perfect?), but she also forces the writer to come up with a plot that presents her with more and greater difficulties, which the reader can never doubt she'll overcome. For the writer, a "Mary Sue" character is a lose-lose proposition.

Romance authors seem to be especially susceptible to the temptation of introducing perfect characters. Recently, I read a romance that was almost a textbook case – the heroine was perfectly beautiful, very successful, morally flawless, absolutely good, honest, and kind; the hero was totally hunky, rich, sweet, smart, and gentle, a regular Boy Scout in thought, word, and deed. Obviously, the author loved both characters and wanted readers to love them too. The problem was that there were no problems. The author had to create a small misunderstanding, which of course the characters – both being perfect – recognized for what it was and solved almost immediately. Not only was I not attracted to either character, but reading about them nearly put me to sleep. Mary Sue meets Mary Sue is a big yawn. You hope they'll get eaten by sharks, the sooner the better, but you're pretty sure they won't. You know they'll walk off into the sunset together, but you're not interested in watching them do it.

We all know that a plot needs conflict, problems to solve, difficulties to overcome. With a Mary Sue character, all these problems and difficulties and conflicts are someone else's fault. Mary Sue has to face them and solve them, but she's innocent of starting or contributing to them. As the old song would have it, there may be bugs on everyone else, but there ain't no bugs on her. As nearly as possible, she's perfect, and her perfection is the kiss of death to her as a successful, likeable, real character.

So how do you avoid turning your hero and/or heroine into Mary Sue? As a writer, you have to be interested in your characters. You have to like them if you want your readers to like them. And to like them, you have to know them, warts and all. Remember that your character is human. Even if she/he is a fantasy character, an alien from outer space or a talking giraffe, he/she must be human, which means she/he must have flaws, weaknesses, besetting sins. Blind spots. Do you know what these flaws are? Can you see what your character can't see? Think about this. Make a list, if that's how you go about writing characters. Consider how these flaws work against the character and make the conflicts more difficult to resolve and the goals harder to reach. And consider, too, how meeting and dealing with the problems your plot throws at her will force her to know herself better, to learn and grow, the way real human beings learn and grow.

If your heroes and heroines are real, your readers will recognize them. They'll sympathize with them and pull for them. They'll rejoice with them when they succeed. They will absolutely never want them to be eaten by sharks.

Author Bio:

Mary Patterson Thornburg lives in Montana with her husband Thomas and two elderly cats. That's Fergus in the photo, struggling to get away. Spooky doesn't show up in photographs; we suspect him of not being quite… normal.

Blurb for "The Boy-Wolf":

All through her childhood, Vivia loved the stories her brother told her about a man who became a wolf when the moon was full. She wished the stories were true; she wished she could know a man like that. Now she's almost fifteen, and she knows there never was and never could be a real man-wolf. But there's something about Lashti…

Buy Links:

Amazon.com link: https://www.amazon.com/Boy-Wolf-Mary-Patterson-Thornburg-ebook/dp/B00I2EMJ0U/

Amazon.ca link: https://www.amazon.ca/Boy-Wolf-Mary-Patterson-Thornburg-ebook/dp/B00I2EMJ0U/

Social Media Links

Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/Mary-Patterson-Thornburg-Author-751054628247208/

Twitter: @MaryPThornburg

Website: www.marypattersonthornburg.com


  1. Love this post, Mary! Thanks for being my guest today.

    1. Thanks for having me, Jana! It's been lovely! :)

  2. What you say is so timely for me right now. I've been clearing out my bookshelves, getting rid of the books I'll probably never re-read. One thing most of the discards have in common is Mary Sue--although I never had a name for the perfect heroine before. Thanks for the lesson and the chuckle.

    1. Jude ~ I'd forgotten by now where the "Mary Sue" name came from, although "Star Trek" rang a faint bell. So I thought I'd check Wikipedia, and yes, there's a connection: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Sue

  3. Now I'm thinking back, wondering if I've ever written a Mary Sue. Great blog.

    1. Linda, I've never seen any Mary Sues among your characters. Your leading men are gorgeous hunks, but they're all real, and they are not all the same guy with different names! My favorite is the veteran in Titanium. And your girls are like each other only in the way they charge forward without a lot of planning ahead... which is what gets them into the troubles they get into. I suspect they may resemble their author in this... am I wrong? :)

  4. I never heard of the Mary Sue concept before, but I am well aware of the idea. God save us from boring, perfect characters. Mary (Patterson Thornburg, that is) is an expert on creating real people. I know. I've read every story she's written and enjoyed every one. xx

    1. You are a sweetheart, Jenny, and your characters are all nicely imperfect (except perhaps for Uncle Vernon, who's perfectly weird...)! xx back at'cha