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Write On is a weekly diary for writers here at dkos.  Our regular host, Sensible Shoes, is off for an indeterminate period, and I believe GussieFN is still taking signups for guest hosts.

Years ago, in a Star Trek fanfiction contest, the rules included a list of no-nos, including: "No Mary Sue stories in which a new character has to prove himself/herself, and winds up besting the crew."  I'd never heard the term Mary Sue story before, but I knew exactly what they were talking about.  Mary Sue is the author's fantasy stand-in, the one whose stories can all be summarized as "I'll show 'em!"

Turns out the name comes from a classic 1973 fanfiction spoof, A Trekkie's Tale by Paula Smith.  In just a few paragraphs, Mary  Sue is wooed by Captain Kirk, gets to run the ship (better than anyone else ever did, of course), saves the crew several times over, and finally dies a heroic death.

Mary Sue is the character who is never wrong.  She (or quite often, he) is smarter, more talented, tougher, and sexier than anyone else.  The other characters are in awe of her.  When she's out of the room, they try to fill the void by talking about her worship-worthy qualities, because they don't have any lives outside of her.  The villains dis her, but only because they're jealous - and only before she kicks their butts and totally pwns them.  

Here's one quiz to see if your character is a Mary Sue.  Here's another.  Both tests mostly give you the symptoms, and scoring on some of the items is not necessarily a bad thing; you don't want your character to be totally bland, after all.  (If you're too rigid about those rules, you'd wind up mistaking C3P0 for a Mary Sue, just based on his weird name and the large number of languages he speaks.)

Luke Skywalker and Eragon have almost identical life stories:  lost their parents early, special powers, cool weapon, scary arch-enemy, etc.  Yet when I ran them both through one of the quizzes, Luke scored in the non-Sue range, while Eragon was up past Uber-Sue.  Luke is a fleshed-out character who learns lessons, makes mistakes, and needs help from other people sentient beings now and then.  Eragon was written by a teenager (this was actually used as one of its selling points), and every other conversation was something like, "I hope that boy realizes how special and important he is."

Examples of Mary Sue characters:

Dominique Francon in Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.  Her brilliance, desirability and integrity are such that she knows the world doesn't deserve her.  (Actually, that's pretty much any Rand heroine.)

Wesley Crusher in Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Who needs a bunch of highly trained crew members when there's always a 14-year-old to save the day?

Rayford Steele (for Tim LaHaye) and Cameron "Buck" Williams (for Jerry Jenkins) in the Left Behind series.  How Mary Sue are they?  Reporter Cameron was nicknamed "Buck" by his admiring colleagues because he likes to buck the system, and they just think that's so awesome.  If you're not reading Fred Clark's ongoing review of the Left Behind series at Slacktivist, you're missing a treat - and a textbook autopsy of what makes for bad writing.

Shannon Michaels in Bill O'Reilly's revenge fantasy, Those Who Trespass.  A TV personality uses murder to resolve disputes remarkably like ones that Bill O'Reilly had with various people.

Brian Kinney on the US version of Queer as Folk.  Everyone wants him (even though everyone's already had him).  Brian is always right and always saves the day.  When he disrespects other people, this merely proves his superior honesty.  When anyone criticizes Brian (especially for his promiscuity), it takes about ten seconds for Brian to out that person as a jealous hypocrite.

Jack London's justifiably obscure The Iron Heel is about a socialist worker's hero.  The novel is narrated by the hero's adoring wife, and she breathlessly describes his "bulging muscles" (no, really), and his stunning wit.  The hero's name is...wait for it...Ernest Everhard.

There's nothing wrong with having something of yourself in a character.  But Mary Sue is too perfect, and her quest to Show 'Em leads to stories that are anything but perfect.  Mary Sue's purpose is to entertain the writer, not the reader.

This is the time of year when we say "Out with the old, in with the new."  So this week's exercise is to write the worst, most over-the-top Mary Sue story you can.  With that out of your system, you can start the New Year writing nothing but your best.

Originally posted to Tara the Antisocial Social Worker on Thu Dec 30, 2010 at 04:48 PM PST.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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In 2011, I am going to write

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