A group blog featuring an international array of killer mystery, suspense, and romantic suspense writers. With premises and story lines different from your run-of-the-mill whodunits, we tend to write outside the box. We blog several times a week on all topics relating to romantic suspense and mystery, our writing, and our readers. We welcome all comments and often have guest bloggers. All our authors can be contacted separately, too, using their own social media links.

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Julie Moffet . Cathy Perkins . Jean Harrington . Daryl Anderson . Nico Rosso . Maureen A Miller . Sandy Parks . Lisa Q Mathews . Sharon Calvin . Lynne Connolly . Janis Patterson . Vanessa Keir . Tonya Kappes . Julie Rowe . Joni M Fisher . Leslie Langtry

Friday, February 27, 2015

Mary Sue and You - How Much of Ourselves Do We Put in Our Novels?

by Janis Patterson

One of the more peculiar kinds of book is known somewhat disparagingly as the Mary Sue. Although it can occur in any genre, it seems most prevalent in romance and marginally less so in mystery and usually but not always is the offering of a beginning or very amateurish writer. The generally accepted definition of a Mary Sue book is that the protagonist is always just too perfect – too beautiful/handsome, too smart, too brave, too kind, too loveable, too adored by everyone they meet, too… everything. Obviously most of the time this is just a bit of wish fulfillment and self-projection by an unskilled author. Yes, there are professional authors who indulge in this fantasy trip, but thankfully they are rare.

On the other hand, some don’t believe a writer can create a believable character without putting a little of themselves into the mix. It is this touch of humanity that makes the character live. So when we are creating our characters, how much of yourself do you put into your people? I’ve asked this of a lot of writers and have gotten answers ranging from ‘nothing at all’ to ‘a passion for ripe olives’ to ‘she’s my Aunt Clarissa.’

I know that writers are all different, but I do believe that most writers tend to make their protagonist the same sex as themselves. While there are some who do write the opposite sex both beautifully and believably, doesn’t the basic denominator of sex itself color our writing? A well-crafted male character will have a different view of and reaction to the world than an equally well-crafted female character, no matter by which sex they are written. 

While I am neither, I have written 20 year old protagonists and 80 year old protagonists, but at the base of their character is the fact that they are women and that basic fact of femaleness does a great deal to shape them.

I’m not going to go into sex stereotypes, which is its own minefield, but say again that what and who we are has to influence the characters we create. As an experiment, we should take the skeletal description of a character – for example, a 35 year old widowed single mother of three who is a welder, who used to want to be a nun and who is allergic to peanuts – and then ask five or ten authors to flesh the character out by writing a couple of scenes. Other than those skeleton points, I wonder how much any of the characters created would resemble each other.

To offer up my own work, my main protagonists are human (as I am), are female (as I am), are Caucasian (as I am), are politically and socially conservative (as I am), are generally tall (as I am not but wish I were) and reasonably intelligent (as I hope I am). Other than that they run the gamut from demure 19th century librarian to arrogant and opinionated old lady to wildly courageous contemporary spy and, should they ever meet, would probably have nothing of substance to say to each other.

I’m not saying that every writer should have something of herself in her characters. Neither am I saying that no writer should ever put anything of herself in her characters. I am instead offering for thought that a part of ourselves does live in our characters, that it cannot help but do so. Our job as writers, though, is to keep Mary Sue at a distance and let our characters shine as themselves.


Rose Anderson said...

Wonderful perspective, Janice.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Janis,

With mysteries, flawed H/H are the the norm. With romances, it's trickier. For example, in the PW review of TEA LEAVES AND TAROT CARDS, the hero was criticized as unlikable because he was flawed. It surprised me. I don't like "perfect" people in fiction, even romances. P.S. I never heard the term "Mary Sue" before. Interesting.

Kelly Jensen said...

It's always interesting to read another writer's take on characterisation. I probably put too much of myself into my characters, but they don't necessarily have my personality, more my quirks. I'll pick one and magnify it, make it their thing. That helps me define them and figure out who they are.

Also, I prefer writing the opposite gender. I think it's because if I am putting myself into the character, using the opposite gender provides that little bit of distance. Maybe? :)

Anne Marie Becker said...

Ah, poor Mary Sue. Nobody likes her because she's too perfect. ;)

I enjoy flawed characters, but I believe what Jacqueline said is true - that flaws are less tolerated in romances. Or they're at least trickier to write. Yes, readers still want the flaws, but which ones? And I'm sure it's different for everyone. As are the personality types I enjoy reading. For instance, I find I enjoy alpha heroes more, and strong heroines, and while they can have flaws, I like these types of characters, especially if they recognize their flaws fairly early on and I can tell they're going to face them. A friend of mine wrote a beta hero recently, and I fell in love with him eventually, but it took me some time! ;)

Oh, and my favorite kinds of movies/books are those where the flaw becomes the strength that saves the day. Love that!

Jan Christensen said...

I have seen this advice before, and I'm not sure that some very famous characters are not Mary Sues. How about Miss Marple? How about Kinsey Millhone? OTOH, of course there's Scarlett O'Hara. Maybe I'm just not seeing the flaws in Miss Marple and Kinsey. That said, I think the advice is good advice overall. I do write a lot in the male POV, but I think that's because I read mostly male writers when in my teens and early twenties. Thanks for an interesting, thought-provoking post.

Kathleen Kaska said...

I have two female protagonists in two different series. Some of my likes, views, and interests occur in both ladies: love of science, baseball, birding. Right now I'm writing a new series and the protagonists is a man. What an education this is! It's really working out quite well.

Larion aka Larriane Wills said...

I agree. perfect doesn't exist and no matter how much your story is fiction, a perfect hero, heroin is too unbelievable.

Cathy Perkins said...

Never heard the "Mary Sue" term before (but the book that permanently lives under my bed probably had that beginner flaw).
An author brings their perspective to the keyboard, so I'd be surprised if at least something didn't show up. On the other hand, I do get assumed (and horrified) when people try to attribute some part of my characters to me personally!

Clare London said...

The "Mary Sue" syndrome was well known in fanfiction, where I started writing online, as an author insert - and also "Marty Stu" for male characters LOL.

This is a great post because it highlights the conflict of the old advice of "write what you know". Of course, what we all should know now is that we can write whatever we like! as long as it's well crafted and plausible

I write M/M romance so I suppose I'm free from inserting my physical characteristics on my characters LOL, but I know I bring my emotional feelings and opinions into their stories.

One of the original perceived barriers to M/M romance was that female readers wouldn't like it because they like to associate with the Heroine. And M/M romance written by women comes under regular criticism, that women can't portray male life if they don't live it.

I can safely say many readers *love* M/M, but these are all interesting debating points :).

Marja said...

Excellent post, Janis. I learned early on that my favorite characters in books, movies and on TV were those who had enough flaws to make them memorable. It seems to indicate a great level of realism. I'm definitely not perfect, so why should my characters be that way.

Marja McGraw

Anonymous said...

There are a few romance writers I don't read because their heroines are so impossibly perfect (Jude Devereaux, yes, I'm talking about you...). And then there are Courtney Milan heroines, who are flawed and wonderful at the same time (yay for Minerva the Iron Chess Beyotch, who at the first tries to make herself smaller--but when it comes to chess, she can't).

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