Stalwart Writer #2: The Many Lives of Marty and Mary Sue

TV Tropes defines Mary Sue as something that pertains mostly to fanfic circles. And while that’s certainly the most oft used example, Marty and Mary Sue get their day in pretty much every type of art you can think of. This is, in general, self-insertion at it’s worst. This is the male character who is a normal man working a city job, but turns out to have blah blah blah unforeseen ability. He is not particularly attractive, but every woman wants to be with him and every man is jealous of him. This is the plain girl who has spend twenty years being ignored by everyone when suddenly the college football star decides she has worth.

I’m sure we can all remember once, one book or story we really really liked, until Mary or Marty showed up. That moment when we stared at our reading material in utter bafflement and actually said, “are you freaking kidding me?” But how many of us really look for that in our own writing?

We’re going to cover the three most egregious transgressions (in my opinion) of Mary/Marty Sue-ism, and I’m going to pretend I can’t name at least twelve self-examples.

“She punched me in the face once. It was amazing.”

The easiest bit of character perfection to notice is the way everyone else in your fictional world relates to them. Is your plucky, plain lab assistant beating the men/women/sentient jellies off with a stick? Just how attractive is your nerdy newspaperman without his glasses?

I’m not saying these people can’t encompass those things. Maybe your plain Jane lab assistant is refreshingly pagan and utterly unafraid of hitting on the men around her. Maybe they think she’s fun. Maybe your newspaperman hit puberty late and the way people react to him makes him uncomfortable. I’m a huge proponent of ‘write whatever the h*ll you want.’

Nothing smacks of bad writing as badly as the villain who screams at the end “I just wanted to be your friend and you wouldn’t talk to me!” Whether it happens in real life or not isn’t the point. I’m convinced your better than that.

“I can do that!”

You just yelled that in a Russian accent, didn’t you?

The thing is, the reason that scene works–when Chekhov is rushing through the ship because this, this is the thing he knows!–is because we’re excited right along with him. We’ve all had that moment where we’re suddenly, surprisingly competent. It feels amazing.

But imagine if it’d kept happening. If every single time they needed anything Chekhov suddenly knew how to do it, we’d all get pretty tired of his inexplicable competence. The best way to tackle this is to remember the quintessential theater direction. “If you leave a gun on the mantle in act one, it needs to go off in act three.”

The reverse of that is if the gun’s going to go off in act three it needs to be on the mantle in act one.

Hehe. It’s called Chekhov’s Gun.

“But Neo, you are the one!”

This last one doesn’t just happen with Marty and Mary Sues. It happens with all characters, absolutely, but it seems to be even more prevalent with self-insertion characters. Like we’re all stumbling around on this pea-sized rock hurtling through space trying to figure out what it’s all about.

And the answer is, it’s all about me.

Generally speaking, this is the most forgivable gaffe. The easiest one to write your way out of. Generally it just requires someone who’s motivation doesn’t have anything to do with your main character.

And the lesson for today is…

Listen, like I said up there a couple of chapters. I’m a huge fan of the idea that you should write whatever the crap you want. Write me a story about a kid who gets bitten by a radio-active wallaby and goes on to save the world. Write me a story about a plucky lab assistant who sleeps with everybody she can get her hands on and she’s freaking good at it.

But for the love of all that’s holy, find a way to appropriately ground it.

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