Nice To Meet You, Mary Sue, Er, I Mean, Anastasia….When Fan Fic Writing Techniques Appear In Mainstream Novels

I’ve spent two posts discussing “Fifty Shades of Grey” and the negative themes and destructive plot lines that weave through the series.  In all fairness, I never acknowledged the fact that E. L. James has done something I HOPE to do some day. She wrote and published three wildly popular novels, made a mega ton of cash and now gets to see her hard work turned into what I am sure will be a smash hit. That’s huge and I am happy for her.

Then, I saw this while I was looking for an image for my last post (which you can find here: https://denisedufresne.wordpress.com/2015/01/29/how-do-i-know-the-grey-areas-of-courtship-seduction-and-manipulation/)

Uh.....

Uh…..

So, I thought, you know, I don’t recall ever seeing Ms. E. L. James, but why do I have this weird image of her being a curvy dark haired woman?  So, back to Google I went.

She could be my British twin...FREAKY!

She could be my British twin…FREAKY!

I'm the sun deprived brunette in the front

I’m the sun deprived brunette in the front

Suddenly, things about the Anastasia character in ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ were very, very clear.

She’s stunning and unaware of how beautiful she is. She’s quirky, shy, awkward or clumsy and this makes her irresistible and endearing. She has a signature gesture that drives the men around her wild and there may even be a good male friend around her that has been secretly in love with her forever. A paragon of virtue, even under the most difficult of circumstances, and don’t get me started on that talent of hers. She’s the most skilled at whatever she decides to do that people are amazed. Oh, and her name is never Joanne, Marie or Becky. It’s always something exotic and different, even though she is just the girl next door. The man that finally gets her is  as exceptional as she is and oh, does he appreciate her for every adorable flaw she has, including a curvy, non supermodelish figure and a healthy appetite! Only her love will save or redeem him from the blahness of his life, the rut he was in before she appeared on the scene.

Let’s meet some of these special, sparkling snowflakes, shall we?

Bella Swann: A beautiful loner whose best friend just happens to be a handsome Native American boy AND a werewolf. Lovely and special enough to attract the attention of a daywalking, sparkling (*weeps*) vampire who falls in love with her immediately. Werewolf and vampire square off for the heart of the wonderful Bella (Oh how I wish it was to EAT her heart….), but eventually team up to save her from the nasty, bad vampires that object to her and the child (!!!!!!) she and her undead hottie are having. A child that is born and ages so fast it’s amazing! (and stolen right from Anne Rice’s “Mayfair Witch Saga”, too.)

Katniss Everdeen: Master archer with a flawless, captivating singing voice, whose devotion is so great she kept her family together after the death of her father. Selfless and grudgingly beautiful, even as she grouses and grumbles her way to triumph, leading two teen heart throb boys around by their noses. Plucked from the obscurity of her region to improbably become the savior of the entire country and get hitched with the boy who has secretly loved her since they were teeny kids.

Anastasia Steele (whose last name, surprise, surprise, is one of the many real shades of grey…go figure, HUH? One of the most durable substances on the planet, and yet it is the name of a shy, lip biting, mousy girl which is a large HINT at how strong she really is, an anvil.) Clumsy and awkward, our Ana catches the eye of the powerful, mysterious tycoon with a dark (meh) secret, ultimately inspiring him to love, really and truly LOVE her, when every other woman before her was just a plaything.

Sookie Stackhouse: This bayou barmaid babe has a supernatural secret of her own on top of all the other qualities listed above. She can read minds and as it turns out, that’s because she’s a fairy. Of course, this magical blood draws vampires to her,inspiring them to be protective and to fall in love with her, even while werewolves and shapeshifters pine for her. When danger comes to her little town of Bon Temps, Sookie is safe and secure enough to go around saving the day.

What do all of these literary heroines have in common?

They’re all, in fan fiction parlance, Mary Sues. A Mary Sue is an idealized main character that the represents the author. An avatar for the author in the story. You see them in fan fiction quite often, giving the fan a chance to enter the story herself, take part in the action and win the main male character away from the female cast members because they are soooo much more amazing. Being a fan fiction veteran, I know what I’m seeing and I shake my head in amazement. I never progressed to the point of creating a Mary Sue – the fandom I wrote in provided such a variety of characters that I had a lot to play with and an iconic female character to make my own. But, those brilliant, unique Mary Sues populated other stories, flashing their sparkling violet, emerald or lapis eyes, tripping, stuttering or nail biting their way into the hero’s heart, bypassing the female lead with a shy, lovable smile.

Oh..I know what you’re thinking. You’re reading this and you’re thinking, “Hey, Denise, that’s just silly because Twilight, Hunger Games, Fifty Shades and the Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries are all ORIGINAL fiction.”

I know they’re original fiction, dear reader, BUT, both Stephanie Meyer and E.L. James both have had some fan fic experience. They’ve  upped their game and carried their Mary Sue avatars into mainstream literature. It still doesn’t explain why they’d use fan fiction crutch like that, though does it? The simple answer is that it allows the author a personalized window into their story. It’s a written account of their internal fantasy instead of a story inhabited by a cast of characters that come alive for their readers. It’s used in fan fiction because the existing ones don’t suit the writer. Katniss is probably the least Mary Sueish, in that she’s a bit more flawed and it’s not always endearing at all.  She’s mouthy and actually a bit of a bad ass. But, she is still a Mary Sue. So, kudos to Suzanne Collins. 🙂

So, the challenge, as a writer, is to craft original, interesting characters without resorting to using avatars. There’s nothing wrong with using yourself as a pattern, or the people around you as models for the cast of your novel. It’s good practice to people watch and write what you see: a gait, the way hair bounces, eyes crinkling when someone laughs. If you’re doing it right, all of your characters should have some of YOU in them, not just one. This falls under writing what you know, because you’ve been around people every day of your entire life. You know them, unless you were raised by wolves or bears. Think of your mother, your sister, your grandmother, and use them for your main female character. You’ll be happily surprised.

As a reader, recognize when you’re reading a Mary Sue. If the character is just too good to be true, she is. Once you see it, they’re not as enjoyable to read and then you can start seeking out more satisfying female characters to identify with.

Mary Sue characters have their place, in fan fiction. They’re a tool, like training wheels and there is a point where they need to come off in order for a writer to grow. Seeing them in commercially successful novels is upsetting. It’s amateurish and clumsy.

Like good ol’ Mary Sue herself, she blinded everyone to her flaws and charmed them into seeing her as perfect.

You can do better than that. Give your readers a chance to know characters that challenge and inspire them.

I have faith in you.

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6 thoughts on “Nice To Meet You, Mary Sue, Er, I Mean, Anastasia….When Fan Fic Writing Techniques Appear In Mainstream Novels

  1. The only Anastasia that I liked came from petergof russia…….50 shades made my soul weep for the millions of feminist educated women out there that thought the book was the be all end all…

    I haven’t heard the term Mary Sue before (I can’t write fanfic) All the characters in my stories I image off of the idiosyncrasies of people that I know and those that I meet (including you) maybe there is a little bit of myself in them but I try to keep it at a minimum…

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    • “Mary Sue” is a fantasy/wish fulfillment type character. Usually fan fic writers start out as true novices – and that’s their way of making what they dream of when they’re sighing over the show happen, usually in a romantic way. They haven’t developed as writers enough to realize that for a literary character, imperfect is better than perfect.

      You come from a more traditional writing viewpoint, and you know that you’re on the right track.

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  2. Pingback: The Decline of Polite Society – Evidence, Fueled By My Cranky Mood | This Counts As Writing, Doesn't It?

  3. First off, I think only Bella and Anastasia are “Sues” since they have no personality or life goals outside of their romance with male characters.

    But Katniss and Sookie are not perfect people and they have a lot of problems. Katniss is not as selfless as you say. She is actually very calculating and cold and always thinks what is good for her before anything else and she has trust issues with other people. And Sookie has problems what ordinary people have in their daily lives: She has a small wage, she has to pay bills and she always had money and household problems.

    Second, I don’t really like it when you start judging these characters just because they are “Mary Sue”. Foremost because calling a character a “Mary Sue” is used to dismiss and disregard them. Secondly, the word itself “Mary Sue” is gendered female. Why? Mostly because the characters that get cut down the most are female characters. Iron Man is never called a “Mary Sue (Gary Stu)” A good number of the main male heroes in pretty much any shounen (boys) anime (which is pretty much the only anime these days that is on TV) is never broken down like this. It is a term reserved ONLY to female characters.

    So we have another gendered term being used against mostly female characters to dismiss them for, what? Being a female power and/or wish-fulfillment fantasy? I think women need their over the top, perfect power fantasies too.

    A good number of male characters fit into being “the mary sue”. They are perfect, everyone loves them, their power is always unexpected and grand and impresses all the friends and foes alike. And these characters are considered AWESOME and “I wanna be that character.” Characters like Superman, Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Iron Man, Naruto, Ichigo, James Bond, etc. However flip the genders and suddenly “Oh it’s just a Mary Sue character. DISMISSED!”

    I think that these characters are just female power and/or wish-fulfillment fantasies. And there is nothing wrong with that. Power fantasy aspect is totally fine in fictional story. We should not dissmiss these characters for being a (woman) Mary Sue. Instead, for example, we should criticize them if they are bad role models or if writers romanticize unhealthy relationships (like Twilight and Fifty shades of grey).

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    • Agreed, on most of the points you make here. I stand by my comments about Katniss and Sookie because it’s not unreasonable for a Mary Sue to be given an unpleasant quality as a distraction from how SUE they are.

      Of course James Bond is a Marty Stu. Your points on the subject of male wish fulfilling characters are well taken and apt. I didn’t address them because I was more interested in the fact that women don’t read and dream about being James Bond. This post WAS inspired by the Fifty Shades hoopla and Anastasia Steele worship going on when the movie came out. The use and promulgation of Mary Sues in novels written by professional female writers is offensive to me as a feminist. I expect if from novices in the fan fiction arenas – something akin to training wheels. Eventually, though, the training wheels should come off as an author grows in skill and knowledge. Surely women should be able to write female characters with more complexity and depth, and I think the women that consume those novels should demand it for themselves.

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      • Yes, I agree with you that writers should be able to write more complex female characters. Not just clichés and not just the perfect ones. But I just think that in some cases (for example fantasy novel aimed at a young female demographic) there is nothing wrong with a female character being woman’s wish-fulfillment empowerment fantasy. Of course overly powerful and perfect characters are not okay in every story but I think that sometimes it´s fine. I also wish that there would be more talk about these unrealistic male wish fulfilling characters and not just about “Mary Sues”.

        Thank you for answering me even though this essay is over two years old. Have a nice day! 🙂

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