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/)
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.
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.