Who the Hell is Mary Sue?

A while ago, I noticed a very frustrated guy on Twitter threatening to block people for using the term “Mary Sue” to describe female characters. I was surprised. I’ve used that term myself, and never thought it particularly controversial, but apparently it has become so.

What did “Mary Sue” originally mean?

When I was a young whippersnapper, “Mary Sue” was a commonly used term in fandom. It referred to a too-perfect female character, without any flaws or nuance. These characters were often found in fanfiction, where the author had written an idealised version of herself, but they also slipped into professionally published books and other media.

So, what is a Mary Sue actually like? Well, she’s the best at everything without even trying. She’s endlessly competent and has many skills that she seems to have acquired magically rather than through hard work. Everyone loves her, but of course she doesn’t care about popularity. She always gets what she wants in the end, despite being totally selfless.

Appearance-wise, there are two options. The first is that she is stunningly beautiful, often with striking features such as unusually coloured eyes. The second is that she is average-looking but for some reason, all the men fancy the pants off her.

As you can probably tell, I find Mary Sues annoying. Most people do. The term was originally intended to make fun of lazy, unprofessional writing. It was frequently employed by women in fandom to say “Hey, stop writing two-dimensional female characters! Give us relatable women with flaws and complexity.”

What does “Mary Sue” mean now?

Unfortunately, there seems to have been a sea-change in the way the phrase “Mary Sue” is employed. Perhaps it’s inevitable that, like any criticism directed at female characters, it has been seized upon by misogynists, who use it indiscriminately. So, while “Mary Sue” used to refer to a female character who:-

  • Is unrealistically perfect
  • Is completely unrelatable
  • Solves every problem without any difficulty or sacrifice

It now seems to refer to a female character who:-

  • Gets shit done
  • Is more capable than most/all of the male characters
  • Gets what she wants

Examples are everywhere, from Game of Thrones to Star Wars. We finally have female characters in lead roles, playing an active part in proceedings rather than sitting around looking pretty, and misogynists are all too keen to dismiss them as Mary Sues – a young girl’s fantasy rather than great characters.

There’s a huge double standard at play. Plenty of male characters are presented as unrealistically capable without anyone batting an eyelid, but we’re less used to questioning the abilities of able-bodied white dudes. The male equivalent of a Mary Sue is a “Gary Stu”, but you rarely hear this phrase tossed around.

So, what do we do?

I have no definitive answer on what to do about all this, and you’re welcome to share your own thoughts in the comments section. But I do have some ideas on how to tackle the over-use of the phrase “Mary Sue”.

The first is to yell “You’re using it wrong!” whenever someone gets the wrong idea of what a Mary Sue is. The phrase was invented to make fun of shitty writing, not to mention the idea that the only way to be a “strong woman” is to be an idealised fantasy rather than an actual person. As a writer, a feminist and a pedant, this approach appeals to me.

However, I’m also a realist and I know this approach won’t work. Misogynists will never admit that they don’t like a female character because she’s a woman getting the job done. They will claim that a talented woman has “unearned skills” or that a girl saving the day “doesn’t seem realistic”. They will always claim they are critiquing writing, not women.

Another approach is to fight fire with fire, and start referring to every strong, capable male character as a “Gary Stu”. So, this Tony Stark is a billionaire, a genius, a playboy and a philanthropist? Sounds like a daft, fanboy fantasy to me.

Tempting as it is, this approach would be exhausting. Strong and capable male characters are a dime a dozen and I can’t be arsed to tear down almost every superhero movie, plus huge swathes of sci-fi and fantasy. It also seems a tad mean-spirited.

The best advice I can give to writers

Just keep creating female characters who kick arse and take names. We don’t shout “Gary Stu!” at every awesome male character because we take it for granted that a man can be anything – a warrior, a genius, a saviour of the universe, whatever. We just need to normalise the idea that women can be all those things too.

Perhaps, eventually, there will be so many female characters in lead roles that misogynists will get bored of tearing them down. Until then, the phrase “Mary Sue”, in its new, unfortunate form, is probably here to stay.

As annoying as Mary Sue can be, I’ve decided to go a little easier on her. A too-perfect character isn’t empowering, but these characters came from fanfiction and were never about empowerment anyway – they were about wish-fulfilment.   

The idea that girls only fantasise about romance and weddings is wrong – we grow up dreaming about saving the world just like boys do, and why the hell shouldn’t we indulge these fantasies in writing?

I’m not advocating lazy writing of female characters. Give them flaws and complexity and darkness. But don’t tone down their awesomeness out of fear of the Mary Sue label. Let them win the fight, save the day and get the boy/girl/pet dragon of their dreams. Let your female characters be whatever you want them to be.

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Poem – “Fly”

I wrote this poem a couple of years ago. Usually everything I’ve written more than six months ago makes me cringe, but I still quite like this one. I’d been learning about the psychoactive properties of poisonous musrooms.

Fly

I was picked for my stomach.

Goat stomach, says old sour-mouth,

but it feels more like a fist spoiling for a fight.

Three days of next-to-nothing,

then a bite of candy-apple-red-devil

and now there’s an ocean at the back of my throat.

It’ll pass, says old stink-eye, and true,

the waves settle – I could sleep sweetly now.

I could sleep like a stillborn, until

the dreams skulk in.

An eye in every daisy’s centre.

A bedspring in the throat of each small bird.

Gold flakes in the silver birch –

a squirrel guards them, dragon-fierce.

But it’s the rats that want to bite

pieces from my cheeks. I’m shrinking.

I’m a prey-creature, down to the bone.

Sometimes it’s a choice

between dying of fright, or feasting

until your stomach splits and poisons you.

A softness on my face. Rat fur.

No, old rotten-tongue’s hands, soft as lambs, reminding me

of my forgotten wings, tattered things

that drag me up where rats can’t scrabble.

The night sky is blinding silver but only shows

through the moth holes in the dark blanket.

2019 Reading Women Challenge – The Story So Far

I’m about a quarter of the way through my first attempt at a Reading Women challenge, and thoroughly enjoying it. I’ll admit to a few misgivings at first. Could I really go a whole year neglecting Patrick O’Brien and Raymond Chandler? Many of my favourite authors are men and a lot of my favourite books are total sausage fests.

But, needless to say, there is a wealth of female talent out there, and so many wonderful books that focus on women. Not as “the love interest”, but as actual people with all the messy complexity that entails. Here are my thoughts on the challenges I’ve completed so far. Beware – there are spoilers ahead!

Challenge #18 – A romance or love story

I kicked off the year with Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Maybe not the most feminist choice for a Reading Women Challenge, but it was January, the weather was shit, and I wanted something fun and frothy.

It did not disappoint. This book is neck-and-neck with Good Omens for the funniest book I’ve ever read. Bridget is basically an incompetent idiot, but worryingly relatable, and there’s buckets of ‘90s nostalgia.

Challenge #21 – A book you bought or borrowed in 2019

This also counts for challenge #22 – A book you picked up because of the cover. I rarely buy books that aren’t second-hand, but I treated myself to a beautiful copy of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!!!!!

I have strongly mixed feelings about this book. I absolutely loved the first two thirds, and then I got to the big reveal. It transpires that the main character’s husband has killed his first wife, Rebecca.

I suspected he had, but since the opening of the novel makes it clear that the main character and her husband are still together, I thought he might have killed her in some tragic accident. But no, he murdered her because she shagged other men and said that she was pregnant by one of them. And the MC doesn’t run away screaming. She loves him more than ever.

So, after this point I found myself hating the MC and her murderous hubby, and firmly siding with “the bad guys”. It made the latter part of the novel much less enjoyable, though the atmospheric beauty of du Maurier’s prose never wavers.

Challenge #23 – Any book from a series

For this challenge, I picked Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. I found Maas’s writing style rather off-putting. For example, she never writes that someone has blue eyes or dark eyes. It’s all “sapphire” and “obsidian”.

But despite the cheesiness, and the fact that one of the love interests growls too much and the other one winks too much, this book is still a lot of fun. The plot is swashbuckling escapism, and the main character is a badass girly girl who loves clothes, candy and killing people.

Challenge #5 – A children’s book

I read Night Monkey, Day Monkey by Julia Donaldson purely because it was lying around at my parents’ house (they run a local book exchange) and because you really can’t go wrong with monkeys.

It’s about two monkeys, one who is nocturnal and one who isn’t. It’s basically a town mouse/country mouse story, with the message that even people (or monkeys) with different backgrounds and preferences can still get along. My favourite bit was when Day Monkey mistakes the moon for a flying banana.

Challenge #2 – A book about a woman with a mental illness

I’d been putting off reading The Bell Jar for years. I’d heard it was brilliant, but expected it to be a big downer. Not so. Although the book deals with the weighty topic of depression, it is written with an incredible lightness of touch. Plath’s prose is lyrical, and there were a few sentences that I just wanted to cut out of the book and stick on my wall.

At first, the book reads more like a coming-of-age story than a novel about mental illness. But after the main character leaves New York, her mental state deteriorates rapidly. This is conveyed vividly, but often with a sense of detachment.

I found her inner turmoil much less shocking than the outside world’s reactions to it. The treatment of mentally ill people (specifically women) reminds the reader that this is a book from another time.

Challenge #4 – A book about or set in Appalachia

I read Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg for challenge #4, but I could also have read it for challenge #2 because one of the main characters suffers from depression. As well as mental illness, the novel is full of racism, poverty and murder, and it somehow manages to be funny. It is an odd mixture of darkness and warmth.

There’s no plot. Or there are dozens of plots, depending on how you look at it. It centres around an elderly woman telling stories to her middle-aged friend about the small town where she grew up. The characterisation is fantastic (Idgie Threadgood is my new favourite) with even minor character being memorably portrayed.

Two more points in its favour: 1) This book proves that you can have happy LGBT+ characters in historical fiction. Ruth and Idgie meet in the 1920s and somehow manage to live together, run a business and raise a kid without anyone batting an eyelid. 2) The local cuisine is described in mouth-watering detail throughout the book. When you get to the end, there is a collection of recipes!

Top Ten Tuesday – Things That Make Me Pick Up a Book

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme where every Tuesday we look at a particular topic for discussion and use various (or more to the point ten) bookish examples to demonstrate that particular topic.  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl and future weeks’ topics can be found here. This week’s topic is…

Top Ten Things That Make Me Pick Up a Book

1.The cover. I know, I know. You’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I can’t help it. If a book has a beautiful old ship or a tiger or something else really cool on the cover, I’m bound to judge it more positively.

2. A strong sense of place. Whether a book is set in the American South or an imaginary world on top of a giant turtle moving through space, I want to feel like I’m really there.

3. A good old-fashioned adventure. Give me epic quests and faraway lands and heroes overcoming insurmountable odds. Bonus points if the heroes react realistically to all this danger and experience real fear and doubt and excitement, rather than just gliding through it like it’s a day at the beach.

4. If it’s written by a brilliant writer. I don’t mean a writer who comes up with interesting stories, because there’s always a chance that their latest story isn’t so good. I mean a writer with a style that I love, regardless of what the story is about. Raymond Chandler could write about a man standing in a puddle and I would read it.

5. The extraordinary hidden inside the ordinary. I love it when someone or something strange, magical or supernatural is tucked away in a perfectly mundane corner of the real world. That’s why I’m such a sucker for Urban Fantasy and Magical Realism.

6. A strong central friendship. Or any platonic relationship really. I’m more of a friendshipper than a shipper, and the love and loyalty between friends gets me emotionally invested far quicker than even the sweetest romance.

7. It was recommended by someone with good taste in books. I do pay attention to book bloggers, but my #1 source of recommendations for awesome books is my mum. She’s been picking out great stuff ever since she bought me Pippi Longstocking when I was eight, so if she recommends something, there’s a good chance I’ll love it.

8. Antiheroes/antiheroines. I find protagonists more interesting when they are complicated, and that often involves a bit of moral ambiguity. Antiheroines are especially fun – they are a great antidote to all the too-perfect, Mary Sue characters out there.

9. Animals. I just love stories about animals. Talking animals who wear clothes and drive cars. Metaphorical animals. Animals hunting humans. Animals being hunted by humans. They are a source of endless fascination for me, and I love animal books from The Wind in the Willows to The Call of the Wild.

10. If it’s cheap! Disclaimer – If you can afford it, you should of course pay full price for books to support the author. But if you’re strapped for cash, there’s a lot of fun to be had in hunting for cheap treasures in a charity shop or at a jumble sale. It’s a great feeling when, in amongst all the generic thrillers and endless copies of Fifty Shades, you find something spectacular.

Five Tips for Writing Female Friendships

I love books with a strong friendship at their core. As well as being fun and heart-warming, friendships can also be fantastic for character development, perhaps revealing rarely-glimpsed aspects of a character.

It’s no co-incidence that the best female friendships in literature tend to be written by women, from L.M. Montgomery to Elena Ferrante. Society has a tendency to trivialise female friendship, implying that it’s not a worthwhile thing for male writers to focus on. This is, of course, bollocks. Female friendship is a beautiful, complicated, life-defining thing and we need more of it in fiction.

If you’re a male writer looking to include a close friendship between female characters in your work, hopefully the following tips will be helpful. If you’re a female writer with tips of your own, add them in the comments!

1)Women do talk about things other than men. Yes, straight women talk about men a fair amount. But listen to the women in your office. Are they gossiping about their husbands and boyfriends, or enthusiastically chatting about what to eat for dinner? My money’s on the latter. We also talk about politics, books, the weather – pretty much anything.

It’s important to remember this when your protagonist is a man, and you have female supporting characters. If they spend their time together talking about the protagonist – swooning over him, complaining about him, discussing how to help him find the missing jewel of Ga’franara – they won’t come across as real women with a real friendship.

Instead, think carefully about what connects them, other than a man. Do they have similar personality traits or interests? Perhaps they aren’t remotely alike but have had to learn to work together towards a common goal. Once you’ve figured out what connects them, it’ll be easier to write their dialogue.

2)Physical boundaries? Lol, what are they? One of the more obvious differences between male friendship and female friendship is the amount of touching involved. This is a generalisation, of course, and it varies between cultures, but female friendships tend to be more touchy-feely.

Women who are close friends may hug frequently, hold hands or kiss on the cheek. We might share a bed in some situations, either out of convenience or just because we fancy a chat before going to sleep. Sometimes we snuggle. Yeah, we’re adorable.

The important thing to remember when writing about all this is that women in platonic friendships don’t see each other’s bodies as inherently sexual things. Your bestie’s ample bosom is simply a nice cushion to rest your head on while watching Game of Thrones.

If you start writing sexualised descriptions of the women’s bodies, you’ll either imply that they are attracted to each other (this is ok if it’s a “friends to lovers” scenario, but otherwise just confusing) or simply have female readers rolling their eyes.

3)Yes, grown women have sleepovers. No, we don’t have pillow fights in our underwear. This is a similar point to the previous one, namely – don’t sexualise things that aren’t sexual for women.

Women are under constant pressure to look sexy, but hanging out with our close friends is one occasion when all that pressure falls away. So a girls’ night in does not involve frolicking about in expensive lingerie.

Generally, we wear comfy clothes like baggy sweatpants and well-loved tee-shirts. We might have some kind of lime-green cleansing goo all over our faces. We probably have Dorito fragments in our hair.

4)We say nice things that we don’t mean. While men often show affection by playfully insulting each other, women tend to go in the opposite direction. We often give our friends compliments that aren’t 100% sincere, say nice things when we’re actually pissed off with each other, and even say the opposite of what we’ve just said behind our friend’s back.

Male writers have a tendency to misunderstand and misrepresent why we do this. It’s often portrayed as women being fake, bitchy, or passive-aggressive. Sure, sometimes it is, but much of the time it’s more complicated than that.

From a young age, girls are taught the importance of being “nice”. We’re brought up to avoid expressing anger or causing conflict at any cost. While young boys can scrap and fight and it’s often seen as wholesome, girls are expected to be peacemakers.

Even those of us brought up by feminist parents are often taught “girls should support each other” without being taught that support can sometimes include criticism and disagreement. It’s no wonder if we struggle to deal with our conflicts directly.

5)Take female conflict seriously. So your female characters have managed to get their issues with each other out in the open. Whatever you do, don’t trivialise this. Conflicts within a female friendship are so often portrayed as silly catfights. In real life, they cause genuine pain and can do lasting damage.

While we’re generally less likely to punch each other than men, a few particularly harsh words can have an effect that’s just as painful and more long-lasting. As with all writing, the reader should feel everything that your characters feel.

Poem – “Things I Miss”

If you watch too many TV shows with vampires, you end up writing stuff like this.

Things I Miss

Sunburn.

The way the skin peels off

like dried glue.

Buttercups, their plastic shine

and neon glow

under the chin.

Walking into a sunset, someone

there, or someone

beyond the sunset, waiting.

Going home to roost

with the birds

with everyone else.

Being just a little afraid

of the wrong sort of darkness.

Having a reflection

(makes shaving easier).

Food with different textures.

Swapping cash for sustenance,

simple as that because

it was a world made for me.

Not having to scavenge,

to live on scraps,

to keep to the shadows and take

what I can get.

Being on the inside though,

God knows

I never realised.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

You know the feeling. You’ve carefully carved out time in your schedule to write. You close the door and switch your phone off. You sip your coffee and crack your knuckles. Your fingers hover over the keyboard and then … nothing. You’ve got absolutely nothing. You stare at the screen for roughly a century, then switch your phone back on and check Twitter.

Writer’s block can take different forms. For example, a writer struggling with writer’s block may be unable to come up with original ideas, or they might find it impossible to put their ideas into words. It can last a few weeks, or linger for years. So, what should a writer do when faced with a case of writer’s block?

DON’T PANIC!

Feeling unable to write can be very unnerving. Writers can end up worrying that they’ll never write again, or that they’ve lost a fundamental part of their identity. Does this sound like you? Good! Writers are supposed to be melodramatic.

Writers are also supposed to suffer from occasional writer’s block. It’s a perfectly natural part of the writing process, and it happened to many great writers, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Maya Angelou. So let’s explore some ideas for overcoming it.

Write through it

This strategy can be helpful for writers (myself included) who thrive on routine and structure. If you’re struggling with writer’s block, challenge yourself to write a small amount – say, 200 words – every day. Be disciplined, and make sure you hit that word count.

But though you have to be strict with yourself about getting words on paper, you should be as chilled as possible about the quality of the work. Give yourself permission to write total crap. Don’t focus on writing to publish, or even writing something for other people to read.

This has the twin effect of making writing a habit, while reducing anxiety. Hopefully, as you continue to meet your word count every day, the ideas and words will begin to flow more smoothly.  

Try writing something else

There are advantages to having more than one writing project on the go. One advantage is that when you’re stuck, you can always switch to another. It helps if the projects are in different genres, or different forms, e.g. poetry and prose.

It may be helpful to try writing something you wouldn’t usually write. Are you a writer of literary fiction who has always wondered what it would be like to write sci-fi? Now is the time to try. After all, what have you got to lose?

Use writing prompts

When you have no idea what to write, prompts can be helpful for kick-starting the creative process. There are countless writing prompts online, but you can always make your own resources. For example, to make your own “prompt jars”:

  1. Get some old jam jars, mason jars, etc.
  2. Label one as “Characters”, one as “Settings” and one as “Basic plots”.
  3. Cut small pieces of paper. On some of them, write character ideas (e.g. a middle-aged wizard, a detective with a secret). On others, write settings (e.g. a haunted castle, a suburb in the Midwest). On others, write basic plot ideas (e.g. a rags-to-riches story, a friends-to-lovers romance).
  4. Make sure the prompts are all in the right jars!
  5. Pick as many characters as you want from the “Characters” jar, one from “Settings” and one from “Basic plots”. Don’t worry if the result doesn’t make a lot of sense – the point is to get those creative juices flowing.

Immerse yourself in good art

Another way of tackling a creative lull is to get inspired by other people’s efforts. As a writer, you should obviously read on a regular basis, but that’s especially important when you’re suffering from writer’s block. Seek out new authors and read genres you don’t usually read. They may contain just what you need to inspire you.

Inspiration can also come from other forms of art. Listening to music, watching a great film or taking a trip to an art gallery can also be surprisingly effective at tackling writer’s block.

Remember that it won’t last forever

Every writer is different, so to find what works for you, you may have to experiment with different ways of tackling writer’s block. Even if it takes a while, don’t despair. You’ll get over it as long as you keep trying.

Do you have any tried and trusted methods for overcoming writer’s block? Please share them in the comments section!