It’s Danny Gillan! Or is it Mary Sue?

Posted: December 23, 2011 in Friday Guest

Mary Sue, Is That You?

Are you self-obsessed, vain, overly aware of the flaws of others yet almost pathologically unable to spot the negative aspects of your own personality? Congratulations, you’re fully qualified to be a writer!

‘Write what you know’ is, generally, good advice for writers, but how about ‘write who you know’? It’s a commonly held, and probably accurate, belief that most writers, certainly in their early work, base their main characters at least in part on themselves. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this approach – it can be a great way to make the character’s thoughts and actions feel natural and believable. After all, who do you know better than yourself? Well, lots of people, actually.

Most people, not just writers, don’t know themselves half as well as they might think. We think we’re aware of how the rest of the world sees us, but do we really? Given that pretty much everyone else on the planet regularly act like dicks, it’s likely, inevitable even, that we do, too. Except, in our own heads, we don’t, do we? We’re smart, self-aware and, above all else, good people who do the right thing all the time and are never to blame when the jobbies get lobbed at the Dyson Blade. Someone else is always at fault, not us. It’s just how our brains work. If we were all to acknowledge our dickishness suicide rates would be a lot higher. It’s a survival mechanism. Realistically, I can think of half a dozen instances where I’ve acted like an arse in the last 24 hours, and I’ve spent most of that time at home alone.  Having just been honest enough to say that, I shall now go back to convincing myself I haven’t been an arse at all and it was all someone else’s fault. See? Hardwired.

And it’s this species-wide character deficit/only-way-we-can-look-at-ourselves-in-the-mirror-of-a-morning that is dangerous territory for writers. If, deep down, we know were writing about ourselves, it’s very tempting to allow that never-a-dick-and-always-right instinct to infect our protagonist. Worse, it can infect all the supporting characters too, so that they never seem to notice when the lead character is being a twat, even when they are clearly being a twat. And this is when we enter Mary Sue land.

The term Mary Sue came from the world of Fan-Fiction, specifically Star Trek Fan-Fiction, and was used to describe a ‘new’ character who is a clearly idealised version of the author and who has a massive impact on the lives of the established ‘canon’ characters. They’re highly intelligent, attractive and resourceful and end up saving the day and getting the girl/guy/Wesley Crusher. Their magnificence makes all other characters pale into oblivion and they have no flaws. All the other characters come to love/worship them and every single thing that happens in the story only occurs to show this Mary Sue for the paragon of perfection she/he is. It’s wish-fulfilment posing as fiction.

Like all good sci-fi threats, the Mary Sue virus has escaped from its indigenous home and now casts its hideous shadow over the world of original fiction. It doesn’t take very long to spot numerous examples of Mary Sueness in unpublished works on writing sites all over the land of web. The hero or heroine who never deserves the bad luck thrown at them, who is a secret genius, star athlete, catwalk model in waiting or, worst of all, unrecognised but unnervingly talented writer –  they’re all out there, and they’re all rubbish.

If you’re going to base a character on yourself, you need to embrace your inner arsehole and let it shine! Don’t write them as you wish you were, write them as you actually are – as big a dick as everyone else.

That way, readers might just find something about them they like and, deep down, can identify with.


Danny Gillan used to pretend to be a musician, but now having reached ‘a certain age’ finds fake-writer to be a more sedate fake-profession. Danny is a Contributing Deputy Editor for Words With JAM, the free online writing magazine. He has no idea what this job title means.

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Check out Danny’s books on Amazon. Click on a cover to see it nice and big! Will You Love Me Tomorrow? Scratch. A Selection of Meats and Cheeses.

  1. excellent post, Danny – I’m now off to embrace my arsehole

  2. The hero of my whdunits is based on me, Danny. He’s liverish, bad tempered, a tight arse and a smartarse, and he’s always right. Now you have me worried. Is he too perfect?

    Great post and great advice from you, as usual.

    And thanks to the young lady who allowed you to speak (apologies, but I coulnd’t find your name anywhere on the site.)

  3. Jill Marsh says:

    “Realistically, I can think of half a dozen instances where I’ve acted like an arse in the last 24 hours, and I’ve spent most of that time at home alone.”

    Me too.
    But reading this has cheered me right up.
    Thanks Danny. Thanks Sue.

  4. Danny Gillan says:

    Just make sure you wear latex gloves, Johnny 🙂

    David, sounds to me like you’ve got the balance just right.

    Big thanks from me to Sue for allowing me to talk nonsense on her otherwise excellent blog.


  5. danholloway says:

    Marvellous, Danny. I think it’s hardest of all to do this in dialogue, because that’s the place we all wish we could shine – all those clever ripostes and snappy put donws we think about as we lie in bed having said nothing or banal drivel. We store them up as fodder for our protagonists. And we have the excuse that dialogue isn’t meant to be naturalistic. We’re told to ditch the tediums and the humming and hahing. So easy to replace it with all that fantasy smart arse stuff

  6. Danny Gillan says:

    Good points, Dan. I actually make a point of leaving in some of those ums and ahs as I think they can be as good at defining a character as any amount of description/backstory etc.
    I’ve never quite agreed with the idea that dialogue shouldn’t be naturalistic, or at least, natural for the character. Obviously, though, genre has a role to play here. Given that I mainly write comedy about Scottish idiots, I find dialogue comes pretty easily …

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