Voice, Balance, & How to Avoid Mary Sues

I’ve been thinking a bit about voice and, more specifically, how do I make mine distinct? I’m taking a break from my role as agent today and giving my semi-annual appearance here as a writer. As some of you might know, I’ve been struggling through my first attempt at fiction. The main characters are based on people in real life, myself being one of them. But I’m finding that as I further develop the plot, my character is changing from its real life roots. Suddenly, I’m not writing “fictional me” anymore; I’m writing someone else completely.

Creative Writing 101 will tell writers to “find their voice.” An author’s voice is a way to personalize their fiction, give it their stamp, and is a way to connect their novels even when they are completely independent from each other. Style, tone, use of language… all of these go into the ever-important “voice.”

Something important for writers to ask themselves is whether their voice and their characters’ voices are two separate entities. Fiction writers base characters on themselves all the time, and (as I mentioned, here) drawing from what you know can often lead to the best ideas. But where is the line between you and them, and how do you keep that balance?

As authors, your writing style comes through in descriptions, narration, themes, and types of characters you create. Those are what readers will associate with you when they recognize your name in bookstores. Once you create your characters and settings, however, you need to switch your focus every time your character says or does anything. Some questions to consider when making this switch:

  • – What type of person is my main character?
  • – Is this how I would react in this situation, or is this how my character would?
  • – Do I use this phrase all the time, or can I allow my character to say it as well?
  • – Given the context and tone of the novel, should my character act this way?
  • – Is my character’s name just my own name spelled backwards?

Not being able to find a balance between your own voice and your characters’ can lead to the unwanted evolution of Mary Sues. If you want to know where the term comes from, feel free to Wiki (fun back story). But, basically, a Mary Sue is a stand-in for the author in a piece of fiction.

Mary Sues are frowned upon and ridiculed by your literary peers, but they are by no means deal-breakers. I can think of two massively popular novels out right now that feature these characters: Twilight and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Mikael Blomkvist is essentially if Stieg Larsson was cast as James Bond (literally) and Bella Swan looks and acts exactly like Stephanie Meyer except omgeveryguywantsher, including the two hottest guys on the planet!

Before you say to yourself, “Yes! NYT Bestseller list, here I come!” remember this: These books are insanely popular because their stories resonated with bajillions of readers, not because these characters were particularly engaging, or even well-crafted. The characters who are memorable and more often discussed from these novels are Edward, Jacob, and Lisbeth – the ones who required more thought from the authors.

Next time you sit down to write, think about your main character. Is he or she just you in a different context? Hopefully you avoid the Mary Sue trap, but if you absolutely can’t, is your story strong enough to back it up?

11 thoughts on “Voice, Balance, & How to Avoid Mary Sues

  1. I like your note about distinction of voice between dialogue (what the character says) and narration (what you're saying about the characters), and how these should be two different voices.

    When I try to write for teenage girls, I get, like, cutesy and stuff, maybe. It's what, like, flows naturally the first draft and it's the exact stuff I cut out later. (Okay it's not that bad!) Sometimes stuff NEEDS to be said in their voice, which is why you use italics.

    But I probably still do this more than I realize. Hm.


  2. How wonderful that you’re writing a book and blogging today as a writer! The topic of voice is fascinating. It’s interesting how an author’s individual voice can shine through the many voices of very different characters. I especially marvel at novels like THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver. She spent ten years developing each character’s voice to the point where a reader could open to any page and immediately recognize which character was speaking. I thought she accomplished her goal beautifully, and yet her own voice resonates throughout THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. Her voice is much the same as in PRODIGAL SUMMER and THE BEAN TREES, although the three novels are vastly different from each other.

    Beginning to write a YA fantasy novel, I’ve been thinking about how to most effectively develop the first-person voice of a young teenage girl whose family has been deeply affected by an oil spill. Great actors like Meryl Streep appear to become the different characters they play to the point where even their facial expressions and mannerisms become those of the character. I decided that it should probably be much easier for a writer to do something similar, to simply imagine being their characters as they create them. So, when I write the teenage girl, I now try to imagine what it would be like to be her. She ends up sounding much different than I would ever sound, and has a much different world view than I do. My mind tends toward seeing the big picture, the forest rather than the trees, political and future implications of things. My teenage character lives in the moment, handling each life event as it comes along. She doesn’t hesitate to use slang or talk about people “puking” from toxic fumes. I’m enjoying taking a journey with this character and think I will learn much from the experience.


  3. No way did you post about voice. I seriously am freaked out. I started my post on voice this afternoon and then paused to run my sweet little niece around doing fun girl things, came back, filmed my vlog and posted it about an hour ago.



  4. @Suzi – I would argue that your characters are inspired by real-life events and/or traits, but that does not make them author stand-ins.

    @Feliza – I agree w/ your wish fulfillment theory. Most writers draw from themselves, but Mary Sues are almost flawless and don't develop significantly, if at all.


  5. Hmm… That's a really good question, Jay. Hypothetically, we could say that Bella Swan is nothing like Stephenie Meyer, since it can be hard to get a sense of someone's personality (even after tons of interviews).

    From what I've noticed, though, characters that are labelled Mary Sues tend to function as some kind of wish-fulfillment vehicle–for example, Bella Swan as a stand-in for the author, except that Bella is universally and instantly loved by all the hottest guys, adored and included by the girls, and then hooks up with a rich, forever young guy who sparkles.

    I think it's the sense of wish-fulfillment that makes my Spidey Sense tingle when it comes to Mary Sues. Things just work out too well, too easily for the character.


  6. I frequently say that all my characters are Mary Sues. (Ok, except for the weird hair color/eye color thing.)

    I use this as a strength (I hope). One of my characters has killed millions of people. I've never killed millions of people (I can hear my mother saying “thank goodness!”) but I needed to know what kind of thing would drive someone to do that.

    So I took one of my traits (being a protective mother) and turned it on its head (a vengeful mother, after having failed to protect her children) and used that as motivation for that character.

    Ok, not all my characters are Mary Sues. A couple of my characters are my son, and one is my ex-boyfriend. But other than that, they're all me 🙂


  7. Nice post, Sarah. I know there's a running joke about everyone's first novel being autobiographical. That was true for me, and it did take a while for me to be able to say goodbye to Mary Sue and hello to the heart of some much stronger fiction. Here's the funny thing. Even if you've progressed past the Mary Sue stage which writers should try to do, as you wisely advised yourself, it's funny how many people still attribute things that happen to your characters to you. Cathy Day told the funniest story at her reading. She just read a story about how her mother left her, ran off with a man, she had to raise herself. One of the audience members tried to empathize with her after the reading, “I'm so sorry you grew up without a mother.” Cathy's mother was attending the reading. Ha!


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