Saturday, 29 October 2011

Who Is Mary Sue?

A recent illuminating post from The Writers Vineyard  mentioned a term I had not heard before. The “Mary Sue” heroine" is a female protagonist who is overly-perfect and lacking any flaws. The 'too stupid to live' girl.

My heroines don't quite fit that profile, but my novels are set in a more formal time and I cannot portray them as foul-mouthed, stroppy madams who defy every convention, consorts with whom they wish, and insults everyone as the mood takes them. Women who behaved so in the 1880's, unless they were very rich widows, would have been social pariahs, gossiped about, ostracised and possibly locked away from the world by their fathers or husbands.

In my last novel, I gave my Victorian Miss a conventional, if sheltered upbringing, a pliable nature and the belief everyone's life is like a fairy tale. More Jane Bennett than Scarlet O'Hara. As the story progresses, she begins to make sense of the world around her and how it works, learns that life is not a straight road, nor an easy one for some and no one is perfect. She grows a backbone and consciously decides to stand up for herself, rejects her cad of a future husband, tells the man she loves he is wrong to marry anyone but her - and thus alters the course of her life.

However, according to my reviewer,  her character growth is apparently irrelevant, and the tirade on 'spineless heroines' stands as a major flaw of the novel.

How do we get it right?


Anne Gallagher said...

I read that review. And for what it's worth, not even having read your book, I'd say that particular reviewer is not a Victorian reader.

There are several reviewers on that site who only read certain genres, and when they get full up, they have to review other genres to get rid of the back log. The person who wrote your review probably only reviews vampire crap so knows nothing about the historical romance genre.

How long did you have to wait between sending the request to getting a review? (If I may ask -- I sent in my request two weeks ago. Still no answer.)

Okay, having said all that, I think I wrote the same book as you. My heroine is a sweet 17 year old girl who through no fault of her own gets involved with a much older man. Mary-Sue? Maybe. But you are absolutely right, if a woman did not conduct herself in a certain manner, there was no telling what would befall her. (And with my heroine, everything befalls her.)

This writing thing is the hardest life we could possibly live, not only dealing with rejections, but trying to write a story that has never been written before. Stick to your own heroines, do not let anyone else tell you what you should write, do not read any more reviews.

Some people like reading about Mary-Sue's to see what happens to those perfect little people. It's what makes those characters human, so you keep writing them. I'm right behind you.

Anita Davison said...

Anne you are a star - thanks so much for your support. My exact thought when I read the review was that the reviewer simply didn't get it! It hurts when people trash your work, but this lady obviously didn't understand the point of the story.

Maggi Andersen said...

Many want historical heroines to behave like contemporary women. Doesn't make sense to me. Why not just read and write contemporary novels?

Anita Davison said...

Me neither, Maggi. I think Anne got it right by saying that reviewer isn't accustomed to reviewing historical fiction - maybe she drew the short straw???

Tara said...

I'm guilty of bashing spineless heroines. I think.. women like me want to read for enjoyment and in historical fiction you can make the women more ballsy if you choose, spice it up. I try to stay away from books that I know contain spineless heroines because they irritate me to no end. I tend to lean towards books about women dressed as boys, women as knights, women aviators.. I can see where both you and reviewer are coming from. You want to be realistic, but the reviewer most likely wants to read for enjoyment. Does that make sense?

Anita Davison said...

Maybe - but as Maggi said, if they want their heroines to be contemporary, then stick to that genre - although I agree,there are historical women who were tough and independent. My next one is!

Tara said...

I like historical because I like to learn something while I am having a good time. Contemporary stories.. they are all too similar. It feels like the same story line over and over. Historical allows me to look into the past, into wars and different trials and tribulations and time periods. I just prefer a feisty heroine to show me the history. It doesn't have to be a woman wielding a sword every time, but also not a too perfect, too submissive chick. A mind of her own is a good plus and I think a lot of women in the past had one.. even if they didn't act like it.

Misfit said...

I do like to see a character stay within the mindset of the period, but I do like to see a little *gumption*. Mary Sue and TSTL are at least to me, two different things. Mary Sues are the most perfect, precious, beautiful creatures that ever existed. They are beautiful beyond compare and usually have glowing orbs for eyes with colors that couldn't possibly exist in the universe - and you can spot them at the far end of a dark room. Cut them and they will bleed sugar. If you come across the term Richard-Sue that's a little reverse play coined thanks to an author who has written several novels set in the Wars of the Roses and she's famous (infamous) for making her Richard III perfect as perfect can be. There's even a Wiki page for more info.

TSTL is a character who is literally too supid to live. Someone you want to strangle for doing the stupidest things, i.e. the heroine who constantly stamps her feet, defies common sense and runs out into the middle of a freaking snowstorm after one more argument with her hero.

Hope that helps :)

History and Women said...

I finally got around to adding an email subscription to my blog at in case you want to subscribe to it, Anita.

I've decided to start writing more about myself and my journey as a writer. Love your template!

Jen Black said...

I think you can have your heroine swear and stamp if you have ill-bred young ladies as your heroines - could be fun. Someone on the stage, perhaps, or a Becky Sharp type. Just a thought. As for the basic question, I want writers to be true to the time period. To be honest, only the trollops or the super rich can afford to be feisty. London Society had rules and you stuck to them or were ostracised. Maybe New York or Sydney were different, but I doubt it.