Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Characters: the Mary Sue line

I re-read Beth's excellent post on characters and their relationship to the writer, and it plus a comment one of my oldest friends (who just recently looked at my first chapters) made about my MC got me thinking...

Where is the line between basing a character on some of your experiences and writing yourself into the story?  How much of you-the-writer has to be present in the character for it to be called a Mary Sue?  And to what degree is intent a factor?

The comment my friend made was to the effect of "Elspeth is obviously a Mary Sue, but that's okay."

Well, no.  Because I didn't intend for her to be.  I mean, yes - I set out to give her some similarities to myself.  But I have never intended to write myself into the story.  Elspeth is not an idealized version of me.  Writing this book is not a way for me to live out a fantasy of going back in time to the Scottish Highlands and meeting a kilted warrior.  (DH would look good enough in a kilt to suit my tastes, thank you very much...if I could ever get him to wear one.)

Every trait Elspeth shares with me is for a reason: 

If we have a similarity of appearance, it's because as an average-sized brunette I like to see average-sized brunettes as romance heroines.  There are far too many impossibly petite blondes with violet eyes and waists the hero can span with his two hands, IMO.  Beyond basics (hair and eye color, dress size) Elspeth and I are not twins.  When I describe her, I am not describing me.

We share a profession because of the way I'm handling the time travel.  I'm a physicist, so I'm going the sci-fi route there.  Ergo, a physicist heroine.  I can explain the mechanism to the reader through her hypotheses.  This is hardly the first time-travel romance to feature a physicist heroine.  If it's the first one actually written by a physicist, well that's out of my control.

Related to that, why make her a medical physicist, specifically?  Well, mainly because - as I mentioned - the "physicist heroine" had been done.  Usually as the brilliant research Ph.D. looking into time-travel or somesuch.  Medical physics is a relatively unique field - there are only about 3000 practicing in the country, out of a population of 300 million.  So to the reader who has never heard of it (most), it's a new twist.  Plus I'm all about promoting the profession - we're generally backstage types.  *g*  But in this case giving her the same job as myself was a conscious decision after eliminating other possibilities, because it fit the needs of the story and differentiated her from other heroines.  If I had a really common job, I would have chosen something different for her to do.

And a big one: her ex.  I admit I drew from my own past when I decided to have her fiance and best friend go behind her back and break up her wedding.  I wanted to establish sympathy for her right off the bat, and that kind of betrayal will engender it pretty quickly.  Yes, I named the fiance after my ex-boyfriend that went out with my best friend in high school.  Yes, I named the best friend after my former best friend.  But I was never engaged to him - it was a silly high school thing.  Still, maybe I'm bitter?  Nah - I love my husband, and the ex and I would never have lasted.  Why keep the names?  I liked how they fit with the story.   Those characters are not the people from my life any more than Elspeth is me.  For one thing - and anyone who knows him and reads my book will realize this - the way Elspeth's ex acts when she returns is completely different from the way they guy I dated act(s).  For one thing, Elspeth's ex is still straight.  *w*  All I kept were the names and the basic setup.

And hey - she lives and works in my city.  Because I like it here.  Because I can describe it in detail.  Because there's (no joke) a Glencoe Farm for Alec to get a job at.  Lots of writers do this, or so was my impression.  And really, very little story time is spent in her city.  The majority of it is in seventeenth century Scotland, which is requiring extensive research on my part.

Oh, and her name.  Yes, Elspeth has been my screen name for years.  Because I liked the name, and the uniqueness of it.  (Hello, I'm a Jennifer coming out of the late 70's/early 80's when every 3rd girl just about was named that.)  I had intended for it to be my pen name, but when I started writing and then found out it was Scottish, she laid claim to it and wouldn't let go.  It suited her, and I've redirected to "Rebecca Gabriel" for myself.  For the record, had DH agreed, I wanted to name a daughter Elspeth whenever we had one.  So it's less identifying the name with myself than using a name I just really liked.

Other aspects in which I intended to share with Elspeth have fallen by the wayside as the story has developed.  No pottery.  Her relationship with her father is strained and distant.  She's lost her mother to cancer (a prospect I don't even want to imagine).  Certain plot points have been dropped, others changed, when she has spoken/reacted unexpectedly.  I've given her her head, and the more I write the more differentiated we become.

So where does that leave me?  Despite my best intentions, have I with "blithe obliviousness" (to quote Beth) created a Mary Sue in Elspeth?  Does the fact that I chose our similarities on purpose, but NOT to put myself in the story, mitigate?  What about all the other characters that have come alive (Alec, Mairi, Iseabail, Teresa, Ormelie) and have nothing in common with me, oftentimes far from it?

I think the big indicator is how I feel about her and Alec.  I'm not in love with Alec for myself.  When I write scenes between them, I'm not imagining myself in her place.   I've really come to care for them as individuals, and for their relationship.  Reading over the handfasting scene and the reunion scene make me misty, because I am happy for them.  But even though the major emotional/sexual scenes between them have already been written, I feel impatient for them to get together, as if it isn't real until the entire story is told.  Once the plot is contiguous, then their HEA kicks in.

Another thought: is it just that people near and dear to me are going to be more likely to look for and see "me" in her and themselves in the other characters, and will that color their perceptions?  It's like a fortune/horoscope: you interpret the vague based on what you expect, mentally conforming it to the shape of what you know in your own life.  Will they just roll their eyes and smile indulgently when I claim for the umpteenth time that really, all of these characters created themselves from the bare framework I gave them, and some from complete scratch?  Will none of this matter to someone who hasn't met me and doesn't know all the sordid details of my life, and who identifies the characters with people from their own existence?

I'm laying all this out and asking because I don't want to commit the amateur mistake.  I still have time to change aspects of her character.  I can make her a Ph.D. research scientist.  I can change her physical description (slightly).  Heck, I can change her ex's name, the city she lives in, and her cat's name (a tribute to my own dearly departed companion of 17 years).  Most of these play very minor roles in the story.  Things I can't change about her are the fact that she's a physicist (of some type), her martial arts training, her temper, or her sense of humor.  I can't predict or direct exactly what she will say in given situations, any more than I can Alec.  ( He has some gems, let me tell you.  *g*)

So, while I'm working on the SFD, and as I prepare for the rounds of rewrites, what should I do?

(And gah - I have spent my entire writing block working on this post.  Sometimes I guess you just need to work things out.  But I really do need wordage too.  Guess another late night for me...)


NBB said...

I guess people have different opinions on what a Mary Sue IS, but for me Elspeth is definitely not one. So what if she shares some things with you? That only means you'd get along rather well if you were to meet her in real life...
(Do you remember what Diana said about Mr. Willoughby in regards to his size? - one person can only have one size. The same applies to other things, you have to make a decision for your characters somehow)

My view on Mary Sues mainly comes from reading fanfiction and there she would be defined as a person who naturally solves every problem thrown in her way in the best way possible, she's the nicest, bravest etc. person ever, gets along with everyone yadda yadda.

Elspeth is definitely not like this.

And I cannot shy away from writing a strong woman only because other people might think she is a Mary Sue (it's a perception thing of course - some people might, some might not). There ARE strong women out there.

It's a dilemma, but you did right with what you did, in my opinion :)

Jenny said...

Nina -

Thanks for the encouragement! My friend is coming from a fanfic background, too, and I wonder if that makes a difference in what she meant. She's also only seen the first few chapters, which are admittedly very rough and destined for major rewrites.

Elspeth by no means is the "best" at everything or solves all problems. She has a temper, and she makes mistakes - her impatience leads her to ignore Alec's warning and ride out onto a frozen loch, where she ends up falling in and delaying their entire mission, for example. (Which, by the way, I wouldn't have done - that was all her.)

Oh, and the time difference (your other comment) is funny sometimes. Hooray for world connectivity!

Precie said...


I don't know that this is something you can know definitively right now. Like you said, this wip is subject to rewrites, and there are aspects of Elspeth's character that are very different from yours.

Incidentally...have you tried taking the Mary Sue test at this site:

Precie said...

Ooh, perhaps a better version of the test:

Mary Sue Litmus Test

Beth said...

A Mary Sue is (I believe) not just an idealized version of oneself, she's the idealized version of Woman. She can do anything, solve anything, handle anything. She is is smart, brave, beautiful, unselfish. She hasn't got a flaw, or if she does, it's endearing. She's...well, ever read the Jean Auel books? She's Ayla. [g] (Despite that, I loved Clan of the Cave Bear and The Valley of Horses, and at least liked The Mammoth Hunters. They went downhill after that.)

I don't think you have anything to worry about.

Jenny said...

Thanks, Beth, that means a lot!

I'm comfortable again with who Elspeth has become. But I also know the pitfalls to watch for. A good thing, IMO.