Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mary Sue Baxter

 If you've been paying attention to writing, you've heard the term "Mary Sue" and I had the bad fortune to have Mary Sue shoved in my face last night. The snow outside was such that I spent the evening in with the delightful Mrs. Poling watching streaming Netflix. Before we found an acceptable movie, we sampled two clunkers, "Journey to the Seventh Planet" and also "I Hate Valentine's Day" I was in the mood for Romantic Comedy and the latter seemed a better bet than it proved. We had enjoyed "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and this movie had the same male & female leads. And we really liked John Corbett's work in "Northern Exposure." Sure, this movie had bad reviews, but we could overlook some flaws, right? Wrong.

I don't want to bad-mouth Ms. Vardalos, who seems a delightful person I wouldn't mind knowing, but I saw one huge mistake she made in Valentine's that I've committed and I want to warn you against. It's the same mistake that George Lucas and others have made, so she's in good company. When you watch the opening credits on Valentine's you'll see one name recurring as writer, director, and actor. "There's your problem." Ms. Vardalos works all three jobs. In Wedding she adapted her one-woman show and had someone else direct, also, she had some big names who knew something about romantic comedy as her producers to say those magic words, "you can't do that." Without the words "you can't do that" you get things like Jar Jar Binks.

The trouble with Valentine's is that Ms Vardalos has written a role for herself to play and that character is a Mary Sue. And without a director or producer to say "you can't do that" disaster results. The story has a good premise and I think all the supporting actors do their jobs well. There's just this spinning vortex of Mary Sue at the center of the movie that destroys everything.

If you now what a Mary Sue is skip this paragraph. A Mary Sue is any character, male or female who is the projection of the writer's wish-dream into the story. In my writing, watch out for a male protagonist who looks a lot like Thomas Sullivan Magnum and talks a lot like Wesley Crusher. If you see that character in my writing, schedule an intervention.

My writing friends say that you should kill your Mary Sues. That's not bad advice, because everyone hates a Mary Sue except the writer. There's nothing in the world you will find more boring than my prose about me. When my solipsism is personified in a Mary Sue the reader response isn't merely boredom but rage. You want the reader to first sympathize with and then identify with your protagonist.

That will never happen with a Mary Sue. The fatal flaw of Valentine's is that Ms. Vardalos made her protagonist a Mary Sue. Everything about her character was perfect--too perfect. All the other characters orbited about her and served to setup her lines or laugh at her jokes. So, I started wondering how I might rescue the story were it within my power.

It came to me in the shower this morning. In Romantic Comedies, you generally have two people who'll be together in the last scene having resolved the problems posed by the last 90 minutes of cinematography. Often those characters meet in an early scene and are immediately attracted to one another, BUT the problem is that they're already attached to Someone Else.

This is such an overused trope of such story telling that they made a movie The Baxter wherein the rejected guy is the protagonist. One characteristic The Baxter stresses is the dullness of the character. But if you look at the classics, you'll see the Baxter is not necessarily dull (e.g. My Favorite Wife).

As a writer, you want the reader to be presented with a romantic competitor who's everything your protagonist is not. Strong where s/he is weak. Smart where s/he is stupid. Good where s/he is venal. The worst thing is for the audience to identify with Baxter instead. You want your audience to be identifying and rooting for your protagonist while hating the oh so perfect Baxter. Sometimes this is done by making the Baxter somehow horrid, a snob, a racist, or just doesn't like the love-interest's kids. Or, horrors, a chartered accountant!

That's a cheat. Make the Baxter a better man (or woman) than your protagonist. Better in every way, and perfect--just like a Mary Sue.


  1. Interesting idea. Now I'm going to have to watch "My Favorite Wife".

  2. Good post. Like the looks of your site. Very nice.

  3. Great advice,for an old problem. Sadly I never see Mary Sue in my own work until the dreaded beta read! At that point i question my own worth and feel sorry for me until I pull up my socks and get on with rewriting it.

  4. Randolph Scott has one strike against him in the movie. I mean one strike besides being so perfect. He isn't Cary Grant. ;)

  5. Love it! Everybody hates a Mary Sue, so make her the one who needs to be hated.


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