Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Salon: The Mary Sue Effect

I learned a new term yesterday. I was discussing with my husband the book I was reading and mentioned that one of the supporting characters, who seemed to dominate the story at times, shared the same profession as the author and was nominated for a similar award. It worked very effectively in the book and did not seem at all out of place in the sense of pulling me out of the story. I liked the character quite a bit actually--favored her over the main character, in fact. It didn't even cross my mind that this could be the author's way of inserting herself in her own book. I am not sure that she did, mind you. It is just that the coincidences seemed many.

Self-insertion and author surrogacy are not new to fiction. Both are literary techniques in which an author inserts a bit of themselves into their own story. In the case of an author surrogate, an author creates a character that is a reflection of the author by way of personality, ideas, and beliefs. It is not always a conscious effort, however. Self-insertion is much more direct in that the author writes him or herself into the story, more often as a minor character although this is not always the case. Sometimes it is obvious and other times it is more covert. Both can be quite effective if used appropriately.

I wonder how much of the old adage "write what you know" comes into play in situations like this, if at all. I imagine it would be difficult to divorce oneself completely from the story that is being written. I inject a little bit of me in everything I write, even when I am not consciously doing so. However, that is not quite the same thing as self-insertion or author surrogacy. That would be an entirely different topic.

The term my husband introduced me to is the Mary Sue Effect, which is most often relegated to describing an effect that occurs in fan fiction. It is a pejorative expression really, and encompasses the idea of self-insertion and author surrogacy in an extreme way. It is a brand of wishful thinking on the author's part that stands out, is often over the top and pushes the envelope when it comes to suspension of disbelief. That's a generic definition anyway.

The author of the book I was reading yesterday may have inserted herself in her own book (she bases her main character on a real life person and so it would not be too much of a stretch to believe), but I would not go so far as to call it a case of the Mary Sue Effect. It was not over the top in any way and did not seem out of place or forced, despite the fact that the character did take a leading role in the the story as it unfolded. And, not knowing the author, I cannot say whether she is anything like her character or not other than in occupation.

I had never given much thought before to such things as self-insertion and author surrogacy. It was just one of those things that came up in casual conversation. Isn't it interesting, the directions are thoughts and discussions can take us?

I have just began reading Penelope Przekop's novel, Aberrations, about a young woman who suffers from narcolepsy. Angel longs to know the truth about her deceased mother and what she discovers is much different than she ever imagined. I am already entranced. Here's a sample to whet your appetite:
My father is a liar. He claimed to name me Angel the day my mother died. He said it was because God sent me to save him, but as the years passed he shriveled up anyway into a wad of sadness and self-pity. The likes he told about her death became my foundation--they were the kind that anchor little girls when they don't have a mother. [pg 1]
I am also starting a suspense/thriller novel called Rabbit in the Moon by Deborah and Joel Shlian. This particular novel is taking me to China, where Dr. Lili Quan returns at the insistence of her dying mother. Touching on the cultural revolution during the late 20th century and the search for the secret to long life, Rabbit in the Moon promises to be an intriguing tale. I am looking forward to reading more.

Week in Review:
Review of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen
Review of Death Without Company by Craig Johnson
Booking Through Thursday: Beginnings. It's all in the first line.
Off Topic Chatter
General Bookish Talk: Saturday Randomness

New Additions to the TBR Collection:
Good-Bye and Amen by Beth Gutcheon
The Chicago Way by Michael Harvey
The Boat by Nam Le
Stream of Death by Bill Stackhouse

I hope everyone has a great week. It is hard to believe August is just around the corner. Happy Reading!


  1. I had never heard of the Mary Sue effect either, so thanks for filling me in. I can now reflect on several books I've read that I didn't care for where I think this was one reason why.

  2. I had hear of it but did not know what it was. Thanks for letting us know. As a poet, I write lot about my reflections but I wouldn't say I wholly write about myself.

    I too acquired a pile of books and yet to read those. Last week I did not read a single book!


  3. Interesting thoughts about the Mary Sue effect. Thanks for sharing it with us, Wendy! Now I know what it is when I come across such an effect in books. ;)

    Happy reading!

  4. I am still waiting for Loose Girl from LT Early Reviewers. I am almost giving up on it so I don't want to read your review yet! Have a good week.

  5. Since I've read fan fiction, I'm familar with the term. If not handled well, a Mary Sue can certainly destroy the story. I'm with you, though, if it doesn't detract from the story, where's the harm in having a secondary character that is a little bit like the author?


  6. Verbatim - It's an interesting concept, and I can see why it would turn a person against a book or story.

    Gautami - I think the idea behind the Mary Sue effect is that the author is inserting the self into an already existing or separately created world. Adding oneself to the story so speak. I imagine with poetry, it's a lot more acceptable to insert yourself into your writing.

    Erin - I completely understand! I've been avoiding reviews of books I will be reading soon (or hope to anyway). I do hope the book arrives soon. Have other people received it through LT? My own copy didn't come through the Early Reviewer Program.

    CJ - It makes sense, that a writer would do that sometimes, but I never knew there was a word for it. When I was researching the term on Google for a more detailed description, it quite a few respectable authors' names came up.

  7. Is the Mary Sue effect the literary equivalent of Hitchcock liking to appear in a minor role in al his films, I wonder?

  8. Oh yeah - there's a male equivalent to the "Mary Sue Effect," too. I had to look it up to review a particularly self-indulgent wish-fulfillment sort of mystery a few years ago. Ugh.

  9. The Mary Sue Effect is a new term to me but I have seen in done before. It just depends on how well the author does it because it can help make or break the book.

    I can't believe August is almost here either! July flew by so fast...

  10. Ann - I wondered the same thing last night in regards to M. Night Shyamalan appearing in his movies.

    Chris - Is it Gary Stu or something like that?

  11. Jen - The more I thought about it, the more I could think of examples of both self-insertion and author surrogacy being used. Clive Cussler, for one. I think Stephen King is said to have as well on occasion.

  12. I'd never heard of the Mary Sue Effect either so thanks for teaching me something new today too. In some ways I can't believe it's almost August, but on the other hand I wish it was already September!

  13. Hey - I saw your post on Breaking the Fourth Wall about The Commoner and I wanted to pass a long a recommendation. If you want another book along the same line, I'd suggest Empress Orchid - a much earlier time period, but a poor rural girl who ends up as a royal concubine and gives birth to the Last Emporer. A lot of the same themes of isolation and loneliness, plus the deadly politics of the royal harem. She ruled China as regent for almost 50 years - it's really a fascinating story.

  14. Thanks for such an interesting post on such an interesting topic. Usually, I find authorial intrusions VERY annoying and distracting. However, there are a few cases where it works. (Some of Kurt Vonnegut's stuff, for example.)

  15. I had no idea there was an actual name for this. I admit that in my book DEAD OF THE DAY, I have a character who is a bestselling crime novelist. While I write crime novels, I'm not bestselling, so that part's the fantasy :)

    And while I'm writing something now that is so far removed from me — a tattooist in Las Vegas — I have given her my art background in order to relate in some way with a character who is so far removed from me that it was hard to get started. I think all writers need that little something that will feel familiar.

  16. I learned that term on TWOP when it was Mighty Big TV in the sci fi forums. Very handy. I think Wikipedia has a nice definition of it too.

  17. I learned something new today. Thanks for sharing, Wendy! You have the most interesting new acquisitions. Happy reading!

  18. Huh. You learn something new every day!

    I'm also nominating you for a blog award. I love stopping by and reading your reviews. Thanks for some great reading time!

  19. Nat - I know what you mean about wishing it was September. I'd be even closer to the start of my vacation. :-)

    Lisa - Thank you for the recommendation! I've come across Empress Orchid at the discount table at the bookstore, but I never actually picked it up. I'll have ot do that the next time I see it. It does sound interesting.

    Jessica - I can see how it might be distracting if not done properly. I didn't mind the author instrusion in William Goldman's Princess Bride because the bits were so amusing, but I know some people found it annoying.

    Karen - I'm beginning to think there is a term for everything--I just don't know them all yet (and probably never will). I agree with your comment about writers needing "that little something that will feel familiar." I think it's a natural part of the writing process that some of you is going to land on the pages (besides just your words and the story and characters you have invented). It would feel like something is missing without it, even for the reader.

    Carrie K - I feel bad for Mary Sue. ;-)

    Alice - Thanks! I'm glad I am not the only one who learned something new. :-)

    David - Thank you so much! It's been such an interesting day today--both ups and downs, but thanks to you, it will definitely be ending on an up note. Thanks.

  20. Never heard of that term before. And I've never seen it destroy a story (that I know of). I think twice I've noticed a character had the same name as the author, and wondered if it was semi-autobiographical, but I never looked up info on the author to find out. I'm sure there's been others but I'm not good at recognizing them. Maybe I'll be more alert to it now!

  21. Jeane - I'll probably notice it more now too. :-)

  22. Wow I didn't realize there was a term for this - thanks for sharing!
    I love how Kurt Vonnegut wrote himself in Breakfast Of Champions, but when Stephen King added himself to the Dark Tower series it just felt like an easy way for him to write himself out of a corner and end the series.

  23. Book Zombie - That's an interesting take on the Dark Tower series. I will have to keep an eye out for that when I read it.


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