Perhaps, because I am not a Star Trek fan, I’ve never known the concept of ‘Mary Sue’. You can read more about it here, but it originates from a female fan of Star Trek writing an idealized version of herself into a story for a fanzine. Now, this may not be anything groundbreaking for us today, considering the popularity of reading and writing fanfiction and how a large part of it consists of unabashedly including a version of yourself in the story, but writing a ‘Mary Sue’ has gone on to become a serious concern amongst people who read and write fiction for more commercial, less wish-fulfilling purposes. However, is writing a version of yourself, no matter how close or how far it is to you, really all that bad?
Let’s take the example of two Neurotic New Yorkers – Woody Allen & Lena Dunham. Intentional or not, we enjoy their instantly identifiable characterisations because we relate it to what we expect them to be in real life. These character traits draw us (or repel us, but judging by their popularity, I’d say the former holds the majority), but they also help in continuing the story forward through films, books and other media because, apart from what has been established, there is still much to explore. In this case, they happen to be both writers and performers, with each role influencing the other. In fact, I’d go as far as to say, performing a personality type that is uniquely identifiable is a dominant component in all our media today. Youtuber Zoella “writes” Girl Online because that is the kind of subject matter and style that is appropriate to the brand of her personality-driven channel. The same goes for any number of comedians, broadcasters, lifestyle writers etc. If you are going to be dabbling in different media, then it is highly likely that you would want something to thematically connect them that leads back to you. The easiest way of doing that is through your own personality. Then, why should fiction authors be any different?
Well, they are different. You generally don’t read a novel for the author, you read it for the story. You don’t look for him or her in it, you look for characters that push the story forward and mesh seamlessly into the overall world you find them in. If you do happen to know the author’s personality well, then it’s up to you, whether you find it a pleasure or a pain to find it in one of the characters. Perhaps, that whiny New Yorker in the short story irritates you, because you’ve already found Woody Allen doing that a million times before. Perhaps, it delights you, because that is exactly what you wanted to happen when you picked up that book. Perhaps, if it is someone you personally know, you may even be surprised to see the character you are reading doesn’t at all remind you of your friend. It might be what they think themselves to be like, but are unaware that they don’t come across as that to other people. In most cases, it doesn’t matter if the author includes a version of themselves in their story, because a large percentage of people reading that story have no idea what the author is like.
I’ll be honest, I’m sick of badass heroines. And nagging wives. And nerdy men who win the hot babe in the end. And Millennials who use abbreviations that more than half of the people born after 1980 have no idea about. That old adage “write what you know” can actually be a good thing. For one thing, it affords the chance for interesting detail, things you wouldn’t find in a stereotype. It affords complexity, in-depth characterisation. And, it doesn’t even have to be about you, or someone you know who will probably sue you if they find themselves in your book. Writers have always conducted research i.e., looked for information in newspaper articles, studies, conducting interviews etc. You have millions of blogs where, say you actually wanted to write a truthful representation of millennials, you could have a balanced understanding of them which you wouldn’t find in some magazine article that only consulted a handful to represent a generation. It is not just enough to resolve to commit words to a page, it is important that they are truthful to what they are talking about.
Daydreaming is a very important source for creativity. It is when you are coming up with stories without the pressure of having to put them down. Because there are no considerations to bear while daydreaming, such as characters or storylines, you often find some version of yourself in these stories. For example, I have sometimes imagined myself as The Doctor in Doctor Who. Mainly, because I’d be hopelessly dead-too-soon if I were a companion, and because being a TimeLady would give me much more to do, now that I have certain powers. If I work on this, I might even come up with a full-fledged story that would be very different from any of the other Doctors’. At the same time, because I am not an actual TimeLady, any resemblance that I personally bear to this character would not make the slightest difference to whether it works in the story. I’d have done a Mary Sue to a Doctor Who, but no one would care.
Do you write yourself in your story?