Rules were made to be broken?

Most writers have heard about the problem of writing a “Mary Sue”, the concept of writing oneself into the story as a means of wish fulfillment. Wikipedia defines a Mary Sue thusly:

A Mary Sue is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an author insert or wish-fulfillment.[1] Sometimes the name is reserved only for women, and male Sues are called “Gary Stus” or “Marty Stus”; but more often the name is used for both sexes of offenders.[2][3]

“Mary Sue” today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment and is commonly associated with self-insertion. True self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author; most characters described as “Mary Sues” are not, though they are often called “proxies”[8] for the author. The negative connotation comes from this “wish-fulfillment” implication: the “Mary Sue” is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting.[9]

So writing yourself into stories, even under an assumed name, is bad. But for every rule there is the exception, right?

I recently picked up Michaelbrent Colling’s book “The Longest Con”, in which Michaelbrent places himself, whole and undisguised, into his own noir-esque novel as the main character, who has been deputized into a secret group protecting the humans at fan conventions from the monsters who also love fan conventions. He also lifts an entire cast of characters from con luminaries.

And I believe he proves the rule that there is an exception to every rule. However, it also proves the corollary that you have to know the rules before you can break them.

As a regular at LTUE and numerous writers panels at countless conventions it’s hard to imagine Michaelbrent doesn’t know about “Mary Sue.” I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him personally warn writers about the trap. So it’s likely safe to assume that he knows the rule. So how does he successfully break it?

  1. His character is no one’s wish fulfillment. He gets no respect from his handlers. He gets little respect from anyone else. And in spite of his training in numerous martial arts, pretty much everyone beats the crap out of him. His character is not unusually talented, either. About all he has going for him is relentless, stubborn determination.
  2. He is continually self-deprecating. He continually talks about all the other writers who make more money than he does. There’s a running gag about how his mother is more popular than he is. Other characters regularly have to bail him out of tight spots.
  3. He’s playing himself, in his own life. Most people who know Michaelbrent know that this is pretty much the life he lives–with the exception of the supernatural elements, perhaps. By choosing to cast himself in a role we already know him in, it’s not so big a stretch. Now if he were to cast himself as a nuclear physicist who must create a particle accelerator in time to save the world from comet impact that would be more questionable. But it’s hard to really accuse him of inserting himself into a story that he’s already living.
  4. He brings along company. By inserting other known creative types like Dave Butler, Blake Casselman, Kevin J. Andersen, Mercedes Lackey, etc., he’s essentially “hanging a lantern on it” that this is wish fulfillment for a lot of people he knows and likes, especially when he makes all of them “cooler” than him.

Like I said, Collings knows the rules, and is willing to gamble in breaking them by placing himself unashamedly at the center of his story, assuming that even with the limitations he places on himself to avoid becoming a Mary Sue, we’ll still find him a likeable, relatable character.

Likewise, there are many rules out there we might be tempted to break. So long as we know what we’re doing, we can break them, too. We should consider a few things first, though, when we set out to break rules:

  1. Why does this rule even exist? We need to know the reason for the rule. In the case of Mary Sue, it’s because stories about such “perfect people” are usually dull reading. They come across as self-indulgent. Knowing that, then, you can then make sure you avoid those elements that the rule is supposed to guard against.
  2. Can we still tell the story while staying true to the rule? If there’s really no reason to break a rule, don’t. If you can make it look like you’re going to break it, but not actually break it, that’s acceptable. That could be what Collings does in bringing other known characters into his book. It could be argued that this approach creates an entirely different type of story (ie. parody), so the fear of Mary Sue isn’t even valid.
  3. Can the rule be only bent? Is there a way to obey the spirit of the rule while not strictly keeping the letter of the rule? For example, a lot of writers don’t strictly adhere to the rule of not using adverbs in dialogue tags (ie. “Don’t go, Joe!” she wailed pathetically.) Many get by using them sparingly. Keeping rules the majority of the time and then breaking them now and then for specific effect is sometimes acceptable.

The rules are there for a reason, and a good writer should know the rules and why they are important. But in knowing the rules we can also know when and how to break them. The trick is knowing how to break them in a way that enhances the story, and not just to avoid having to keep them.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.