In my last post I mentioned something called a Mary Sue and then said that was a topic for another day. Today is that day. I will also be covering what purple prose are and why they are objectively bad writing. The problem is that with both of these things, in a way, they aren’t always completely bad. At least not with Mary-Sues. Purple prose will almost always ruin a book if used too much and I’m sure almost everyone reading this has read some overly flowery text written by a teenage blogger trying to sound smart, right? Maybe you even used to be that person (I know when I was younger I certainly tried too hard) so this is all about learning not about attacking.
We should start with what a Mary-Sue is because I’ve seen people ask this on Twitter as well. I’ve also been asked, personally, what that is. There is also a male version of this called Gary-Stu but in essence they are the same thing.
A Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu is a character that is absolutely flawless, perfect, beautiful, and pretty much exists to drive the entire plot point. They can do no wrong, all the characters love them, they are invincible in some way, whatever. Picture a scene in a movie, a romantic scene where everyone is at a ball. Suddenly, a girl enters in the most beautiful gown that ever existed. She has the prettiest hair and her eyes seem to glow. The main character, Prince Handsome McCharming, even though he’s never seen her before in his life, is instantly drawn to her. He practically flies across the room to have her in his arms. She says all the right stuff, does all the right things, and he is smitten because she has no flaws. She is perfect at everything she attempts the very first time and there’s no room for error or argument. That is a Mary-Sue.
Typically, you’ll find the worst offenders of this in fan fiction (the last post I made explains what that is). These would be girls (or at lest typically they are females) who have a crush on some character, actor, or musician and they create a character that is meant to be them. Except, they don’t want to have any flaws, be ugly, or whatever the hell else so they remove any of the complicated elements and just make the girl perfect. She has to be perfect so the actor/character/musician will fall in love with her. They don’t seem to understand the subtle nuances of how relationship dynamics work and why literally everyone is going to be super extra annoyed with a character like this. Most of the time.
There are definitely Mary-Sue/Gary-Stu characters that aren’t only popular but famous. Han Solo would be one of them. However, with the way he is written he’s not also entirely perfect, he’s entertaining, and not one dimensional. He’s fun. There’s a sense of realism to him behind all of that handsome bravado that exists. Writing a character that you wish to represent you, a self insert (as it is also sometimes called) is perfectly possible without also pissing people off. It just means that you need to be grounded in reality about who you are, how other people are, and how the real world works.
A good example is when I took myself and put that into my book Price. I’m actually overly aware of my personality traits and how people react to me. I know that I’m far from perfect and in that book I’d even go as far as to say that my character is stubborn, bitchy, relentless, and a massive control freak. Except, this is in a way that is relateable to a lot of people. She’s not so over the top annoying and awful that you don’t want to cheer her on but she’s also not so incredibly flawless and beautiful that you can’t relate to her at all. Being able to relate to a character is the most important part of creating a character. If you have to put yourself into a story or you want the character to be a fictionalized version of you just be realistic. Know yourself, understand how other people perceive you. If you write in that way, people may never even notice that what you’ve done is a self insert. They may just believe it’s another character on your roster.
This now brings me to my second objectively bad and hated part of immature and terrible writing, purple prose. Most people, the world over, will agree that this is very bad writing and there’s no real wiggle room for debate. The problem is, once again, it is writing and that is all very subjective so you will find people out there who want to defend this sort of garbage and you will find there are famous and professional writers who use purple prose. Let me remind everyone that just because someone else is already famous and out there doing something that doesn’t make it right, especially not if you are starting out as an unknown and a beginner. You don’t have a trademark writing style yet, they do. Better to error on the side of caution if you don’t want people to give up reading your story two pages in.
Now, what exactly is this thing that I hate so much. I’ll tell you: In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. (Source)
Have you ever read a story, fan fiction or otherwise, where you suddenly realize that you’ve read an entire page and yet the author has ultimately said nothing? That what you are reading is just a bunch of words that flow together and are descriptive but the plot is not advancing anywhere at all. That’s what it is. It’s like writing 1000 words and ultimately saying nothing. It’s when immature writers think that using larger or more fancy words will make their writing sound smarter. It’s actually pseudo-intellectual tripe.
I am not talking about descriptive writing. Where someone paints a beautiful picture of the scenery with the right words so you can become immersed into the world of the book you are reading. That’s something entirely different. I’m talking about meaningless garbage words that are so excessively stupid that you aren’t really reading anything. At all. Even skipping to the dialogue doesn’t help because you have no idea what the hell this author is getting at, other than trying to convince you they are an artist because they know big words. There is a pretty fine line between descriptive and what purple prose are and a lot of people don’t seem to know the difference. I find that the mark of a new or immature writer is someone who will not only use an over abundance of purple prose but they also have some kind of terrible Mary-Sue character in their story as well. Sometimes, this can make for great (unintentionally entertaining) content like the story My Immortal. Most of the time it doesn’t and it just makes people annoyed. As I’ve said, in writing (just as all art) a lot of things are subjective so I suppose none of this is hard and fast as a rule. There may people people out there who like reading about perfect, flawless and beautiful Mary-Sues. There may be people out there who genuinely enjoy the overuse of flowery words. At the end of the day, though, you should understand that the simpler the writing, the better it flows and characters need to have way more than the one dimension of “Absolutely Perfect”.