Mary Sue’s Always Been Out There:
The Perfect Hero and the Perfect Heroine
Every archetype has a positive and a negative side. As we saw in the
Three-Dimensional Villains article, the villain is the negative aspect of the shadow, while
creativity is the positive. To further complicate things, everyone has both anima and
animus–the anima is just more evident in the male and the animus in the female.
The Influence of the Animus: Women’s Heroes and Heroines
It’s easy to create an ideal man or woman for your stories. If you’re female, your
ideal woman is usually a Mary Sue (your idea of the perfect woman–usually smart, sexy,
hyper-competent, and of course devastatingly gorgeous), while your idealized love
interest takes the shape of your animus. If he’s dark and dangerous, you’re projecting
negative animus; if he’s sensitive and committed, you’re projecting positive animus. In
most cases, you’ll probably see both. (Please note that many if not most writers avoid
using their ideals in pure form, and recognizing them is not the same thing as falling prey
The positive animus is assertive, thoughtful, rational, powerful, courageous,
objective, honorable, and wise, qualities embodied by characters like King Arthur, Prince
Charming, Robin Hood, Zorro, and modern superheroes like Superman.
Female characters with strong animuses are usually quite feminine, but rather than
drawing strength from seduction or manipulation, they draw it from something inside,
like Lois Lane (Superman), Princess Leia (Star Wars) or Ellen Ripley (Alien).
The negative animus also carries shadow qualities in that it’s ruthless, opinionated,
destructive, brutal, reckless, and cold in the way Bluebeard, Harry Potter’s Voldemort,
and Superman’s Lex Luthor are. Female villains like Cruella deVil, Nurse Ratched in One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the Wicked Witch of the West all have strong negative
According to Jungian scholar Marie-Louise Von Franz:
The male personification of the unconscious in the woman — the animus — exhibits
both good and bad aspects, as does the anima in man. But the animus does not so often
appear in the form of an erotic fantasy or mood [as the anima often does to men]…even in
a woman who is outwardly very feminine the animus can be an equally hard and
inexorable power. One may suddenly find oneself up against something in a woman that
is obstinate, cold and completely inaccessible.
The Influence of the Anima: Men’s Heroes and Heroines
If you’re male, your ideal man is usually a Marty Stu (your idea of the perfect
male–clever, powerful, handsome, and super-capable) and your idealized love interest is
your anima. If she’s a femme fatale, you’re projecting negative anima; if she’s lady, you’re
projecting positive anima.
The positive anima provides guidance and is patient, compassionate, tender,
nurturing, intuitive, life-giving, loving, and considerate, embodied by mythological
priestesses and sibyls as well as characters like Snow White, the Virgin Mary, Peter Pan’s
Wendy, Beatrice in Dante’s Paradiso, and Belle in Beauty and the Beast. In stories, anima
figures teach heroes to recognize these qualities in themselves: think Maria in the Sound
of Music, Cosette in Les Miserables, and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. Male
characters with positive animas have heart without being weak, like Christian from
Moulin Rouge, Cameron from 10 Things I Hate About You, and Wesley from the
The negative anima carries shadow qualities in that it’s moody, uncertain, vain,
catty, dangerously tempting, insecure, overbearing, and hypersensitive, embodied by
characters like the Greek Sirens, the German Lorelei or the Slavonic Ruskala, wicked
witches and wicked stepmothers, the vain Queen in Snow White, or Maleficent in
Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. In stories, these women are often difficult or dangerous but
often alluring, like Mystique in the X-Men films or the Dark Phoenix in the X-Men
comics. Male characters with negative animas are moody, unpredictable, and dangerous
like Commodus in the film Gladiator.
Some characters have both positive and negative aspects of the anima or animus,
creating anti-heroes, flawed heroes, and sympathetic villains.
In the film Terminator 2, Sarah Connor’s positive animus is evident in her heroic
determination to save her son and the world, but her negative animus is also strong in that
her methods are often brutal and heartless.
In Gladiator, as noted above, Commodus displays a strong negative anima in that
he’s petulant and emotional, but he’s also drawn strongly to the kind of positive anima he
can’t find in himself, embodied by his sister Lucilla.
Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara has a strong positive animus that displays
determination, independence, and protectiveness, but she also has a lot of unpleasant
anima qualities–she’s given to histrionics and manipulative ploys.
Falling in Love is Easier than Making it Last
The anima and animus may help us find passionate relationships, but research
shows that there are a lot of things that can destroy them. From a Jungian perspective, a
relationship is doomed to crumble when you’re real-life lover can’t live up to the idealized
image of the anima or animus you’ve projected.
Story characters who fall in love with a fantasy–like Scarlett O’Hara’s infatuation
with the undeserving Ashley–are doomed to be disappointed when the real, flawed
person shows through. Sometimes falling in love with one’s anima or animus isn’t what’s
really best for us. As Scarlett learns when she meets Rhett Butler, sometimes what we
need most is what infuriates us the most.
The Three Essential Parts of Love
Attraction is an interesting thing, and it comes in different flavors. According to
Robert Sternberg, all types of love and attraction can be arranged in a triangular shape.
The points are:
1. Liking (intimacy and sharing – alone, this is “friendship”)
2. Passion (strong emotions and sexual attraction; alone, this is “infatuation”)
3. Commitment (intentions to stay in spite of difficulties; alone, this is “empty
Between liking and passion is romantic love; between liking and commitment is
companionate love; between commitment and passion is fatuous love.
Anima/animus attractions usually start with passion–they’re that jaw-dropping
desire for someone you don’t know well, but who just “does it” for you. The danger of
anima/animus attractions is that they’re actually projections of our own anima/animus. As
we get to know the other person, we are either disillusioned because they don’t fit the
idealized image we’re projecting onto them, or we come to know them as people and fall
in love with them because we also like them.
Love that includes liking, passion, and commitment is what Sternberg calls
“consummate” or perfect love. But while it’s solid and makes us feel whole, it’s not
effortless. Psychologist John Gottman researches what makes relationships last or fail,
and he can predict whether a couple will divorce with 96% accuracy.
The Four Horsemen of a Doomed Relationship
Gottman has demonstrated that the four behaviors, which he calls the “Four
Horsemen of the Apocalypse” endanger any relationship, and when combined with an
inability to “make successful repair attempts,” they doom it.
The horsemen are expressed through body language as much as through verbal
behavior; when they appear often, they predict divorce in the 80% range.
Criticism – This goes beyond complaining about an action or behavior and becomes
an attack on the other person; the word “you” coupled with “never” or “always” is usually
an indicator. “Why don’t/can’t you ever…?” or “Why do you always…?” or “You never…”
Contempt – Disdain, disgust, sneering, contempt, demeaning mocking,
name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, and hostile humor.
Defensiveness – Refusal to accept some responsibility, defensiveness amounts to
“The problem isn’t me, it’s all you.”
Stonewalling – Usually known as “the silent treatment, facing a stonewaller is like
talking to a brick wall. It doesn’t budge, and it doesn’t discuss. 85% of the time, men are
the stonewallers. Women are more likely to criticize.
About 85% of couples who are able to make successful repair attempts by using
humor or taking a break to deescalate and regain perspective stay married.
As uncomfortable as conflict usually is, it’s necessary for a healthy relationship.
People who don’t argue aren’t communicating, and when their relationships begin to fall
apart, there’s nothing available to patch them back together.
Interestingly, the breakdown of traditional relationships has contributed to the
conflict that causes so many divorces. When men and women had strictly defined roles,
society disdained attempts to cross the gender boundaries in real life–for example, the
only way to get your fill of “feminine” if you were male was to spend a lot of time with
your wife. Modern society is still reconciling the blurring of the gender lines, sometimes
more smoothly than others, and the resulting confusion can only really be addressed
through healthy communication.
The Syzygy: Pulling it All Together
When the anima and animus come together, they create Syzygy, a term that
represents the same kind of cohesive whole Plato described when the two halves of
sundered humans wrap their arms around one another once again become one.
In real life, finding and getting along with your “other half” is difficult. Have you
ever read a story in which the characters constantly misunderstand, insult, and stonewall
each other, yet by the last page you’re to believe that they will live happily ever after with
none of the conflict that filled every page before the last? In real life, it doesn’t work that
way, and it shouldn’t in fiction, either. Conflict is the engine that keeps every story going,
and the love relationships between your characters are one of the most important parts of
Think about it this way: There’s no way Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler would
settle down without ever arguing again, but what fun would they be if they did?
Notes, References, and Further Reading
A nice discussion of the Double is available at
Plato’s Symposium is available in multiple places online, but I usually use
Buss, David. (2003). Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind,
Second Edition. Allyn & Bacon
Buss, David.(2003). The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating. Basic
Gottman, John. Various. Forget those other books, Gottman’s are the real deal. His
research is some of the most compelling in couples and marital therapy and is often used
Von Franz, M. L. (1964). The Process of Individuation. In (Ed.) Carl Jung, Man
and His Symbols, p. 198. New York: Laurel
About the Author:
Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is a clinical psychologist who teaches at
Columbus State Community College in Columbus, Ohio. A published writer, she recently
launched Archetype Writing: Psychology for Fiction Writers
(http://www.archetypewriting.com). Visitors will find not only articles about psychology
tailored to their needs, but they can ask Dr. K their writing/psychology questions. She is
often quoted by the media as an expert resource.