Archive for April 19, 2023

What’s a Mary Sue?

While I was doing my Star Wars rewatch, I was watching some of the YouTube videos about Easter eggs and hidden references, which got more related videos recommended to me, and a lot of these guys (but just the guys) kept saying that Rey in the sequel trilogy is a Mary Sue. It all came up again with the recent announcement of an upcoming additional movie about her and whether this new movie will “redeem” her and make her a character instead of a Mary Sue. But is she a Mary Sue?

First, as you always should in any debate, we need to define our terms. What is a Mary Sue?

The term comes from the world of Star Trek fan fiction, from the pre-Internet days. There was a story written as a parody of the kind of story in which the author inserts a new character who’s basically an avatar of herself into the existing story world. Ensign Mary Sue joins the crew of the Enterprise. She’s beautiful, has a lovely singing voice, everyone likes her, she’s good at everything, whichever crew member the author has a crush on falls madly in love with her, and she ends up saving the day. “Mary Sue” came to be used as a general term for an obvious author self-insert character in fan fiction. Later, the use got expanded to describe a character in original/professional fiction who had traits of a Mary Sue and seemed like she might be a thinly veiled version of the author. And then it got overused to mean a female (almost always female) character who was at all skilled or liked.

Although there are occasional mentions of a “Gary Stu” or “Marty Stu,” the concept is pretty heavily gendered. One reason is that the vast majority of fan fiction is written by women, so the vast majority of author self-insert characters are female, and that means most of the “Mary Sue” examples are female, which makes it easier to compare female original characters in professional fiction to their fanfic counterparts. The other reason is that until very recently (and often still), female characters in action-oriented fiction didn’t get to do much. They existed to scream and get rescued. The male characters were the ones with mad skills who got to save the day. That meant that a female character who acted like the usual male hero looked more like a Mary Sue than like the kind of female characters we were used to seeing. And it’s entirely possible that this lack of female characters who got to do anything is one reason most fan fiction is written by women — you have to write original characters if you want to have a female character who gets to do anything.

Not that men are immune from the tendency to write wish-fulfillment characters. Take James Bond. While Ian Fleming did work in intelligence during the war, he was an administrator, not a field agent. It’s fairly obvious that Bond was his Gary Stu, getting to do all the dashing spy stuff he thought would have been exciting. He’s highly skilled, has all sorts of cool gizmos, saves the day and gets the girl(s). Or take just about any superhero. How can the wealthy playboy who fights crime with the help of all his high-tech gadgets be anything other than wish fulfillment? Or there’s the noble weakling with asthma who becomes a powerful supersoldier. But people just accept hyper-competent male characters as normal heroic characters. It’s the women who get called Mary Sues. A couple of years ago, I watched all the Marvel movies. I’d heard complaints about Captain Marvel and what a Mary Sue that character was, so I was looking for those traits when I watched her movie — and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between her and any other superhero in the series.

There are two key things I think often get forgotten in any discussion of the Mary Sue concept. One is that the main complaint about the Mary Sue character initially was not so much about her perfection, but because she took over from the regular characters in that story world. Back in that day, pre-Internet, it took work to find fan fiction. You had to know the right people to get your hands on fan-produced fiction magazines, or you had to go to conventions. So imagine you’ve gone to all that effort to find some stories set in your favorite fictional universe about your favorite fictional characters, and instead of getting a story about the characters you love, you get a story about some random chick who takes over the story and leaves the regulars on the sideline. That’s the annoying part. If the author had filed off the serial numbers and presented it as an original story in which that character was supposed to be the main character, readers might even have liked and cheered for that character because the character would just look like any other hero (remember, the original Mary Sue was a parody, exaggerating traits).

And that’s the other thing that gets forgotten: Just about all heroes are Mary/Marty Sues/Stus to some extent. It’s hard to write a character you don’t identify with in some way, since you’re the only person you know from the inside out. Heroes also tend to be better, smarter, stronger, etc., than the average person, even when those heroes are supposed to be the “ordinary Joe” type. I have a little game I play when I’m reading or watching something. I try to imagine myself in that situation and consider how long I’d survive. It’s not long. It would be a pretty boring story if we didn’t let the heroes be at all idealized, if we stuck to what ordinary people really could do. I can walk for hours, but probably not for days or weeks. I can’t run for more than a few minutes (bad knees), and I’m toast if I have to hang from my fingers off the side of a building for more than about 30 seconds.

I’m not saying there’s no such thing as an egregious Mary Sue, but I think they’re rarer than critics seem to believe. Not every woman who’s at all competent, or, as one author put it, capable of getting home in the rain without drowning, is a Mary Sue. It’s come to mean “a female character I don’t like.” Or even “a female character in a role that should be a male.” Whether or not a character is a Mary Sue is often in the eye of the beholder. If you identify with that character, you’ll love the character. If you don’t, you’ll call her a Mary Sue.

My personal definition of an original fiction Mary Sue is a character the author has a blind spot about, to the point that the treatment of the character defies story logic. The author treats the character as though she’s a real person she loves and wants the best for rather than like a fictional character in a story. It’s not about whether the character is good at things or well-liked or saves the day — all things you expect of just about any hero. It’s whether there’s a good reason for all those things. If someone’s an expert pilot because she went to flight school and spent years training, she’s not a Mary Sue. If the first time she gets in a fighter she manages to outfly trained and experienced pilots and wins the battle, we’re getting into Mary Sue territory. Someone who’s nice to people and is well-liked just makes sense. Someone who’s mean and snarky and selfish but also the most beloved person in town might be a Mary Sue.

There are variations on the usual Mary Sue tropes, since this is about authors inserting their personal fantasies into stories and those fantasies may vary. It’s not always about being popular and winning. You may get the Victim Sue, which usually boils down to “no one appreciates me.” This is the character who’s not accepted or liked and the story paints this as terribly unfair. This character may still save the day, forcing everyone to acknowledge how great they are, or may turn to evil, with it being the fault of those people who didn’t accept him/her. Still, it comes down to warping story logic because the author has a blind spot.

Often, it all comes down to a clash between showing and telling. Because the author relates so closely to the character, she may forget that not everyone feels the same way and doesn’t have the same info she has, so all the reasons why we should love the character don’t actually make it into the story

Next: But is Rey a Mary Sue?