Make up your mind: what is a Mary Sue?

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Title: Make up your mind: what is a Mary Sue?
Creator: Alara Rogers
Date(s): January 30, 2003
Medium: online
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External Links: Make up your mind: what is a Mary Sue?; archive link
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Make up your mind: what is a Mary Sue? is a 2003 essay by Alara Rogers.

The post has 71 responses.

Some Topics Discussed

Some Excerpts from the Essay

After reading an article on Mary Sues by carmarthen, I headed on over to marysues to check it out. And then I read "150 Years of Mary Sue" by Pat Pflieger. And I'm getting disturbed.

In carmarthen's article on Mary Sues, cortese pointed out that male power fantasies have always been with us, and that the denigration of female power fantasies strikes her as sexist. I refuted her (with Wesley Crusher), but now I'm beginning to wonder. Because it looks to me like people are utilizing multiple definitions of Mary Sue, and by at least one of them, "any strong female heroine with an interesting life" qualifies. This is upsettingly sexist, especially to a person who hopes to make a living writing strong male *and* female heroes with interesting lives.

See, as I see it, there are multiple competing definitions of Mary Sue, and if you let them overlap too much, everything except stories about Joe the guy down the street are going to qualify.

- Mary Sue is a self-insert. Anytime you put yourself into a story, or adopt as a pseudonym the name you gave a character in a story, she is Mary Sue. (By this logic, Marrissa Picard, heroine of Stephen Ratliff's infamous Marrissa series, is not a Mary Sue, as she is a 12-year-old girl and Stephen wrote her when he was a college-age male. By the same logic, a brief walk-on cameo in which you appear for half a page in a 98 page novel is a Mary Sue.)

- Mary Sue is improbably attractive and talented. (marysues seems to be using this definition, classifying a number of canonical heroes or heroines as Mary Sues/Marty Stus on the grounds that they are attractive, talented, heroic, and have complicated lives.)

- Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic. (Any original female character.)

- Mary Sue is an original character who overshadows the canonical cast.

To me, the *only* useful definition of Mary Sue, given its derogatory elements, is the last one.

A self-insert? We all insert aspects of ourselves into our characters, or we'd be lousy writers. And hysteria against self-inserts tends to produce the overblown disclaimers "So and so doesn't look anything like me! And I don't act like that!" while meanwhile overlooking obvious Mary Sues like Marrissa Picard.

Improbably attractive and talented with a complicated life? Isn't that part of the definition of being a fantasy/sf hero? I mean, practically every woman John Crichton meets wants to sleep with him, he's a test pilot *and* a physicist, he saves the day in practically every episode, and he goes from being an ordinary Joe human guy trapped in a civilization vastly more advanced than Earth's to being Most Wanted Outlaw #1, leader of a ragtag band, and the guy who holds the key to the salvation or destruction of the universe. If you're going to tell me that he's a Mary Sue, then please go read boring arty stories about the lives of boring arty ordinary people. Heroes in sf/fantasy are larger than life. That's the *point.*

Claiming that all original female characters in fic are Mary Sues is a destructive meme that has clobbered many women's abilities to write interesting female characters. It's also sexist.
The useful definition of Mary Sue, in my eyes, is "original character who overshadows the canonical cast." A character may be more powerful than the canon cast without problems if this is done realistically (you can, for instance, create a Marvel character who's the daughter of Scott Summers and Jean Grey who's a reality warper. In fact you almost have to.) However, unrealistically powerful/talented characters tend to warp the canon cast out of character. For instance, in "Kid Dynamo", the fact that a new girl who's a godawfully powerful telekinetic and Magneto's daughter doesn't warp the cast out of recognition; the New Mutants continue to have their personal lives, they have interactions that have nothing to do with the new girl, and she pretty much never singlehandedly saves the day. However, in the Mary Sue "Enigma," which was inspired by Kid Dynamo, the heroine ends up performing *all* the actions that save the rest of the cast. Despite the fact that, you know, they're heroes, and pretty tough, and adept at saving themselves, they stand around and let the original heroine do all the work.
A hero achieving many great things over the course of a series is not bad and is not Mary Sue. It's what heroes *do*. Having a dark and/or complicated past is not a bad thing by itself. The problem arises only when, in fanfic, you distort the canon characters out of recognition by introducing a new character, or modifying a canon character, or, to a certain extent, deforming the laws of human nature in writing people's reactions to an original hero. It should not be a put-down for female heroes (or even male ones who are improbably competent.) It should not be wholly focused on self-insertion or ridiculous names. It should not be used as an excuse to not write women in fanfic. Otherwise the term starts to get watered down, and a serious level of sexism creeps in.

Some Excerpts to Comments at the Essay

[medie]:

"The number of times I've been told that you can't write OFC in fanfic "because people will say it's a Mary Sue"...

Ye gods yes. The Sentinel fandom is famous for that. The first original character I wrote in that fandom was promptly accused of being, and I quote, 'the most blatant Mary Sue' she had ever seen. I found it absolutely hilarious (not to mention rankling) because she could not say it was a self-insertion as she had absolutely no idea what my personality was like (we hadn't even said two words to each other prior to her email) and was going on the sole fact the character I had created was from the same province as me and had worked on a special task force for a police force. (And being a cop is sooo something I know I'd never be able to do) Granted, when I called her on these things and pointed out where the character traits had been gleaned, she apologized but in my opinion she shouldn't have leapt to any conclusion in the first place. It's ridiculous. People are all too happy to brand any original character Mary Sue and have done with it.

I think that's why I write so many. *G* Just to tick 'em off. ;-)
[lexcorp_hope]:

It should not be used as an excuse to not write women in fanfic. Otherwise the term starts to get watered down, and a serious level of sexism creeps in.

How true, how true. It's gotten to the point where not only OFC are tainted with the Mary Sue brush right off the bat, but any female character bears the onus of the name. In SV, I've seen folks bandying around Chloe-Sue and Helen-Sue so much, that it genuinely makes me uneasy to write either character. (Not that it stops me, mind you, but it's in the back of my mind- oh no, can't expand this character with this trait, people will think I'm Mary-Suing her...)

Fantastic essay, thank you so much for sharing!
[peresphone kore]:

We appear to be in complete agreement on the Essence of Mary Sue (I've argued the definition before...), but I do have a minor quibble with your phrasing.

Mary Sue is an original character who overshadows the canonical cast.

You explained what you meant by this, and the explanation made perfect sense to me, but the sentence still grates on me because I've seen people insist that an original character is a Mary Sue if the fanfic is about her, without regard to whether the rest of the fictional universe (including the other characters) is still behaving properly or to how well she fits into it. So I suppose they are operating based on yet another definition of Mary Sue, i.e., any OFC who is the point-of-view character or the focus of a fanfic.

This is obviously different from the distortion effect that you described, though obviously sometimes they both occur, but in any context where there isn't room or time for the detailed explanation, I think using "overshadow" would fail to distinguish between the two. Of course, it's possible the variant I described is overall a tiny minority and just happened to stick in my mind, but as I've seen "Is the story from your character's point of view?" on at least one "Mary Sue Litmus Test," I don't think it can be terribly rare.

It seems sometimes as if an awful lot of the advice on how not to make a character a Mary Sue is actually geared more toward ways to avoid giving hypersensitive readers the idea that she MIGHT be a Mary Sue... but on second thought, I think that may be specific to a particular forum I've been looking at lately.
[debc]: I hate those Mary Sue Litmus tests. They're half the reason people are afraid of writing orginal characters in the first place.
[alara rogers]:

I actually *like* the Litmus Tests......because they tell you what to fix.

Instead of saying "All OFC's are Mary Sues," the idea behind the litmus test is to describe exactly *what* traits make your character a Mary Sue, and since having just a few doesn't do it, it points out how egregiously many you really need to have to be in Mary Sue territory.

Part of what set off my rant was reading marysues and an article which seemed to be operating on the assumption that either any supremely talented and attractive character, even if she is THE CANON HEROINE, is a Mary Sue, or that original female characters are Mary Sue until proven otherwise. If you run the litmus tests, you can see that they frequently don't meet MS criteria. (For instance, the article said that Amanda Rogers, the teenage girl who turned out to be a Q, was a canonical instance of a Mary Sue, but I'll bet if you ran a Star Trek litmus test on her she wouldn't qualify. She isn't superlatively gorgeous, she has a normal name (more normal than mine in fact :-)), her background isn't overly traumatic, the rest of the characters in the story are written in character, no one falls in love with her (well, without her mind controlling them), she doesn't *like* the person she's related to, and she doesn't die tragically at the end. Because there are so many criteria that need to work together to make a Mary Sue, you can look at a teenage girl who discovers she's really omnipotent and determine that actually, no, she is not one. But if all you had to go on was the description "teenage girl discovers she's really omnipotent," and when you also know that originally the character was male and had the same name as the male teen author who sold the original script that Paramount bought and heavily rewrote to make the episode, then it does seem obvious the character must be Mary Sue. You have to, you know, actually analyze the character to notice that no, she's *not.*

As a young writer, I committed my share of Mary Sues. Having the younger sister of a canon hero be hypercompetent and have to *rescue* him from the kind of threat he fights all the time was Mary Sue. When I analyzed it with an older, more experienced eye, I realized I could easily save the character by making her more frightened and uncertain, less competent (skilled, yes, but not better than the main heroes), and have her older brother save *her* and not the other way around. As it happened I didn't need a litmus test for this, but if I'd had one perhaps I could have written my character correctly within weeks or months of creating her instead of having to wait three years to get the experience. If you can take constructive criticism and apply it to your baby-- and that's a skill *all* writers need to learn-- then a litmus test can be helpful in pinpointing *what* you need to change. Without them, older authors will often just give you the advice "Don't write original characters until you're better at it", and how do you get better at it without anyone pointing out to you *exactly* what you're doing wrong?


[vaznetti]: I would like to see the question "is this a Mary Sue" banned from the writing process and the critiquing of fanfic, to be replaced by something more useful, such as "is this an interesting, well-rounded character whose presence in the story contributes to the storyline and the canon universe?" As one can see from reading Alara's essay, the "Is this a Mary Sue?" question is essentially meaningless, given the vagueness of the term Mary Sue in common fannish usage.


[mtgat]:

The "don't do it" ethos keeps people from learning how to write them.

And I'd believe that, and even feel bad about it, but for going onto any archive (need I mention ff.net?) and seeing new OC's every day. People don't learn because thirty yoyos have already posted reviews and sent letters telling them "You're great! Write more!" Why should they ever learn to do it properly? They can practice for years, but if they never once hear someone honestly tell them, "This character could be improved, here's how," and *listen*, then the practice is never going to lead anywhere. Meanwhile, maybe they could have been writing good stories with the canon characters, learning about plot and dialogue, with a return to writing OC's if/when they Got a Friggin Clue. Or maybe they never do.

Writing original characters is a challenge. Writing canon characters *in-character* is also a challenge. Writing an original character who is simply you dropped into the canon universe, only perfect and loved, can be a challenge, but for 99% of the people who write it, it's a lazy way of telling a story.

Again, I adore the definition that Alara puts as: "Mary Sue is an original character who overshadows the canonical cast." That doesn't mean all OC's are bad. They aren't. But they're not always a learning experience for the newbie writers who create them (it's a different ballgame when it's Someone Who Should Know By Now). Mostly, especially in the case of the blatant Mary Sues, they're a way of getting an ego stroke without having to actually think hard about a character. If the writer isn't going to take their time to work on their OC's and make them actual 3-d characters, the story isn't worth *my* time
[carmarthen]:

Very good points -- that's why I distinguish between self-inserts, author avatars, and Mary Sues, but most people don't seem to.

I will note that that community does also mock male avatars and MSs, but, well -- yes. Heroes are meant to be larger-than-life, within reason, and while I'll grant that the Star Wars spinoffs (and I'm still amused by the replies praising Mara Jade to the post about Callista as MS, since Mara is just as much of an avatar) and Tamora Pierce have avatarish tendencies, they aren't that bad, and calling Alanna's attractiveness astounding because gosh, she had relationships with three men before settling down with one of them, well.

Anita Blake bugs me not simply because of the attractive power she seems to possess but also because her powers just keep growing, and growing, and getting more and more ridiculous, which necessitates that the monsters get more and more bizarre and unreal, and the series just seems to have gone downhill as Anita's power grew. But that's me. I don't object merely to ridiculous sexual attractiveness, but also to ridiculous levels of power. If Bond were suddenly psychic, I'd despise him rather than finding his sleaziness mildly irritating.

Basically, word.
[miriam heddy]:

I think your "overshadow" criteria makes sense, but I was less convinced by your using OF to consider the role and definition of Mary Sues in fanfiction.

You wrote, "Improbably attractive and talented with a complicated life? Isn't that part of the definition of being a fantasy/sf hero?" and used the examples of John Crichton and James Bond and Wesley Crusher.

But, as I've seen the term "Mary Sue" bandied about in fandom when talking about fanfiction (and not when analyzing the shows themselves), most fans seem to quite clearly distinguish between what they see as an OF writer's right to self-insert in a self-glorifying, fantasy-fulfillment way (ala John Crichton, James Bond, all the way down to Wesley Crusher) and the fanfic author's right to "Mary Sue" in fanfiction.

While we might debate the ethics of having these two categories--Original Fiction and Fanfiction--determine whether the audience finds an OFC trigger irritating, your own concept of "does it overshadow the canon characters" relies on just that distinction--and your awareness that many fans (and certainly most slash fans) come to write and read fanfiction because they love the original, canonical characters (however Mary Sueish they themselves might be in reflecting the authors' own egos).

Fans are often easily irritated by any fan-authored OC who seems to take screen time away from the canon-author OCs. Single-mindedness in pursuit of our pleasure practically defines the female fan--who somehow manages to create a satisfying narrative out of product usually produced for someone else (often 13 year old boys)!

In other words, while we may sigh and roll our eyes at Wesley Crusher, as fans we are willing to allow him entry in canon without much irritation. He is, perhaps, Roddenberry's embarrassment--his bastard child--but he is "official"--if not Picard himself, then at least a product of the same mind who has given us Picard--and we will grudgingly take the chaff with the wheat (or the Wheaton with the wheat).

Of course, in gen fic, fans may be drawn into the "universe" as a whole, without as strong of a protective allegiance to the main (and largely male) OCs, and thus may respond to the introduction of a new OFC (or OMC) with no animosity at all.

But slash fans--who have a special investment in the relationship between two canon OC men--are quite reasonable in seeing any female character as potentially problematic. In canon, BotW (women introduced in order to provide temporary tension) provoke our irritation and scorn. They are, in the buddy genre, already disposable--not worth our (or the male characters') investment. In slash produced out of non-buddy shows (like Stargate, slashers reading for Jack/Daniel may well like Sam enough to spend time with her--but fan reception of the Sam character in slash fanfiction is already primed by our sense of loyalty to TPTB who gave us Jack and Daniel (which is not to say that Sam isn't a kick-ass character. She is. But lovers of Jack and Daniel had every reason to give her the benefit of the doubt--because she is already part of the canon package we are buying into as fans.

Thus in fanfic, our tolerance is diminished for anything that seems extraneous--that seems to, as you say, "overshadow" the men--the buddies--unless we are already predisposed to accept it.

I agree that, to women writers writing fanfiction (particularly slash), it may seem unfair that readers don't abide by the same rules for their own OFCs as they do for the canon-author's OFCs. But this is fanfiction--and we all recognize that it is an altogether different thing from its source material--and we read it and write it differently.

Of course, we may (as you are, in enumerating the various criteria for Mary Sues and then choosing one of them) try to refine the rules by which we read and write.

But those rules are functional--designed more for the pleasure of the reader than the writer of fanfiction--and it is very hard (but not impossible) to train your readers to privilege writerly pleasure over their own readerly pleasure (even if it's entirely possible that those pleasures could come from an unusually well-written OFC).
[jadelennox]:

The parallels have already been drawn to Shakespeare, but I'll bring him back, as well as Mark Twain, Chaucer, and Milton. Hey, or Robert Aspirin, Glen Cook, and Maxine Hong Kingston. Pick your poison.

Some fan-fiction writers think of themselves as amateurs playing around in fandom and having a good fannish time. But some fan-fiction writers are just writers, using characters, conventions, and worlds previously developed by others, either because they want to explore the creations further, or because they want to play with a reader's preconceived notions of a known world. They might be parts of the fannish good time being had by all, but they're also part of something older -- cf. "your poison" above.

Why, then, should a well-written fan written fic be held to a different standard than something published and "canon"? Mark Twain can put a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Maxine Hong Kingston (and the rest of the literary establishment) can Mary-Sue herself into classic Chinese folk tales. And Diane Duane wrote a Star Trek novel -- which is published and canon -- in which a major character is a dolphin who spouts passages from a book that exists in her children's stories' universe. Why is that priveleged over a good fan-written original character? And what about Jean Rhys' _Wide Sargasso Sea_, which is effectively a huge original character prequel to _Jane Eyre_ (Rhys didn't invent Mrs. Rochester, but she does create her)? Is that also priveleged over fandom?

Writerly pleasure, after all, is not "the pleasure of the writer", but the pleasure of seeing the dynamic in writing (following Barthes), and thus all fanfiction is about writerly pleasure. Readerly texts aren't really ficcable, almost by definition
[zvi likes tv]:

Why, then, should a well-written fan written fic be held to a different standard than something published and "canon"?

Cause it's oranges and grapefruits, kid.

Because fanfiction is a different genre than the published novels you mention above (with the possible exception of tie-in books.)

Fanfiction has generic conventions and goals, such as 'tying radical character reinterpretation to canon', and 'a preference for alluding to and eliding events which took place in canon, rather than redescribing them', and (in certain fandoms) 'minimal physical description of main characters', etc. Aside from these conventions of how to do the writing, fanfiction is written in the context, not only of the original source material, but also other fanfiction. Mulder/Krycek stories are written from what was shown on the X Files, but they are being written for an audience much of whom will have read (or read fic influenced by) Torch's Ghosts.

Please don't misunderstand me; this is not to say that all new M/K stories are now Ghosts fanfic or written to be like Ghosts or different than Ghosts. I'm saying that Ghosts stains the palette of possible M/K fiction, both the writing and reading of it, as if someone had dropped a little blue food coloring into all of your Easter Egg dyes. You can still get lots of radical colors and color combinations, and some of them wouldn't even bring blue to mind, but they're not quite the same world of possibilities you had before that drop of blue was added. Two analogues from the professional artistic world: anyone who makes a new 'A Christmas Carol' movie/tv show episode is filming in a world influenced, not only by the Dickens short story, but also by the 7984546798456498724495811327 filmed adaptations of it, and anyone who writes a robot story for publication as a science fiction novel or short story lives in a world forever altered by Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics and the rest of the robot novel stuff.

I do not assume, as you apparently do, that the different (although related) standard for fanfiction is necessarily a lower standard than the one for professional fic which refers to earlier sources. In the same way, I judge tv shows like, say, Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and The Bernie Mac Show on different criteria, and recognize that they both do the things they do very well, but DS9 is a crappy sitcom and Bernie Mac is a horrid sci fi program.
[anonymous]:...why all the scorn for Mary Sue? Why so much effort to define her? Why a test? Why a whole snarking community? Why does this matter so much?

What is she hurting? If you don't like the story - skip it!

What are you gaining by defining and deriding Mary Sue? What's in it for you? What does this mean in terms of fandom? Is Mary Sue a destrucive plague that must be stopped? Taking this a bit too seriously, are you?

I can understand the slashers hating MS. They hate all women in fic. ::shrug:::

I don't understand. Well, I understand fandoms. Been around forever and seen fans kill and feed off other fans all the while defending their delusion that they are doing something good for the fandom and for their One True Vision of it.

I don't really expect an honest answer as to the continuing flap over Mary Sue. Because nobody is going to admit that in essence it's another fan-slamming-fan behaviour manifested by BOFQ and BNF to try to ensure their place in the hierarchy.

If anyone does have an honest answer to why Mary Sue matters, post it. Really. I double dog dare you.
[alara rogers]:

Um, because she sucks?

Bad fanfic is bad. No one wants to read it. Except possibly teens who wouldn't recognize goodfic if it bit them. (Not a slam on teens in general, just the ones who gush over badfics on fanfiction.net.) And, frankly, I am not reading fanfic to coddle poor wittle witers whose poor wittle egos would be cwushed if anyone told them their epic about Anastasia Sophia Gloriana the 5th and her radiant cloud of long lustrous shining hair and her deep violet pools of eyes and how everyone loves her and wants to sleep with her... sucks moose balls. I am reading fanfic to read good fic. The more poeple understand what "good fic" entails, and what it doesn't, the better off I am.

Mind you, I have ranted about badly written het with canon characters, badly written slash with canon characters, and badly written canon villains, so it's not like ranting about Mary Sue is special for me. I don't hate Mary Sue worse than I hate WeepyFics that reduce Janeway to a sobbing angstful wreck that can only be consoled by Chakotay's strong arms, or SlashSlut fics in which *every* man in the story lusts after every other man and no, they're not vampires, anime bishonen, or characters on Queer as Folk, and I actually hate CharacterMangling fics where, say, Magneto mind controls Rogue into having sex with him *worse*.

I do not like Mary Sue. I don't know anyone who does. And trying to point out to people, particularly newbies, what combination of traits will make people avoid your story seems to *me* a good thing. Where it becomes a bad thing is when the derogatory term "Mary Sue" is applied to too many different kinds of characters. Then it seems to me to become a power trip thing, yes.
[alara rogers]:

I mean, let's think about this. If a guy (a cop, say, or a special agent) has a male buddy, a person he's been with through thick and thin, been to the gates of hell and back with, who is not as good a fighter but is brainy, strong-willed and more levelheaded than he is, and there is no predefined canonical romantic partner outside of Bimbos of the Week for either of them, firstly 90% of the fanfic's gonna slash them. And in the 10% of the fanfic that doesn't, if he sleeps with his female boss or the evil woman who killed his father and betrayed him and came very close to selling his planet out to the aliens, the buddy is going to be in the story, and is going to have a strong sympathetic role, and if he *doesn't* fans will scream and flame the story.

Make the buddy a woman, and the ratio suddenly becomes 50% of the fanfic pairs them and the other 50% pairs him with his male boss and/or the evil man who killed his father blah blah blah, and in these stories his buddy frequently disappears entirely or is written as a shrieking harridan.

X-Files: proving that some slashers are sexist for a decade now.
[valarltd]:

I can understand the slashers hating MS. They hate all women in fic. ::shrug::: Nonsense. We don't hate women in fic. We just don't want them in bed with the boys.

I speak as one who has created a variety of OCs, male and female. And a couple of author avatars here and there. And yes, i will put female OCs into a slash story. After all, men have sisters, mothers, nieces, cousins, business associates, adversaries, faces in crowds, etc.

If your boys have a life outside o bed, they will encounter women, and most of these will be OC.

And some slashers write femmeslash too. The accusation we hate all women in fic is silly when leveled at someone who writes Willow/Faith, and is working on Leia/Winter.

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