Are We Too Paranoid About Mary Sue?

by JoHarrington

Fear of writing a Mary-Sue (or Gary-Stu) might put people off becoming authors. It's the stop word which destroys a story all too easily.

It takes courage and confidence to share your fiction with others. For first time writers, nerves may stop them publishing at all.

Putting your head above the parapet allows the peanut gallery to rip apart your prose. The major artillery is that accusation of having written a Mary-Sue. Just one mention of that can color all perception amongst other readers.

But is it a valid criticism? Or a device co-opted by internet trolls to bully a fledgling writer into submission?

Who (or What) is Mary-Sue?

Originally a character in a Star Trek fan fiction parody, it's become the catch-all term for an idealized self-insertion in a story.

In 1973, fan fiction author Paula Smith became tired of reading stories with unrealistic characters.

She was part of the Star Trek fandom, which was responsible for much of the popularity of fan fiction in the 20th century. The character that she so despised was clearly a proxy for immature authors.

Laden with cruel humor, Paula set out to parody these proxies. The result was a ten paragraph story, published in the fanzine Menagerie. It was entitled A Trekkie's Tale.

The protagonist was a fifteen year old girl, who had somehow managed to become a lieutenant in the Star Fleet. Her name was Mary Sue.

During the course of the short story, it became clear that she was brilliant at all that she did.  Everyone loved her. Captain Kirk fell in love with her; but he had to wait in line, as every other member of the crew craved her affections too.

Her intelligence and initiative managed to save the day, before she tragically died. All major characters (and minor ones) mourned her passing.

While clearly satirizing an existing tendency for idealized characterization, Paula Smith may have kick-started an even more insidious problem.  The only way to avoid the accusation of inserting a Mary Sue was to ensure that your female characters were very dull.

Mary Sue T-Shirts and Buttons

Buy this merchandise to turn the Mary Sue trope upon itself; or to express your agreement with it.

The Characteristics of Mary Sue

In reality, it's whatever the antagonistic critic can find to level at the author.

The classic Mary Sue will achieve much at an unrealistically young age.

It doesn't matter that everyone else will have had to study for a decade to reach her rank, she will hold it anyway. The reason will never fully be explained, beyond vague hints regarding her prodigious intelligence, wit and hard work.

This genius will come to the fore time and time again, during the narrative. She will upstage all older, wiser and more experienced characters by having the solution to every problem at hand. She will be skilled in all things.

If an explanation is forthcoming, then it will be some kind of exotic, unique or preternatural power. It sets her naturally above her peers.

Mary Sue is undoubtedly beautiful, with a personality to match. Her utter perfection causes every major character to fall in love with her.  If said person is gay, then she will be the exception to his whole sexuality.

Her flawless persona has emerged despite (or perhaps because of) a tragic past. She may, in the story's finale, reach an equally tear-jerking end.  She would be mourned by all canon characters; and it's expected that the readership will weep for her too.

However, the Mary Sue accusation is a fast-moving phenomenon. It evolves to take in anything which makes a character special. It's become increasingly difficult to write any interesting female, which isn't open to being labelled a Mary Sue.

Too Risky To Write About Women?

In Enterprising Women, ethnographer Camille Bacon-Smith took a scholarly look at fan fiction.

Her main focus was upon the huge, and ground-breaking, Star Trek fandom, but she did examine further afield too.

She was scathing about the whole Mary Sue accusation.

While agreeing that the elements parodied by Paula Smith do exist, Camille high-lighted the detrimental effect on female characters ever since.

Authors cannot create an intelligent woman for fear of her being labelled a Mary Sue. Nor can a female be too prominent in the narrative.

The response was focus instead on the men. Despite the fact that the majority of fan fiction writers are female, it's like Women's Lib never happened in their stories.

All female characters tend to fade into the background as cameos; or else emerge so dull and unremarkable, as to disappear behind the shining, glorious men.

Instead, there has been a massive rise in homo-erotic pairings, known as 'slash' in the fandom worlds. It's much safer to write about liaisons between two male canon characters (one of whom will undoubtedly have attributes that are perceived as feminine), than it is to introduce a female love interest.

This has been the fear-driven effect of Mary Sue.

Is the Mary Sue Accusation a Useful Label?

It is all consuming in fan fiction, but do we wish that Paula Smith had never written that parody or not? Should Mary Sue stay or go away?

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Mary Sue is a damaging label because...
TiaMariaMartini on 08/26/2012

It fails to paint an accurate portrait of real women.

Hannah on 08/21/2012

Although, I would normally cringe at the sight of a Mary- Sue, I do believe that there are well- written ones out there. In fact, I know there are. I have read many fan fiction stories in which the Mary Sue was, intentional or not, a great character. I do know, however, that Mary- Sues, are damaging if not written correctly. To be honest with you, I have written quite a few of them myself. Which brings me back to my original vote, many harsh reviewers, although important and near and dear to me, almost made me give up. I almost felt inferior. I feel as if the label of 'Mary Sue' is almost like telling telling the author that such a character, who they probably spent a lot of time on, could never be fixed and should be scraped immediately. Henceforth, it is my opinion that authors who write 'Mary Sues' should be warned, yet in a caring and helping way that can help us all improve as readers and writers.

Mary Sue is a useful label because...
Jane on 12/19/2012

I think that the concept of Mary Sue should be recognized by authors because it is a common failing in a lot stories, both fan fiction and original works. However, I also believe that people should not constantly target female characters for perceived Mary Sue-ness. If someone doesn't like idealized and unrealistic protagonists, they should dish out the criticism for male heroes as well. Authors should not get too worked up over a Mary Sue accusation, unless their purpose of their story really is just wish-fulfillment.

My Own Experiences with Mary Sue

A sudden backlash against one of my female characters made me nearly give up writing fan fiction forever.

I've written a lot of fan fiction in my time. I do it for enjoyment and the cathartic release of simply writing for pleasure.

I do like writing.

As an older woman, I thought I was immune to all of the psychological imperatives for writing a Mary Sue. 

I'm more interested in human beings, with all their foibles intact, than in the perfect models propagated by fashion magazines. I wasn't that taken with romance when I was fifteen, let alone now.

Wish fulfillment can happen at any age, but I've had plenty of real life opportunity to explore the depths of my actual emotion.  I wanted to look at polar opposites and challenge myself to write from another point of view.

In my realism, I included a whole cast of players to populate my world. I was careful not to let the original characters over-take the canon ones. After all, this was fan fiction, not original fiction.

All was well until an accusation of Mary Sue suddenly appeared in my comments box. It really threw me.

The female character involved was not a self-insertion. In fact, she couldn't have been further away from the real me. She had as many faults as she did things to commend her. She hadn't saved the day, taken over the world nor started a romantic liaison with a major canon figure.

For a couple of days, the whole thing snowballed. My accuser brought back up to support her labeling.  With my confidence teetering on the brink, I accepted that I must have committed that foul crime.

It was only when I became upset about it, that a friend learned what had happened. She reassured me, in disbelief and fury, that my character was not a Mary Sue. She also pointed out that my story, immediately prior to the accusation, had received a much publicized 10,000 hits.

It wasn't reality, but jealousy that had led to the emergence of a troll.

Was that the end of it?  No way.  The damage had been done in my own head. Writing fan fiction stopped being such a pleasure, and I momentarily lost self-belief in my ability to create it.  It took three months for a collection of friends and readers to talk me back into putting fingertips to keyboard again.

We can laugh about it now, but at the time it was terrible.  And I do wonder how many other authors are silenced more permanently because of Mary Sue.

More Articles About Fan Fiction and Creative Writing

Original characters can make or break fan fiction. Discover tips and tricks for writing people who complement the canon.
When you take someone else's characters and fictitious world, you are effectively plagiarizing. So why put in the effort on tales that can never be published?
Every historical and current scrap of fan fiction has disappeared from the world. Should we be cheering?
It is the worst of lines, it is the best of lines. That all important first line can determine whether anyone reads on.
Updated: on 08/27/2012, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 08/24/2012

Hal. I inserted Century AS a Mary-Sue, but he wasn't having it. Then, more recently, Kiana.

I have a lot of sympathy for the author you mentioned. Mary-Sue is such a vicious stop word these days. And yes, the pairing thing is big too. If you have a strong female character, you never let her enter into a relationship, as that might dodge the Mary-Sue bullet.

The upshot being the fandom-wide message that strong, independent women will never get a man (or woman).

I hadn't considered your last point. I thought every author got paranoid when the Mary-Sue trolls came around.

Kari on 08/24/2012

I'm curious as to which character of yours was called a Mary Sue now.

While I think Mary Sues are bad, the fear of creating one has reached a ridiculous degree. I am a fan of one fanfiction author who does absolutely amazing work, not a single Mary Sue fic to their name, but when they wrote a story with a woman as a main role they put right in the summary that she wasn't in any pairing. Such a great author was worried about the character being called a Mary Sue before the character was even INTRODUCED. It's insane.

The big thing is that true Mary Sue authors won't stop writing if they are called out. Good authors like you might though. So really it's the good authors that get the heat for Mary Sues in the end in my opinion. The ones who probably don't actually have a Mary Sue.

JoHarrington on 08/22/2012

Many authors take the tactical view that they shouldn't read fan fiction based on their work. It's a matter of legal protection.

Marion Zimmer Bradley was once successfully sued by a fan. The fan fiction author had written stories about one of her series. One of Marion's later canon books followed the fan fiction to a high degree. The reason was that they were both writing within the same universe, so some narratives became obvious. Marion argued that it was coincidental.

The fan argued that Marion had copied her; and she won her court case.

This is why authors try not to read fan fiction now. They then have the defense that they didn't know.

Burntchestnut on 08/22/2012

I'm getting an education - I had to look up "fan fiction" on Wikipedia. I've heard of some actors never reading reviews of their plays or films; perhaps authors shouldn't either. You can never please everyone.

JoHarrington on 08/19/2012

She's such a massive part of the fandoms that I hesitated before describing her attributes here. I'm glad that I did now, as I appear to be informing a lot of people.

I'm glad that you enjoyed it. :)

Mira on 08/19/2012

Nice job! :-) Enjoyed learning about Mary Sue (wondered what that was :-), and why people would be paranoid about it :-). :))

JoHarrington on 08/18/2012

Sam - For me, it was the challenge. I think that fan fiction is MUCH harder than original fiction. But yes, I could write an article on this subject. I'll add it to the list!

Ember - The issue is that trolls will troll. Mary Sue has become less a genuine criticism and more a lash to beat fledgling writers with. But yes, it's been a long standing problem throughout the fandoms that female characters, especially original ones, cannot shine for fear of being labelled a Mary Sue.

Obviously not with mine. I write strong female characters and sod anyone who hurls Mary Sue without any firm foundation.

Ember on 08/18/2012

I seriously thought a Mary-Sue was a blatantly obvious self-insertion in fanfiction. I had no idea there was so much more to it. I'm not that concerned with it either, I've never tried to make sure an author wasn't using one, if I enjoyed the story. The only reason I thought it mattered was because more often than not the stories with a self-insertion do tend to be the most poorly written, mainly because there's kind of not a story there at all. And, apart from that, if it is a good story that people like reading, then what the hell does it matter? That's what I think.

But I didn't know it was causing problems with writing female characters. That is really quite ridicculous. -.-

Sam on 08/18/2012

I always wondered why people choose to write fan-fiction instead of writing original fiction, perhaps you can clear up this mystery for me in your next article? ;-) SY

JoHarrington on 08/18/2012

Then you don't hang around the murky world of fandoms! LOL I don't know whether to congratulate you or commiserate.




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