The mere mention of the term often sends Creatives scuttling into the rafters, hissing about tropes and authenticity. It’s a funeral dirge when it’s employed by critics, professional or no — the easiest way to break someone down when they’re first venturing into writing is to call their chosen character overpowered trash. It’s honestly kind of fascinating how quickly others slap the label on what is potentially a person’s first foray into the craft.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with it, a Mary Sue is a character—strictly female—who has more positive qualities than negative and is beloved by the universe itself—which is usually a world preconceived by another author/gaming company*. The term was first used in a Star Trek fanfiction by Paula Smith, in which the titular character was the be-all end-all of the Starship Enterprise, dies, and is mourned dramatically by canon characters at the end of the story. It’s important to note that, from the author’s mouth, this character was meant as a parody of similar characters she noticed when reading Trek fic. You can read the interview explaining this here.
Smith’s story highlights most of the parameters of a Mary Sue as they are judged by members of a fandom. They are as follows:
1. The character is female.
2. The character has direct ties to characters in pre-established canon: they are a sister, a cousin, a daughter, a lover.
3. They have an overabundance of positive traits: they are the top of their class, in peak physical perfection, could win a beauty contest after rolling out of bed and speak four languages with a regional accent to boot. The key here is how overtuned these traits are and how many exist. Mary Sues always have a solution to a problem posed by the narrative.
4. They are very rarely listed with negative traits, and if they are, they are considered endearing by the rest of the characters (Bella’s clumsiness for good or for ill is often considered the penultimate example of this).
5. They are injured in some manner which gives them a problem to easily overcome. Sometimes they’re bed-bound, and others have to find a cure for their dire illness. Sometimes they lose a limb and courageously endure this. It’s not really character building as much as a slight bump in the road towards the epilogue.
6. Death, while not necessary, usually comes at the end of the novel and we are privy to the canon character’s ‘fourth act’ of mourning and learning how to live in a world without the character. If this is within a roleplaying universe, death is a problem typically solved by game mechanics — Phoenix Downs, Scrolls of Resurrections, in-game rituals, whatever works within context of the universe. No one wants to level up a new character.
The fact that I am able to list these traits without thinking has come from nearly two decades of participating in a multitude of fandoms with a multitude of rules dictating how their canon is to be treated. I’ve made a wealth of original characters, and when I was younger, they were planted into fandoms to act as my voice within the present narrative. It was something I’d always done, and considering the popularity of sites such as Fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own, others enjoy doing so as well. When I was starting out, most of my original character fit each of these points. And when I was ten, I really didn’t see the problem with it.
As with anything that could constitute guidelines for behavior, fandoms took these Mary Sue facets and ran with them. The Mary Sue has become something of a pariah, a label for a character who is so unbelievable they have to be mocked. It’s very easy and incredibly comforting to say, ‘Look at this character and all of the ways it isn’t like mine.” In a way, it really does feel safe; one can be secure in the knowledge that their character isn’t being called a Sue, and it stands to reason that it means they’re doing something right. At the end of the day, a writer or roleplayer can sit back and reflect about how their characters are somehow more genuine or true to the narrative they’re a part of because they aren’t labeled as an overpowered mockery.
Honestly, that’s pretty unfair.
One of the most important features of creating in a fandom or roleplaying in a preset universe is feeling as if you’re contributing to an ongoing narrative. It’s just like any other academic argument—it’s a conversation, and one your opinion deserves to be a part of. Even if you’re not fully informed in parts of the conversation, it’s up to others to help guide you. Research is always good, of course, but in many cases it’s fun to jump in feet-first. The use of the Mary Sue as a derisive term effectively cuts many out of the “conversation”, or at the very least eliminates the desire to join in. No one wants to set themselves up for failure, and with Mary Sue looming like a neon sign above fandoms and roleplayers, it’s no wonder creative individuals often keep silent in order to avoid offending the established crowd.
Many writers have discussed “reclaiming” the Mary Sue in an attempt to remove it as a negative trope within fandom/RP culture. If you’re particularly interested in academic observations I’d recommend Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women. Her ethnography in specific is the one which got my metaphorical goat, as she discusses fandom and writing within fandoms from a female point of view. Her notion that female writers gravitate towards writing male characters out of fear of undue criticism is of particular note, as it hammers home the idea of terror silencing potential ideas. Out of fear of creating a female character that others will criticize, potential writers simply never start.
I think that’s why the term bothers me so much—it’s gendered, utterly, and wielded by all against beginning writers and roleplayers. Worse, other creatives are lambasting younger female writers, artists, and roleplayers — silencing them before they have a chance to grow. The term Mary Sue applies to female characters in literature typically written by females (there are of course exceptions to this rule), as they power the creative side of most fandoms through fiction, music videos, art, and photo manipulation. Conversely, when a male character is created that falls into these parameters, they are considered Gary Stus. I don’t really see this term as often, however, and you’d think with all of the overpowered male characters in every nerdy Fandom Thing it would be as ever-present as Sues. But that brings up another topic: why is Mary Sue damned while Captain Kirk considered a multifaceted, intriguing character?
While that’s a pet peeve I could go on about at length, my current concern is with emergent writers and roleplayers who are younger women first entering the fandom. They’re attempting to add their voice to the growing discussion, one that’s potentially been happening for a decade or more. It’s one hell of a river to jump into, especially when there’s an ever-present threat of criticism crocodiles (critodiles?) sleeping in the bulrushes.
Besides the fact that more veteran writers will criticize and inadvertently bully younger writers for the traits they give their characters without exploring why they did so. My own reasoning through creating these characters has a great deal to do with the lack of control I felt in my own life at the time I started writing. Through fiction, which had always represented a safe place, I could create a character who wouldn’t be burdened by my day-to-day and succeeded regardless of the struggles she went through. She was a princess because it gave her control. She was adept at language and school because it meant she was intelligent enough to compete with canon characters. Her negative traits didn’t detract from her glory and of course the canon characters loved her — she was useful, wanted, and adored instead of being ostracized from everything and everyone. My first Mary Sue was a creation of power that I didn’t possess but sorely wished to obtain — and through that, I began to understand the negotiations of control throughout fictional and non-fictional worlds.
The fact that others so desire to ruin that ability to learn power striations and create a conversation about that has become frustrating to me after years of criticizing the Mary Sue entirely. The Sue is an easy person to be annoyed instead of enamored by! In some fandoms they are incredibly prevalent, especially if the overworld is more of a sandbox. I am in several roleplaying communities and there are often blogs dedicated to seeking out overpowered original characters and breaking them down, bullet point by bullet point, as I did earlier in this article. We who have learned how wonderful a nuanced character can be, and instead of using that knowledge to bolster blossoming writers, our understanding becomes a vehicle for scorn. That has to change, and that change can only come from the inside. The Mary Sue must become a logical stepping-stone for female authors to begin to develop their craft.
How can we do this? In the next blog, we’ll be talking about character traits — and how to give your character balanced traits that reflect the universe they live in.
*For male over-powered characters, the moniker ‘Gary Stu’ is used.