Lucinda Elliot

More on the Mary Sue and the Marty Stu

IX: Pamela is Married 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921

I have written before about the Mary Sue and the Marty Stu/Gary Stu. It’s rather fun to poke fun at the most outrageous versions of this pest, for instance, its original manifestations in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and Fanny Burney’s Evelina.

 I personally like the term, though many writers hate it: I think that the dread of creating such a detestable paragon is salutary for all writers, and don’t agree with the current backlash against it.  

I agree that it has been too routinely applied by critics or readers to any competent, attractive female protagonist, and this happens a great deal less often with supposedly irresistibly handsome, gifted male leads.

But one can create a good looking, socially adequate – even charming – talented lead character, even one who is ‘The Chosen One’, without creating either a Mary Sue or Marty Stu.

That is fine, so long as the character is not ridiculously perfect physically and/or mentally, and/or far from perfect, not even particularly remarkable in any way, but for some reason admired and loved by everyone, or a character who is made to win every struggle and indulged by the author like a spoilt child.

The following article and some of the reactions elucidate the problems surrounding the Mary Sue or Marty Stu trope, and why so many readers and writers fail to understand exactly what is meant, with the result that the term is overused.

One of the commentators – I suspect a young and inexperienced writer – is outraged, and accuses the poster of objecting to good looking, talented people and opposing the whole idea of escapism.

But she misses the point in her ingenuous response.

If you are writing some form of escapism, for instance, you certainly do need interesting, often physically attractive characters who get drawn into unusual adventures, frequently by accident.   You may need larger than life characters, or perhaps, mundane characters with extraordinary powers as yet unexplored.

What you don’t need are characters who always look marvellous, even when half dead, or climbing out of a swamp, or characters whose looks every single person praises (after all, no film star is universally admired, however cosmetically enhanced: people will always, fortunately, be impressed by different types).

What you don’t need are lead characters who win every battle through some omniscient plot interference from the author, or an idealised version of the author herself or himself.

And while in Fantasy fan fiction in particular, Mary Sue characters have been inserted into stories who have brought a lot of disrepute on a character being a distant or poor relative of a hero, of course, a character can be written as a distant relative or a poor relation of the hero, without necessarily being a Mary Sue. 

To return to the classic examples I have used before: Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has been accused of being a Mary Sue, and rightly. The same with Fanny Burney’s Evelina.

They are depicted as having faultless appearances, which nobody does anything but admire in what has been termed ‘choric praise’. Their faults of character are such minor blemishes  – a little timidity here, a spot of social awkwardness there  – that they can undergo no real character development during the story.

Everyone likes and admires them save those who are jealous, and even these jealous detractors are depicted as being unable to find a single aspect of them which is imperfect.

This is not only ridiculously unrealistic – jealous people will always find some features, physical and mental, to criticise about someone they resent, but far from inspiring admiration in the spirited reader, it inspires boredom and irritation.

Besides this, these heroines’ doting authors indulge them at every turn in twisting events so that no real harm comes to either. Through Samuel Richardson imposing a wildly improbable moral conversion on Mr B’s part, and Fanny Burney inserting a series of heavy handed plot contrivances, both Pamela and Evelina get the happy ending that we are told they richly deserve.

The characters are also boring. They have nothing to say beyond acting as ventriloquist’s dummies in expressing their author’s sententious views about virtue and right conduct.

Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett has been accused of being a Mary Sue, mainly because she is a girl from a comparatively poor background who attracts and marries a great landowner from an aristocratic background.

As I have said elsewhere, this is unfair. Elizabeth Bennett only gradually attracts Mr Darcy, who originally has so low opinion of her attractions that he refuses to dance with her. He comes to notice her wit and charm during the time that they are forced to spend together at social occasions generally and at Netherfield.

This is clever writing from Jane Austen.  The hero only gradually and reluctantly comes to admire the heroine. The author gives us a rare insight into Mr Darcy’s point of view here:

Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness…’

The heroes of ‘Pamela’ and ‘Evelina’ are Marty Stu’s to match the heroines.  Mr B is depicted, not as a hectoring hypocrite with rapist and obsessive tendencies, but as a dashing villain.

One of Pamela’s allies, his housekeeper in Bedfordshire points out that there are ‘wicked women enough in the world’ to satisfy his lust, without his having to force himself on a ‘lamb’ like Pamela.

In fact, this is one of the aspects of his behaviour that makes no sense, and even seem to hint at some mental condition (of course, Richardson is far too crude a writer to have had such an intention). Why does a vain man of rakish tendencies put himself to so much inconvenience in his attempts to force himself on a girl who is not responsive, however attractive he might find her?

Richardson, though he does not explicitly state this, clearly sees Pamela’s continued refusal of him as tickling Mr B’s vanity and inflaming his lust, but the amount of energy Mr B expands to impose his will seem to make sense to nobody but some sort of narcissist.

Lord Orville is such a cardboard character that it is difficult even to sum up an image of him without feeling bored. Suffice it to say that he is perfect, physically and mentally. His only fault, if it can be called that, is that at first he only admires Evelina’s appearance. Later on, supposedly comes to appreciate her qualities of mind, though I have to admit I don’t know exactly what these are, apart from sententiousness.

As I have commented before, Charley Kinraid in Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’ is a classic Marty Stu.

He is the ‘boldest Specksioneer on the Greenland Seas’, dashing, strikingly handsome, fearless, astute, admired by all men  save his jealous rival Philip Hepburn (and even he secretly envies his ‘bright, handsome mien and ease of manner’ ) and desired by all women. One girl at least is rumoured to have died of a broken heart after he stopped paying court to her. He has already left behind him a stack of cast off ex-girlfriends.  

He is indistructable, turning adversity to his own advantage, rising to the top like a cork shooting up in water. Instead of dying or disappearing at sea – which would be the probable fate of sailor press ganged into the Royal Navy – he returns as a lieutenant, soon to be promoted to captain. Having been cheated out of marrying Sylvia Robson, he comforts himself by marrying an heiress, who admires him even more than he admires himself.

In other words, he is indulged by the author, not even being left with a limp when he breaks his leg during action at the Battle of Acre, while after Sylvia refuses to run away with him, he is provided with as happy an ending as the author can devise by way of wish fulfilment for her lost sailor brother.

It has to be said, in fairness to the author, that Kinraid does actually look ‘wan’ with ‘haggard eyes’ when Sylvia first sees him heroically risen from his sick bed after being shot by the press gang to attend his friend Darley’s funeral. The blood loss does affect his appearance slightly, and so he does diverge from the stereotypical Marty Stu that far. However, he soon recovers, and Sylvia is all admiration for his flashing eyes and teeth, and equally flashy tales of adventure.

 In fact, he is a ‘dark hole’ Marty Stu, as he draws in everyone about him to the point where he has no possible rivals.  Despite Monkshaven (Whitby) being a busy whaling port, there are no other dashing, handsome, vigorous sailors mentioned in the whole novel.

Here is an amusing exploration of that type of Marty Stu, which I have linked before:

Clearly, authors who create such a monstrosity as the full blown  Marty Stu or Mary Sue have never stopped to think that perhaps it might not endear a male or female lead to the readership to have him or her or him sexually irresistible and admired by everybody.

Of course, if anything, it has the opposite effect.  Having a few people unfairly contemptuous or dismissive of, or even merely indifferent to her or him, critical of his or her looks, capacities, character etc, generally works far better. So does giving him or her some serious competition in attractions, fighting skills, eligibility as a marriage partner, etc.

I think I may well be typical – though of course, the English are notorious for siding with the underdog – in that if in some story, any character is criticised on all sides, I tend to feel sympathy for him or her, however much that criticism is deserved. 

This tends to be comparatively rare for a male or female lead: but it is worth keeping in mind as a good way of arousing sympathy for an anti hero. But note, it has to be the right kind of abuse:  ‘He is a terrible villain, with a shocking reputation with the women’ isn’t going to arouse any sympathy in the reader.

That sounds like the typical cardboard rascal seducer.  Depicting the said villain suffering some indignity, or revealing some vulnerability, is a bit more like it.

I personally think it is a great mistake of many writers – particularly those who are writing heroes who are meant to be romantically appealing – to depict a male lead who never looks silly, has no real weaknesses, and is, in the words of Elizabeth Bennett ‘not to be laughed at.’  Surely, a male lead who can’t survive looking ridiculous is a very weak creation?

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