‘Which of you dared to call me a Mary Sue?’
A couple of years ago I read a story by an author (traditionally published) whom I generally admire.
This story was fast moving, with a well thought out, tightly constructed plot; the heroine was independent minded, and never relied on a man to sort out her problems; the characters were vivid; the writing was strong; the background research was admirable but not obtrusive; there was humour; the grammar was excellent –and I ploughed through it.
What was wrong?
It did in fact, take me two days to work it out (quick on the uptake, or what?)
I thought then that the heroine was probably a Mary Sue, according to the definition of it that I had read- ie, that everyone admired her looks, character, moral stance, wit, etc.
But thinking about it recently, I am not even sure of that – because there seems to be some disagreement about what exactly a real Mary Sue is. A real Mary Sue has traits that seem to go beyond being accompanied everywhere by this chorus of admiration.
This is the Wickipedia definition:
A Mary Sue is an idealized and seemingly perfect character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities. Often this character is recognized as an insert or wish-fulfillment. Sometimes the name is reserved only for women, and male Sues are called “Gary Stus” or “Marty Stus”; but more often the name is used for both sexes of offenders.
It seems it isn’t just that an unending chorus of admiration and too easily won devotion that makes for a Mary Sue, but fate working to clear her path miraculously of obstacles. I can’t say that was true of this particular female lead.
According to this definition, Fanny Burney’s Evelina and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela seem to me more like stereotypical Mary Sue’s.
While they do make ineffectual efforts to sort out their problems, they are too timid and feminine to do so properly, and these problems miraculously disappear when the hero proposes and so raises their social status.
Also, both heroines are singled out originally for special treatment by other characters so that they are placed to meet the male leads. Orville and the anti-hero Mr B do quickly single out the heroine for special treatment too, and continue to pursue her determindly in the face of all discouragement in a decidedly unrealistic way, indicating that the author is removing normal obstacles from the character’s path to social recognition.
In this, they are far more passive than the strong female lead in that other book. Though she had some special abilities given to her, she did have plenty of obstacles put in her way, and she tackled them bravely. She had none of the timidity of Pamela and Evelina. That was not a fault in the structure of the story.
So why did I feel so indifferent to the fate of this heroine, who if she did have a fault, was too impulsively brave and independent minded?
I think it comes back to that admiration from the other characters. I find too much of that can even make you feel that with all that admiration going about, the protagonist doesn’t need any from the reader. .
Whereas, if that recent heroine had shown exactly the same characteristics, and not received a fair amount of acknowledgement for them, that would have brought me determinedly in on to her side.
I did wonder, given that this was a well known writer, why there no editors or Beta readers to point out that a character who makes a fool of herself now and then, and who looks less than her best occasionally and who fails to impress someone or other now and then, is likely to be that much more sympathetic?
I did ask myself too, the Influenced By Sexism question – whether I would have found this female lead so tiresome if she had been a male character – and the answer was that I would probably have found her even more annoying.
Wickipedia also gives a definition of the male Mary Sue, and I think I have come across him rather more often:
Marty Stu or Gary Stu is a male variant on this trope, which shares the same wish-fulfillment aspect but tends to describe a character with traits identified as stereotypically male.
But this post is long enough already. I’ll do some research on male ‘Mary Sues’ or Marty Stus next.
However, this definition still seems a rather unsatisfactory one of a trope that authors go in such dread of following, that they feel actual horror at the thought of it being applied to their own heroine. Besides, the Wickipedia article concentrates largely on a discussion of fan fiction and Star Trek, I assume because it was through a spoof on this that the term originally came into being.
So, I went looking for other, more detailed definitions of the Mary Sue, confining this at the moment to female characters.
This blog gave an excellent analysis of the way that the Mary Sue permeates all our consciousness, and how to avoid her warping our works:
A Mary Sue is a character that the author identifies with so strongly that the story is warped by it. Sometimes male Sues are called “Gary Stus,” but more often the name is used for both sexes of offenders. The term was coined in fanfiction, made its way from there into the publishing world, and has slowly been filtering into the writing community as a useful shorthand for a frighteningly common error in characterization.
Along the way the definition of a Mary Sue has become muddied. For some, it is any self-insertion of the writer; for others it is when the character is obviously acting as wish-fulfillment for the writer. Sometimes it is a character who is excessively stylish or romantic or over-traumatized, or who never does anything wrong.
But these are all symptoms of the same literary crime: a character who, by the writer’s obsession with her, subverts the truth and power of the story. Mary Sue fights to appear in all our stories. She is the story equivalent of the spoilt brat who always gets her way, with the writer-parent running before her anxiously smoothing her path; she is lovable to no one but that parent. Mary Sues sometimes appear in valid works of fiction, but more often they render the story unreadable, a source of satisfaction to the writer alone. Spotting her and learning to discipline her is as important for writers as it is for parents.
Then, this blog, while it is largely about writing fan fiction, is useful for all writers on the topic of Mary Sues:
Interestingly, a character being a Mary Sue does not mean that book will be a failure. After all, Bella Swan of ‘Twilight’ is very often defined as the archtypical Mary Sue. And who wouldn’t be happy with that level of success and public recognition?
Here is a very funny blog, the hall of ‘The Mary Sue Hall of Fame’