Story of Myself – Deconstructing the Mary Sue
Story of Myself:
Deconstructing the Mary Sue
My sister was perusing a book discussion thread this morning and tittered over some moderator’s listed rules for writing fan fictions. This humoured me as well, as I didn’t realize that hobbyist fiction written with established characters and copyrights would maintain a strict set of rules given their work is regulated strictly to free entertainment. However, a discussion about Mary Sues developed and a curious poster asked what the term meant. My sister read me a curious response stating that a Mary Sue is a “Girl, either real or imaginary, inserted into a fan fiction.”
This seemed a grossly over-generalized description especially since the term has become associated with a great deal of negatively. The suggestion that any female added to a fan fiction is an immediate Mary Sue is both misleading and curiously stifling for a form of writing which, by its nature, is fairly irrelevant. The emphasis on gender also seemed rather strange as well and this prompted a conversation between my sister and me over what it actually meant.
And at first, I believed I had a great grasp of the concept. A Mary Sue, to my understanding, was an idealized version of the author inserted into a work of fan fiction. They served as a vessel of blatant wish-fulfillment, representing all the best perceived qualities of the individual and becoming immediately celebrated and adored by an established cast of characters even if it was incongruous with the established personalities or the world itself. If they had any flaws, then these were either downplayed or used for humorous or endearing effect. As it turns out, my understanding was not too far from the original concept of creation.
The term itself arose from a satirical Star Trek short written in 1973 by Paula Smith. Titled “A Trekkie’s Tale,” the story was set to poke fun at apparently commonplace stories written about adolescent female antagonists and their grandiose adventures on the USS Enterprise. So prolific was this phenomena that the editors of what I can only assume is a Star Trek fan fiction magazine called Menagerie released this statement on the characters:
“Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.”
Now, I am hardly versed in the fan fiction world. I would lie if I didn’t know anything about it. When I was younger, many of my own stories were a certain kind of fan fiction. Typically, I would be inspired by the ideas or worlds of other entertainment and spend hours creating my own stories in these worlds. I mean, who hasn’t been so enthralled with a work that they didn’t imagine themselves experiencing it in a more direct manner? The power of fantasy is its ability to carry us to incredibly imaginative worlds and places that are both exciting and strange. I can easily find youtube videos of people acting out their own Star Wars lightsaber battles, so this is hardly an isolated experience.
For me, however, I more enjoyed the world itself. The characters were entities completely unassailable in my work. I hadn’t created them so I didn’t feel comfortable trying to write them. My words wouldn’t rival that of the original authors and, to me, these individuals would only come across as pale imitations of the individuals I loved. Besides, my wish fulfillment was to have the adventure myself. I didn’t want to share the limelight with the great heroes who would inevitably take centre stage and solve all the issues on their own.
So my stories always involved unique locations and new individuals with, perhaps, tangential comments or references to the source material. My earliest remembered fan fiction was a story set in Blizzard’s Diablo world where a party of adventurers explored a cove for treasure and become the playthings of some unspeakable demon who had taken refuge within. I also spent one summer working on my own Harry Potter work that took place not in England but in North America with its own schools, teachers and political intrigues.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fan fictions as they are seemingly harmless in their adoration of an author’s stories. They’re just a reflection of the enjoyment readers get from the author’s work. I couldn’t get into them for the same reason I couldn’t write a proper one. While I enjoyed the original stories, it was the writing and characterization that I adored and no one but the original creators could truly do their stories justice.
That said, I have no interest in the Mary Sue character. I do prescribe to the traditional notion that characters should be well rounded, developed individuals complete with strengths and flaws. A character that is perfect at everything, is liked by everyone, can do no wrong and is always in the right is just boring to me. Most grievous is when these characters are clear author surrogates.
And it is the author surrogacy that may lead to the Mary Sue term’s most difficult characteristics. While this aspect is debated whether it’s necessary for a Mary Sue, it’s the one element I prescribe to the charge. I’m not sure why this specific self-indulgence makes the wish fulfillment even worse than an idealized character that’s not meant to represent the author but it’s something I find even more amateur than creating an unfaltering paragon. Course, by its nature, it’s hard to tell when a perfect character is acting as an avatar for the writer. A telltale sign is if they share some common characteristic, which may be exaggerated in the story even if it doesn’t truly deserve to be.
But I’m not sure why this surrogacy annoys me so much. Ultimately, the author is going to insert themselves into their own work. When you break down the characters in the story, they essentially are aspects of their creator. Our perceptions and experiences are highly personal and while we may recognize similarities in those communicated by others, we can never truly feel the exact same things as someone else. We can only infer based on our experiences. Thus, no matter what character we write, on some level we are ultimately writing about ourselves.
Take, for example, my D&D stories. The characters are unashamedly based on those I actually know. However, if you were to meet the inspirations for Derrek, Jeremiah or Kait, you would invariably find that they aren’t truly like their fictional counterparts. In a sense, I use the real people to craft a mould for my characters but I must fill that mould with my own thoughts and decisions. When Derrek decides not to inform his friends about a dangerous magical ritual being performed in disguise, it is a decision that I made. I can’t know what the real Derrek would have done in that situation and certainly he wouldn’t have done it exactly as I describe.
In essence, a story is a collection of aspects of the writer. Each character is just a faucet, be it major or minor, of his personality. They think and act and feel as the writer imagines they would. And in that imagining, the line between the writer and the character blurs. When a character grieves over the loss of a lover, perhaps we are truly reading the feelings of a writer reflecting on her own loss of a close pet or relative. The more provocative, real and powerful these emotions the more we’re likely reading the personality of the creator.
And perhaps this is why I, personally, find the Mary Sue such an atrocious character. Their appearance almost universally degrades the personalities of all the supporting characters in the story. They stop being these small faucets breathed brief life by the care of their creator and instead become shallow cheerleaders whose sole purpose is to stand on the sidelines, cheering on one person. They are automatons created with the single purpose of making the author elevate themselves above all others. It is the dishonest murder of the self to feed the needs of the id and the desire for self-relevancy. Take the example from The Name of the Wind and how sycophantic all the minor characters are that surround Kvothe. They have little personality and their sole function is to praise Kvothe’s skills at whatever or to commiserate how awful the events of his life were. They have never suffered like Kvothe has suffered because they lack that bit of life to bring them alive. Had they been written with deeper backgrounds, I have to wonder if Kvothe would need such dramatic and over the top characteristics. By necessity, an author will have to break apart his own characteristics if he is to achieve individuality from his cast.
Course, Name of the Wind can’t have a Mary Sue because it’s an original work. But original works can certainly have the flaws inherent from Mary Sue-esque characters or situations.
Ultimately, I feel the existence of the Mary Sue is wholly unnecessary. By developing a cast of well rounded major and minor characters, the writer creates for themselves a scattered universe of their own personality. Each character, whether they be young or old, male or female, brave or cowardly are all small motes of their writer. There doesn’t need to be a single vessel for the author; they can find themselves in the hero, the hero’s parents, the rival, the mentor and everyone in between. The death of the Mary Sue is the birth of a richer, more diverse world ready to bud from the seeds of conflict of an author struggling against himself.