The Boy Who Cried ‘Mary Sue’

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Looking back on the past decade or so, it’s almost impossible to remember a time in which I was not either surrounded by books or scribbling my own silly stories on a notebook. I was twelve, I think, when I wrote my first disgraceful piece of fanfiction in collaboration with a classmate—it was about the manga Naruto, with our own original characters (or OCs) thrown into the mix, and not so bad on the narrative aspect for a couple of preteens but absolutely terrible in everything else. I must have been around the same age when I was introduced to the concept of the Mary Sue, a monster of epic proportions any self-respectable writer should avoid at all costs. What am I trying to transmit by sharing this insignificant episode of my life? Well, I recently turned twenty-three and still partake in writing fiction, but in the last ten years I have become a considerably more active author, reader and reviewer in such websites, and I have the feeling certain attitudes have not changed in the slightest over those long ten years.

A couple of weeks ago, I unexpectedly came across afanfiction I read years ago and decided to take a peek to refresh my memory. I remembered thinking how good it was, when I first read it, and how I would never be able to create a character like the protagonist, which was an OC. Anyway, as soon as I finished the first clichéd and pretentious chapter I felt like laughing because it was terrible. But, how is that possible? Why the sudden change of heart? Well, I have obviously matured both as a reader and as a writer as to notice the flaws in a story that, back then, was admittedly better than anything I myself had written. Now, I could see the protagonist was very poorly written even if the narration itself was not so bad. The author of the story probably would be able to see the same if she decided to re-visit her story so many years later. It’s only natural—it was written in 2011. Out of curiosity, I went into the review section even knowing how the odds, in this particular website, were against me to find a proper constructive comment. That was the moment I saw that dreaded name: Mary Sue, in the middle of an impossibly long and aggressive review. For some reason, it angered me. Yes, the character in question could use a better development and a more realistic approach on certain aspects, but I don’t think it was a Mary Sue and I don’t think the author deserved to be deprecated like that. It angered me because in the span of a decade the absurd situation female authors (or creators of female characters in general) face has not improved.

By now, those who are not familiarized with the world of fanfiction or the term itself must be wondering: “who is this Mary Sue?”

Mary Sue is a title female characters are given when they meet several characteristics that make them so unbelievably perfect the reader can only throw his arms on the air screaming “what the f*ck”. Most of the time they are an insertion of the author into the story, used for wish fulfillment, which makes the character lack a proper depth and personality. They come from a tragic background, more often than not being poor orphans whose family died in a terrible, unspeakable way for which they swore to have revenge. For some inexplicable reason, everyone—and I mean everyone—either falls head over heels in love with them or becomes jealous of their flawlessness. To top it all, they can do anything better than anyone else. They are usually given extravagant names that don’t even fit the setting of the story and have ridiculous physical traits like bright purple eyes. It’s an exaggerated description—actually, not so exaggerated in some cases—, but you get the picture.

A good example of a true Mary Sue is Bella Swan, from the Twilight franchise. The author herself admitted the protagonist was a reflection of her own inner desires—she didn’t have to, really, we all noticed. Bella describes herself as downright plain-looking, yet apparently she is rather pretty and has numerous suitors throwing themselves at her feet all the time; she has a sparkly vampire and a werewolf fighting for her heart in the most bizarre love triangle of all times, which the own narration petulantly compares to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet among others; her innate clumsiness (a typical Mary Sue-ish trait) is always described as nothing short of adorable; her parents’ divorce has her in the middle of a family drama she blows out of proportion (Bella herself says she didn’t necessarily have to move with her father, that she chose to do it, then proceeds to complain about everything as if she was a victim); she is the goddamn queen of angst… Her very name means “beautiful swan”, for God’s sake. I could go on and on, but you could just take a look at this blog and have a good laugh, instead: https://dazzlemethis.wordpress.com/

Other hilarious example is the Harry Potter fanfiction My Immortal, which became a true legend in the internet. It even has My Chemical Romance in it. And vampires. And emo sh*t.

Although apparently there are records of characters like that existing in 18th century literature, the expression “Mary Sue” was originally coined by Paula Smith, who in 1972 wrote a satirical piece of fiction titled A Trekkie’s Tale for a Star Trek fanzine in which she denounced the outrageous number of such OCs that were being written into the ST universe. (Go look it up if you have time. It’s hilarious, and just three pharagraphs long.)

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(Strip extracted from the series Ensign Sue Must Die by Interrobang Studios.)

The original intention behind writing this article was to analyse and denounce the use of this label slash insult. Mary Sues do exist, of course. I created tons and tons of Mary Sues when I was still learning how to be a good writer—hell, I am still learning, just like everyone else. The protagonists on that Naruto fanfiction I wrote at age twelve were textbook Mary Sues. I would venture and say everyone has created at least one Mary Sue, at some point, because it’s only natural and a perfectly respectable way of taking your first steps into literary creation. But there is a nasty practice in the fanfiction community I cannot ignore, which I pointed out before—to label ninety percent of the female OCs as Mary Sues for the simple reason of being women, being capable, and being paired with someone (sometimes, simply being female is reason enough). Honestly, I have come across countless stories in which the protagonist was male, had a whole harem of canon characters at their disposal, was regarded almost as the reincarnation of Jesus Christ… and, for some ridiculous reason, it was not nearly half as much criticized as much better written stories starring a woman.

There exists a term (actually, two) for male Mary Sues, which is Gary Sty / Marty Stu, but I have never seen it wielded as freely as people do with its counterpart. Perhaps because there are around fifteen female OCs for every male OC, at least in the fandoms I usually frequent, or perhaps because there exists this extended prejudice about them. Be that as it may, I have grown fairly sick of reading the expression time and time again. One of the few male characters I have heard been extensively—and rightfully—condemned as a Marty Stu is Kvothe, protagonist of The Kingkiller Chronicle’s saga by Patrick Rothfuss, and I would say this case is just too damn obvious to ignore. He tragically becomes an orphan, he is a devilishly handsome redhead, not just intelligent but downright brilliant (the youngest person in history admitted into the University), sly as a fox, a gifted musician (the best lute player in the world, to be precise)… I don’t think the character in itself was intended as the author’s “wish fulfilment” but he is so damn perfect that reading about his adventures becomes tedious at times. Not even Kvothe himself admitting to be exaggerating the account of his adventures makes it better. Looking around, I found an article that dubbed Paul Atreides from the sci-fi franchise Dune as “the ultimate Gary Stu” but, since I’m not familiarized with those books, I can’t formulate a personal opinion.

While I was reflecting upon the issue, a case in particular came to mind. Rey, the protagonist of the new Star Wars trilogy, first introduced last year in The Force Awakens. There are just so many people out there calling her a Mary Sue when she is not. Rey is accused of knowing too many abilities—piloting, advance mechanics, self-defence, and a bunch more which are simply an extension of her being able to use the Force (duh). Well, if you grew up alone in a hostile planet like Jakku, being forced to fend for yourself and scavenge remains of forsaken starships for a living… I guess you would gather some technical knowledge lest you would prefer to starve. Rey’s abilities are perfectly plausible given the context, I would say. But, oh, take a look at Anakin Skywalker or Han Solo who actually have a lot on their plates to be considered Marty Stus but, curiously enough, have never been so closely criticised. And let’s not talk about Poe Dameron, the best mother*cking pilot in the Resistance, who somehow survives not only an (mental violation) interrogation by Kylo Ren but out there in the desert, and re-appears in the right moment to save the day—but Poe Dameron is just too awesome.

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Going back to that old fic I re-visited, I found it humorous—for lack of a better word—that most of the complaints I found in the reviews about this alleged Mary Sue revolved around the character’s intelligence. They didn’t find realistic that she was clever. Oh, come on! You have to be kidding me. She wasn’t even nearly as accomplished as other male characters in the story but, for some reason, to make her as intelligent as them suddenly made the character unbelievable: a Mary Sue. No. HELL NO. You are telling me we have, not only to be careful to create a good character, but also tone down our Female OCs abilities to make them convincing? Because, I guess, women are and must be inferior, right? Powerful, intelligent and talented women are clearly far-fetched fantasies and a joke. F*ck you, sir. I seriously don’t understand that reasoning, and it just angers me so much because it’s something we female fanfiction writers in specific have been enduring for ages.

So, yeah, over the years I have come to value the concept of Mary Sues. Not poorly written characters like Bella Swan, which would be the logical scenario for the usage of the term, but what people seemingly have come to understand a Mary Sue is—female power fantasies. Girls need Mary Sues. Girls need powerful and talented fictional characters to inspire them, just as boys have had theirs since forever. And if the aforementioned boys find it so offensive to have characters like Rey leading a story, well, that’s too sad but they can kindly step aside and let the rest of us enjoy it instead of b*tching about how they are unable to empathize with said characters just because they don’t share a gender.

To conclude this absurdly long and anger-fuelled tirade, a piece of personal advice: WRITE WHATEVER YOU WANT. IGNORE ILL-INTENTIONED COMMENTS FROM STRANGERS. WRITE WHATEVER MAKES YOU HAPPY. CREATE ALL KIND OF DIFFERENT CHARACTERS AND JUST HAVE FUN.

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