[Mary Sues were the very first topic I wrote about on this blog, some years ago. I’d like to re-examine them with my current mindset, under the hopefully true impression that I’m now older and wiser]
People have been talking about Mary Sues a lot these days, mostly in the great kerfuffle of a conversation that sprang up around Rey, the undisputed heroine of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The young lady did very much awaken the force, and it seems to have upset some folks… though equally as many (if not more) folks have been keen to rebut that Rey being a Mary Sue is a ridiculous accusation, mostly pointing out that she’s a perfectly reasonable and un-Sueish character compared to the male heroes of previous movies. And even if she is some sort of Mary Sue, what’s so wrong with that anyway?
‘Mary Sue’ is a tricky term, but one that’s thrown around a lot. I have to confess that I’m still not perfectly sure what it means, except what I can garner from what I’ve read. A Mary Sue seems to be one or both of two bad things:
1: a female character who is blatantly a self-insert of the author
2: a female character who is highly talented and lacking in flaws, as well as being beloved by all characters and quite possibly destined to be the centre of the universe. In all respects, Very Special
Obviously when you combine these things it becomes an irritating brew of writer wish-fulfilment, especially when it appears in fanfiction (where the term began, and what it first and foremost refers to). People read fanfiction for wild, complex and fun reimaginings of stories they love, but the reimagining they want often isn’t to see someone else’s author avatar having a great time with all their favourite characters and becoming the centre of the universe. If they wanted to read that, they’d write their own self-insert fic.
The issue of author self-insert has always been rife though—if you’ll permit me to bring up The Sun Also Rises again (I’m sorry. Perhaps one day I’ll stop picking on this book, but it’s not out of my system yet), you could very easily use modern terms to argue that Jake is Ernest Hemingway’s Mary Sue (Marty Stu?) self-insert character, the novel being strongly based on events from the author’s real life… except that the main character, Jake (who had the same profession, history, and in large part personality of Hemingway) ends up with the girl Hemingway had a crush on IRL. Even without taking that into account, the novel is basically an account of Hemingway’s self-insert character being rich, smart, and having a great time in Paris and Spain. How self-indulgent is that?
People don’t generally like to read self-indulgent stuff. It’s what (in my humble little stopped-watching-Doctor-Who-years-ago-and-is-still-bitter-about-Sherlock opinion) was one of the largest downfalls of Stephen Moffat—he proclaimed that he writes mostly for himself, and, while the self is a writer’s first audience and if you’re not interested in your writing, who else would be? it’s also important to move beyond that and take other opinions and taste into account, otherwise you’ll end up with something that you think is very cool, but other people find baffling/boring/easily comparable to watching the author give himself a blowjob. And yes, I have seen that written as criticism of Moffat’s writing.
It is, however, really important that self-indulgent stuff is being written. Every author’s characters have a bit of the author in them, however thinly veiled—for another ‘classical’ example, see Esther Greenwood. I believe that we write to make sense of things, and by planting ourselves in a story, which by virtue of being a story, has to make sense, we transport ourselves to a safe place. And honestly, what place more safe and fun than a story where we’re free of all the blemishes and faults our real selves have, where our favourite characters adore us, and we have cosmic significance?
Whether or not we’ve meant to, God knows every writer has written self-insert characters. It’s a widely noted fact that an author’s first work is often in some way autobiographical, whether it’s literally an account of things you’ve done, or, for example, the main character takes a great deal from the author. We saw it in the adult Hemingway, so it makes perfect sense that young people just starting to write—the authors most commonly associated with Mary Sues—would do the same. It’s part of the process of growth as a writer. Honestly, I’d recommend writing trashy fanfic to anyone, simply because it’s good practice.
And, sometimes inserting yourself—‘you’ here being the teenaged girl who’s conjuring up Mary Sues and annoying everyone—into trashy fanfiction is the only way you’d find a way to see yourself in that story. The Mary Sue that gave the Mary Sue its name (her name was Mary Sue) was from a Star Trek fanfic. Star Trek, it’s worth noting, has only one major female character in its core cast, and a whole bushel of varying archetypes of male ones for dudes of every size and shape and ideology to relate to. If you were a girl and didn’t click with Uhura, you were presumably somewhat left out. Unless, of course, you made a new character in a new work.
It’s a perfectly reasonable response to being a frustrated fangirl in a sea of media that appeals to men—media that you love, but doesn’t seem to cater to you. Well, in that case, you tweak it, you play with it, you bend the rules so you feel even more at home in this story that you like so much. There’s a phenomenon in most fan circles that sees male fans (generally speaking, of course) as the ‘collectors’ and female ones as the ‘creators’: dudes will pride themselves on encyclopaedic knowledge, franchise loyalty and the ability to gather large amounts of merchandise (to the point of using all this to try and act as gatekeepers to keep those with lesser ‘collection’ out, but hoo boy that’s another discussion altogether), and dudettes will more likely create fanworks (writing, art, music, cosplay etc.).
In short, boys will enjoy all the material that’s already there, whereas girls often challenge, play with and recreate the material. This is, pretty clearly, due to the fact that the boys already feel secure and can just enjoy the thing in perfect comfort, since in most cases with mainstream geek media, it already appeals to them. But girls are often not the target audience and have to find ways to wriggle their way into its world, which indeed can take the form of writing themselves in. Hence Mary Sue self-insert fanfiction—teenaged girls so disheartened by canon that they go and make their own. Wouldn’t it be delightful, to finally see yourself in your favourite book series or TV show? Wouldn’t it be great if it appealed solely to you and not some other geeks? Wouldn’t it be fun to play with the universe so it suited you better?
It sounds megalomaniacal, but honestly, to some degree all writing is. Frankly I think a teenaged girl being so filled with inspiration and love (and a bit of spite, but never let it be said that’s not a good motivator) by a work of fiction that she sits down and starts her own creative writing is a wonderful thing. Granted, a lot of these first-time fics are badly written and, again, painfully self-indulgent, but that’s because they’re someone’s first work. Let them write their deliriously self-centred, self-pleasing trash fantasies. If they do it enough they’ll improve, and evolve as writers, and yes, in years to come they will look back and cringe, but they’ll be glad those trashy self-insert Sue fics happened because they’ve come so far since then.
But young girls having fun seems to make people incredibly uncomfortable. While I understand that self-insert fanfiction (and original writing, for that matter, though the self-insert characters in those are often less obvious) can be dull and annoying to read, it doesn’t necessarily excuse the general vitriol The Internet has for them. Perhaps part of my confusion is that the Mary Sue witch hunts started as very much a Live Journal thing, a community that’s now long extinct and which I was never part of.
But even missing out on that internet era, I got infected by it—I remember examining all my characters fretfully, even taking a ‘Mary Sue Litmus Test’ that told you whether or not your original characters fit the dreaded title. Let’s be honest, the first heroine I wrote about was me, but with better skin and superpowers—most people’s first characters are, especially when you’re young. In a large part, I think the fact that ‘Mary Sue’ is such a condemning label is because people are grossed out by teenagers, teenaged girls in particular.
I think my disdain for self-insert Mary Sues was also part of my chronic desire to Not Be Like Other Girls, which is a wide societal issue in and of itself. Like, let the teenaged girls write their trashy self-insert fic, guys. Let them learn and grow and maybe build a safe space for themselves (or the versions of themselves with better skin and superpowers, at least) in fiction that they might not have at home, school, fandom, or in life in general. Let them be the heroes of their own stories, even if they gag at the bad grammar and woefully constructed plots of said stories when they’re a bit older. Let them breathe, man. In the end, no one is making you read the stuff.
Though when it comes to the trope sneaking into mainstream fiction, you can kind of see where people are complaining in regards to the ‘Practically Perfect in Every Way’ half of the archetype… but that is the topic for next time!