Only you, Mary Sue

I was looking at Ellen Kushner’s blog, as I sometimes do, and I followed a link to another interesting blog post (by Holly Black) about Mary Sues. Not about identifying Mary Sues in literature – which has become quite the sport lately – but about the sport of identification itself. About the fact that “Mary Sue” is coming to mean “that female character I dislike”.

Dilution of a useful term? Maybe. I’m not that convinced it was a useful term, with any meaning beyond the world of fanfiction and self-insertion fantasies. Not that I’ve never used it in a review. I believe I once called the protagonist of Twilight a Mary Sue, which was probably mean of me. But what Black points out is that some of the “Mary Sue” qualities people rail about in reviews are merely features of being the protagonist. Yes, she’s smart and resourceful and able to save the day: she’s the protagonist. It’s what they do.

Anyway, interesting discussion.


7 Comments on “Only you, Mary Sue”

  1. Joshua Macy says:

    I don’t encounter the term Mary Sue much outside of fan-fiction, and in the couple of cases I can think of, the intent was to imply the work was pretty much on the level of fan-fiction. The thing about Mary Sue (and Marty Stu) isn’t just that they’re protagonists inserted into a work that’s already got protagonists; that happens all the time in series fiction, even in canon: new gal/guy comes aboard the Enterprise and becomes the focal-point of the story for that episode, maybe even the love interest. The thing about Mary is that it’s all and only about Mary: she’s not just competent, she’s omni-competent; she’s not just a romantic lead, she’s the romantic lead for *all* the other characters, even the ones that have been previously depicted as being in relationships… sometimes even the ones that don’t swing that way. I don’t even really think the author-insertion thing is central to the concept; it’s just speculation as to why the author would write such a character.

    It’s pretty rare in original published fiction, but I think that’s not because the protagonist automatically gets a pass if not displacing existing characters, it’s because editors mostly won’t publish stories about characters like that. The one blatant example I can think of is Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake series (omni-competent: check; everybody’s love-interest, even her enemies: check) and the series didn’t start that way.

    • If you read book reviews online, you’ll see the term used a lot. I used it once in reference to Twilight because I thought it was eye-rollingly ridiculous that everyone (including and especially the supermodel-gorgeous vampire) was attracted to our heroine, when there was nothing about her that merited even a second glance. Not a True Sue, by any stretch – she certainly wasn’t hyper-competent.

      And as for author-insertion, that’s a weird grey area for me. I can show you bits of myself all over my novel – in every single character. I don’t know where this idea comes from that the author shouldn’t be present; the author is behind every word, if you know how to look. And SHOULD be, IMO.

      • Joshua Macy says:

        I think the key there is that you’re present in every character, even the creepy or unlikable ones. When people talk about author-insertion they don’t mean how every character is constructed out of bits of the inner life of the author, but characters who are meant to be the author while the other characters are just things for the author’s character to act upon… to win arguments arguments against, or to have hot sex with. E.g. how Aaron Sorkin was criticized (how justly I don’t know) for more than just using his life as the basis of incidents in Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but bringing them in so that his character could have the last word against characters representing people he’d clashed with.

  2. I actually find the term incredibly useful to indicate a character who is either getting an excess of authorial favouritism or who is in some way too perfect (or sometimes too ‘desirably’ imperfect) to make an interesting, appealing or plausible character. I disagree with people who all-out brand traits like smart and resourceful as Mary Sueish – what do you want, dumb, passive losers? – but sometimes, you do run into a character who is just too good, even in professional fiction.

    It’s incredibly subjective, of course, but that doesn’t stop it from being useful. I’ll rarely use it whole-cloth (eg. “Edward is such a Mary Sue. And yet, so creepy and stalkeresque.”), but more often to flag a false note by the author (eg “I know Cole’s character has serious and acknowledged flaws, but there’s something a little too sexy-angsty about them all. It’s got touch of Mary Sue. “).

    I’ve been really surprised by all the recent talk of the sexism of the term – I and the people I know use it for both men and women and I didn’t realize others didn’t. I actually think I use it more for male characters than female ones.

    I agree, though, that people often judge female characters more harshly. But at the same time, I find many authors’ handling of female characters more problematic, making it easier – and sometimes necessary – to criticize female characters.

    It’s difficult to have a proper conversation about this, because I don’t like Kickass!Mary Sue women any more than I like doormat damsels, but criticizing what I see as Mary Sues feels like giving people license to bash female characters that I would classify as active, complex, competant, interestingly flawed characters, not Mary Sues. Of course, some of it’s just a matter of taste, but sometimes it feels an awful lot like sexism.

    • Well, given that the term is itself a female name, I imagine a certain amount of sexist usage was inevitable. It’s shorthand, certainly, and carries the pros and cons of all shorthand. Meaning it enables people to understand what we mean instantly (pro), and allows people to sum up something complex with a term that is necessarily reductive (con).

      We’re dancing around my love-hate relationship with tropes of all kinds, here. That’ll have to be its own post, I suspect.

  3. Els says:

    The only character I’ve ever disparaged as a Mary Sue was the hero/sleuth of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (not Lisander whatsername– the other one, the guy). And then when I read that discussion I felt a little guilty about it. But not very much. I mean, really. He was a noble hero who just happened to be a middle-aged magazine editor, just like the author! And ALL the women wanted to sleep with him, even the lesbian! It was quite noticeable!


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