Mary-Sue Revisited

by Kathryn A

A "Mary-Sue story" can be described as a wish-fulfilment fantasy on the part of the author, in which a thinly disguised avatar of the author is placed into the story, a character too good to be true. Some authors of Mary-Sue stories therefore defend themselves with a cry of "MariSu doesn't resemble me at all!". However, since a variation on the Mary-Sue is when a canon character is made into someone too good to be true, (these are given names such as Willow-Sue or Mulder-Sue etc) then one can see that the emphasis of Mary-Sue's critics is not so much on the self-insertion as on the wish-fulfilment. (That's why I like to use a separate term, "self-insertion", for stories in which the Author appears as a character -- because while these can often be Mary-Sue stories as well, it is actually possible to write self-insertion stories that aren't Mary-Sues, and I'd rather have a separate term than confuse the issue by calling such things "good Mary-Sue stories".)

Mary-Sue and Romance

There are some fandoms where, as soon as an original female character appears, she is accused of being a Mary-Sue. Others restrain the accusation until the female in question is set up as a romantic interest of one of Our Heroes. Why is the question of romance such a sensitive one? Is it that most romances are badly written, or is there a significant difference between the introduction of an original character as opposed to a romance between existing canon characters?

I think the last is probably an important factor. Part of it is plausibility. If a character is already there, then the Hero in question will have a better chance of falling in love with her, simply because they're already interacting and getting to know each other. Secondly, a canon character (whether regular or recurring) already has a reason for being there, a reason other than being a love-interest. They already have a character of their own (even if it's very sketchy) and therefore have a better chance of being of interest for their own sake.

An author who wants to introduce an original female character for the purposes of romance has a number of hurdles to overcome, temptations to avoid. If her sole, or main purpose in being in the story is as a romantic object for Our Hero, then the temptation will be to try to prove to the reader that she is "good enough" for Our Hero, and from there it's a small step to "too perfect" and Mary-Suism. Even if the author isn't trying to prove anything, there may still be a Babe-of-the-Week effect, making the character a love-object and not a person.

Maybe it's just personal taste here, but I've always found romances more interesting if they developed over a longer period rather than quickly. Which, for fanfic, could mean over the course of more than one story. Which means the lady in question needs to have some other purpose to enable her to hang around with Our Hero.

Mary-Sue and Perfection

Whether or not a Mary-Sue is romantically involved, one of her most obvious characteristics is that she is too good to be true, unbelievably perfect, and often having other signs of "specialness", such as an exotic name. However, it isn't so much the absolute signs of her amazing good traits, so much as how much better she is than those around her. It's not necessarily a problem for an original character to be a superhero -- if she's surrounded by other superheros. Even a character being somewhat extraordinary isn't always a problem -- after all, we're often more interested in extraordinary characters than dull, normal ones, especially when heroics are required. After all, many canon characters are extraordinary, that's why we like them. But that can also be the first step into turning them into Canon-Sues.

Sometimes the reaction of an author can actually confirm the Mary-Sueness of a character, when the question is raised as to whether the character is "too perfect". The tell-tale sign is when the author starts listing "flaws" in the character which are meant to be examples of why the character isn't perfect, and all the supposed "flaws" are actually positive character traits. The example which brought this home to me was the quote from Jean Auel, the author of the "Earth's Children" series starring the extraordinary heroine, Ayla, and she said words to the effect that Ayla had flaws, such as she tried too hard. Huh? That's supposed to be a flaw? It sounds more like a virtue to me.

Of course, it's true that every virtue hides a vice, and every vice a virtue; that every strength is a weakness -- but people don't tend to remember that. A well-rounded character is going to have weaknesses that arise out of hir strengths; such as a strong will being linked with stubbornness, or the gift of the gab which can talk its way out of a bad situation can also be used to talk its way into big trouble as well. Or even that one man's thief could be another man's security expert.

Perhaps it isn't so much the desire for "specialness" as a desire to put the character on a pedestal. Unfortunately, the only things that go well on pedestals are stiff statues.

The Rule of Three and the Rule of One

Let's just divert here for a moment and take a look at two rules of writing, which I call the Rule of Three and the Rule of One. The Rule of Three was expressed by Lewis Carroll in "The Hunting of the Snark": "If I say it three times it is true." In writing, if you want something to be noticed, if you want something to be established as commonplace, then make it appear (or be mentioned) three times. That is the Rule of Three.

The Rule of One is its opposite: it is about unlikely happenings. Unlikely happenings are allowed to happen just once. If they happen more than once, then they aren't unlikely -- because if they happen three times, it's commonplace (remember the Rule of Three). Unfortunately, TPTB (especially those writing serial television) don't seem to be aware of this, and it becomes annoying. One long-lost love is acceptable. More than one is not. One alien takeover is a fluke; more than one is a running gag. One case of one's love being taken over by aliens is tragic; having it happen again to a conveniently-unearthed Old Flame is a farce.

Mary-Sue the Collapsar

So, let us reconsider Mary-Sue. It isn't so much that she's a self-insertion, nor that she may be a romantic interest, nor even that she may be extraordinarily special that is the real problem with Mary-Sue. No, the problem with Mary-Sue is that she distorts all of space-time around her, like the gravity field of a collapsar. Nothing escapes her influence, the whole universe is dragged into her ego-field. What do I mean by that?

The true evil of a Mary-Sue is the effect she has on the characters around her. Which is why one can have things like Willow-Sues as well as original Mary-Sues. With a full-blown 'Sue, normally strong characters become weak and helpless, normally bright characters become dumb, and marginally annoying characters become downright evil. Probabilities bend in the vicinity of a 'Sue; unlikely things happen just to promote her welfare and/or to demonstrate her specialness. Rule of One happenings are commonplace.

Most insidious of all, the attention of all characters, from the high to the low, from the regulars to the extras, is drawn inexorably towards the 'Sue. They either love her or hate her (though hating her is a Sign Of Evilness, of course). Even if they don't adore her, they still remark upon her specialness -- even if they were characters who normally couldn't care less.

The reason this is insidious is because even experienced authors can fall into the attention trap, if the main character or guest-character is someone they admire a great deal. I fell into this once with a Highlander crossover, where I suddenly realized that the story consisted only of the other characters remarking on how unusual Adam Pierson was -- oops! I ripped up the story when I realized that.

Recovering From Mary-Sueism

So what can one do with a Mary-Sue? Besides rip up the story, that is.

  1. Make her less special.
  2. Diffuse the attention.

These things can be done in multiple ways.

  • Resist the urge to explain. Don't tell us anything about her background unless it is required for the plot. It isn't her background that will make her admired, but what she actually does in the story.
  • Reduce her talents. Only give her special talents that are required for the plot. The more unusual the talent, the more justification and explanation it will need.
  • Give her peers; give her equals. She may be multi-talented, but she becomes less obnoxious if she isn't unique in having that talent. If she sings, put her in a choir. If she's a superb solo singer, give her other soloists to sing with. If she's an artist, make her one of a group of artists, and not necessarily the best one.
  • Make her work hard for her gifts. Even if she's talented, to hone that talent takes a lot of practice. It didn't arise out of a vacuum.
  • One man's exotica is another man's mundanity. Any given "specialness" that she's had all her life will seem ordinary to her, even if she's a princess.
  • Do not let her solve all the problems or think of all the ideas. Give the other characters a chance to shine too.
  • Don't opt for an easy-but-improbable solution to a problem. The story will be much better if you overcome difficult problems rather than ignoring them.
  • Give her flaws that are actually annoying, rather than endearing. Remember that the flip-side of every strength is a weakness.
  • Allow her to make mistakes. You don't have to make her stupid in order for her to make mistakes; she could be jumping to conclusions on insufficient data, she could be impatient, she could fail to listen to someone she ought to have listened to, etc. Remember, she doesn't know everything, even though you, the author, do.
  • Reduce the focus on her by adding in a B-plot in which she does not participate.

For some, all this effort is not worth it: they actually want to write a wish-fulfilment fantasy for themselves or their favourite character, or a revenge-fantasy against characters they dislike. These authors don't care if the work is plausible; they just want to indulge their whims. If that is the case, I don't begrudge them writing it... but I would wish that they would put the manuscript in their bottom drawer and not share it with the rest of us.