Mary Sue

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Cut and pasted right from TOW.

A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader. Perhaps the single underlying feature of all characters described as "Mary Sues" is that they are too ostentatious for the audience's taste, or that the author seems to favor the character too highly. The author may seem to push how exceptional and wonderful the "Mary Sue" character is on his or her audience, sometimes leading the audience to dislike or even resent the character fairly quickly; such a character could be described as an "author's pet".

While the label "Mary Sue" itself originates from a parody of this type of character, most characters labeled "Mary Sues" by readers are not intended by authors as such. Male Mary Sues are often dubbed "Gary Stu", "Larry Stu", "Marty Stu", or similar names.

While the term is generally limited to fan-created characters, and its most common usage today occurs within the fan fiction community or in reference to fan fiction, original characters in role-playing games or literary canon are also sometimes criticized as being "Mary Sues" or "canon Sues," if they dominate the spotlight or are too unrealistic or unlikely in other ways. One example of this criticism is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Etymology

The term "Mary Sue" is taken from a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story "A Trekkie's Tale," published in her fanzine Menagerie #2. The character in question was Lieutenant Mary Sue ("the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old"). Smith's story poked fun at unrealistic and adolescent wish-fantasy characters in Star Trek fan fiction. Such characters were generally original (non-canon) and female adolescents who had romantic liaisons with established canon adult characters or in some cases were the younger relatives or protégés of those characters. They also possessed unrealistic, often exotic skills beyond those that would have been expected of a character in that series or of a conventional author surrogate. "Mary Sue" was expanded to include any author surrogate or overly idealized character who plays a big role in original fiction as well as fan fiction.

Today "Mary Sue" carries a connotation of wish-fulfillment and is commonly associated with self-insertion (the writing of oneself into a fictional story). True self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author; most characters described as "Mary Sues" are not, though they are often called "proxies" for the author. The negative connotation comes from this "wish-fulfillment" implication: the "Mary Sue" is judged a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting. Such proxy characters, critics claim, exist only because authors wish to see themselves as the "special" character in question.

The term is also associated with cliché such as exotic hair and eye colors, mystical or superhuman powers, exotic pets, possessions, or origins, or an unusually tragic past, especially when these things are glaringly out of step with the consistency of the canon. These features are commonplace in "Mary Sues", though even a character who lacks them may be labeled a "Sue" by some critics. The term is more broadly associated with characters who are exceptionally and improbably lucky. The good luck may involve romance ("Mary Sue" always gets her man); adventure ("Mary Sue" always wins a fight or knows how to solve the puzzle) and popularity (the "right people" seem to gravitate towards the character). These characters have few problems while attempting to achieve their goals. "Everything goes her way" is a common criticism regarding "Mary Sues", the implication being that the character is not sufficiently humanized or challenged to be interesting or sympathetic.

Canon Sue

A "canon Sue" may refer to a character whose canon portrayal itself is seen as a "Mary Sue", rather than a character who has been altered in fan fiction. Typically, this refers to a character accused of being overly idealized or having other traits traditionally associated with fan fiction "Mary Sues", such as being "special" by having a gratuitously tragic past, unrealistic skills, or a seeming inability for the character to do wrong. Examples include Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation. In an op-ed piece in the Christian Science Monitor, Sarah Seltzer briefly mentions bloggers who criticize Stieg Larsson's character Mikael Blomkvist as "Larsson's 'Mary Sue', a character too beloved to be truly flawed".

Litmus tests

Various tests, commonly known as "Mary Sue wikt:litmus test|litmus tests", have been written to help writers (especially inexperienced ones) gauge whether or not their character is a Mary Sue, as well as bring the "Mary Sue" concept to writers' attention These tests list fiction clichés and character traits that are also commonly associated with stereotypical "Mary Sues", ranging from questions on hair and eye color ("Is it a color found in nature?") to the author's relationship to the character (such as if they share a name or nickname with the character). Matching more traits results in a higher score for a character. Once the score is high enough, the character is said to be a likely "Mary Sue", to varying degrees of apparent severity including "Uber-Sue". The original "Mary Sue Litmus Test" was meant for those writing in the Gargoyles fandom, though it has since been almost endlessly adapted for other fandoms and original characters, becoming somewhat of a minor internet meme online.

Most such tests include a disclaimer noting characters with high scores can avoid being considered a "Mary Sue." The tests are primarily a guide for better characterization. Many writers believe that the litmus tests are strict, that they make not only fictional characters out to be "Mary Sues," but real people as well (the original test and a number of its adaptations mention Bono as an example of a non-fictional person who tests as a "Mary Sue"). In determining the status of speculative fictional characters, characters score higher if they have Magic (paranormal)|magical powers, superhuman abilities, or unusual names, appearances, and pets - common in science fiction and fantasy settings. Even if such powers or appearances are normal in the context of the setting, older "Litmus Tests" will rate a character higher for having them. As a result, many newer tests will state in the testing rules that questions regarding such powers and appearances can be skipped or marked "no" in such situations.

Criticism

The "Mary Sue" concept has drawn criticism from feminists, amateur and professional authors.

In chapter four of her book Enterprising Women Camille Bacon-Smith includes a subsection on the "Mary Sue" concept. While not denying that such characters exist, with reasonable psychological observations as to why "Mary Sues" exist in the first place, she observes that fear of creating a "Mary Sue" may be restricting and even silencing some writers.

Smith quotes editor Joanna Cantor as identifying "Mary Sue" paranoia as one of the sources for the lack of "believable, competent, and identifiable-with female characters." In this article, Cantor interviews her sister Edith, also an amateur editor, who says she receives stories with cover letters apologizing for the tale as "a Mary Sue", even when the author admits she does not know what a "Mary Sue" is. According to Edith Cantor, while Paula Smith's original "Trekkie's Tale" was only ten paragraphs long, "in terms of their impact on those whom they affect, those words [Mary Sue] have got to rank right up there with the Selective Service Act." At Clippercon 1987 (a Star Trek fan convention held yearly in Baltimore, Maryland), Smith interviewed a panel of female authors who say they do not include female characters in their stories at all. She quoted one as saying "Every time I've tried to put a woman in any story I've ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue." Smith also pointed out that "Participants in a panel discussion in January 1990 noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the community is damned with the term Mary Sue."

However, several other writers quoted by Smith have pointed out that in Star Trek: The Voyages Of The "Enterprise" as originally created, James T. Kirk is himself a "Mary Sue," and that the label seems to be used more indiscriminately on female characters who do not behave in accordance with the dominant culture's images and expectations for females as opposed to males. Professional author Ann C. Crispin is quoted as saying: "The term 'Mary Sue' constitutes a put-down, implying that the character so summarily dismissed is not a true character, no matter how well drawn, what sex, species, or degree of individuality."

Further reading

  • Verba, Joan Marie. Boldly Writing: A Trekker Fan and Zine History, 1967–1987. Mankato, MN: FTL Publications, 1996.

Origins/history

Additional essays

Mary Sue "Litmus Tests" online