Sherwood Smith July 20th, 2006
For those who know what a Mary Sue is, skip to the next graf. Long ago in days of yore–AKA late sixties, early seventies–Star Trek fanfic proliferated across the country. Most of it written by women. And many of those women had not written much before their Trek stories, so their early ones–especially those written by teens, for example many of my friends–tended to produce a story roughly like this: a young, always brilliant, usually beautiful, ensign is assigned to the Enterprise. Kirk and Spock fall in love with her during the course of her madcap adventures. Meanwhile the entire crew is fascinated by her, she may or may not be kidnapped by Klingons or Romulans, but one thing for sure: she will save the Enterprise single-handed, a few planets along with it (if not the entire Federation) and then she departs, or dies artistically, and Kirk and Spock are devastated. (Those were the very early days when delicately raised young ladies couldn’t quite imagine what happens past the first kiss…or else could imagine it fine, but knew better than to put it down on paper in case nosy parents or teachers found it. ’twas bad enough that they wasted their time on that stupid sci-fi stuff in the first place!) There were so many versions of this same story that eventually the publishers of the fanzines said, “No more Ensign Mary Sue stories!”
Well, since then, the term Mary Sue (and sometimes Marty Stu or other variants for the guy version) has been incorporated into general genre writing talk. My problem is this. I’ve seen writers’ workshop people label as Mary Sues characters who are beautiful, or who are talented at something, leaving writers wondering if they are to people their stories with ugly clumsy dolts?
To my view, a Mary Sue is not always the most beautiful, but she is always the center of the novel–the center of attention, the plot revolves around her, the characters seem to have her at the center of their lives, and they talk about, and think about nothing else. But that’s just the first half of the Mary Sue equation. The second half is that she’s got the “mark” on her, that is, she is the Special One. She might have come from an abusive family, or is an orphan (few Mary Sues have had normal home lives) but something, whether a super-intelligent animal friend (horse, dragon, leopard, wolf, cat who takes one look at her, their souls bond forever, and the companion tells her she’s The One), or a Wise Old Mage, or a ghost lets her know she’s It. Or else she is born with a mark, or she’s given a special thing by an old granny, a witch, or a passing knight who conveniently drops dead right after. Anyway she subsequently gets her mega-mind-reading talent, or her wowza magical ability, or some sort of secret knowledge is handed to her. She doesn’t have to train, she just has to wish hard enough before that “breakthrough” at the climax where her powers become exponentially more powerful, and the Dark Lord is vanquished at the end, no matter how many centuries he’s been torturing entire planets every day before lunch.
A really brilliant writer can make a Mary Sue story work–see Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. Lymond is a total Mary Sue, but readers love him anyway. Most of the time the Mary Sue novel is going to be a fun, relaxing read, but we always know, from the very first page, when she finds out she’s the Special One, that she’s gonna win in the end, and everybody will love her even more.
There’s nothing wrong with Mary Sues. They are usually morally upright, kind to animals and hapless rejects, they are always inclusive and other-aware, in fact, though they be bratty, and will certainly be maligned and misunderstood, they never step down from the moral high ground, and they promise to use their powers only for good. But Mary Sue does have one flaw: she’s a tough character to fit into a deepgenre novel. Unless, of course, one is as brilliant as Dorothy Dunnett.