This post is part of a roundtable on Mary Sues. You can read the rest of the posts here.
Frankly, I resent being forced to think about the concept of the Mary Sue. As a writer of fan fiction, it’s something I’ve come across. Thought about. But not, like a certain number of my brethren, complained bitterly about.
Here’s the thing. Tastes differ. My Mary Sue might be your favorite original character ever. I’m not going to say both of us are right. Well, I sort of am, God help me, but I promise to be snarky about it.
There are literary standards. Some writing is good, and some writing is bad. Just because some people enjoy lousy writing (you say Danielle Steele, I say John Updike; neither one of us gets to call anything off), it’s still lousy writing. But. If lots of people enjoy it, good on ’em. I don’t have to read it. It’s especially easy in fan fiction, which is online, and behold! There is a miraculous thing called the back button. You don’t have to invest $20 in the thing and then realize it sucks. Or that you don’t like it. Or both. You scan a bit, you say, “Oh, God, I’m going to scoop my brain out with a melon baller if I have to read another word of this,” and you hit the back button. Problem solved. If only all disputes could be handled so easily!
Of course, it can’t be that easy in the fan fiction universe, either. In addition to “Mary Sue,” there is another term fan fiction will quickly acquaint you with. That term is “wank.” “Wank” is what happens when fangirls come together to defend their particular worldview against anyone who might see anything about their chosen fandom differently than they do. People get upset. People talk about how stupid and horrible and possibly evil the person who got it wrong is. Nastiness bubbles to the surface like gas escaping from six-month old chili in the back of the refrigerator (sadly, I know whereof I speak).
The Mary Sue thing is a time-tested allegation, often part of a checklist people consciously or unconsciously apply to any piece of fan fiction they themselves have not written (and I mean the checklist thing literally; I’ve seen them posted). It’s a very blunt instrument, is all I can say. Literature is rampant with Mary Sues. Also comics. Television. Movies. Much-loved characters across the centuries, and lots of them are Mary Sues. Dickens cranked out Mary Sues. Esther Summerson in Bleak House? Big old Mary Sue. Superman? Well, what are his flaws, exactly? Besides a highly questionable fashion sense? There are many examples given in the previous posts in this roundtable; you should read them all, if you haven’t already. Anyway, these characters are all re obviously much loved by their authors. They are loaded with virtue after virtue (and I think we should keep in mind that what counts as virtue can be highly individual). They are saddled with very few, if any, significant flaws. Maybe they pout or something. But they do it prettily. Exactly who decided it was categorically wrong?
You’re telling me I’m missing the point, aren’t you? You’re thinking, doesn’t she realize people rail against Mary Sues because they’re one-dimensional and boring and painful? And that fan fiction writers tend to be sensitive about this topic because society in general thinks we’re a bunch of losers whose social status ranks, possibly, just above that of people who play Dungeons & Dragons. To the extent that society knows we exist, of course. No, I get it. The thing is, nothing is always bad in a story. You just can’t prepare a list of “Things That Are Automatically Bad” and say, “Ah, a Mary Sue! D-!”
In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I write slash, which is fan fiction in which two same-sex characters from the source material are thrown together, in the Biblical sense. I won’t get into the controversy over slash’s place on the “Things That Are Automatically Bad” list (the idea is that if you decide two established canon characters are having a queer relationship it is, by definition, out of character); I think it’s a related topic, but really, there are only so many hours in the day. I mention it because one might think it makes me more sensitive to this kind of criticism than the average fan fiction writer. Whatever. I’m always bemused by charges of Mary Sue-ism in my own fandom, though. Said fandom (Weiss Kreuz, a late-80s anime of more-than questionable quality about beautiful young men who are florists by day and assassins by night) features a protagonist who is such a Mary Sue it’s ridiculous. He is perhaps a bit brusque and moody, but he is handsome and loyal and brave and strong and true and selfless and so very, very tough that in one episode he basically defeats an army division by himself. I mean, really. After that, what’s wrong with introducing the occasional largely flawless original character?
Fandom is highly suspicious of original characters, though, and especially female original characters. That isn’t surprising, given our society, which is – and pardon me if you hadn’t noticed this – sexist. It is perhaps another reason to think before you label, though.
But I’m starting to get a very Mary Sunshine feeling about all this. I think it’s starting to sound like I don’t believe there’s any room for criticism, and I certainly wouldn’t want to imply that. No, no, no. There’s plenty of room for criticism. What I object to are knee-jerk dismissals, blind application of unquestioned criteria, and an inability to appreciate anything that doesn’t match up one-to-one with your point of view. All I’m saying is give Mary Sues a chance? Eewwwww. But, yeah. Kind of. Give writers a chance, anyway.