Here at TCK Publishing, we’ve spoken at length in the past about the concept of Mary Sue characters—and how problematic they can be in your fiction.
These wide-eyed, over-idealized vessels of wish fulfillment represent one of the worst and most-hated archetypes in all of literature. They’re unrealistic. They’re unlikeable. They derail stories they’re in, especially stories they’re inserted into after the fact, as in fanfiction.
But this isn’t new information. The concept of the “Mary Sue” has been around since the ’70s, and writers have likely been creating Sue-like characters long before that. As a culture, we’ve been publicly deriding Mary Sues—and the authors that write them—for almost five decades.
That’s nearly 50 years of hate built up around something that began in fanfiction, of all things. With all that vitriol surrounding the concept, Mary Sues must truly be the worst thing in the Whole Wide World of Literature, right?
Well, maybe not.
How Mary Sues Have Changed Over Time
The thing is, the term “Mary Sue” doesn’t mean what it was originally created to describe anymore.
Remember that the progenitor of the name, Lieutenant Mary Sue of Paula Smith’s 1973 satirical story “A Trekkie’s Tale”, was created explicitly to parody a certain type of character the author hated reading about in fanfiction—specifically, fanfiction of the original Star Trek series that appeared in fanzines like Menagerie. Mary Sue herself was a very specific archetype: she was overyoung, overpowered, and had no business being aboard the Enterprise—and yet manages to bend the entire Star Trek universe around her hitherto-unexplained greatness.
Over time, however, other writers and editors for Menagerie adopted the name as a catch-all for similar characters in Star Trek fanfiction. Original Characters (called O.C.s by their fandoms) with unexplained powers, unnatural charms, or conspicuous absences of flaws were henceforth branded “Mary Sues,” and the stories they appeared in became known as Mary Sue stories. Eventually the term caught on in other fandoms as well, and thanks to internet forums, “Mary Sue” is a slur almost any engaged fan can identify with—and ridicule.
But here’s where the whole Mary Sue craze went off its rails.
As the term “Mary Sue” grew in popularity, it grew in scope as well. What started as a parody of a very specific type of fanfic character quickly expanded into a monster; to this day, nobody can really agree on a set list of traits that make a Mary Sue a Mary Sue outside of a few very general characteristics.
But where things really got wiggy was when fans started calling in-canon characters Mary Sues.
These “Canon Sues,” as they’re sometimes called, weren’t just self-insert power-fantasy characters created by overzealous fans as a way to participate in their favorite fictional universes.
No, these were characters created for certain fiction works by the original writers that were getting smacked with the same Mary Sue stick as their fan-fictional counterparts. This development not only greatly expanded the definition of what a Mary Sue could be, it irrevocably altered it as well.
You see, a big part of what made an old-style Mary Sue so hateful was how they changed the stories they were inserted into.
Let’s take Paula Smith’s parody-OC as an example. When fifteen-and-a-half-year-old, super-awesome Lt. Mary Sue arrives aboard the Enterprise, her very presence immediately changes everything about the world and workings of Star Trek. The day-to-day goings-on of the Enterprise are interrupted as series characters all feel the need to stop whatever they’re doing and interact with Mary Sue, and Spock, Kirk, and McCoy all act egregiously out-of-character towards her.
Mary Sues in fanfiction have an unhappy tendency to act like black holes, warping all light, matter, and plot around them to become the center of whatever story they’re inserted into.
But by definition, Canon Sues can’t do this.
Because they’re not being inserted into a preexisting fiction or universe, any changes a Canon Sue makes to the world around him are part of the plot instead of breaking continuity. How other characters act around him is new characterization for both him and them, not a betrayal of already-existing fictional figures. He’s not bending the world around him—he’s the protagonist. He’s at the center of the story because that’s just how fiction works.
(Of course, that’s never stopped authors from creating poorly conceived or badly written protagonists—but a Mary Sue isn’t just a badly written character.)
The Gender of Mary Sue
So without all that focus on fiction-warping, the term “Canon Sue” takes on a drastically different connotation from its roots. When used to describe fanfiction, “Mary Sue” is a condemnation of a certain writing style, or just poor-quality writing.
But when used to describe an in-canon character, the argument gets… well, a little weird.
Here’s the gist: while fanfiction Mary Sues get dragged for “ruining” established fictional universes, Canon Sues are despised simply for existing. The argument is that, for whatever reason, this character doesn’t deserve the focus he or she gets, or even to exist at all!
And here’s something we’ve got to contend with: an overwhelming number of characters who are labeled Mary Sues are female.
On the surface, this might not seem particularly troubling. After all, the large majority of folks who write fanfiction are female as well, and it stands to reason that these writers would create female characters like themselves. But the term’s application to works by professional authors has led industry luminaries like Camille Bacon-Smith and Ann Crispin to deride the moniker as emblematic of misogyny in literature and fan culture.
They argue that “Mary Sue” is wielded as a weapon by angry fans, as a put-down to discourage authors from including strong female leads in their stories—that any self-possessed, skilled, or particularly powerful female character runs a high risk of being dismissed as a Mary Sue.
The idea, they reason, is that some fans believe it’s unrealistic for girls and women to act in stereotypically heroic fashion—to be strong, to be competent, to be skilled, to swoop in and save the day, or even to play a large role in any story she’s in.
No matter how well-written the character might be, her gender plus her competence makes her some sort of feminist power fantasy instead of a fleshed-out fictional figure.
Mary Sue and You
All this raises a couple of interesting questions:
- Is the label of “Mary Sue” damaging to female writers?
There have been many documented instances were prominent female authors have actively altered certain aspects of their female characters, weakening them or diminishing their roles specifically to deter fans from damning them as Mary Sues—or avoided writing them at all.
- Does “Mary Sue” mean anything anymore?
The term has changed dramatically since its conception, expanding its definition over and over again to incorporate ever more character traits—and now, it’s apparently been bastardized by angry fans. Is the label still useful for describing weak characters, or is that usefulness superseded by the damage it could inflict on the literary community?
You can put away your matching torch-pitchfork combo sets: I’m not crazy enough to take a stance either way just yet.
But I will say this: here at TCK Publishing, we value imagination and creative freedom uber alles. All stories have some intrinsic value, and all characters should get a chance to raise their voices.
If you want to write, let nothing stand in your way—especially not a label somebody made up 50 years ago as a joke. Don’t let fear of creating a Mary Sue stifle your creativity, and don’t let possible backlash stop you from creating fiction in whatever way you choose.
Because, guess what? Even if Mary Sues are true abominations—the heat death of literature, a loogie in the face of the Big Bard in the sky—who cares?
It’s your story—and a little wish fulfilment never hurt anybody.
It’s time to turn things over to the folks at home and ask: Where do you stand on the Mary Sue argument? Is Sue-phobia warranted… or is the term damaging to authors’ creative freedom? You make the call—and tell us all about it in the comments below!
And if you’re looking for more juicy tidbits on improving your writing and your character development, take a gander at these great articles: