Mary Sue

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Mary Sue, sometimes shortened simply to Sue, is a pejorative term used to describe a fictional character who plays a major role in the plot and is particularly characterized by overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers. 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".

"Mary Sues" can be either male or female, but male characters are often dubbed "Marty Stu", "Gary Stu", or similar names.[1] 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.

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 is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation.[2][3][4]


[edit] Etymology

The term "Mary Sue" is taken from a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story "A Trekkie's Tale,"[5] published in her fanzine Menagerie #2.[6] 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 what she considered to be unrealistic and adolescent wish-fantasy characters appearing in Star Trek fan fiction of the period. Such characters were, in general, original (non-canon) and female adolescents who had romantic liaisons with established canon adult characters, or in some cases were the younger relatives or proteges of those characters. They also possessed unrealistic, unlikely, and often exotic skills and traits above and beyond those that would have been expected of any character in that particular series or of a conventional author surrogate. Later, the "Mary Sue" concept was expanded to include any author surrogate or overly idealized character who plays a major role in a plot, in original fiction as well as fan fiction.

Today, the term "Mary Sue" carries the strong connotation of wish-fulfillment, and is commonly associated with self-insertion, the literal writing of oneself into a fictional story. However, a true self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author; most characters described as "Mary Sues" are not literal self-insertions, though they are frequently said to be "proxies"[7] or stand-ins of some sort for the author. The negative connotation of the term comes from this very "wish-fulfillment" implication: the "Mary Sue" is regarded as being a poorly developed character, one who is too perfect and lacking in three-dimensionality to be accepted as realistic or interesting. Such proxy characters, critics claim, exist only because the author wishes to see himself or herself as the "special" character in question.

The term is also associated with over-the-top and clichéd character features, such as exotic hair and eye colors, mystical or superhuman powers greater than those of the other characters, exotic pets, possessions or origins, or an unusually tragic past, especially when these things are glaringly out of keeping with the inner consistency of the canon. These features are commonplace in examples of "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 confront very few significant 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 genuinely interesting and sympathetic.

[edit] Sub-concepts of or relating to "Mary Sue"

The "subtypes" listed below are by no means a comprehensive list of all cliches associated with "Mary Sues". Furthermore, note that a "Mary Sue" is, first and foremost, perceived to be an unrealistic and unsympathetic character, and a character possessing these characteristics can be written well enough not to be considered a "Sue".

[edit] "Angsty" Sue

This subconcept of the larger "Mary Sue" concept comes in two common variations. The first is a character who is constantly depressed and has a tragic past, frequently involving murder, child abuse, rape, or abandonment of some sort. She or he often feels guilt for something that happened in the past, even though it is usually not his or her fault, which gives him or her the ability to feel bad about something without having done anything wrong. Generally, if she or he doesn't commit romanticized suicide, then only the love or close friendship of one or more canon characters can convince her that she is not responsible for a tragic or horrific childhood or event that was obviously not of her making. Such backgrounds constitute an ill-advised attempt to gain sympathy from the reader.

The other version of the "Angsty Sue" subconcept involves a character who has a similarly tragic past, but rather than angsting about it, she or he seeks revenge. She or he is thrust into the spotlight of the story while doing so. The writer is seen as using his or her past not merely as a device to gain sympathy, but also to claim moral superiority and justification for his or her actions. As such, this type of "Angsty Sue" rarely has any guilt at all - after all, she or he hasn't done anything "wrong."

[edit] Anti-Sue

Some authors make an extreme effort to avoid making their character into a "Mary Sue". The results of such attempts are sometimes referred to as "Anti-Sues". Given that the key difference between a well-developed, sympathetic character and a "Mary Sue" is often considered to be a lack of realistic faults, this generally involves making such characters extremely flawed. Some such attempts are seen as creating interesting, three-dimensional characters - though others are seen as being similarly over-the-top as the more stereotypical "Mary Sue".

"Anti-Sue" traits include physical unattractiveness, mental illness (including sociopathy and psychopathy), noticeably lacking in power or competency relative to other characters, being generally disliked by others or never interacting with them, cowardice, and other unflattering characteristics. While characters who can arguably be described as "Anti-Sues" have proved popular in some fiction, especially in modern times (see anti-hero), at other times they may be perceived to be as bad as or even worse than "Mary Sues" for their cliché nature or lack of sympathetic traits. "Anti-Sue" is viewed as merely another cliché stock character, or even simply an anti-hero variation of the "Sue" - especially if he or she still manages to take the spotlight away from the canon heroes.

[edit] Canon-Sue (in fan fiction)

The term "canon-Sue" (also written as canon!Sue) or "Possession Sue" is used to describe canon characters who are changed significantly from their original canon characterization and sometimes even divorced from their original context completely. Such characters are seen as having been heavily idealized to the point of being more of a stand-in for the author's wish fulfillment than being the original canon character.

Characters most frequently labeled "canon-Sues" often develop over-the-top traits associated with "Mary Sues" with little precedent or explanation, a process sometimes called "sueification." Some examples are the discoveries of tragic pasts and abilities superior to other canon characters, the elimination or romanticization of flaws, and being antagonized by characters disliked by the fan-author while befriended by canon characters liked by the author - regardless of how friendly or unfriendly they were before. If the "canon-Sue" deviates enough from the original, it may be referred to jocularly as an act of "canon rape" - a term often used when a significant (and disliked) change has been made to the canon world or characters, such as when a former hero is vilified without explanation, a character who is unpopular in the canon receives a make-over and becomes popular, or a usually-chaste canon character is easily seduced by a fan-created "Mary Sue" character. Even in alternate universe stories where the premise involves examining how the story might play out differently if characters behaved differently, many readers criticize such changes as being too extreme.

[edit] Canon Sue (in original source)

A "canon Sue" may also 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[2] and Amanda Rogers[2] in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

[edit] Male variations

A male "Mary Sue" is usually referred to as a "Gary Stu"[1] or similar masculinized term. References to male characters being a "Gary Stu" are less common than those to female "Mary Sues," possibly due to the low proportion of male fanfiction writers. They are generally identified as being much cooler, tougher, and sexier than the canon characters. Girls in the story will fall over themselves to capture the attention of "Gary Stu". While "Gary Stu" can be interpreted as the male version of the perfect character, he will often display more extreme anti-hero traits than the typical "Mary Sue," making him an "Angsty Stu" or a "Villain Stu". While anti-heroes have in recent times become increasingly more popular among their devoted fans, the most notable qualities of a "Mary Sue" still persist - a "Gary Stu" manipulates the canon universe around him, and furthermore he lacks an individual personality.

While the term is generally limited to fan-created characters, rare but still prevalent cases of "Gary Stu" exist in reference to canon characters. In a play-by-post role-playing game, many original characters are criticized as "Gary Stu" if they dominate the spotlight or can miraculously escape a near-impossible predicament (usually with an unlikely manliness and heroism).

[edit] Parody Sue

This "Mary Sue" is intentionally created for a parody, usually aimed at readers who are familiar with the "Mary Sue" concept, and who dislike said "Sues." Her vast repertoire of skills and lack of personality are emphasized in a humorous way and generally, one of two things happens in the story:

  • She succeeds and everyone in the universe falls under her buxom charms.
  • She fails, either because there are too many other "Mary Sues" fighting her, because another of the author's original characters interferes, or because the canon characters see how uninteresting she really is.

Note that the "original" Mary Sue from "A Trekkie's Tale" is in fact a Parody Sue.

[edit] Self-insertion

Self-insertion is used to describe clear (and usually seen as indisputable) cases where the author has directly inserted a version of him- or herself into the story in lieu of a wholly or even partly original character, generally going so far as to use the same name or pseudonym for character and author. Though some author surrogates are common in fiction - such as Philip Roth in his Nathan Zuckerman novels, Clive Cussler in his Dirk Pitt novels, or Lin Carter in his work - "self-inserts" in fan fiction are frequently seen as the most blatant of "Mary Sues", especially when heavily idealized. Some online fan fiction archives have an outright ban on any story which involves self-insertion. They are also sometimes frowned down upon in role-playing communities, despite that some argue that it is easier for inexperienced or casual role-players to learn.

[edit] Villain-Sue

"Villain-Sue" usually replaces, befriends or is romantically involved with a major canon villain. Other traits include defeating canon characters with ease, secretly having redeeming qualities, having a tragic past that somehow excuses and justifies all her heinous deeds, and letting the canon characters live when she could kill them — not out of bad qualities such as wanting to see them suffer, a desire to have all of them as prisoners at once, or wanting to gloat, but because she really isn't so evil as others might think. In fact, she may even secretly be a hero, or have hidden heroic tendencies. This can be seen as a variant of the "Angsty Sue" seen above.

[edit] Litmus tests

Various tests, commonly known as "Mary Sue litmus tests", have been written ostensibly 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.[8] 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 meme online.

Most such tests include a disclaimer noting that even characters with extremely high scores can be executed well enough to yet still avoid being considered a "Mary Sue." The test is primarily meant as a guide for better characterization. Nevertheless, many writers believe that many of the litmus tests are too strict, finding that they make not only popular fictional characters out to be "Mary Sues", but also some real people as well (notably, the original test and a good number of its adaptations explicitly mention Bono as an example of a non-fictional person who actually tests as a "Mary Sue" by the test's criteria). Additionally, in determining the "Mary Sue" status of speculative fiction characters, some tests will score characters higher if they have magical powers, superhuman abilities, or "unusual" names, appearances, and pets - all of which are far more common and accepted in science fiction and fantasy settings. Even if such powers or appearances are normal in the context of the setting, many of the questions on older "Litmus Tests" will still rate a character higher for having them in the first place. Litmus tests have also been criticised for increasing a character's rating for trivial attributes, such as having the same gender as the author.

[edit] Criticism

The "Mary Sue" concept has drawn criticism from amateur and professional authors. Many such criticisms are brushed off as coming from writers who create "Mary Sues." However, the onus of wishing to avoid being condemned as a "Suethor" ("Mary Sue" author) apparently weighs heavily even on professional authors and sophisticated amateurs, particularly women.

In chapter four of her book Enterprising Women[9] 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[10] 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."[11] At Clippercon 1987 (a Star Trek fan convention held yearly in Baltimore, Maryland), Smith interviewed a panel of women 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."[12]

Several other writers quoted by Smith point out that 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.[13] Professional author Ann Crispin is quoted: "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."[14]

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Origins/history

[edit] Additional essays

[edit] Mary Sue "Litmus Tests" online

[edit] References

  1. ^ a b
  2. ^ a b c Pat Pflieger (2001). TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: 150 YEARS OF MARY SUE. 3. Presented at the American Culture Association conference. Retrieved on 2007-01-15. 
  3. ^ Pat Pflieger, 150 Years Of Mary Sue. Presented at the American Culture Association conference, March 31, 1999, San Diego, CA. Webpage found 2008-10-16.
  4. ^ Wil Wheaton. "Star Trek: The Next Generation: Justice". TV Squad. Retrieved on 2008-11-18. 
  5. ^ Smith, Paula, A TREKKIE'S TALE,'s+tale+paula+smith&source=web&ots=yTmGDQRgTu&sig=VYd5H1K66REshTlrSw1MNd4QLak 
  6. ^ "SF Citations for OED: Mary Sue". Retrieved on 2006-05-20. 
  7. ^ Orr, David (2004-10-03). "The Widening Web of Digital Lit". The New York Times. Retrieved on 2006-10-02. 
  8. ^ The Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test
  9. ^ Bacon-Smith, Camille, Enterprising Women, Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
  10. ^ Joanna Cantor, "Mary Sue, a Short Compendium." In Archives #5, 1980, ed. Joanna Cantor, Yeoman Press, Bronx, NY
  11. ^ Smith, p. 96.
  12. ^ Smith, p. 110. A footnote states this was reported to her by Judy Chien, who attended the panel at MostEastlyCon 1990 in Newark.
  13. ^ Smith, p. 97.
  14. ^ Smith, p. 98.

[edit] See also

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