Mary Sue in Fantasyland: The Legitimacy of Female versus Male Fantasy

One of the issues I like to follow in the broader sci-fi/fantasy/geek subculture is the recent attention to that subculture’s problem with sexism. Since I tend to keep things here focused on Tolkien and fan creation of transformative works (versus the many other ways that people express their fannish appreciation), then I haven’t talked too much about it here. But this article on Slate magazine’s XXFactor blog about sexism in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America caught my eye today because, although the Tolkien fanfic and fanart communities are predominantly female, it refers to a sexist occurrence that I have observed among us and that appears to be part of the larger issue with sexism that geek culture is facing.

The whole article is worth a read (it’s pretty short), but this passage particularly jumped out at me, speaking of the experiences of steampunk paranormal romance author Delilah S. Dawson:

Dawson describes volunteering at a convention where a guest of honor called the sorts of stories she writes “vampire porn” and told her “that women like me were ruining his genre”—even though, as it turns out, that author wrote sexually charged works himself. Gratifying his own fantasies, for that author, was a perfectly legitimate use of science fiction, but women to gratify theirs, even in well-developed fantastical worlds, was completely out.

Now aside from the too-tightly-laced conservative contingent of the Tolkien fandom, most people in our community are supportive of women who write erotic fiction. However, there is a phenomenon that I still observe in our fandom that definitely reflects the idea that fictional expressions of fantasies by men and young men is okay, while the same by women and young women is not.

Good ol’ Mary Sue.

I am glad to see more people are unwilling lately to accept without question that writers–primarily young writers–creating “Mary Sues” is anything worth getting upset over. When I started in the Tolkien fandom eight years ago, Mary Sue was subject to more hatred than if Keith Mander and Diana Galbadon were hired by Amazon to eliminate non-profit fandom, rainbows, and Golden Retriever puppies all in one day. However, this new magnanimity toward Mary Sue is far from universal, and in some fandom corners, the vitriol against Mary Sue trucks on, as ever it has, along with the bullying of young authors determined guilty of writing characters who fit this label.  Fanlore defines a Mary Sue as follows: “A character may be judged Mary Sue if she is competent in too many areas, is physically attractive, and/or is viewed as admirable by other sympathetic characters. Mary Sues are generally presumed to be idealized self-inserts rather than true characters, although they may actually be intended as proxies for the reader.”

Viewed as admirable? Competent in too many areas?? And the author is imagining herself in these ways, you say??? Now we don’t want that!

When I was new to fandom, Mary Sue was defined to me as an original character who exerted too strong an influence on a story. It may be that she forced another character out-of-character. It may be that the plot changed to accommodate her. It may be that the story focused on her rather than the [male] canon characters who surrounded her.

In other words, a young woman dared to write a story in which she, not a male character, was the focal point. The disdain towards this wouldn’t be so awful were it not commonplace to accept alternate universe (AU) scenarios, and were the idea of the boy-turned-wunderkind not nearly archetypal in modern culture. Harry Potter is, of course, the first example to come to my mind–an otherwise ordinary boy discovers that he is not only special but then gets to save the world–along with the male superheroes who are socially outcast twerps until they don a colorful costume and become capable of superhuman physical and romantic feats. Then there’s the endless march, in the last decade, of entertainment in which a thoroughly ordinary, even underwhelming, man gets beautiful women and extraordinary opportunities knocking down his door. This is a male fantasy: that a beer gut and the inability to grunt words more than two syllables long is not a barrier to marrying a supermodel who will bring you and your buddies beers during the game. Yet the vitriol is lobbed at Mary Sue.

I’ve been told that Mary Sue is a problem because her writers tend to overemphasize the character’s good looks and put a romantic relationship with a male at the center of the story. Firstly, why should we expect teenage girls to tell the stories of ordinary-looking women when the mainstream media has been unable to do so? It’s nearly impossible to find a woman in a mainstream movie or TV program who isn’t gorgeous; when she doesn’t fit our culture’s standards of beauty, she becomes a Melissa McCarthy or Rachel Dratch: relegated to roles where her appearance is part of the joke. (For the record, I adore both of these very funny women.) That young women writers imitate this standard is hardly something they can be blamed for. Secondly, it is certainly an adolescent tendency to focus narratives on success with the opposite sex, a realm perhaps scarier, in the minds of many young people, than a jaunt to Mordor. Again, this is fantasy, and no writer should have to be told that imagination and fantasy can be used as a form of rehearsal for experiences and emotions that are novel, intriguing, and even frightening. While such behavior in boys is sometimes viewed as humorous or endearingly desperate, I have never heard the fantasies of young men subjected to the kinds of censure to which Mary Sue is routinely subjected.

And the fact still remains that Mary Sue is not defined by her beauty or by the romantic component to her story: She is defined by her effect on the story. She is essentially an assertion by a young woman that, “I am important and I value myself enough to believe that I can accept and sustain such a central role in an important narrative.” She is a female fantasy of a world where a 16-year-old girl can walk with the Fellowship, heal Aragorn and rescue Boromir, and still marry Legolas at the end. She is, in many ways, the young woman’s fantasy of “having it all.” Ironically, when we choose to direct our time, energy, and passion toward eliminating her under the pretense of serving as some arbiter of “quality fiction” or, more generously, of “helping young writers improve their craft,” then we prove just how firmly planted in Fantasyland Mary Sue really is.

Adminish Note: I continue to wage war on spam but the opposite of my previous problem. Now, real comments are being filed as spam. Even mine go into the spam can, so no offense! I am hoping it is because I hadn’t updated my software in *cough* years. I’ve updated and hopefully that will fix the problem, else I’m going to have to contact support and possibly disable Akismet again if they can’t give me the answer I need to hear. Anyway, I will be checking the spam folder at least daily. If you post something and it doesn’t show up, do feel free to email me; otherwise, I’ll catch it and approve it during my usual rounds.


11 Responses to “Mary Sue in Fantasyland: The Legitimacy of Female versus Male Fantasy”

  1. Elleth says:

    Excellent points in the essay, Dawn. The more I’ve been delving into this phenomenon and related ideas recently, the more I’m thinking that much of the disdain behind the Mary Sue idea comes from a feeling of being threatened by female accomplishment. It doesn’t quite matter if that accomplishment is physical beauty (whether that’s purple-prose tresses and eyes or something more in line with canon) or more directly relevant to the plot, that is, influencing the male characters in any particular way, or if it intersects – it’s a depiction of power and/or agency from a female direction, and /we can’t have that/. Even if the Sue in question is not a super-powerful magic girl, but rather a damsel!Sue, there is an idea of validation when she gets rescued by the hero, who is, after all, written as a role-model of nobility in the source material, and therefore desireable.

    So even if the Mary Sue may be a problematic idea in some ways (and what isn’t, really), I’m still trying to figure out where all the vitriol is coming from. I hate the “women are catty and competitive” stereotype with a burning passion, but given that fanfic is a largely female space (erasing ideas like the gamer dudebro who can’t stomach female gamers – also a position of agency – without telling them to get back in the kitchen), is there really that much internalized misogyny? Tolkien-fandom canaticism isn’t universal, after all, while the disdain of Mary Sues pretty much is, even if it hides behind the cry of “bad writing” which is often a shorthand for dismissal in itself and not necessarily true.

  2. pandemonium_213 says:

    Short reply here, and maybe more later. First, nice essay, which reiterates a number of issues we have discussed over the years, and deserves bringing out to the light again…because the vitriol against Mary Sues just keeps a’coming.

    Largely, this is to comment on a couple of things Elleth said that piqued my interest (and support my pet theory):

    …the more I’m thinking that much of the disdain behind the Mary Sue idea comes from a feeling of being threatened by female accomplishment.

    … I hate the “women are catty and competitive” stereotype with a burning passion,

    I’m seeing a bit of a contradiction in the above.

    Question 1: So who is threatened by female accomplishment? If fandom is largely a female space, then presumably it is other women who are threatened.

    Question 2: Re – the stereotype. So you would dismiss intrasexual competition (a very real behavior) as a factor here?

  3. Michelle says:

    Mhm, I don’t think I agree. Or let’s say, I agree with most of the things you’re saying about Mary Sues. I’ve – generally – no problem with them. I don’t mind if a girl (or a woman) goes and writes herself into a story. Good for her. If she feels like writing down her fantasies, that’s her business. BUT. If I look at it from a reader’s perspective (I’m talking about published literature here, not fanfic), then I don’t want to pay money to then be forced to read thinly veiled Mary Sues. I’d be embarassed that a) the author didn’t have the wits to realize what she was doing or b) simply assumed I’d be interested in her navel-gazing. (And that’s not even taking into account that Mary Sues generally are cringeworthy characters. I want to feel and love and suffer with a protagonist. With Mary Sues, I normally just want to hit them with a shovel, because they’re so annoying.)

  4. Marta L. says:

    I think you’re on to something that some of the disdain of OFCs or their little-more-than-name’s canon equivalent is driven by some really suspect sexism. On the flipside, though, I have found myself sitting on my thumbs to keep from flame-reviewing a story whose characterization just isn’t believable to me. I’m talking specifically about traits and skills that they just don’t have the backstory to make it believable they’ve actually acquired them. So it’s interesting to think through why.

    Eowyn can decapitate the Witch-king’s steed because she’s been trained to do this. Or to take male examples (because I am also irritated by implausible OMCs), Boromir survives a lone trek through the wilderness, Aragorn has a proven track-record as a wilderness guide, warrior, and healer, and on down the list. They also come from the kind of backgrounds that give them experiences to set them up for their moments of glory. Setting aside the romantic elements, Mary Sues suggest that a female character can do these same things without those experiences, if her need is great enough. (If orcs slaughter her family, for instance, and she must avenge them; or if she finds herself plopped down onto the slopes of the Misty Mountains and must keep up or else she’ll die.) This sounds great at first, but it makes the actual character’s role much more passive. Men are active, they become heroes through sweat and blood, whereas women are more of a vessel through which greatness flows without any real effort on their part. I guess as a woman I find that view insulting on some level.

    *shrugs* I don’t mean to make excuses for the things some people do to young, female authors. But I also think there’s a reason Mary Sues bother a lot of people in a way that those male fantasies that pass for Hollywood movies don’t. Maybe at the bottom it’s that male fantasies are sort of situated as fantasies (that is, not a real possibility) whereas Mary Sues try to play in a world that involves a more serious kind of re-imagining? There does seem to be some kind of difference, though I can’t quite nail it down.

  5. Dawn says:

    Elleth and Pandë, you both mentioned the potential of a competitive aspect in the disdain for Mary Sues. This was brought up in a reblog on my posted link on Tumblr (but the OP deleted it because of inability to participate in discussion at this time; I hope they repost this because I was interested in what they had to say): that a major reason for the disdain of Mary Sue is simple jealousy because they tend to garner so many reviews.

    I’m skeptical on this, honestly. Maybe because I don’t like to think that grown-ass women honestly feel threatened to the point of being vicious to children because 1) they are jealous of a fictional character or 2) they are jealous that other teenagers are flooding Mary Sue stories with lots of squeeing reviews and ignoring their Super Serious discourses on Sindarin culture and whatnot.

    I pick up on a patronizing tone when discussing Mary Sue. More on that below. :^)

    Michelle: I’m not talking about published fiction. I’m talking about [mostly teenage] writers receiving everything from flames to death threats for daring to write an idealized version of themselves into a story.

    I wouldn’t purchase a book with shallow characters. If I made a mistake and did, that’s the last purchase that author would get from me. But that’s a totally different issue.

    Marta:You say, “There does seem to be some kind of difference, though I can’t quite nail it down.” The difference seems pretty clear to me. :^)


    The well-developed backstories that make a Boromir or an Eowyn believable suggests an author with the knowledge and the writing skill to construct something like that and the maturity to find it gratifying to do so. I know many of us have researched everything from weapons to battle tactics to survival skills to primitive medicine in order to make stories believable and construct believable backgrounds for our characters. I would suggest that this is also reflective of many of us going through the process of becoming an expert, master, or professional in a field and having some notion, from a psychoemotional perspective, of what that process entails.

    But I cannot say enough because I think that it bears repeating that, in the vast majority of instances where “Mary Sue” is concerned, we are talking about teenagers. When I was 14, I didn’t know anything about making, training with, or using swords; I just knew that swordfights looked badass. Thus, if I wanted to convey that my character was badass, they s/he was good with a sword. While I have no evidence beyond observational/anecdotal–though it would make for interesting research–I feel like writers at that age put much more stock into the idea of a prodigy or wunderkind, possibly because they haven’t yet gone through the process of choosing something to work on and spending years mastering it; at that stage, I remember feeling like those whom I admired (or envied! :^) were simply gifted in something I wanted to do. I didn’t look up to people for working hard but rather for the abilities that they just happened to have. Now, I look up to those who push and struggle and strive for everything they’ve got. I relate much more to that now,

    So I don’t buy that a lack of backstory = passivity. I see that as a young woman knowing that she wants an active role in her own story but being at a stage developmentally, as both a person and a writer, where she’s not 100% sure of how to get there convincingly. Maybe she lacks facts or knowledge of the process, or maybe she just wants the gratification of seeing herself healing Aragorn of mortal wounds without the drudgery of researching what that actually entails. I think it’s important to keep in mind the alternative scenario and that which was the normal role for woman characters until rather recently: the damsel in distress, being adored and rescued by a male hero who loves her. Young writers could just as easily have themselves kidnapped by Orcs and rescued by the male character of their choosing. Instead, it is often they who are doing the rescuing.

    More generally, not a direct response to any particular comment but rather the sum total of what I’ve seen said here and on Tumblr, I am always struck when discussing Mary Sue of the patronizing attitude many of us grown women assume when talking about why we don’t like what our younger counterparts do. We justify our disdain and sometimes outright aggression toward these young writers on the basis of wanting to educate them. Their writing isn’t good, their facts aren’t correct, their attitude toward women’s roles isn’t perfectly feminist according to our definition, so it becomes our responsibility to educate them. In other words, we are doing this for their own good.

    No. No no no. I don’t know why it is any of our business how teenagers take their first fumbling steps as writers. It is one thing for a teenager to ask a more seasoned *ahem* writer for help or advice. That suggests that she is at the point of recognizing that some stories work, some don’t, and wanting to be in the first group. But many, many young writers aren’t there yet. They know that they like to sit down at the end of the day and play with their favorite characters in Fantasyland. It is gratifying for them and a way to socialize with friends who also enjoy writing or a particular fandom. I remember doing the ’90s equivalent of this when I was in the 8th grade–the one year I had a good-sized group of girlfriends–by swapping stories in spiral notebooks. I’m sure those stories were awful, and I know we wrote our share of Mary Sues. Know what though? We turned out okay.

    I think Mary Sue smarts for some of us because we recognize that she’s not real, and maybe we don’t want young women going out into the world with this wide-eyed innocent idea of “having it all.” But I do think that these fantasies, at their heart, are empowering and we need to leave young writers alone. They’ll grow out of it and join the real world soon enough. In the meantime, we can nurture their love of writing by keeping our hands and our opinions to ourselves. Let them develop that joy–as we all have–of seeing their vision come to life on paper, of falling in love with a character they created (no matter how unbelievable), and of developing friendships around shared love for writing or a fandom.

  6. Elleth says:

    Pandë: It wasn’t intended to be a contradiction, though the sentence ended up quite convoluted, so I see how it might read that way. Let’s pick out the salient bits:

    I hate the “women are catty and competitive” stereotype with a burning passion, but given that fanfic is a largely female space, is there really that much internalized misogyny?

    My personal loathing for the trope and the insecurity is not a true factor in the equation, and it wasn’t intended to dismiss intrasexual competition. I am unsure, however, how much of that can be assumed as a decisive factor in what is very clearly fiction – on a meta-level even, considering Sues very often occur in fan-fiction. Of course, the Mary Sue usually gets the author’s lust object, but I’ve also read plenty of reviews who identify with the character, and mockeries, flames and sporkings (in my experience) are so often written by people who don’t seem to have a personal stake in looking to romance Legolas or Kíli that it’s making me wonder about the mechanisms at play.

    In short, is Mary Sue invoking people’s (read: female fans’) ire by existing as quite substantial competition, and is that so widespread that it becomes even more generally “socially accepted” behaviour, so others start participating in it for “fun”, and the behaviour then extends to other stories with female protagonists who may not even fit the criteria for typical Mary Sues (see, for example, Mélamírë or Serindë, who are competent in their own right though one of whom has a rather, as you I think called it, “loaded background” ;^)) ?

    Or is it that we’re socialized to feel threatened by female success because it is intruding into what’s traditionally glossed as a celebrated male domain? Hence the mention of the gamer dudebro in my intial response. Marta’s reply I think raises more valid points insofar that a missing suspension of disbelief certainly comes into play as well, but that’s a hallmark of certain types of writing in general and much of it is still being gobbled up by the general public (Dan Brown came to my mind immediately, though that’s also largely a matter of personal taste).

    /ramble: The disdain at dear old Mary does seem like a confluence of factors to me, rather than just a single phenomenon, and I find it hard to weigh them accordingly.

  7. Marta L. says:

    I understand the age difference, and that is why I usually sit on my thumbs wen a story by an obviously young author rubs me the wrong way. She is trying to create something, specifically a role for someone like her that doesn’t fit into the damsel-in-distress model. Good for her! I’ve written my own story centering around an OFC that is painstakingly Sueish – Boromir’s and Faramir’s sister, manages things at Harrowdale when Eowyn leaves, I believe I even made her fated and gave her magenta hair. And I didn’t have the excuse of being a young teen at the time (I was in my early twenties), so I’m not really one to talk. And even if I wasn’t, I believe in encouraging people rather than tearing them down.

    I think a lot of the problem comes from the fact that fanfic jumbles all kinds of stories together. You have the fourteen-year-old making her first foray into worldbuilding, and you have the published writer or seasoned SCAer writing fanfic as a hobby or as a way to finetune skills or participate in a community they love. And they’re all publishing in the same places and read by the same people. If I read, say, Daw’s awesome stories about Legolas’s family and then searched at SOA looking for more high-quality Mirkwood fic and found a story about Legolas’s twin sister who can heal him of his wounds by touching him and thinking good thoughts? Well, I don’t think it’s wrong that i would be disappointed or frustrated and find this character unbelievable. The real problem is that I went into the story with bad expectations, I think. Those male fantasies you mentioned have no pretense of being anything more than that, and aren’t packaged as an answer to a serious romance.

    On the passivity issue: I think there’s a world of difference between the teenage writer who has her character train as a healer without getting specific on the details (or getting the details wrong), and one who thinks her character can heal any wound because she has to or because she has a “gift.” This is what I meant when I said the Mary Sue character (or let’s be fair, her male or canon equivalent) is passive. Often there’s a sense that the character doesn’t add anything to the situation. She has no agency, no skill developed through hard work. Her abilities come out of nowhere, it seems, and so there’s really no need for her to develop any skill. I guess on some level it still seems like the damsel in distress, but the white knight is her gifts and innate abilities (rather than anything she developed) rather than the man who comes to rescue her. And that does seem passive to me, as an adult.

    … All of which makes me feel more combative and incensed on this issue than I really am. As an adult reader I don’t care for implausible characters, and I have a special problem with female characters because I am female and so am uncomfortable with the message I sometimes see, that women don’t have to develop skills but will be up to the challenge without the hard work it takes to get ready. But on the other hand, I go out of my way to keep my frustrations to myself because I realize this is a stage young writers go through. That I went through, too. :-) I do hope they’ll come through the other side ready to build their fantasies into something a little more complex, but I also get this is a stage they must be encouraged through and allowed to work through at their own pace.

  8. Brooke says:

    I’m not sure why people can’t simply ignore the stories they don’t like – I learned to do that a long time ago. Let’s be honest, the characters I like are generally intelligent, quite likely sarcastic, and like kids. Fighting or healing skills hold exactly zero attraction for me, regardless of gender, because I want characters who are like me and prove that someone doesn’t have to be athletic or leaders to be important (The Boxcar Children were some of my favorite books as a child for that very reason). But if I had a fit at every OC that didn’t fit those criteria – well, I would have a heart attack at the bright old age of 15.

    Which is also why I dismiss internalized misogyny as the only or the big reason for everyone – I’d like to think that me wanting characters like me isn’t a reflection of that. I’ve admitted before that I don’t find Galadriel, Tauriel, Aredhel (except when put in family dynamics), Luthien, many of the so called Mary-Sues in fanfics, etc interesting to me- because there’s little in them for me to attach to! I’m a bookish, sickly 20 year old future member of the Ivory Tower of Academia who very willingly admits to never wanting to be in charge. They’re not the types of characters I attach myself to without some other compelling reason.

    Of course, I’m all for people writing them. I mean, I write characters that remind me of me to fulfill the role I want to see in fandom (specifically, my version of Anairë. I am always surprised that no one picks up on the fact that she is basically a somewhat idealized version of me, being a bookworm with occasional smartass comments).

    None of that appears to apply to Mary-Sues specifically – I hope people continue writing them. I really do, because they have the right to see what they want in the stories . I just wish people would learn to stop picking at the author.

  9. elfscribe says:

    I, too, have noticed that, strangely enough, there seems to be a misogynist streak in the fanfiction kingdom. I say strangely because fanfic is a largely female endeavor. So we are doing it to ourselves. As you point out, it’s present in the vitriol directed at Mary Sues. I’ve seen many outlandishly heroic, perfectly coiffed male characters which could also be seen as self-inserts (commonly called Marty Stus) which never get a word of disapproval, yet if there is a female 10th walker, all hell is unleashed. I’ve seen it (early on in the fandom) at negative comments directed at Orlando Bloom’s real life girl friends. It’s something for us as a community to be aware of what we’re doing, so I’m glad you’ve pointed it out here.
    I have read a few really horrendously written Mary Sues, but I’ve also read some good ones. A self-insert does not necessarily mean the writing is bad, some writers have made a brand out of self-inserts, let’s see I’m thinking of Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer ( both men) and after all, on a philosophical level, at some level aren’t all our characters self-inserts? So, yes, the next time we read something in which an ofc is the heroic main character that gets our goat, perhaps some examination of where that anger comes from is in order. Personally, I think anybody who makes it their business to flame an author who has the courage to post their story, particularly a young author, needs to have their head examined. There’s enough cruelty in the world without deciding to spend time hounding someone who has written something you don’t like.

  10. MithLuin says:

    Hmmm, I stumbled upon this today and consider it some worthwhile food for thought.

    On the one hand, I love that fanfic authors put their work out there online for free for my consumption. It’s like, a giant library full of so many different people’s contributions that I would never have had access to 20 years ago. Given that, I feel that while I can have preferences, of course, I don’t get to be too picky or complain about other authors’ works. If I don’t like it, I can stop reading it and move on.

    And, if one accepts that 90% of everything is crud, one should expect to come across fanfictions that are…cringe-worthy. Sometimes the author is simply young or inexperienced, learning the craft. Sometimes the story might be fine, but the grammar/spelling/punctuation makes my eyes twitchy. Other times, there’s an interesting plot, but seemingly no grasp of characterization. Sometimes you get Ikea furniture porn. Sometimes, the author of the story seems to think that gang rape is funny. Etc. Whatever the cause, there are stories where my reaction is going to be NOPE, moving on. Which is fine, but I don’t typically take the time to stop and tell someone I found their story unreadable – that seems unproductive and unkind to me. In other cases, I’m actually a fan of the story and invested in reading it, so then have to consider whether or not my ‘helpful’ constructive criticism would be welcomed. If unsolicited, I should probably still keep it to myself. So I can understand why it would be good to defend authors who are being bashed for writing what is perceived as wish-fulfillment stories – why can’t they write to fulfill their wishes? You’re not paying for it…leave them be.

    All of this being a rather long lead up to saying…I’m not fond of Mary Sue stories. I don’t have a problem with people writing them, of course – fanfic is for having fun! – but I don’t usually enjoy reading them. I don’t limit this dislike to fanfic; my main complaint about the protagonist Saya in the anime Blood+ was that *everyone* falls in love with her and becomes completely devoted to her person. When it got to the halfway point and that outcome became more clear, I was frustrated with the writers for going that route. I did, however, finish watching the anime.

    So, back to fanfic. I think that my overall dislike for this type of story is that often, the female protagonist comes across as a needy diva. I don’t care if she’s extra powerful or has violet eyes. I *do* care if she has an entourage. And, as she is typically an original character, I care if the canon characters in the story (whom I presumably liked before seeking out fanfiction for their universe) are recognizable. I am fine with character growth over the course of a story. Lots of writers set out to convince the reader that, underneath the bitter snark, Snape is really just a misunderstood Mr. Darcy.

    The trick is…. I would not call a story ‘Mary Sue’ if I would consider the characters’ reactions to the original female character to be more-or-less in character or well developed. You can have a love-at-first-sight romance with an original character and that doesn’t make it a Mary Sue story (to me). And I dislike the ‘everyone falls in love with x’ or ‘everyone feels sorry for x’ story lines even if there is no original character involved. Because…such stories are a bit boring when a cast of otherwise interesting characters becomes completely homogeneous. In Marvel fanfics, there can be a trend to try to apologize for Loki – he’s not really evil, it was all a misunderstanding, he was being mind-controlled by the Big Bad, etc. Obviously, you can write a great fic explaining your fan idea or possible backstory. Or….you can write a *terrible* fic in which every single person who has ever interacted with Loki feels guilty and apologizes to him because they didn’t know. Every. Single. Character. Why even have a cast of characters if they’re all so similar?

    In truth, it’s more difficult to create a believable original character. You have to deal with questions like…why is this person here? If you are using ready-made characters, presumably the original author already thought this through and established interesting relationships and backstories and character dynamics for you to use in your own story (even if a complete AU). Yes, strangers can just happen to bump into one another, but as a storyteller you have to convince the audience on some level. Sometimes, authors who write Mary Sues seem to skip that step. I think that’s one of the main distinctions between a Mary Sue and an original female character – not how ‘perfect’ she is, but how much effort has gone into fitting her organically into the world she is supposed to inhabit. Hence the ‘teens from our world fall into fantasy world’ stories having a built-in weakness for the author to overcome.

    I feel that is what makes a character a Mary Sue, in the end. She may be fun and powerful and beautiful and get to do all the things. And the author may have had a blast letting her run about in this world. No problem. But if the reader doesn’t like her or buy into her, the audience is going to pan the story. So the question then becomes…who are you writing for? And if it’s yourself, you only have to please an audience of one. And if it’s whoever likes that sort of thing – well, the internet is a great place to find that niche audience.

    I guess all of this to say – bashing Mary Sue characters is unkind, and authors have every right to write them.

    But I still don’t like Tenth Walker fanfics.

  11. Dawn says:

    Ikea furniture porn

    Love it! 😀

    I agree with you very much here. Likewise, I would not want to read a “Mary Sue” (as you define it), but there are a lot of things I’m not particularly interested in reading, but I will defend to my breath people’s right to write them.

    Now when I was a teenager? I probably would have felt differently. I thought that I would be happy someday if I could write as well as V.C. Andrews. Like many teen girls, my stories were peppered with ridiculously attractive guys who fell for girls who were underappreciated for their looks and talents yet nonetheless exerted ironclad power over the male characters.

    I think that’s the key for me: Mary Sue is largely a teenage phenomenon. And I’m 32 years old. I left that stage of life and writing behind a half a lifetime ago. I don’t expect to like or relate to their stories any more than I expect them to like or relate to mine. I don’t get why adults become so impassioned over the writing habits of kids. They’re not writing for us, and most of us didn’t write much differently–poor characterization and grammar included–when we were their age.

    But I digress … :)

    If I were to try to define/label Mary Sue stories, I think my definition would look a lot like yours. In fact, I remember when I was first called out by someone for using Mary Sue as a derogatory term, when I first started playing in fandom: My defense, at the time, was that they represented lazy writing and characterization. (Not a real defense because their writers are either kids and/or aren’t writing for the same purposes that I am!) We all know people who are a triple threat of smart, talented, and attractive, and yet these people manage to be believable and likable, although I think they’d also be among the most difficult to represent realistically on the page. I wonder if young writers aren’t reaching for this ideal and lack the skills (or insight into human nature) to fully realize it.

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