kate_nepveu: Duck in duck form looking out from girl's school uniform, text: "nothing more boring than a perfect heroine" (Princess Tutu (heroine))
Kate ([personal profile] kate_nepveu) wrote2013-05-04 04:16 pm

An Introduction to Mary Sue and Her Critical Uses and Abuses (text)

Here is the text of my Mary Sue talk! [ETA: for people coming here through outside links, this was given at a quasi-academic conference with a fifteen-minute limit.] It is mostly as I gave it except I skipped a couple of paragraphs for time. I do have slides but I'm not sure I'm going to bother, they were very text-heavy and not that interesting. (Edit: moved the links to the end of this post, since there were no comments on the links-only post and this way everything's all in one place.)

Hi, I'm Kate Nepveu, and today I'm going to talk about Mary Sue and her critical uses and abuses.

Mary Sue is a critical term that began in fanfic communities but has not stayed there. What does it mean—who is a Mary Sue? The answer to that is not simple, and I want to approach it by giving some examples.

One: she's the youngest Lieutenant in Starfleet. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy all fall in love with her; she saves the day by picking a lock with a hairpin, and then she dies tragically but picturesquely, to the mourning of all.

Two: she's an American transfer student to Hogwarts. She has violet eyes and a unicorn Patronus. In the final battle at Hogwarts she reforms Voldemort with the sparkle of her eyes.

Three: she's a tall rich half-American tragically-orphaned teenager who a retired Sherlock Holmes trips over on the Sussex Downs. He recognizes her brilliance, trains her as his partner, and eventually marries her; they travel the world solving mysteries in exotic locations.

Four: she is picked by THE most special magical telepathic animal companion of all the companions who find elite servants of the Crown. Her magical abilities are so strong and so rare that no-one can train her, which leads to angst and injury and isolation but then, of course, eventually saving the kingdom, making many, many friends, and finding her destined soulmate.

Five: she's a mystery writer, appearing in a series of mystery novels, who's saved from a murder charge by the aristocrat detective. He immediately falls in love with her and waits for her for several books while they solve crimes together.

So those are my examples. Three things about those examples:

First, there's the wish-fulfillment and power-fantasy theme. Many people, when they are first introduced to Mary Sue, have a sense of recognition—rueful, excited, both. We all know stories like this, that revolve around the wonderfulness of some female character who we may or may not identify with.

Second, not all of those are from fanfic.

The youngest Starfleet lieutenant is from fanfic—that is actually where the name Mary Sue comes from, a parody of Star Trek fanfic written by a fan named Paula Smith in 1973.

And the American transfer student to Hogwarts is a very, very common fanfic character.

But the teenaged girl that Sherlock Holmes trips over? Well, depending on your definition, that might be fanfic—but she is from the award-winning, New York Times-bestselling series by Laurie R. King, which starts with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.

The girl picked by the most special telepathic animal companion is Talia from Mercedes Lackey's Arrows trilogy. Lackey has gone on to write dozens of books, is one of the most successful writers in fantasy, and broke important ground in the genre.

And the mystery writer is Harriet Vane, and the detective who saves her is Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy L. Sayers' Golden Age mystery series. Those books are enduring classics that hold their own as excellent literature no matter what era or genre you compare them to.

That leads to the third thing about those opening examples: being called a Mary Sue is not necessarily a sign that the story is bad. That's because the definition of Mary Sue has expanded greatly since the term was first coined and, as I will argue here, is now effectively a reflexive way to discount and discourage women's writing, female characters, and female participation in fannish activities.

So let's talk about definitions of Mary Sue.

The narrowest and original definition is that youngest Starfleet lieutenant—the wish-fulfillment story taken to the extreme. They're usually seen as author self-insertion stories, where the entire story is about how wonderful the author's stand-in character is, in defiance of established characterizations (if fanfic), emotional logic, and just logic in general.

The next definition of Mary Sue is similar to the first but includes non-fanfic.

And then we move into other definitions:

Any female character in any story who is, or is perceived to be, improbably good at something.

Any female character in any story that a reader thinks the female author likes too much.

Some of the problems are, I'm sure, becoming apparent already. But before we get to those, let's acknowledge what's useful about Mary Sue.

As I said before, the narrow definitions, the first two where the wonderfulness takes over the entire story, do succinctly label an identifiable thing. And it's useful to be able to say, "Mary Sue," instead of describing the type of story from scratch every time.

And those narrow definitions of Mary Sue are also descriptions of poor writing. So it's potentially useful to have a body of criticism and advice focused on Mary Sues for authors to turn to. And there is a great deal of it out there. Litmus tests are the most prominent, but there are also essays and even character development critique groups.

Those are two uses for Mary Sue. What about abuses?

The easiest is that Mary Sue's become so overbroad as to be nearly meaningless. It no longer designates a level of quality or a particular kind of character.

The next abuse is that it can discourage new writers, particularly, though not exclusively, fanfic writers. This is actually the flip side of one of Mary Sue's uses, that extensive body of criticism and writing advice. Some of that is helpful, but much of it has had a documented chilling effect on new writers, beginning with Star Trek fandom and continuing since—though with heightened fervor since the explosion of fanfic on the Internet.

Basically: the impulses behind Mary Sue stories are incredibly common, from kids playing make-believe to adult daydreams about what we'd do if we won the lottery. And experienced writers often say that it's necessary to write a whole lot of lousy stories—a million words, some writers say—before you start to write good ones. So some of those million words are likely to be unquestionable Mary Sues.

But non-fanfic writers are generally fortunate enough to get their million words out to a very small audience—their friends and whoever rejects their manuscripts at a literary agent or a publisher. (Or their college instructors.) Fanfic writers, on the other hand, are usually immediately posting their first stories for all the Internet to read. And criticisms of Mary Sues can be very intense.

So new writers might see their own stories harshly criticized, or they might see that the stories they want to write could subject them to mocking. Even things meant to be helpful can be intimidating. Going back to the Mary Sue tests: the one that comes up first on a Google search has a daunting 94 questions, many with multiple subparts, in just its opening section.

And some of those new writers might have talent and might have developed their talent. But regardless, discouraging people from their hobbies is cruel and unnecessary. I like to cross-stitch. I'll never win awards for it, but it's really not anyone else's place to tell me that I shouldn't do it just because I'm not good enough.

Another problem is that Mary Sue contributes to the relative lack of female characters in stories. Of course the larger cause is the idea that female characters aren't interesting or aren't able to do interesting things, either intrinsically or because of society's constraints. (In the next talk, Professor Dittman will be discussing the way that women in comics are often relegated to being the tragic murder victim whose death motivates the superhero, which is a particularly limited view of the roles female characters can play.)

But the excessively broad definition of Mary Sue means that it's easy for people to reflexively dismiss female characters and people who appreciate those characters, without having to consider whether their gut reaction is based on unacknowledged sexism. They can simply make the automatic leap from "female character I don't like" to "Mary Sue" and then stop there.

There are certainly efforts to write more female characters in fanfic. (Later in this panel, Ms. Mendoza is going to be describing one recent trend in fanfic, changing canonical characters' gender.) But the reflexive distrust of female characters as Mary Sues makes this more difficult—over the decades fanfic writers have specifically said that they do not include original female characters in their stories for fear of creating a Mary Sue or being accused of having done so. And the same dynamic is at work in non-fanfic stories, especially where the creators hear ongoing fan feedback.

The next problem is that Mary Sue discourages particular kinds of stories, those involving self-insertions, wish-fulfillment, or power fantasies.

You might wonder, what's wrong with that? I did say that the narrowest forms of Mary Sue are bad writing. Well, that's true. But so what? Bad writing alone isn't harmful. And the most flimsy and cardboard Mary Sue stories are probably something that writers and readers will grow out of in time.

Even if they don't, however, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with wish-fulfillment fantasies, power fantasies, or self-insertion. These are all things that are perfectly well accepted in other contexts.

For instance, Mary Sues are often particularly derided for being author self-insertion stories. But that's exactly why things like Choose Your Own Adventure books and roleplaying games are fun. Or look at YA literature: these stories often have fairly flat viewpoint characters, like Will Stanton in the Dark Is Rising books or even Harry Potter, because that flatness allows younger readers, especially, to more easily put themselves into the action. This is a feature, not a bug: it allows younger readers, especially adolescents, to explore their changing roles and increasing power in the world. Not just with regard to romance and sex, either; consider the vast number of fantasy novels about teenaged farmboys discovering their Destiny is to save the world.

And as for wish-fulfillment and power fantasies—well, if I could only read stories about the ordinary things I did every day, I wouldn't bother at all, and I actually like my life.

I should say that it's true that some Mary Sue stories have problematic elements, like appropriating other cultures because they're "exotic" or rotten treatments of disability. And those are in fact harmful. But those elements aren't created by the Mary Sue, they're created from broader cultural attitudes.

There's a further wrinkle to this problem of discouraging stories, though. Let me give an example, adapted from adventuresofcomicbookgirl on tumblr.

So, this girl: she's tragically orphaned, incredibly rich, stunningly attractive, a genius, and an Olympic-level athlete. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she defeats superhumans with ease.

People who defy her are inevitably wrong. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, and every guy she meets falls in love with her—even though she is consumed by angst, tends to treat people pretty badly, and never stays in any romantic relationship because she is dedicated to what is Pure and Good.

What a Mary Sue, right?

I just described . . . Batman.

Mary Sue not only discourages wish-fulfillment stories, it specifically and disproportionately discourages such stories about female characters or that female fans enjoy.

As the Batman example shows, male characters, especially in SFF, are supposed to be extra-competent, larger than life, attractive and active and the focus of dramatic happenings. Female characters, on the other hand, have to justify their very existence, let alone being "special" in any way—even if it would seem that they should be just as extraordinary as the other, male, characters around them. And that is flat-out sexist, no two ways about it.

It's telling, in this regard, that there is no commonly accepted term for a male character who plays the same role as Mary Sue; people use both Gary Stu and Marty Stu. In fact, TV Tropes literally lists as a controversy, "Can you have a male Sue?", James Bond and Jack Ryan notwithstanding.

Not only are powerful female characters devalued, but female readers or viewers who enjoy wish-fulfillment or power fantasies have to justify their interest or participation. Comics shops often actively discourage women from them giving money, because they do not perceive women to be legitimate readers of superhero comics. Women who cosplay, dress up as characters at conventions, get derided as fake fans who are just doing it for the attention. And the lack of respect given to stereotypically female stories like the genre of romance, or to non-romance novels with romantic or sexual elements (a.k.a. "girl cooties"), is well-known.

So, to sum up: a narrow definition of Mary Sue can be useful in describing and evaluating writing; but the broader definitions are sexist and reinforce the idea that the default is male and that anything female has to justify its existence.

I suggest that the remedy is being thoughtful and precise. If a character is called a Mary Sue, ask yourself or the other person why, precisely, the character is objectionable. Critique the lack of plot, or the changes in other characters' behavior in reaction to the character, or the failure to provide convincing supporting detail about the character's virtues and charms—those are all valid things to criticize. But don't use Mary Sue as a quick dismissal, because even if you don't intend to, that is likely to contribute to suppressing women's writing, discouraging the creation of more diverse works of fiction, and discouraging women's participation in fannish activities.

Thank you.

Links

Interview: A Conversation with Paula Smith, Transformative Works and Cultures (includes “A Trekkie’s Tale,” which coined “Mary Sue”)

The Universal Mary Sue test

Fanlore

TV Tropes

Example from adventuresofcomicbookgirl on tumblr

“150 Years of Mary Sue,” by Pat Pflieger (I think I revised everything from this out for time, but it has a lot of interesting descriptions)

You know, the panel before this ended early, and while the last panel looked interesting, my neck and shoulders are screaming at me from spending most of the day bending over my netbook, and if I leave now, I can eat a leisurely dinner and then go see Iron Man 3 instead of bolting my food and fretting the whole way. So despite my guilt, I'm playing hooky.

If you were at the conference, say hi! I do have notes about my co-panelists' talks, which I will post, but maybe they'll put their slides or notes up somewhere. Stay tuned. Just not until tomorrow, probably.

desperance: (Default)

[personal profile] desperance 2013-05-04 09:42 pm (UTC)(link)
Hunh. Thanks for this. I came late to the phrase (due I suspect to not reading fanfic, so I had to wait for it to filter through into common writer-speak), and it's passed very quickly from "Hee!" through "it's a useful shorthand for a phenomenon I see way too often" to "hang on a sec, what's actually happening here?" - which last is what you treat with very neatly here.

In discussions/definitions of Mary Sueism, it's quite common to toss in a brusque "or her male equivalent, of course, the Marty Stu stereotype". Is that just kneejerk defensiveness, or do you think there actually is an equivalence, or are these really very different discussions?
peoriapeoriawhereart: blond and brunet men peer intently (Napoleon & Illya peer)

[personal profile] peoriapeoriawhereart 2013-05-05 02:03 am (UTC)(link)
Wesley Crusher is the best example of a canon 'Marty Stu'. Some of the stories do have him nuanced and in 'appropriate' kickassery, but he ends up with a lot of untidy handwaving (most of the time Geordi should have better answers than the 'kid'. Or, there should be more selling of why Wesley is getting a better bead.)

[identity profile] foxfire74.livejournal.com 2013-05-05 02:58 am (UTC)(link)
I dunno, I'd class Wesley more as a Creator's Pet than as a Stu in the classic sense. He's perfect, yes (don't get me started over his last TNG "oh, he's too ADVANCED for you peons!" appearance), but I don't think the wish-fulfilment aspect is there. Most of the Stus I've seen handle BIG BIG weapons against BIG BIG enemies and are BIG BIG asses in the interpersonal department...the only profic one I can name right now would have to be the Sword of Truth guy (Richard? I think?). But when I see one show up in fanfic, he is always heavily armed, an enthusiastic supporter of the Law of Ninja Conservation, and an utter jerk. Harems of devoted female characters may or may not be involved.

...it is possible that I read too much fanfic...

[personal profile] boosette 2013-05-05 03:37 am (UTC)(link)
I think it's possible that Marty Stu isn't actually Marty Stu (in terms of equivalent revilement) - he's Scrappy Door, or Cousin Oliver.
princessofgeeks: (Black Widow by musesfool)

[personal profile] princessofgeeks 2013-05-04 09:52 pm (UTC)(link)
Fantastic. Thank you.
kass: Zoe is made of awesome. (zoe)

[personal profile] kass 2013-05-04 10:43 pm (UTC)(link)
This is terrific; thank you. I am particularly amused by your points that Harriet Vane and Batman both qualify as Mary Sues. <3
peoriapeoriawhereart: Opening the can and skipping names (Dangerous and good to know)

[personal profile] peoriapeoriawhereart 2013-05-05 02:19 am (UTC)(link)
I recall when I got to the Thames scene I had to do a bout of 'that's ballsy, that is blood in the water, in fanfic that would be MARY SUE, Red Alert!!!'

And yet, I don't consider Mary a Sue, because her ledger balances in much the way Holmes' does. In no way does she break 'the universe', other than she is a she, male characters can be found for each of her tropes. Other than the hair brushing.

The Batman part was wonderful, since he's the most recognizable exceptional. Harriet Vane is perfect for Peter in all her imperfect ways. Dorothy acknowledged that when she was eating cheap things it was most pleasing to detail his fine dining, his cars when shanks' mareing, etc etc. She is true to her logic, and makes Peter work for his ends regarding her.

Thanks for providing this to us here.
staranise: A star anise floating in a cup of mint tea (Default)

[personal profile] staranise 2013-05-05 02:34 am (UTC)(link)
I adore this talk; thank you for it. Especially this bit:

Female characters, on the other hand, have to justify their very existence, let alone being "special" in any way—even if it would seem that they should be just as extraordinary as the other, male, characters around them. And that is flat-out sexist, no two ways about it.
rachelmanija: (Default)

[personal profile] rachelmanija 2013-05-05 06:41 am (UTC)(link)
That's a great dissection. Thanks for doing the write-up.
jackandahat: (Default)

[personal profile] jackandahat 2013-05-05 06:54 am (UTC)(link)
Something I've noticed when people talk about Mary Sues is the people who act like there's a gun to their head forcing them to read everything ever committed to paper or screen.

Clearly, we need to do something about this dastardly band of rogues who are going around stealing everyone's back buttons. Because that's the only explanation for why so many people act like "Fic I don't like" existing is a personal infringement that needs to be hunted down and shamed into oblivion.
dharma_slut: this calls for a very special blend of Psychology and extreme Violence (Special blend)

[personal profile] dharma_slut 2013-05-05 07:29 am (UTC)(link)
so many people act like "Fic I don't like" existing is a personal infringement that needs to be hunted down and shamed into oblivion.

Yes! I canthink of one in particular-- someone that I had admired until she flaunted this sense of entitlement around whole bunch.
jackandahat: (Default)

[personal profile] jackandahat 2013-05-05 07:34 am (UTC)(link)
Someone flipped out at me on Twitter the other day because I was joking with friends about AO3 needing a "begone, crossovers!" button the same way you can hide WIPs.

And I'm sitting there thinking "..." while I'm being told I'm entitled and evil and want to destroy all crossovers, than I realised - there are people out there who are actually trying to get rid of fic they don't want to read. Not even "filter out in the search", but actively get rid.

It makes me wonder how some of them cope with TV...
klgaffney: (Default)

[personal profile] klgaffney 2013-05-05 02:15 pm (UTC)(link)
Exactly this.

Sometimes I feel like virtually running up to people, tapping them on the shoulder and going -- "This is your sense of proportion, I think? You dropped it a while back."
jackandahat: (Default)

[personal profile] jackandahat 2013-05-05 02:49 pm (UTC)(link)
I want to bake Cookies of Perspective. As in take a cookie, sit down, and see if it's still The Worst Thing Ever after you've had a cookie and time to think about it.
dharma_slut: this calls for a very special blend of Psychology and extreme Violence (Special blend)

[personal profile] dharma_slut 2013-05-05 07:26 am (UTC)(link)
Kate, I am so glad to read these wonderful words. I have been fighting against the MarySue shamers for a long time now.

In much of mainstream entertainment, if we can't write ourselves in -- women don't really exist. My first fanfic was undoubtedly written so that I could insert myself into the wonderful universe I had discovered, and to deny women that pleasure strikes me as cruel and ugly and useless. It's women oppressing each other; "Know your place, young lady, you don't get to own the world any more than I do."
Well I say-- nurts to that. Young women owning their universe can only be a good thing in the long run.
lovepeaceohana: A tilted artist's rendition of a clear blue ocean with sky and clouds above; text reads "now bring me that horizon..." (Default)

[personal profile] lovepeaceohana 2013-05-06 05:01 am (UTC)(link)
Love this, especially the reference to Batman!

And really - even if a Mary Sue is technically "bad" writing, at least someone was having fun writing it, and it's at least as likely someone else is having fun reading it. When I was younger I wrote ridiculous self-insert cartoon crossover fic for myself and my stepsisters, and we had a howling good time coming up with new plots and jokes to write in. I'm really glad you pointed out that writing is a hobby and that no one has a right to tell other people to gtfo just because they're not fantastic at it.
metanewsmods: Abed wearing goggles (Default)

[personal profile] metanewsmods 2013-05-07 10:52 pm (UTC)(link)
Hi, can I link this at metanews?
chordatesrock: The Punishment of Loki by Louis Huard (detail) (Default)

[personal profile] chordatesrock 2013-05-09 05:14 am (UTC)(link)
I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, which I have begun to get into on my own journal at "Sane Fans" are sometimes overly critical.

Personally, I am bothered by male Mary Sues in fiction. For instance, I dislike F'lar of Benden.

I wonder to what extent the idea of Mary Sue is merely descriptive. For some reason, there appear to be disproportionately many female writers of fanfiction, and self-inserts tend to be of the same gender as the writer. On the other hand, my reaction to male Mary Sues seems to put me in a minority, and I wonder also to what extent the accurate conclusion that Sues in fanfiction are disproportionately female-- which might or might not imply that female OCs are more likely than male OCs to be Sues (perhaps they would only be more likely because they're less likely to be author surrogates)-- might have influenced people to be too quick to call a female character a Mary Sue.
chordatesrock: The Punishment of Loki by Louis Huard (detail) (Default)

[personal profile] chordatesrock 2013-05-11 02:28 am (UTC)(link)
Thank you.
tasyfa: Coloured sugar cubes in a rainbow round a coffee cup (Default)

[personal profile] tasyfa 2013-05-10 09:40 pm (UTC)(link)
Good summation of the character type and the problems which can arise.

I had to laugh at example four, which I recognised as Talia from the description. I was a huge Lackey fan/reader for a long time. But what's interesting about that is that the Arrows trilogy with Talia were the first books set in the Valdemar universe.

And then much, much later, when the 'current day' stories set in Talia's time had all been written, Lackey wrote Exile's Honor, a prequel about Alberich, the Weaponsmaster. In that novel, there is a main female character named Myste, which Lackey flat-out admitted later was a genuine self-insert (her nickname is Misty).

All of which you may very well know, but I thought it was interesting to note that she built a writing career on the first Mary Sue, and knowingly wrote another many years later as a best-selling author.

(Anonymous) 2013-05-11 07:31 pm (UTC)(link)
A very interesting and thoughtful look at the subject. Thank you.
metaphortunate: (Default)

[personal profile] metaphortunate 2013-05-26 03:24 am (UTC)(link)
Did I miss this before somehow! Just bookmarked it in my "So I don't have to" folder. Which is where I put things that other people have explained wonderfully, so I don't have to.
mneme: (Default)

[personal profile] mneme 2013-05-28 10:13 pm (UTC)(link)
Very nice, and much better thought out (and covered in depth) than my thoughts on the subject back in 2011.
mneme: (Default)

[personal profile] mneme 2013-05-29 04:14 am (UTC)(link)
You're welcome--hope you liked it!
serpentine: (Default)

[personal profile] serpentine 2013-06-09 11:32 pm (UTC)(link)
Hi! I was at the conference and your presentation was one of the ones that I had seen and had made an impression on me.

I was actually just wandering around on DW reading and I found a link to this, so I'm glad that I found it because I was bemoaning the fact that I had neglected to write down the link you had posted at the end of your presentation.

Your presentation reminded me that if I had let the anti-Mary Sue thing get to me when I first started writing (I wrote a lot of female OCs), I probably would not have developed the skills I now use when I write my original fiction. So it really resonated with me.
Edited (Edit to add opinion) 2013-06-09 23:35 (UTC)
kencana: (Default)

[personal profile] kencana 2013-09-11 01:13 pm (UTC)(link)
Bless this post. It's a double standart that 'gary sue' get praised as deep and complex character while 'mary sue' is dismissed as silly girl power. If the character is abdly written, just call it badly written.
I'm sure if Batman and James Bond were anything other than cis white men, those movie won't be made.

I remember liking one OC from fanfic because she's sweet, cute and have good sense of humor. The result? She's called mary sue by reviewer. She's not even a love interest! That's made me sad.

But then, I realized I want to be those “woman” what they called mary sue. Pretty, smart, have little flaw and have so many people like me. Who don’t want that? In fact, if I were to make self-insert fanfic, I will be the heroine that slap every mangaka/comic book creator that draw woman as fanservice object. They apologize and start to write woman as human being. Next, I will telling men to stop being an asshole, make more movie about superheroine, forced every country to legalizing same-sex couple. I will do that while wearing frilly dress and eating gelato. I'm sure I will be the Queen of Mary Sue. (whooops)
Edited 2013-09-11 13:20 (UTC)
annathepiper: (Default)

[personal profile] annathepiper 2014-01-06 03:35 pm (UTC)(link)
Hi Kate, came over from tor.com off the Desolation of Smaug thread! Thank you again for pointing me at this, this was an _excellent_ read.

I've been thinking for some time that the term "Mary Sue" has gotten almost useless and you've focused very neatly on why. Though I had to grin, too, at the mention of Laurie King. I love the hell out of her Mary Russell series even as I acknowledge that there are stretches of that series that very, VERY much go into wish-fulfillment land. And I also love the hell out of Harriet Vane, and I did my share of reading Talia in Lackey, too! ;)

Wow

(Anonymous) 2014-01-10 02:44 pm (UTC)(link)
I also followed from the DoS thread. I'm not even particularly into fanfic, and don't get drawn into discussions of the worthiness or otherwise of fanfic characters.

But I love that Batman example. I truly was thinking, gee, this character is implausible, and that the implausibility would annoy me. What an effective way of demonstrating how our expectations on the basis of gender can be both subtly and very drastic. I think that the first step for change in our society is to help people understand more subtle prejudices which can have very dramatic effects. Thank you for sharing this.