I Promised Myself I Wouldn’t Do This – The Troubles of Mary Sue

When I started running this blog about four years ago, I made myself a promise. It was a simple promise stemming from my past work in the fan fiction world where, for those of you who don’t read fan fiction, things can sometimes get ugly between writers and readers. Arguments could pop up over just about anything, from canon characters’ personality traits, to their relationships with other characters. It seems like everyone interprets the source material differently, and sometimes, the views of writers and readers just don’t mesh.

As much as I hate to say it, another common argument you’ll see is over a writer’s original characters, specifically if they’re female, and most especially if they’re in a romantic relationship with a canon (male) character. The judgments passed on these characters can be so extreme that some writers tuck tail and run, bullied out of something they love to do for no other reason than someone didn’t like a fictional character they’d created.

And in the majority of these cases, you’ll find the name Mary Sue.

Let me reiterate a point I made above; I don’t want to talk about this. If you don’t actually know what a Mary Sue is, then don’t blame yourself because no one knows what a Mary Sue is. The name itself is derived from a character created for a Star Trek story written in the early 1970’s, and has since been widely used to describe poorly written (and majorly female) characters. Yet the actual parameters that define what constitutes a poorly written female character have never been clarified, largely because it depends upon the writer’s skill level at hashing out a story from the start, let alone their ability to flesh out a character that fits into the mood and atmosphere created in their tale.

So again, no one knows what a Mary Sue actually is. Ask ten different people for a definition, and you’ll get ten different answers, some of which might be similar, but overall, it’s just a character someone’s taken exception to for X,Y,Z reasons. This means the name has been thrown out far too many times to count, to the point that it’s lost all definition, and on many occasions, it’s used solely to shame authors away from their craft. Some people claim it only has to do with writing self-insert characters for wish fulfillment, and I find myself wondering how, precisely, self-insertion and wish fulfillment is gauged when I’ve seen some very well developed characters (who are nothing like their authors mind you) bearing the weight of this otherwise negative term.

But why am I bringing this up here if I promised myself I’d leave this overused (and what I hope is becoming an archaic) token in the dust where it truly belongs? Well, I’m getting to that. So here’s a slight subject change, but trust me, it relates.

I just read a pretty well articulated article about the Seven Deadly Sins of writing paranormal stories. Lust, Greed, Sloth, Gluttony, Pride, they were all there with a point listed for each on how it could have a negative impact on the quality of your book. I found myself agreeing with most points as well–until I got to the last one, which was Envy.

And that entire point was “Don’t write a Mary Sue.”

Everything came to an abrupt, screeching halt. Had I somehow stumbled onto some salty fan person’s website? I glanced at the URL to see, surprised to find that I was actually on Writer’s Digest.com. Really? Some author on Writer’s Digest is employing this token? I next checked the date on the article to find that it was several years old now, but even still, the derision I felt in response to reading this final point and learning who’d posted the article from the start suddenly grew into offense.

I find this signaling out of female characters to be largely problematic. By using this term, even if all you’re trying to do is pass out the good advice that your female characters need to be given more substance, you’re still passing a judgement on female characters alone without stating that male characters need to be held to the same standard, insinuating that they’re easier to write because they do much less wrong. I’ll be the first to admit, there is nothing worse than reading a main character who can do no wrong, one who is so perfect that they have absolutely nothing to fear. Why? Because if they can’t be bothered with worrying about the troubles in their own life, then I won’t get invested because I have no reason to be concerned for them, either.

Yet this goes for both female and male characters.

The line that got to me the most in this description was, “Put some dents in her armor and let the hero call her on her bullshit once in a while.” Pardon me for a moment, but I’ll have both my male and female characters calling each other out on their bullshit when the situation calls for it, thanks. I will give them both flaws, skills, fears, and aspirations, and I will not apologize for offering one character any specific set of traits just because of what’s between their legs or what gender they identify with.

I understand the intentions here, that we need to write better characters. But this message needs to be for characters all across the board, and signaling out female characters specifically, as if there’s something inherently wrong with them that requires a stricter, or perhaps differing judgment than what male characters receive is, quite frankly, offensive. I also take exception to the term “Strong Female Characters” (I’ve written an article about this before) and posted a statement on my facebook page not long ago saying sure, “strong women” are awesome. But if we keep saying it like that, it becomes these two harmful things:

1. Just another ideal women have to live up to if they want to be accepted in society.
2. An insinuation that women aren’t already strong to begin with.

So stop adding the word “strong” as if we mean nothing without it.

There’s very likely a lot more I could say on this subject, and I probably will in time. But for now, I’ll conclude this by saying that I find the continued double standards women from all walks of life have to endure on a daily basis despite the progression of liberation both tiring and baffling, and I long for the day when we’re all able to see past them.

I’d love to hear thoughts on this topic! In the meantime, here’s hoping everyone’s having a great week, and that the weekend arrives quickly!

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10 thoughts on “I Promised Myself I Wouldn’t Do This – The Troubles of Mary Sue

    • The trouble with this is that the “male version” is just as sexist as the female version is. It’s so infrequently used that it doesn’t actually have a common name. Some people say Gary Stu, some say Marty Stu, and I’ve also heard both Barry Stu and Larry Stu being used before.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Sue#Variations

      Also, some people use Mary Sue to refer to characters regardless of their gender. So this is definitely an indication that no one’s as obsessed with the behavior of male characters and their actions within a story as female characters, which only serves to increase the sexist connotations the term has come to be used for.

      • Oh no, I didn’t mean to sound like I was angry (text can be so hard sometimes)! Seriously, I just wanted to point out how the male version can make the female version sound even worse, you know? <3 <3 <3

      • Ah, yeah, I understand. It really annoys me too. I’m still surpised they used Mary Sue on Writer’s Digest. Kind seems childish for such a professional website.

      • I feel like it’s just the internet age. So many poorly written stories get popular online, and then the same stories get published. Sometimes I worry the publishing industry is going downhill. Well, since they are using Mary Sue (I’ve only really seem that term used in fanfiction), I can only wonder.

      • I completely agree with everything here. I’ve only ever seen it used in conjunction with fan fiction as well, though sometimes I’ve seen it used with movies. Either way, I also question the publishing industry in its current state. It just seems as if changes in the publishing process have been implemented as far as indie authors go specifically, but none of the publishers are trying to adapt any of their policies to make way for these changes and keep standards up to par.

  1. Female characters always get the worst criticism. Their behaviour is analysed and dissected at each step, and if they say/do something that bugs a reader, the whole character will then be labeled as “boring” or “up herself” or whatever. With male characters on the other hand, readers are more forgiving. Their flaws are endearing, their sometimes ridiculous actions are praised, when a heroine’s would automatically be vilified. Lots of authors have been complaining of this, that their hero can do no wrong in the eyes of readers, but their heroine is trashed and hated for details.
    It’s the same in real life, isn’t t? Women are always assessed more harshly than men. We have to be everything, from mothers to friends to lovers to talented worker, all the while looking pretty and smart. But not too much, or others will become jealous or suspicious.
    There’s a long road ahead for poor Mary Sue and her critics…

    • Completely agreed, and I was thinking a little more deeply on the major reasons this term gets thrown about so much, which is the whole self insert and wish fulfillment thing, and in the process, I realized something. First, I asked the question, “What’s so wrong with wish fulfillment, anyway?”, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t come up with a single decent answer. Is it inherently selfish? Maybe, but even then, if a story written for wish fulfillment is actually fleshed out, possesses well developed characters, and has a satisfying ending, who’s complaining if they’ve been entertained and enjoyed what they’ve read?

      So again, I wondered, what’s so wrong with writing a story for wish fulfillment? Perhaps, at the very core of this stigma lies new authors who’ve yet to develop their craft, so the entire story is just rubbish. But if wish fulfillment actually gets that author to develop their skills by writing that rubbish story, then it’s not all bad. Instead, it’s served to help a writer learn their craft, and who knows, they might be the next Jane Austen, or maybe another Mark Twain.

      Which takes me right back to the same question, and finally, I started to realize why “wish fulfillment” has such a negative connotation; it’s another way of saying “You can’t have what you want.” For example, women are expected to give up a lot of the same things men enjoy freely. If they want to have sex or enjoy it, they’re ridiculed as being sluts/tramps/whores and so on. Women receive less pay for many of the same jobs, even if they perform their duties more accurately. This all a way of saying what women can and can’t have, can and can’t do, and what is wish fulfillment? A fantasy of something an author wants to have or do.

      So a writer, specifically a female writer, jotting down a fantasy they’ve had? How scandalous! You can’t have this! Let’s forget stories written by new authors that needs more work and polishing to actually be enjoyable (as I said before, this is a stepping stone in the learning process, and the story can be picked apart for other reasons than “it was written for wish fulfillment”, such as just being a poorly written story). After all, most stories are based on some fantasy of the author’s. So the only problem this could possibly be based on is a woman wanting more for herself than she gets in real life.

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