Mary Sue Deserves Respect!

In his excellent book, Creating Short Fiction, Damon Knight describes stages in a writer’s development. The very notion is extraordinary, so let’s not rush into the specifics. Assuming we are willing to work at acquiring and perfecting the skills necessary for good writing, we need to understand also that growth is not uniform. A larva is not a caterpillar is not a chrysalis is not a butterfly. Some issues may always plague us–our “writing nemesis” sort of stuff–but our focus will change along with our development.

Damon Knight describes the first stage as writing to please yourself. We daydream, following whatever romantic, adventurous, geeky or otherwise self-indulgent impulses strike us. And then we write it up. A lot of fanfic falls here. You really don’t care whether anyone else reads it because you’re your own audience.

So where does Mary Sue fit in? This is her home turf, her birthplace and her realm of dreams! The Wikipedia article describes her as “a fictional character…primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader,” in the most negative, pejorative sense, “overly idealized, lacking noteworthy flaws.” My favorite example is the character, a thinly-ly disguised representation of the writer, who comes onboard the USS Enterprise, has various highly colorful and romantic adventures, and becomes the love interest of every male character on the command deck. Needless to say, this does not a good story make, at least not on a professional level (although in the hands of a truly creative seasoned writer, it might make a wonderful farce).

However, in dismissing “Mary Sue stories” as not only worthless but demeaning (often with the implication that real writers produce Serious Professional Stuff(TM)), we risk cutting ourselves off from the creative wellspring that underlies the story-telling impulse. As children, we all daydreamed Mary Sue (and Gary Sue) stories–we all wanted to be heroes and have wonderful adventures. As we grew up, our notions about what constitutes a wonderful adventure may have changed. We may still want to go flying on a dragon, but now we also want that devilishly handsome (or intoxicatingly beautiful) dragon-rider to fall in love with us.

Mary/Gary Sue daydreams allow us to explore that landscape of yearning, to figure out what lights us up with wonder and delight. If we react to our “guilty pleasure” daydreams with scorn, we can never learn what they have to teach us. We turn away before the true gifts appear. What gifts? Exploring what is beneath those daydreams, the things that resonate deeply with us. Those things–characters, situations, emotional turning-points, landscapes/worlds–bring passion and meaning to our work. Then we can take the raw stuff and refine it, plaster our heroes with warts, apply our professional critical skills, and take the story in novel and interesting directions.

Without Mary Sue, without those idle longings and crazed desires for escape to the world of our dreams, however, all we’ve got is the warts.

Deborah J. Ross has been writing science fiction and fantasy since 1982. Her novels Jaydium and Northlight are available as multiformat ebooks here on Book View Cafe. Her most recent print publication is Hastur Lord, a Darkover novel with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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Mary Sue Deserves Respect! — 12 Comments

  1. The most important function of a Mary Sue effort is as raw material. If the writer can USE it — or as Damon Knight might have said, if she can mature enough to step away from the material and shape it with an artist’s eye — a work of great power can result. The literary examples are innumerable; reworked Mary/Garys might include JANE EYRE (written by an unemployed teacher — I am told that VILLETTE is an even better example), DAVID COPPERFIELD (semiautobiographical), or PRIDE & PREJUDICE (unmarried maiden author ISO hunk with an income).

  2. Mary Sue daydreaming is how I started as a small child. I would take my favorite TV show (I think I started with Rin Tin Tin and moved on to Bonanza and the Rat Patrol until Star Trek.) I would take out one character and replace myself in that role. Then the stories grew and lasted years sometimes.

    Then came Star Trek when I was in high school. Those stories were so compelling I had to write them down. Some of _my_ adventures worked their way into books I actually sold. Look no further than The “Stargods” trilogy.

    I gave up putting myself to sleep with fanfic stories about the time I started taking my writing seriously. Then along came Sissy, High Priestess of Harmony. Thistle Down followed shortly thereafter…

    Who knows who’s waiting in the wings to tell me a story.

  3. Raw material, yes! Lots of people stop there; that’s all they want. But it’s a well I return to, again and again. Playtime!

    Gosh, I remember Rin Tin Tin. My friends talked about the program before we had a TV set (we were of course the last family on the block to do so). Somehow I got the idea that Rin Tin Tin was a Scottish terrier, but we certainly had some grand adventures together. Then came Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel, both of which had horses so of course I was utterly lost…

  4. I think the problem here is that Mary Sue is sometimes castigated, as you say, as the center of our wish-fulfillment dreams, but at other times, she’s the character who the author tells is is the most beautiful, the smartest, the center of everyone’s interest, but we don’t see that actually shown, so we get impatient.

    Many of us readers love a heroic character, whether male or female. But the author has to show us how that character is heroic, not just stick them in the center of a story and surround him or her with an adoring chorus without every showing us how the character earned that adoration. That is when Mary Sue fails.

  5. The other fatal pitfall is being unable to split off the writer from the character. If nothing bad can happen to the protagonist, if she triumphs without effort, if things fall into place for her without basis in plot or character — then it hasn’t grown up enough yet.

  6. I’ve certainly pootled about with other peoples’ worlds privately, but I think that’s a different thing than writing a Mary Sue or Gary Sue character. I’ve read Mary and Gary even in original worlds. I do agree, strongly, that Mary/Gary Sue can give a beginning writer practice in writing description, plot, etc. even if they are over-friendly to their main character.

    Character creation is a very intimate process, and the temptation to be nice to the main character is very strong. We’re told our whole lives to be nice. If you’re female this is re-enforced even more strongly.

    How nice is it to beat a character, chain them up in a basement and make them dislocate something and bash a guard possibly to death with fistful of chain in a bid to escape? And I just wrote that part of the top of my head in under a minute. Yet this is precisely the shift away from M/Gary Sue that writers can and need to make as they mature. Away from ‘be nice’ toward ‘no mercy’.

    We shouldn’t cut off any source for creativity. It’s far too rare in the world. If Mary and Gary characters can jump start a writer, then more power to them. It’s something that can be addressed in thoughtful critique or beta reading, the same as we would address consistent world building, plot structure, or any other writing flaw.

    Children have a free pass here. We don’t need them to get to angst until they’re teens, when it comes quite naturally to many. And then, for teens, shouldn’t they be allowed to fantasize about being liked, beautiful, and brilliant? A little fantasy is healthy.

    Does it get old to tell an adult (in years) writer that his or her character needs flaws and peril and warts? Oh heck yes. And it’s hard to say it kindly the twelfth time to the same adult (in years) writer. It’s not always easy, and I fail at this far more often than I’d like; but if we hope to have the beginning writer listen we need to suck it up. And be nice. Except to our characters. Ahem.

  7. I fully agree with you (and Damon Knight, of course). Fanfiction and Mary Sue/Gary Stu protagonists are a normal stage for the developing writer.

    As a child and teenager, I definitely wrote fanfiction before I even knew that other people did the same and that such a thing as fanfiction existed. In fact, some of my earliest attempts at writing were Enid Blyton and Räuber Hotzenplotz fanfiction. The Mary Sues started showing up a bit later, inhabiting worlds cobbled together from whatever media properties fascinated me at the time (Star Wars mostly and a couple of long forgotten Saturday morning cartoons) and real world places that fascinated me. Eventually, my Mary Sues acquired a flaws and warts and weaknesses, my worlds turned darker and grittier and not quite so perfect. I write different stuff now, but I’m still fond of the worlds and characters I created as a teenager. And maybe one day I will figure out how to use what was good and unique and different about that universe while toning down the ridiculous aspects that only a teenager could come up with.

    As a teacher, I see very similar patterns in the writing of my students. Worlds and plots obviously borrowed from whatever media property they love and populated with Mary Sues or Gary Stus. A boy even named his hotshot Gary Stu dinosaur researcher after himself. And of course, the stories they produce are derivative as hell and the heroes and heroines are shameless Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters. And considering the writers in question are 12 or 13, that’s perfectly okay. They are allowed to write about hotshot dinosaur researchers or supermodel ninja assassins who just happen to be the daughter of the Japanese defense secretary (I have no idea where the defense secretary bit came from – I suspect she heard the term in a news broadcast). But if those kids keep writing, they will mature and maybe some day, one of them will create something remarkable. They already are maturing – one girl recently started experimenting with the epistolary form, which she discovered via The Vampire Diaries.

    What worries me is teen writers putting up their work on a fanfiction site and getting eviscerated for derivative plots and Mary Sue protagonists. If such a thing happens to a 12 or 13-year-old, he or she could easily be permanently discouraged from writing and we will lose the writer they might have become over time.

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  10. I think Deborah makes a very valid point – as a Creative Writing tutor, I have seen various ‘shades’ of Mary Sue in enthusiastic newbies who are giddy with the rush they get, slamming all their ideas out of their head and down on paper. I think that this is often a necessary stage – and while some writers by-pass this stage, a great number don’t.
    It’s always far too easy to sneer when we’ve risen a few notches up the ladder – and I do very much take Cora’s point about youngsters who proudly display their Mary/Gary Sue creations on a fanfic site, only to find their work shredded.
    The time when I find writers do need extra nurturing is when they’ve edged past the stage where they regard everything they’ve written with uncritical glee, yet still don’t possess the technical skill to get their visions onto paper exactly as they want…

  11. Even the professional writer needs a drop of fantasy in the world building. I have to admit that so far, I can’t create a hero where there’s possible romantic interest unless I find something interesting and attractive about the character.

    Once I’ve decided that yes, he’ll do, then I figure out who he is and who the woman (or man) for him might be. Generally I already know what world s/he belongs to, but not always. Like one recently, where I developed a bunch of interesting pieces, but it took a while to realize that they all belonged together. And I knew that man belonged in the story, but I thought he had a different role to play, and had no idea the story protagonist would be female.

    So — Mary Sues who are perfect are very useful for beginners to try their wings. Mary Sues who have been trampled a few times but get up swinging? They can test out characters for the new works quite well, sometimes.