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.