Who is Mary-Sue?
In the world of fan fiction, you often bump into the term “Mary-Sue”. It is a nickname given to a certain type of original character which authors all over the world feel compelled to write into their stories. To make a short definition, Mary-Sue is – quoting that clever nanny, Mary Poppins – practically perfect in every way. Mary-Sue is also the name used of the story genre itself.
There’s more to her than that though. Mary-Sue is an interesting psychological phenomena, she’s the daydream of every fan girl. She makes most fan fiction readers (and writers) grit their teeth, but in the end, it’s only natural for her to appear.
The Mary-Sue-characters have existed as long as fan fiction itself. Usually they are female, but that’s just because most fan fiction authors also are; there are some highly Mary-Sue-ish characters who are male too. Basically, she is the character of the author herself, veiled to fit to whatever universe the story takes place in. She can be a member of an Away Team who beams down with Captain Kirk, or the secret love of Legolas.
The author may not even realize that sub-consciously she’s writing a Mary-Sue. That is why impolite feedback, rude comments and flaming, is not the way to react. Of course, it’s never the right way to react, but in the case of Mary-Sues, this must be emphasized. The author didn’t write a Mary-Sue just to annoy people; she poured her soul into her story, and tearing it apart is incredibly cruel. Most authors want the plotline of their story to be likable to themselves, what they write is what they’d want to happen, so it can be said that every single original character is a Mary-Sue to some extent. They are alter egos of the authors, who appear in the story and make it go the way the author wants it to go.
It is the degree of Mary-Sue-ism that defines if the story itself in fact is a Mary-Sue. Here are some typical qualities of a Mary-Sue in a fan fiction based on Tolkien’s stories:
1) She is incredibly beautiful. The author emphasizes this fact during the whole story, and usually describes the character’s appearance in great length. She has an unusual hair and/or eye colour, often something the author wishes she had herself. Her beauty has a great effect on at least one of Tolkien’s characters.
2) Her origin is also somewhat unusual. She’s often half-something: half-elf, half-maia, half-wizard… If not, she’s usually an elf. There are very few dwarvish Mary-Sues. Typically, she has a dark and mysterious past. Her parents may have been murdered, or she may not remember who they are (in the end, they turn out to be someone important and powerful). She can be related to important people in Middle-Earth, like Elrond or Galadriel. Her past often leads her into a quest of some sort, or at least has some significance to the plot. She needs to sort out psychological traumas, or avenge something, and is helped by the Tolkien characters in the story.
3) She has an unusual name. Quite often it’s the author’s name in Elvish, or a name the author wishes she had. It is usually a beautiful one, or holds some secret meaning.
4) Inside a typical Mary-Sue story there’s a love story. The Mary-Sue falls in love with one of Tolkien’s characters, usually the one the author herself likes the most. The love story doesn’t need to be the major plot point of the story, it can occur in an action story filled with battle scenes, the point is, it’s there. It can be happy or unhappy. Maybe the Mary-Sue doesn’t return the feelings of the Tolkien’s character, or vice versa. Again, it’s still there.
5) Mary-Sue also has some special qualities, often ones that impress the Tolkien characters; especially the one character involved in the love story. She is a skilled warrior, and often has magical skills. She can throw balls of fire, or tell the future, has a “sixth sense” of some sort, or can talk to animals. Sometimes she can even turn into an animal herself, or has an unusual pet, like a unicorn. In the most outrageous Mary-Sue stories she’s nearly all-powerful.
6) Mary-Sue also owns something special. It can be a sword with an Elvish inscription, or a piece of jewellery that belonged to someone important. Often it has been given to her by someone important, either a great lord or lady, or one of her relatives. This object can also possess magical abilities, and might become important in the overall storyline.
7) A Mary-Sue story also has a hurt/comfort moment, or several of them. Either the Mary-Sue or that “special” Tolkien character is distressed or gets injured, and is healed by the other party. This might be connected to the “dark past” of the Mary-Sue. There is some sort of a rescue mission included to every Mary-Sue story, either a concrete one, or a psychological one.
8) Mary-Sue is also clever. She can be witty and have a sharp tongue. She often gets into conflicts with some of the Tolkien characters the author doesn’t like, making those characters less likable in the story. Usually Mary-Sue gets out of these verbal battles as a winner, and is defended by the Tolkien characters the author does like. Mary-Sue also sorts out conflicts between the Tolkien characters, and helps them to be friends again. If there is a problem that even the wisest Tolkien characters can’t solve, Mary-Sue’s cleverness comes to aid.
These are just some definitions of Mary-Sue, others can also be found, and they don’t necessarily all appear in a single story.
Why is the Mary-Sue genre so popular then? Because writing fantasy stories gives us a channel to express our own secret desires. Deep inside, we all want to be loved and nurtured. We want to be beautiful and adored. When the world seems unfair, and we feel helpless against all the injustice, we fantasize about being all-powerful – and how we could solve all the problems and make the world good again. And we also want to help, love and nurture the ones we love, even if we’d have to direct that desire towards fictional characters. Life gets boring: when you plod along with your everyday life, sometimes you just wish you could jump into Middle-Earth and have an adventure! Get far away from ordinary things, your dull apartment, boring TV shows, working at McDonald’s, high school… whatever.
Writing Mary-Sues is perfectly understandable. But what you also need to understand, is that people don’t necessarily want to read them. When you become an author – even if it’s just a hobby – you have a certain duty to your audience. A Mary-Sue story may be fun, and even therapeutic, to write, but reading it is a whole different matter. When people read stories, they want to escape reality too, but there are certain limits: a story cannot be too unrealistic, which is what most Mary-Sue stories are. It gets boring to read over and over again how some annoying, unrealistic, predictable chick saves the day. Predictability is another quality of Mary-Sues: you just know what will happen next, that she saves everyone again and gets the man she loves.
So if you’re writing a story, and found some of the abovementioned qualities from your original character, perhaps you should re-think her. Give her some faults, make her less perfect, make her less important, because the fact is, very few people in the world are completely irreplaceable. Think about your readers, and give your story a truly original twist. Try to think what you would like to read!
If, on the other hand, you’ve just read a Mary-Sue, don’t get all worked up! Try to see the author’s point of view, and understand that inside all of us, there’s a little Mary-Sue, just trying to get out!