What’s the Matter with Mary Sue?


Author C.T. Phipps recently posted this meme in a couple of Facebook groups, and as memes like this do, it inspired some rousing debates. Almost everyone agreed that “Angela” was really a stand-in for Rey, the female protagonist of the final Star Wars trilogy, and Bruce Killshot is…well, nobody really talked about Bruce, other than to note that surely Bruce had a lot of training, and that was why Bruce (i.e., James Bond, Jason Bourne, 90% of Tom Cruise’s characters, et al) was clearly not a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu), whereas Angela (Rey) certainly was. I believe Rey is not a Mary Sue, and my views were articulated really well by Erik Kain in a Forbes article that was written shortly after the release of The Force Awakens. But the debate got me thinking about Vic, the protagonist of the Woern Saga. The question, is Vic a Mary Sue, has plagued me for some time now, especially because between me and you, Dear Reader, she sorta meets the criteria:

  1. She’s good at everything
  2. She’s beloved by all
  3. She’s an idealized version of me (i.e., an author proxy)
  4. She’s a chosen one

Dang, that’s a heck of a list. Perhaps I should quit writing now.

But, wait. What, really, is wrong with a Mary Sue?

The term itself derived from the main character in a fanfic spoof published in Menagerie 2, a Star Trek fanzine, which poked fun at the sort of stunningly beautiful, sexually irresistible, Jane of all trades, mistress of the universe teenage protagonists who were featured in many of the fanfic stories the fanzine published. A Mary Sue protagonist is, first and foremost, a sign of Bad Writing. A true Mary Sue requires no real character development, and in the plots constructed around her (or him), everything goes her (his) way except perhaps for a tragic, untimely, and selfless death, in which case all the other characters mourn her deeply.

Growing up, however, when I think of almost any hero or heroine of any of the stories I liked, they almost always were extraordinary in some way and drew upon previously unknown talents or abilities to survive and triumph. Rand al’Thor has no clue he’s an Aes Sedai yet manages to use the One Power multiple times to defeat enemies before he meets someone able to train him. Rand also defeats a blademaster in single combat before he’s had very much real training in swordplay. Frodo survives several attacks by Ring Wraiths and manages to elude them and escape to Rivendell on his own (in the book) despite being grievously wounded by a Nazgul blade. Lessa is singularly clever, instinctively bonds with a gold dragon, and singlehandedly figures out how to go 400 years into the past and fetch the missing Weirfolk back to her own time.

Extraordinary abilities, courage, and leadership in the face of certain doom are hallmarks of fantasy, as well as elements of the type of story I like to read and write. I’m also an eminently practical person and a realist, so within those fantasy tropes, I make my characters real. So, is Vic a Mary Sue? Here are my arguments why she is not.

  1. vic_action02
    Vic, by Tim Smith 3

    She’s good at everything. Actually, what Vic is good at is learning. She is first and foremost a scholar, and she takes direction very well from teachers and mentors. Moreover, she spends years developing her skills. At fifteen, she may be the “youngest Logkeeper in Oreseeker history,” but she’d been training for that role since she was a small child. Later, when she becomes a soldier, she undergoes basic training and then is aided by a more experienced soldier on her first mission. After that, she undergoes several years of off-page training before she “returns” as a captain in the military. Finally, by the end of the book she has acquired some spectacular powers, which she manages to activate and use without any training. She doesn’t control her powers very well, however, which has some devastating consequences to herself and others.

  2. She’s beloved by all. Not quite. Vic is arrogant and volatile. She suffers no fools, and plenty of characters in the book dislike her. Although three of the primary male characters pursue her, none of these relationships develop in a healthy way. One is a teenage infatuation that evolves into obsession. One is an abusive relationship in which sex is used as a weapon of dominance. The third is an offer of a healthy, adult romance based on mutual respect and consent, which Vic misreads as nothing more than friendship.
  3. EnterprisngWomenShe’s an author proxy. In the book Enterprising Women, Camille Bacon Smith suggests that the girls and women creating Mary Sues in their Star Trek fanfic did so as a sort of adolescent coming of age ritual, and it’s true that I wrote my first story featuring Vic when I was a teenager. Decades later, she still has my personality, along with some magnified traits I wish I had. In that sense, she does represent a sort of wish fulfillment, because she is far braver and smarter than I am. That’s where the wish fulfillment ends, however, because I would never want to go through any of the hellish experiences she has.
  4. She’s a chosen one. Ah, yes, the much-maligned chosen one trope. I can’t help but believe this is the source of a lot of the sexism when people start comparing male and female protagonists and whether or not they’re Mary Sues: Mary Magdelene washes the feet of Jesus, she doesn’t walk in his shoes. Nobody seems to bat an eye at Rand al’Thor, Thomas A. Anderson (aka Neo), or Frodo Baggins emerging from obscurity as chosen ones, but put a female protagonist like Rey forward as the nobody who’s going to save the world, and she’s called a Mary Sue. Buffy Summers notwithstanding, powerful, female world-savers are often accepted only if they’re mentally unstable or otherwise damaged, like River in Firefly or Ell in Stranger Things. (To subvert notions that Buffy Summers was a Mary Sue, Jane Espenson wrote an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which social misfit Jonathan emerges as Sunnydale’s savior.) Vic, as the protagonist of a dark science fantasy story that uses a lot of high fantasy elements, is a chosen one. She’s born and reared in a rural backwater, is pulled into world events, and learns she has a destiny when she gains unparalleled power. However, I guarantee things won’t play out in the usual way, when Vic and her fate collide in Book 2 of the Woern Saga.

Speaking of Book 2, I better get back to writing it.

3 thoughts on “What’s the Matter with Mary Sue?

    1. Love your quote: “There is a reason we like strong, powerful heroines in our books and movies. If you don’t want that, don’t read my books.” That’s exactly how I feel! 🙂

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