The Mary Sue Conundrum

Zoe Marriott, Holly Black and Elizabeth Bear all point out how problematic not to mention misogynist the term “Mary Sue” has become of late.

I completely agree, because the term “Mary Sue” has become completely overused of late. Partly this may be due to the various Mary Sue litmus tests that are available online and according to which pretty much every character is a Mary Sue. I just did the test for a female character in a realist novel of mine and even that character, with no magical powers whatsoever, scored 40 points. That’s not to say that such tests aren’t useful, within reason. But plenty of traits listed as Mary Sue symptoms in these tests are perfectly legitimate, as long as they don’t all occur at once.

The misogyny inherent in calling every halfway competent female character a Mary Sue should be self-evident. Nonetheless, Mary Sue accusations are often used to denigrate books with female protagonists or female dominated subgenres in general. Which subgenre of speculative fiction is most frequently accused of being infested by Mary Sues? That’s right, urban fantasy. And it’s surely just coincidence that urban fantasy also happens to be the most female dominated fantasy subgenre. Here are a few examples of urban fantasy heroines being called Mary Sues.

Coincidentally, two of the examples are also dripping with blatant misogyny. Urban fantasy is formulaic, because it’s marketed to women just like category romances and cozy mysteries, and everybody knows those are formulaic, because… well, it’s not as if the poster has ever actually read either genre, but they’re written by women, marketed to women and read by women, so they must be formulaic. Besides, the poster has read at least one urban fantasy book, namely the one he’s reviewing, and he didn’t like it. Besides, the protagonist was

a) a woman,
b) fairly competent,
c) reasonably young and attractive,
d) had sex somewhere in the course of the novel
e) with an attractive and/or supernatural man, and
f) the sex was actually enjoyable.

So, it figures she must be a Mary Sue. Never mind that plenty of urban fantasy novels with male protagonists feature heroes who are reasonably competent and attractive and have some measure of success with members of their preferred sex. And let’s not even start on epic fantasy, much of which stars either

a) the chosen farmboy destined to kill the dark lord and become king (traditional epic fantasy version)
b) the most bad-ass mercenary and most skilled swordsman in the entire land, who will rape and pillage his way across the land, bedding every woman in sight, before he finally kills the dark lord to usurp his place (new gritty epic fantasy edition)

But somehow, writers of epic fantasy are rarely accused of writing Mary Sues. Unless of course their protagonists are female. Because the rebellious runaway princess, the farm girl with the secret magic abilities and the grand destiny or the awesome swordswoman are all Mary Sues, of course. They have to be, you see. Because they’re women, doing things and being awesome.

This doesn’t mean that there are no Mary Sues in fiction. Indeed, the term “Mary Sue” is useful for describing a particular phenomenon, though I for one would wish for a more academically suitable alternative. But not every competent and attractive female character with agency and a sex life is a Mary Sue.

Nor is an actual Mary Sue necessarily a bad thing. Instead, I consider the creation of Mary Sue characters as a fairly normal stage of a beginning writer’s development. As a teacher, I’ve seen my share of teenaged writing. And pretty much all serious teenaged writers create Mary Sues. In my seventh grade class last year, there were two enthusiastic writers. One of those writers, a girl, constantly kept writing about fantastically talented half-elven ninja fashion models with whom all the boys in the story instantly fell in love, including estranged brothers or cousins. The boy was even more extreme, because he kept naming all of the ultra-cool spaceship captains or sea captains or paleontologists after himself. In short, both kids created total Mary Sues. Indeed, I carefully broached the topic that characters shouldn’t be too cool and perfect and that they needed a few flaws, otherwise the audience wouldn’t like them.

So writing Mary Sues is fairly normal for beginning writers. That’s why they occur so often in fanfiction, usually by very young writers. Because – and that’s another phenomenon I’ve noticed working with teenaged writers – pretty much everybody starts out writing either outright fanfic or some kind of fanfic mash-up of elements from different franchises. You know, “She’s a ninja and the first elf ever to attend Hogwarts and both Weasley twins immediately fall in love with her” – Bad teacher immediately pictured a threesome of elf girl with the Weasley twins, which wasn’t an image I needed.

I don’t even exclude myself. A lot of what I wrote during my teens was a weird mash-up from elements of Star Wars and whatever else caught my fancy, usually long forgotten Saturday morning cartoons. I had a Mary Sue, too. She was the most beautiful, most stunning girl ever, with the most wonderful singing voice in the world, a perfect dancer and pretty much every superpower or magic ability you could name. She wore the most fabulous clothes, drove the coolest cars, flew planes and spaceships, could travel through time and was generally the most amazing human being ever born. Oh, and she had a flaw, too. She got terribly sick when teleporting. Honestly, whenever she had to teleport, she would immediately throw up.

Fast forward a couple of years and something strange happened. My perfect glittering Mary Sue character began to acquire some genuine flaws. Because it turned out that the men who were dazzled by her beauty and talents did not necessarily like her, because she could be insufferably annoying. It turned out that all of the beautiful clothes and regal demeanour were fake, just an act cobbled together by a kid who’d watched too many Hollywood movies and music videos. Everything about her was false, even her name, to hide a family background that was painfully mundane. The magic abilities were still there, but difficult to control. Her music was actually one of those control mechanisms, a way of handling telepathic abilities that would otherwise drive her mad*. She can still timetravel, but rarely ends up where she wants to go. She had her heart broken by a boy who was pretty and handsome and heroic and had superpowers of his own, but turned out to be an arsehole. And eventually, she ended up with someone who was kind and brave and didn’t match the image of the perfect man at all. Oh yes, and she still gets sick when teleporting. In short, what had started out as a Mary Sue eventually turned into a proper character. And this is what happens to most Mary Sues as their creators gain experience. The half-elf ninja desired by both Weasley twins? Maybe in ten or fifteen years, that girl will write a wonderful erotic fantasy novel about a halfbreed elf with martial arts skills who falls for twin brothers and eventually ends up in a menage relationship.

That’s also why blatant Mary Sues that appear in original fiction can usually be found in the works of writers who were published early in their development as writers. This is the case with both Bella Swann and James Bond, two of the most obvious original Mary Sue characters.

I still don’t know how to excuse Wesley Crusher, though.

*I’m heavily synaesthetic with regards to music and this character was my attempt of describing how I experience music.

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19 Responses to The Mary Sue Conundrum

  1. Thomas Roche says:

    I do think it’s important to take any Mary Sue criticism with a grain of salt, including my own. When any criticism singles out female writers for criticism that male writers are not subjected to, that can be a sign that there is prejudice at work. However, I don’t think it’s fair to accuse me of misogyny considering my body of work or even my Night Bazaar post in isolation. I feel like much of it is concerned with criticizing the adaptation of female character tropes from predictable male characters.

    James Bond is the ULTIMATE Mary Sue — so much of the tendency is visible there! Mike Hammer is another. Male writers are absolutely guilty of the wish-fulfillment tendency! But not every female character with agency who has sex at some point in the novel is NOT a Mary Sue.

    I do appreciate the criticism, however, and I’ll keep an eye on any tendency to over-criticize female writers in the future. I really do value diversity in science fiction and fantasy, and I’m not just giving it lip service. If I’m going out of my way to make negative comments about female writers, that doesn’t seem to help matters at all. That was never my intention, and I’ll certainly keep an eye out for that in the future. No reason male writers should avoid my poison pen.

    Thomas Roche

    • Cora says:

      I came across your post at Night Bazaar as well as the two other examples I linked to while googling “urban fantasy Mary Sue”. Those three posts were examples for a troubling trend, namely that female protagonists and particularly female protagonists in urban fantasy are accused of being Mary Sues more frequently than in other genres.

      Urban fantasy gets a bad rap in the SFF community. Now I research urban fantasy and I’ve read a lot of it, so I know that there are plenty of bad and formulaic books. But there are plenty of bad books in other subgenres, which don’t get the same degree condemnation. Besides there are also plenty of good urban fantasy books that are ignored by the SFF community, because urban fantasy has a reputation as a formulaic genre that’s barely better than porn. And it’s pretty obvious that the fact that urban fantasy is largely written and read by women and stars female protagonists has something to do with the dismissal of the genre. Indeed, the dismissal of urban fantasy is very similar to the dismissals of the cozy mystery subgenre, of chick lit and of the entire romance genre, all of which are dominated by women. And for the record, I don’t believe that everybody who dislikes either of those genres is automatically a raging misogynist, never mind that a lot of those dismissals come from women. But there is some latent misogynism at work, because books by women and genres dominated by women generally get less respect than those written by men. The rampant Mary Sue accusations, which disproportionately target female characters written by female writers, are definitely linked to a subconscious dismissal of works by female writers.

      And of course male writers create Mary Sues or rather Gary Stus as well. James Bond is an obvious example, as is Mike Hammer (I first encountered Mike Hammer in the 1980s TV show, which was so full of well endowed young women that we used to call it “that bosom show”). You could also argue for Conan, Kimball Kinnison, plenty of Heinlein heroes, etc…

      Don’t worry about the double post BTW. That happens sometimes and it’s already been taken care of.

  2. The Mary Sue Conundrum at Cora Buhlert's blog

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