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Yet another Mary Sue rant - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Yet another Mary Sue rant
There is no such thing as a good Mary Sue.

Period (or "full stop," if you prefer).

"Oh, but I've read great Mary Sues! Really!"

No, you haven't. If they're great, they're not Mary Sues. Nearly everything on any Mary Sue litmus test going is negotiable, but not the lack of quality. "Mary Sue" is a particular sort of writing error; speaking of a "good Mary Sue" is like speaking of "good terrible formatting" or "good bad pacing" or "good horrific spelling." It's true that the collection of narrative phenomena associated with the Mary Sue issue could all be addressed separately, but none individually is synonymous with Suedom, and "Mary Sue," by having its specific meaning, provides a way to communicate a particular kind of fault. Loose usage, however, makes it lose that advantage--a circumstance we note when people (quite correctly) point out that a reasonably identified Sue need not fret since, "Oh, for heaven's sake, there are people who call any original character that!"

So please, for the sake of clear communication about fan writing, let's avoid doing that.

Mary Sue may or may not have many traits, but these things in and of themselves don't identify her:
  • Self-insertion. Yes, Mary Sue could be a self-insert, but she doesn't have to be, nor does a self-insert necessarily signify a Sue. A writer's everyday interests or hobbies may spark an idea for a story, and that's perfectly fine--where would John Grisham be if he never wrote about lawyers? Maybe someone who is fascinated by meteorology wants to write a story about a devastating storm and how it affects an artificial environment like Coruscant--would the wind tunnels make it worse? What if it knocked out some atmospheric scrubbers? Maybe someone who's really into forensics has noted that this science really doesn't seem to exist in HP's wizarding world, and creates a Muggle detective character baffled by a criminal who's smart enough to disappear entirely, but so stupid that he doesn't even think about wiping fingerprints or worrying about leaving his DNA around. Both of these would be self-inserts, but because the whole story is built around an idea raised by the author's outside interests, the character, far from being a Sue, would be a necessary gateway to exploring the concept.
  • A canon character's daughter / sister / love interest / old friend / whatever. Folks, people are social creatures. We have old networks of friends, some of whom we might not think to mention immediately upon meeting a new person. Captain Picard had crewmates before he took command of the Enterprise. Buffy was popular had plenty of friends in Los Angeles, if no one as close as Xander and Willow would later become (and I won't even start in on Giles's past). Al Calavicci wasn't the only boy in his orphanage. As Stephen King put it in "The Body," "Friends come and go like busboys in a restaurant." There's nothing implausible about an old friend re-appearing, about someone befriending a new character, about a familial connection that might not have been shown... provided that it's logical that it might not have been shown. It's very possible that Minerva McGonagall would have grown children somewhere--why in the world would Harry know about that?--and they could arrive abruptly on the scene. It's a whole lot less likely that Lupin would, because Lupin is young enough that his children would still be with him, and he lived at Hogwarts for a year, and later is living at GP, and no one ever sees them. (They could be with a presumed ex, but then you run into the question of whether or not it would be in child-loving Lupin's character to not so much as say, "Boy, I sure do miss my kids, living here.") Siblings are the same way. JKR realized that at this point, it's a little too late to work in the sister she once envisioned for Hermione--Hermione would have said something by now--but is it particularly unlikely for the Patil twins to have a handsome older brother who went to Hogwarts with Tonks and the older Weasley boys? Or that the letter Lavender Brown got about her bunny was written by her distraught younger sister, still at home? (Or a vindictive younger sister saying, "Told ya so!") And some people are necessary to have been there. Someone bit Remus. Someone trained Queen Amidala in statecraft. Someone recruited Spock to Starfleet. If you want to write them, go for it. Being an influential person in a canon character's life is not a crime. The only real danger is that the owner might decide to contradict you in the future.
  • Someone with an unusual talent. Lots of folks have unusual talents, including usual talents which will be useful to the plot. The hero will certainly have one or two, his sidekicks probabably will as well. Useful helpers tend to be helpful because they provide a unique skill or observation. And villains generally have something unique to them. So why not give your character some neat talent that makes him or her useful? As long as it's a talent that fits in the scope of the universe, then this is not, in itself, problematic. It becomes problematic when it makes mincemeat of canon--eg, in Star Wars, we know that Anakin Skywalker is one of the most powerful Force users ever to live and we have a pretty good idea of what he's capable of. Prophetic dreams, pretty heavy-duty telekinesis and telepathy, preternaturally good reaction time... those are high end Force skills. He's able to control a pretty serious free fall (as is Obi-Wan). That's the general scope of Force skill. Things can be extrapolated--a good telekinetic might well be able to heal some sorts of injuries, though instant healing seems not to be part of the Jedi package, and one of the profics extrapolated the notion of self-levitation, which fits with the very high jumps and so on that we've seen. But if someone is using the Force to fly like Superman, there's Something Wrong.
  • An exotic name, look, origin. Can I just leave this at a big, fat "Whatever"? Yes, an out-there name can be the sign of a young writer, but young doesn't necessarily mean bad. It could also be the sign that the character's parents were young, or offbeat, or any number of things. Or the character could be self-named, in which case it tells us that the character could be a really pretentious flake, or just like odd names. As far as looks go... there are beautiful people in the world. It happens. It's problematic if a particular character in the pre-existing universe has been noted as the Most Beautiful Person In the Galaxy, but that's not the case. It's all right for someone to be beautiful. The thing to keep in mind is how the universe in question will respond to a name.

All right, if you're so smart, what DOES make a Mary Sue?

Yes, I'm aware that I've spoiled some litmus tests. And I will cheerfully agree that the more of the above traits are happening at the same time, the higher the likelihood that they're happening in a Suefic. The thing is, Mary Sue is an error that always extends beyond the Sue in question. The problem with her isn't anything about her nature; it's how she functions in the narrative of the story.

  • She's breaking all the rules. Fanfic exists in a pre-created world whose rules and limitations are known to the reader. Mary Sue is oblivious to them. I don't mean in the sort of devil-may-care way that a prankster might disregard certain rules. I mean, this chick violates things equivalent to the canon's Law of Gravity. She's totally implausible in the milieu.
  • She's a usurper. Original characters, like I said above, can fill very influential roles. But Mary Sue isn't willing to settle for influence. She wants power. She's not the first person Hermione was ever able to make a friend of, back during grammar school, she's the tragic and doomed memory that drives every action Hermione takes. He's not just Ender's trusted right hand man, he's actually the one in the shadows who pulled all the strings on... Um. Never mind. (No, mind. The Stu-ing of Bean is my favorite example of how professional writers ficcing their own earlier work can Sue-Stu with the best of them. Ender Wiggin was the last, best hope for humanity. Except, you know, that this other kid is way smarter than he is, has lived through OMGMuchMoreTraumatic experiences, and is being stalked by someone way more sadistic than Ender's brother. Who, by the way, is repeatedly shown to be not terribly bright in comparison to Bean, even though Ender himself knew Peter was brilliant. From the first three chapters of Shadow of the Giant, it looks like OSC is starting to rectify the problem with Peter, but sheesh.) Mary Sue is always of vast importance in the scheme of things. She either has prophecies about her or is instrumental in a prophecy about the hero (Anakin brings balance to the Force not by his redemption, for instance, but training Mary Sue in the Force so that she can later fight for good). Anything and everything that happens is ultimately caused by Sue or designed to aid her.
  • Here's looking at me-me-ME. Related to this but not exactly the same, the Sue is the center of the universe, not simply in terms of the overarching plot, but in terms of how people respond to her. Whether they like her or hate her, they're all watching her and talking about her. This long outlasts any "Oh, look at the new kid" phenomenon.

On the matter of perfection--the character who has no real flaws and is good at everything immediately or not... I'm not sure about what category to put that in. It's neither a "don't worry about it" thing nor a "This is a universal Sue trait" thing. It's squares and rectangles, I guess. A perfect character will pretty much be a Sue, because if she's a main character, she will break the above rules, as well as rules of common sense and experience. On the other hand, not every Sue is going to have this particular trait.

But no, I really did read a good Mary Sue! Even with all the stuff you just said!
(Fern's Little Voice, which is of course the secret love child of Magnum's Little Voice by Trelawney's Scary Prophecy Voice: Psst, Fern. You've got a little logic gap here, and I'll bet people noticed. The first thing you said was that there are no good Sues, and everyone knows you mean Stus, too. Then you said that Bean was a Gary Stu. Then you said that you'd pre-read those first three chapters of Shadow of the Giant up at hatrack.com, not to mention talking about enough things that it's obvious you read the series. Ya wanna address that?)

(Fern: Er...)

Okay, I'll cop to it. I've read the Shadow series avidly. It's decently written and reasonably entertaining, if a little over-the-top, and Card's playing around with interesting ideas about politics and the nature of intelligence. The characters, in some cases, have gone in interesting directions. If I'd never read Ender's Game and its sequels, I'd probably just go, "Huh. Not bad."

Does that make it the elusive "good Gary Stu"?

Alas, no. Because while it might be good as a story, it's not good as extrapolation from a pre-existing story. Card's pastfics on the universe--the stories in First Meetings--are wonderful and feel very organic with the tone and theme of Ender's Game. We get to see the meeting of the Wiggin parents in "Teacher's Pest" and John Paul Wiggin involving himself in a devil's bargain with Graff in "The Polish Boy." These are very well handled. But the Shadow series, in the process of elevating Bean to the central role, undermine much of the original story by undercutting Ender and his family.

It's the same way with non-pro fic (or pro-fic written by authors other than the originator): once a story has crossed into Sue or Stu territory, what might have been a good story in its own world becomes a bad one, because it's broken the rules already laid down in the universe. It hasn't played fair with perfectly reasonable reader's assumptions.

And I guess that's where I'll stop.
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From: magnolia_mama Date: January 27th, 2005 12:46 am (UTC) (Link)
An exotic name, look, origin.

This is a no-no that has puzzled me for years. My first fandom was Star Trek. In the Trekiverse, people come from
1. Earth; or
2. Someplace other than Earth.

Anyplace other than Earth is exotic. Doesn't matter if it QonoS or Vulcan or Bajor or the dimension Species 8472(?) came from, it's exotic. In other words, any OC NOT from Earth is, by definition, a Mary/Gary Sue. Or so the masses say.

From: pyxidis Date: January 27th, 2005 01:40 am (UTC) (Link)
Interestingly, when was much more involved in the Trek fandom it was not characters whose orgins were of a common Federation race that were the Sues of the genere, it was when an author chose to create his or own own race. Its these characters who tend to be the "exotic" ones.

Although, my foray into Star Trek writing was solely in the Pbems, rather than fanfiction.
(Deleted comment)
kelleypen From: kelleypen Date: January 27th, 2005 12:56 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you for the clarification

Okay, by the old rules then, my OC story, Willow Song, is a Mary Sue. However, by your new rules, it's not. Which I guess is why I've called it an attempt to do Mary Sue successfully. But so many people adhere to the old definitiohns of Mary Sue that I cannot safely warn people otherwise. There are so many who are terrified of any OC who might fit that category that I feel it is only fair to them for me to warn the readers at Astronomy Tower that Willow Song was written as a personal challenge to see if I could write along the Mary Sue premise and write it well. But I used the old ideas of a Mary Sue as a guide, not your better explained ones.
shezan From: shezan Date: January 27th, 2005 01:02 am (UTC) (Link)
I so agree with you - especially since your rules for Mary-Sueage fit may favourite pet hate in the HP fandom, Brave New World, by Aashby. Countless people have protested that this fic is very well written, which it is. BUT --

- Miranda does break all the rules: she's a Muggle teaching at Hogwarts and she can conjure a Patronus! I kid you not! Powerful, too!

- Miranda is such a usurper that she'll lecture Dumbledore and McGonagall on how to really run the school (and then turn Snape into a sweet little hubby)

- She's so me-me-me that the pretext for her coming to Higwarts in the first place, her half-blood nephew, dies in the early chapters and is never mentioned afterwards - the poor darling was obviously cramping her love life and hogging some of her limelight.

Hee! I'm so grateful to you! You've provided me with sound reasons for my pet fandom rant! Bless you!

(Deleted comment)
cheshyre From: cheshyre Date: January 27th, 2005 01:03 am (UTC) (Link)
Good essay!

I'm wondering whether it's worth it to mention out-and-out parodies, such as Justin Finch-Fletchley and the Normal Teenage Problem.

Have you seen Teresa Nielsen Hayden's blog entry with comments from professional writers?
http://www.livejournal.com/users/tanacawyr/180647.html also made some good points about how inclusive the characterization is (author-insert vs. potential-reader-identification)
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: January 27th, 2005 01:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Someone with an unusual talent.

I've never understood this one. If this were true, Harry Potter, Lyra, Will Stanton, Eilonwy, Luke Skywalker, and Nynaeve al'Meara are all Stus and Sues. Almost all fantasy is based on some character having some unusual talent. That's why we like it.
trinity_clare From: trinity_clare Date: January 27th, 2005 03:43 am (UTC) (Link)
There, in a list, are pretty much all my favorite characters. I couldn't agree more.
silverhill From: silverhill Date: January 27th, 2005 01:14 am (UTC) (Link)
Lovely observations! :)

The thing about Mary Sues is that they aren't just what litmus tests say they are.

Aragorn's younger (and non-canonical) sister? Strong possibility of Sueishness. But that's because people who write a sister for Aragorn usually have her be best friends with Arwen, go on the quest and fall in love with Legolas. Aragorn's sister in the story I never finished is good friends with Bilbo, stays in Rivendell and doesn't fall in love with anyone.

Or Sirius's long-lost love? When I've seen her before, she's always been a gorgeous, amazingly talented witch and they reunite with much joy and tears and passionate sex. I think Sirius's old girlfriend would have moved on, and the reunion is more likely to cause tension than romance.
(Deleted comment)
harmonicalesson From: harmonicalesson Date: January 27th, 2005 01:15 am (UTC) (Link)
The often-blurred distinction between Mary Sues and original characters has been nagging at the back of my mind for a while now, and I think you've done an articulate job of drawing that line. I especially liked how you described the characteristics that people are often too quick to attribute to Sues. I think fandom's gotten a little bit paranoid about certain things, which is understandable when one considers the sheer multitude of fanfic out there and the plot devices that do seem to get used over and over again.
ide_cyan From: ide_cyan Date: January 27th, 2005 01:25 am (UTC) (Link)
I keep saying they're cuckoos.
mafdet From: mafdet Date: January 27th, 2005 01:30 am (UTC) (Link)
Or brown-headed cowbirds! (Which are our local parasitic birds here in CA)
story645 From: story645 Date: January 27th, 2005 01:25 am (UTC) (Link)
I remember suggesting the litmus test to authors. Now, I wonder what was I thinking? Basically, I agree with you completely. I'm wondering though about canon!Sues, like Draco!Stu, Hermione!Sue, etc. Do they inherently break the laws of canon when they start showing the first set of traits? The ones that don't in of themselves mean Sue? Can OOCness be considered a form of breaking the laws of the universe?
mafdet From: mafdet Date: January 27th, 2005 01:27 am (UTC) (Link)
*applause, applause*

Well said. This is going into my Memories, and will be trotted out every time someone says "Tonks is a canon Mary Sue!" I've always maintained that Sueage is more about what a character does than what s/he is and this explains it perfectly.

I believe that another thing most critics don't realize is that one can find a character annoying without her being a Mary Sue. We all get along better with certain types of people than others. It's only natural that we will like certain characters more than others. For example, while I don't hate Cho Chang, I do find her annoying. Does this mean she's badly written and/or a Mary Sue? Certainly not. It just means that as a character, Cho grates on my nerves. Other people might love her.

That's something I find really annoying in HP fandom - the tendency to personalize and to believe that JKR must only create characters that they, the readers, love. Annoying character =/= Mary Sue, or shall I say that all Mary Sues are annoying but not all annoying characters are Mary Sues. (Grawp, for instance - annoying as hell, yes. Gary Stu, no.) If you don't like Tonks, fine. But keep in mind that's a personal judgment and doesn't mean that Tonks is a canon Sue or that JKR is a bad writer.
sistermagpie From: sistermagpie Date: January 29th, 2005 04:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm continually amazed at the idea that Tonks is ever considered a Mary Sue.

I mean, I guess she's got the unusual power, the weird name and she's related to Sirius. But her power's used fairly mundanely and doesn't save the world, her whole family has weird names and while she's related to Sirius she's not THE RELATIVE THE PROPHESY SPEAKS OF WHO WILL SAVE THEM ALL! way. She's not in that many scenes and the scenes she is in I don't remember her dominating anything.
From: leeflower Date: January 27th, 2005 01:34 am (UTC) (Link)
Very well-written, Fern. Nice work.

I especially appreciated the language you used to describe the 'me-me-me' syndrome. I've seen people make comments on stories to the effect of "every time we see the jedi council, they're talking to/about the OC!"
...well if the story is limited third from the OC's perspective, that's not very implausible. When one is summoned to the council chamber, one can be reasonably certain one will be the topic of conversation in some way. If the council IS summoning them 'just to sit in,' or to talk about someone else, that's when it's time to worry. Same thing with Harry Potter fics. Snape doesn't make a habbit of summoning students to his office for tea. If you're there, you're being spoken to or about.
Moreover, it's not rare for an author to include only information relevant to the plot. If people's reactions to other characters aren't relevant, why would they be included? It's when they cross the line and start including reactions that are out-of-character and/or irrelevant simply because they reflect on the OC that one should consider pulling out the dreaded MS brand.
imadra_blue From: imadra_blue Date: January 27th, 2005 01:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Dude, like totally word in all respects. I love you. No, really, you said everything I've been trying to say, only better and more pointed. Like, if I didn't think you'd ban me for stalkerdom, I'd say we have to get married. To put it succintly: Major agreement on all points.
furiosity From: furiosity Date: January 27th, 2005 01:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Brilliant. I love the line you drew between OCs and Mary Sues, and I totally agree with everything you've said. *adds to memories*
purplerebecca From: purplerebecca Date: January 27th, 2005 01:39 am (UTC) (Link)
"The Stu-ing of Bean"--This made me laugh SO HARD.
Thank you, I agree. :)
author_by_night From: author_by_night Date: January 27th, 2005 01:48 am (UTC) (Link)
I agree with essentially everything, though I'd like to add to your "villian" comment. I'm currently reading about a character that was cursed by Voldemort at birth, and is now pretty much either supposed to follow him or be murdered. Yet, she's not a Mary Sue, in my opinion, because she has flaws. She's traumatized and angsty, but within reason - she has more non-angsty chapters, and nothing seems far fetched.

Ahem - anyway. I also want to add to your comment about character's being related to one another. Do people *honestly* think there's not going to be characters who are related? Or new ones showing up that like other characters? Oh right, the ones we've already been introduced to *are* Sues... *rolls eyes*.

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