Monday, March 11, 2013

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mary Sue?

In 1973, Paula Smith wrote a story called "A Trekkie's Tale" for a Star Trek fanzine that parodied what was then becoming a common trope in fan fiction written by women. The character in the story was named "Mary Sue." As much as has been made of the story and the trope since, it's surprisingly brief. You can read it here in its entirety.

That's it. That's all there is to it. For all that's been written about the trope, and plenty has been--just Google "Mary Sue" if you're curious--it's all of about 200 words or so.

Essentially Mary Sue is a character who is talented to the point of absurdity and admired by all who come in contact with her. She achieves boundlessly and, if it comes to it, dies valiantly, a soul too good for this world.

In this insightful interview, Paula Smith herself explains the problem with the trope better than anyone I've heard so far. In her own words:

"A story demands headspace, and the Mary Sue wants to come and occupy your whole head, so the writer gets the enjoyment and not the reader. It's a little too much like being used. I suspect that's why an awful lot of people agreed with our assessment."

She also identifies one of the most problematic aspects of the trope as it relates to gender:

"I was really struck when the Doc Savage: Man of Bronze movie came out. I thought: that's a Mary Sue, too!"

"...Any of these wish-fulfillment characters [James Bond, Superman] whose presence in any universe warps it way the heck out of reality. But we don't notice that when it involves men."

Soon after the term "Mary Sue" came into popular use, Marty Sue was added to describe Mary's male counterpart, but Mary Sue was still more commonly used as a pejorative to describe female characters than Marty Sue was to describe male characters, and these canonical male characters, Superman, James Bond and Doc Savage, tended to get a free pass. 

This is why the fact that "Mary Sue" is a woman is not insignificant.

I think it’s fair to assume that male “Mary Sues” existed in fan fiction with equally blatant and amateurish prevalence well before "Mary Sue" was coined. but I also think that  the absurdity of the trope stood out all the more because the characters were women. This fact is significant if we are going to use historical precedent in our evaluation of the term.

Part of the assumptions behind these canonical characters “getting a pass” is because they initiated a certain archetype. They were the model. But women don't have the same archetypal precedents, so they’re by default disenfranchised from getting this “pass.”

In genre fiction, men have more Marty Sue leverage than women. We’re willing to permit more Marty Suishness in male characters than Mary Suishness in female characters.

What separates Marty Sues from their female counterparts is also an aggressive kind of masculinity. Idealized men are given more license to be disliked while still being held up as heroic. They can be ruthless because they are noble. Conan, Batman and Wolverine are great examples of this kind of Marty Sue. The begrudging respect they receive is sometimes treated as a character flaw, but I think it’s a false one. This character embodies a different kind of wish fulfillment. What used to be called the "anti-hero" has become the contemporary go-to Marty Sue.

The contemporary treatment of James Bond in the recent spate of films with Daniel Craig reflects an effort to try to update the Marty Sue trope, but I think this too follows the same pattern. The model is more Conan than super spy. People associate this kind of grittiness with realism, when it’s still just veneer. It’s a trait that women aren’t permitted to have, further requiring them to be more flawed by comparison. Bond has no female equals either in his films, or equivalents in other popular fiction.

On the one hand, the Mary Sue/Marty Sue trope is a useful way to point out this trend in writing. Unfortunately, it doesn't tend to be employed as equally or judiciously to both genders. It's still fundamentally about Mary Sue, and the term is generally used to vilify idealistic portrayals of women. So it’s not simply the origin of the term, but its employment, and the fact that it’s often used as ammunition to dismiss characters that have similar attributes to celebrated male characters that puts it in the realm of sexism.

When Paula Smith identified and named the trope, I don't think she intended it to be about gender. But like all language, once the term went into circulation it took on a life of its own. It became both a convenient way to identify the trope, and a convenient way to hold women to a double standard. Which isn't to say that every use of the term is inherently sexist, or identifying this trope in fiction isn't useful or even helpful as a tool for an author to look at their characters more objectively. But that double standard still exists. 

The term isn't going to go away any time soon. I think we're stuck with it. But if we're going to be pointing out all the Mary Sues we should level the same finger at all the Marty Sues. And if we're allowed our few exceptions--Batman and James Bond--then shouldn't women be able to have the same kinds of characters who embody this same kind of wish-fulfillment?

Because if not, then I don't think our Marty Sues should get off so lightly.


While the trope is often used as a justification for sexism, I think the Mary and Marty Sue CAN be well written. I don’t dismiss the trope. I don’t think the trope by default is an indication of bad writing. Keep in mind that Paula Smith's original piece was a PARODY, exaggerating the worst aspects of the trope, not a definition.

James Bond doesn’t get a pass. Batman doesn’t get a pass. At least not until we see female characters who embody the same archetype who are equally embraced. If precedent is the measure of these “passes” then you can hardly give a blanket dismissal to the same trend in women when they have no such precedent to go by.

But I do think there is such a thing as a well written Superman story or James Bond story. And if these canonical male characters get a pass, it should be because of a compelling story with a compelling conflict, not their precedent as archetypes. Mary Sue can be a well-written character if handled right. 


  1. I often thought the term was that a character was so perfect, they were boring to read about (or watch). Characters with flaws make a dynamic story. I'm not sure if perfect male characters get more of a pass. Anyone with a brain finds Superman to be quite dull, whereas Lex Luther-that's the interesting character.

    1. Ms. W-D, your initial thoughts are true. I have read stories where a female character is near-omnipotent... but has flaws and struggles (yes), and so narrowly, so very narrowly, avoided that 'Sue' feeling in my head. My definition of "Mary Sue/Marty Stu" is... well... a mishandled story! I agree with the original poster's/author's opinion (in part) of "Mary Sues can be well done"... but it isn't a mary sue if it *is* well done, to my thinking.
      Some of the "bad boy" love that characters have, like Loki in the new Marvel movies, is because of the 'flaws are interesting' motive. A story has something to say, often about obstacles and struggles. Basic, 101-course type stuff of storytelling and writing. :)

  2. Well, there are plenty of fans of Superman. The comic is pretty popular among a certain Niche, and of course, there's the upcoming film. And then there's James Bond, all the others I mentioned. As per the addendum, I would argue that it's possible to make a character like this interesting given the right circumstances.

    And I don't know that I can make any better argument than I already have about the prevalence and acceptability of the trope in males vs. females, so I'm going to stick with my story on that one.

  3. I wasn't aware of the term "Mary Sue" until I read this. I clicked thru to the original story. It struck me that the many talents of Mary Sue were fantastic at least partly because of Mary Sue's gender. Switch out "Wesley Crusher" for "Mary Sue" and you have a couple seasons of Star Trek the Next Generation. (Except Capt Picard played a little harder to get.)

  4. He's a notorious Marty Sue! Even the actor concedes his character on the show was annoying.

  5. I think this piece is taking liberties with the distinction between "Mary Sue" and the much broader term, "Character Suit."

    FYI, James Bond is closer to an Ian Flemming Auto-Biography than it is an Ian Flemming Power Fantasy.

  6. The difference between a "Wish Fulfillment Character" and a "Mary Sue" is the same as the difference between a prime rib and five pounds of distilled chemicals. One is enjoyable, even nutritious (if not always the healthiest), and the other is mauve slime.

    And just because half of the population has been getting few and often poor-quality steaks doesn't mean they should be satisfied with buckets of slime, or that overall slime production should be encouraged. Audiences deserve better--ESPECIALLY if they're underrepresented.

    (For that matter, I've had the displeasure of meeting plenty of male Mary Sues in print. Some of them even not wearing black leather.)

  7. Wandered In11:13 PM

    I do have to say, I think this misses the point of the designation a little, if only because Marty Stu or Mary Sue are used to designate poorly realized versions of the wish-fulfillment character.

    Also, I'd point to Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell as a female (and cyborgic and unstoppable) Batman-equivalent kind of wish-fulfillment character. They exist; they just haven't gotten the attention they deserve (Ghost in the Shell is amazing).

  8. I'm not familiar with the term "character suit" and didn't have much luck googling it. Do you mean cypher? If you have a link with more info I'd be interested to follow up.

    I think the term "Mary Sue" is often used in a very flexible way, and I'm sure if you ask a dozen authors their opinion on the subject you're bound to get a dozen different answers. I was doing my best to stick to Paula Smith's version of the concept, since she was the one who coined it, and Paula Smith identifies James Bond as a Mary Sue.

    I've read every book in Ian Fleming's (one "m") James Bond series, and though I'm aware that Fleming has a background in espionage, Ian Fleming, to say the least, was no John le Carré. I can't see calling those books anything but power fantasies, with the word "fantasy" used in the broadest sense. There's nothing James Bond can't do in those books, which stretch reality and plausibility as far as any of the pulps that preceded him. If ever there was a Marty Sue, it was most certainly Bond.

  9. I seem to be getting a lot of "you're missing the point" reactions, which I find perplexing, when the originator of the term, Paula Smith, mentions some of the very same characters I do, Superman and James Bond.

    She does say:

    "A story demands headspace, and the Mary Sue wants to come and occupy your whole head, so the writer gets the enjoyment and not the reader. It's a little too much like being used. I suspect that's why an awful lot of people agreed with our assessment."

    This does suggest poor writing, but I don't think it entirely negates my own take on the trope. I think there is a certain amount of failure of imagination on the part of the creators of characters like James Bond and Superman to generate depth and complexity.

    I do think that this takes up a good deal of the headspace that might otherwise be occupied with considering the characters as human beings. Is this an injustice to the reader? To some degree I think it is. I think the best genre fiction allows for real character flaws. As much as these more iconic characters can be written well, they are fundamentally lacking in depth. That's the reality of what they represent. I think it's a reality you can't get beyond with characters like James Bond and Superman.

    You can have a certain amount of wish fulfillment without sacrificing character complexity. Some of John LeCarre's characters have this kind of depth, while still being wish fulfillment characters. Elmore Leonard pulls this off pretty well. Larry McMurtry. Their characters fulfill our desires for adventure and desire for great competence and abilities without compromising complexity.


    So wish fulfillment doesn't entirely cover the ideal that I think defines the Mary Sue, at least in my definition.I enjoyed the original Superman movie, which is about as Marty Stu as it gets. Batman, no matter how well written, seems unavoidably Marty Stu--he's just entirely too capable, and his flaws are superficial.

    A lot of characters in animation, particularly television animation are Mary or Marty Sues as an expedient, so that 22 minutes of animation doesn't have to be 15 minutes of character development. I love Samurai Jack, but he's a definite Marty Stu.

    Wish fulfillment seems more like an aspect of the trope rather than its defining characteristic, and I think it's harder to see this in male characters since we're so attached to our iconic favorites.I think part of understanding the Mary Sue is accepting this reality. That the sexism of the trope exists in this double standard. And if we are to understand that these iconic characters are Marty Stus and we appreciate these characters and the stories that they inhabit, then we have to embrace that a Mary Sue can be written well. Otherwise, we should dismiss every one of them by default. This is the point of the essay.

    Wandered In (I typically won't post something written by someone who doesn't identify themselves, but I'll make an exception here):

    There's a great contrast between the character from Ghost in the Shell and the hypersexualized way that she's visually portrayed. I think this unfortunately undermines the strength of the character, when her character is depicted as independent and strong, while the look of the character says sex object. The same has been said about Laura Croft and others. So often, even when we get our James Bond and Superman counterparts, the imagery is still about objectification.

  10. And Christa:

    The difference between Loki and a character like Superman is that Loki is two-dimensional, while Superman is one-dimensional. Loki's flaws are pretty basic. It's simply egotism in its most archetypal sense. Thor is equally 2-dimensional.

    This is how a lot of those early Marvel characters were delineated--the Fantastic Four for instance: The Human Torch is too cocky, Mr Fantastic, too emotionally distant--the archetypal intellectual, The Thing, aggressive, but emotionally vulnerable (probably the most complex of the characters), and the invisible girl is, like her namesake, invisible in every way, the least developed of the four.

    This was one of the early differences between Marvel and DC characters, the difference that made Marvel stand out, but it still didn't quite jump out of the mold of the Mary Sue.