Have you ever run into a ‘Mary Sue’? The term was coined over 40 years ago by Paula Smith, in a short story taking the mickey out of what had become a fairly standard Trek fan-fiction archetype of the day; the fan themselves, starring in their own wish-fulfilment Trek story.
The plot is usually straight-forward. Mary Sue is a young noob on board the Enterprise, but (oddly) is sensible, intelligent, attractive and knows all the answers without being annoying, Wesley Crusher style. The ship runs into some sort of trouble, they all run around panicking – except Mary Sue, who provides the answers, saves the Enterprise, and then usually has a romance with Spock (or sometimes Kirk).
What it is, of course, is wish-fulfilment on the part of the author. They feel powerless about something in their own lives, and it comes out in their story. I’m not sure why Mary Sue always has to be female – but that’s where the trope went.
The thing is that Mary Sue stories don’t need to plagiarise Roddenberry’s universe to exist. Or, indeed, anybody’s universe – it’s quite possible to have a Mary Sue story in a wholly original setting. But it’s still Mary Sue. Here’s why:
- The lead character doesn’t have self-doubts. Bad move. Everybody has self-doubts (it’s one of the reasons why Mary Sue stories get written – think about it). More to the point, a character like this doesn’t need to go anywhere – there’s no development.
- The lead character is flawless – intelligent, physically attractive, heroic, and an unerring sense of the sartorial. Uh. OK. Tell me if you ever meet anybody like that – and if you do, I bet there’ll be something you don’t know about them.
- The lead character always gets what they want without having to change anything significant about themselves. That runs against the way dramatic tension’s built – in which a character has to learn to change before they get what they need (see what I said there – need and want? No?).
You see where all this is building up to. A Mary Sue character is boring. BORING. Because they can’t be made to have a character arc. And it’s the character arc that makes a story interesting – that captures readers, that drives them to want to finish the book.
Not the superficial artifice of plot or narrative, which is what most Mary Sue stories pivot around – the narrative of Mary Sue getting what she wants, without too much effort, all the while showing herself to be fabulous. Urrrrgh.
When I read a story, I want to know about all the imperfections – I want characters that aren’t characters. They have to be real – gritty, flawed, self-doubting, insecure – and then they have to learn something that fixes it. A bit, anyway.
Of course, plot’s important too – which is how they learn that lesson – but it isn’t the driving force. More on how that works soon.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015