Why it’s still ‘Mary Sue’ fan fiction, no matter how it’s clothed

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.

You never see the model from this angle in the series.
You never see the model from this angle in the series.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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


5 thoughts on “Why it’s still ‘Mary Sue’ fan fiction, no matter how it’s clothed

  1. Besides the thrill of putting yourself in a setting where you can be the greatest, I suspect part of the Mary Sue plot structure comes from how cool it is to see competence. I mean, look at any caper movie: the cool part is the hyper-skilled protagonist managing an impossibly complicated scheme, and who doesn’t want to put cool stuff in their story?

    1. True! But the protag in a caper movie still usually has to change SOMETHING about themselves in order to get what they want, or they have to learn something, irrespective of their smarts. Classic Mary Sues never do – they’re too perfect, right from the get-go (all I can think of now is Julie Andrews playing Mary Poppins, for some reason).

      1. Yeah, and the real fun in a caper movie is when the plan goes completely awry and some brilliant improvisation is needed to put it back into order.

  2. Absolutely! Agree with you 1000%. Characters without “character flaws” are dull, dull, dull. I read a book by an Indie author, who produced a compelling a space-opera plot, but his lead character was something out of pure fantasy. It was like having a bag of sugar dumped into your mouth. Made me want to gag. I do try to void wish fulfillment, but then also provide the character the tools (or the means to get the tools) to overcome the antagonist. Often times, the character’s flaws alone can trigger the most catastrophic downfall in the book. Then it’s good to see them rise up by their strengths to overcome, themselves.

    1. Absolutely! Heh – your mention of a superhero lead in space opera reminds me of ‘Doc’ Smith’s ‘Spacehounds of IPC’ in which an over-muscled mathematician-scientist crash lands on Ganymede (a surprisingly Earthlike place) with his awesomely attractive girlfriend, and rebuilds a radio transmitter, from scratch – as in, starting by mining the ore. Apparently Heinlein (who was a good friend) had Smith on about the preposterousness of the whole character and what he was doing. Smith’s riposte was to argue that he, personally, could actually do all that his character was portrayed as doing…

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