May 18 2009 10:25am

The Good, The Bad, The Mary Sues

I once had a conversation with a friend and fellow writer about whether the existence of a Mary Sue character in a piece of fiction (be it literature or visual media) automatically rendered said fiction Bad. She maintained that Mary Sue always equaled a bad story, I disagreed. Certainly there are many, many Mary Sue stories that are horrendous, but some that work and work really well.

Our debate never concluded as the other people with us at the time put an end to things before they came to blows. Time has not tempered my conviction. Mary Sue doesn’t have to be a harbinger of a bad story or television episode or film. Like every other character or storytelling device, it’s all in the execution.

Allow me a moment to catch up those few of you who don’t know what a Mary Sue is. The More You Know, right?

Mary Sue is a generic name for a character in a story that is clearly a stand-in for the author. Of course most authors have characters more or less loosely based on themselves or their experiences or beliefs—that’s what writers do—but a Mary Sue goes beyond that. Mary Sue is not only the author inserted into the story, but how the author wishes she or he was or wants to be seen. Mary Sues are often perfect to a ridiculous degree. All of the other characters love them, or admire them, or are jealous of them, or want to be their friend. In fanfic, where the majority of Mary Sues can be found, the major characters in the show/movie/book often forsake their own characters, desires, and significant others to be all about the Mary Sue.

A lot of it is about wish fulfillment, though many Mary Sue authors refuse to admit so.

I believe the concept (and name) of the Mary Sue first came out of fandom and fanfiction. This is not surprising given the nature of fanfiction. But there are plenty of Mary Sues to be found in original fiction and media. Though I can’t give first-hand testimony, I often hear people lament that Laurel K. Hamilton has turned Anita Blake into a huge Mary Sue. J. K. Rowling has admitted that Hermione is a lot like her. And I’ve yet to meet a sane person who did not recognize that Twilight’s Bella Swan currently holds the title of Queen Mary Sue of All Media at the moment.

Even though in two of those examples the Mary Sue-ness of the characters is usually counted as a detriment, I can cite examples where the Mary Sue does not ruin the story.

The ones I like to use most are three episodes of the new Doctor Who, all written by Stephen Moffat: “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” and “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead.”

In “The Girl in the Fireplace” the Doctor lands on a strange ship with Rose and Mickey then soon discovers that there are portals on the ship leading back to different points in the past, specifically different points in the life of one woman who turns out to be Madame de Pompadour. Very, very quickly the Doctor becomes enamored of Reinette to the point where he recklessly abandons Rose (the character it’s clear that he is to some degree in love with) in order to save her. Rose and Mickey are stuck in the undetermined future and they might be able to pilot the TARDIS home or they might not. Either way, the Doctor acts out of character as soon as this other woman shows up.

Granted, Madame de Pompadour is a historical figure and known for her beauty, intelligence, and wit. Still, this does not completely account for the Doctor’s behavior and it doesn’t stop her from being portrayed as an extra special snowflake everyone is obsessed with. Mary Sue.

The Mary Sue-ness of Reinette might be debatably borderline, but not so with Sally Sparrow in “Blink.” This episode is light on the actual Doctor (similar to the previous season’s “Love & Monsters”) and focuses instead on Sally and how she unravels the various mysteries she stumbles upon. Her friend Kathy gets sucked back in time and decides to write Sally a letter but writes none for her brother Larry (also of note, she names one of her kids after her). The police detective Sally goes to for help spends 90% of his time flirting with her and asking for a date. When he gets sucked back in time he ends up marrying a woman named Sally and dies only when he’s allowed to see Miss Sparrow again. Kathy’s brother also loves her and is willing to wait patiently until she stops obsessing over the Doctor and loves him, instead. In the end, everything hinges on Sally—Larry being there is not necessary. His role could be filled by almost anyone. But Sally is special.

You can probably guess who I’ll name as the Mary Sue in “Silence in the Library”: Future!Companion River Song. She is the most Mary Sue of all three, I think, because it quickly becomes clear that she is not only omni-competent and effortlessly awesome, but she is the most beloved companion the Doctor has ever had. She keeps a diary of their time together because he continues to come back for her. She can call on him and he’ll always show up. She knows his real name for Hera’s sake. No one knows that but him! She is the most specialest special companion and it’s no wonder a lot of fans who liked Rose (and shipped Rose/Doctor) hated her within 15 minutes.

The thing about all of these episodes is that they’re great. They are not perfect, true. I personally cannot stand “The Girl in the Fireplace,” but it won a Hugo, as did “Blink,” and “Silence in the Library” is favored to win this year. Stephen Moffat’s episodes are consistently cited as some of the best of the new Doctor Who. And I think the only reason that Reinette, Sally Sparrow and River Song aren’t often labeled as Mary Sues is that the person who created them is male, they are on television instead of in fanfiction, and they are good characters in good episodes.

That last point is key. They are Mary Sues, but their stories are still good.

I bet those of you who read a lot of fanfiction or consume a lot of media can name at least one good or great story that includes a Mary Sue. I say again, it’s not the character that makes a bad story, it’s the quality of the writer that makes a bad story. A good writer can make a good story out of many a common trope. Even a trope as annoying as Miss Mary.

Ashley W
1. a_neonta
I won't personally vouch for them being good or great, but Elizabeth Haydon's Symphony of Ages series had a pretty blatant Mary Sue as heroine.
Jason Ramboz
2. jramboz
As far as male Mary Sues go, the first example I think of is Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. Lots of people argue over whether it's a great story or not, but I don't know that any of those discussions hinge on the fact that Harshaw is Heinlein in a very thin disguise, with piles of money, legions of fans, and three scantily-clad live-in female "secretaries."
DG Lewis
3. DG Lewis
One could make the claim that Hunt for Red October was a good book with a Mary Sue lead, although my personal opinion is that Jack Ryan only reached full Mary Suedom in Clancy's subsequent books.
DG Lewis
4. coreopsis
There is a whole heritage of literary Mary Sues underlying "The Girl In the Fireplace" and "Silence In the Library." I saw nods to Clare in _The Time Traveler's Wife_, in Reinette's repeat visits from the Doctor as she grew up and he remained the same. Reinette's death at age 43 (as stated in the episode, I believe) is a fudge that also perhaps nods at a critical piece of information in Time Traveler's Wife: Madame de Pompadour was actually some months short of her 43rd birthday when she died, because her birthday was very late in the calendar year.

I also see nods to Clare in how River Song keeps a diary of her time with the Doctor, highlighting her aging while he seems ageless. And both of these point back to an influence I've seen in all of Moffat's Doctor Who episodes: Dorothy Sayers, and particularly her character Harriet Vane.

Audrey Niffenegger openly acknowledges that her protagonists of _The Time Traveler's Wife_ owe a lot to Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey. Harriet Vane is a classic Mary Sue: successful, often envied, long pursued by Lord Peter. Harriet has all the brains and wit and tragic love affairs of the real Dorothy Sayers, without the embarassment of the child Sayers had out of wedlock, placed for fostering with relatives, and claimed was her "cousin" until her death. Hey, does that story line sound familiar, fellow Moffat fans?

Perhaps these aren't strictly Mary Sues because Moffat isn't a woman, but he certainly respects some of the greatest Mary Sue characters ever written!
DG Lewis
5. Barnum004
What about the case of Kilgore Trout. I don't know that he completely fits the criteria of a Mary Sue but he is a pretty clear stand in for Vonnegut, his inspiration by Theodore Sturgeon not withstanding(the 1 or 2 pictures of Trout by Vonnegut bear this out). While Trout is by no means perfect you can kind of see where he may well be Vonnegut as he'd like to be seen. Certainly one could make a case for Trout's aspects as a slightly crazy, grandfatherly sort of beatific wise man telling somewhat silly stories meant to soften the blow of harsh truths being an ideal to Vonnegut, particularly in light of his "Canary in the Coal Mines" theory of the arts. I digress, Trout is something of a Mary Sue character and he appears in many excellent stories.
DG Lewis
6. Yinepuhotep
I find that a Mary Sue is more tolerable - sometimes even enjoyable - when it's clear that the author knows what he's doing in writing her. Sometimes, you'll even find that Mary Sue turns the whole concept on its head, becoming something of a self-parody.
DG Lewis
7. MLThinksThings
I completely agree with the Harriet Vane example, and I don't think it destroys those books. They are still fascinating, partly because of the degree to which Sayers has to struggle to justify Harriet and Lord Peter as a couple. (Just look at how much longer Busman's Honeymoon and Gaudy Night are than, say, Strong Poison.) Sayers seems aware that she's writing herself in, but very determined to find some sort of truth in her fantasy. I'm not sure it completely works, but the mental gymnastics are entertaining. And the mysteries still tick along like clockwork.
Joseph Blaidd
8. SteelBlaidd
Ahh the joys of the Cannon SueThey show up a lot more often than people would think Apropreatly as the name originated in a Star Trek fan fic parodying the Phenominon, Wesly Crusher is one of the most reviled Cannon Sues of all time.

For a truly exahstive exploration of the Mary Sue check out the wiki.
Eugene Myers
9. ecmyers
That's fascinating. I picked up on similarities between The Time Traveler's Wife and "The Girl in the Fireplace", but I didn't know about the Dorothy Sayers connection and I wasn't sure if it was an intentional parallel on Moffat's part. I also didn't really think of Clare as a Mary Sue, but I suppose there's a good argument for that.
Dayle McClintock
10. trinityvixen
As with all things, a talented artist can take a cliche and make it new again. So I, too, disagree with your friend in the absolute sense, but I would argue that her belief is probably an exaggeration based on experience. For every one of the Mary Sues you've very wonderfully exposed (aren't all of the Doctor's Companions somewhat Sue-ish?), there are thousands who wouldn't stand up to the scrutiny.

I don't think, however, that Hermione and JK Rowling count as an example of Sue-ism. Hermione is a cheat at times, but she never becomes the deus ex machina that a Mary Sue is. Hermione's abilities include being smart and bossy, attributes frequently seen in a negative light. While Hermione is, admittedly, normally proven correct about her every stance, the fact that she isn't universally loved and is frequently considered annoying by other characters exempts her from Sue-ishness. Yes, she is an author insert, but she is not one that takes over the story the way Mary Sues, I would argue, do and must do in order to be considered Sues in the first place.

I mean, JK Rowling is no Clive Cussler. He inserts himself as a character akin to Jesus Christ himself (who is, in fact, named Clive Cussler) and is proof that being a "supporting" character doesn't exempt you from Mary Sue status. It's also clear from Cussler's work that his main character, Dirk Pitt, is the biggest Marty Stu ever and is also a self-insert. In case this was not evident enough from the excreble writing, Cussler himself puts "Dirk Pitt was based off of me" in his freaking bio on his books.
Michael Grosberg
11. Michael_GR
I have a problem with the Doctor Who examples in the article. I admit the three characters are all too awesome and perfect - but, are they a stand in for the writer? The writer in question is a straight 40-something male while all the examples are young females. I find it difficult to see how these characters can be a Mary Sue. "Totally Awesome Characters" is a different thing, and rather common in comedies: A perfect relative / friend of one of the recurring characters appear and sweeps everyone off their feet, causing the recurring character to want to make them go away. Examples? "Ace" Rimmer in Red Dwarf, Ross and Monica's cousin (played by Denise Richards) in Friends.
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
I think a Sue isn't just a wonderful person that everyone loves but someone who you have to keep saying "and" when you describe them. They're tall AND beautiful AND can talk to animals AND have webbed feet AND have violet eyes AND solve everyone's problems AND never bother with dressing up until the day they do and everyone is astonished at their beauty AND compose symphonies AND paint masterpieces AND give great relationship advice AND can fly... it becomes ludicrous. The problem with a Sue, and the reason they're bad for stories isn't necessarily that the writer identifies with them but that the writer loses all sense of proportion when it comes to that character and loves them so much they keep showering on the good gifts without those good gifts ever having any real accompanying disadvantages.

I haven't seen the TV shows you mention, but the characters you describe sound a little too wonderful but not really like Sues, because they're still entirely under the writer's control.
Dru O'Higgins
13. bellman
Would Retief count as a Mary Sue?

Or Kim Kinnison from the Lensman books?

And there have been times that Superman always had to be the strongest/fastest/etc. character in DC comics.
DG Lewis
14. ChrisB
The most absolutely cosmic Mary Sue of world literature is unquestionably Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo, a turn-of-the-last-century pornographically gay ultracatholic whose most famous book is Hadrian the Seventh, where he tells the story about how he is finally so admired for his fortitude under being abominably misunderstood and persecuted by practically everybody that he is elected Pope. Seriously.
After that the book loses a bit of focus, but it does show that if you are really, really utterly and existentially consumed by your own wonderfulness and tragic lack of proper recognition it is possible to push your obsession over any conceivable top to some sort of greatness. My own favourite among his works is The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, about his life in Venice; you can wander the city and identify every doorway he starved in, all the while working on the last scene of the book where everybody admits they were wrong, pushes publisher's contracts into his hands, offers to fuck him, and generally believes his fantasies. He is at the very least unique and unforgettable, not to say addictive.
Oh, and the barony is bogus, too.
- -
15. heresiarch
Seconding trinityvixen on the "aren't all of the Doctor's Companions somewhat Sue-ish?" point.

Also, Fawn from Bujold's Sharing Knife books has a bit of the eau de Marie-Suzette about her. "Wow Fawn! Your insight into groundwork--an entire mode of perception you are unable to experience--is so very insightful!" I do still like the books, though, so I guess that's a point in favor of Bradford's thesis.

bluejo @ 12: There's another important part of being a Mary Sue--the totally incomprehensible, baseless dislike Certain people have for her. Despite her amazing talent, unassuming beauty, sparkling personality, and vast intelligence, there are always some people who do everything they can to ruin everything for her, simply because they hate her hate her HATE HER. For no reason!
DG Lewis
16. Yatima
K Tempest Bradford
17. ktempest

based on your description, I say River Song and Pompador do count. We only get one episode of them, but if there had been more, the ANDs would have piled up into infinity. I don't know that I believe Moffat has any kind of reining-in ability when it comes to his Sue characters. I base this not just on the Doctor Who episodes he's written but the other shows I've seen by him. He has a tendency to lay everything out for the audience to see and then whisks off on a wild train ride of exposure and madness. This is possibly what makes him such a good writer.
Darlene Marshall
18. darlenemarshall
Yatima--Is Francis the Mary Sue, or is it Phillipa? My money's on the latter character.
DG Lewis
19. Nancy Lebovitz
Is Modesty Blaise another cross-gender Mary Sue? Should she and Lymond hook up?

Jubal Harshaw is pretty clearly depressed. It fouls up his quality of life in an ordinary way. Is this enough to disqualify him for Sue-dom?

If I'm going to nominate a Heinlein character for Mary Sue, it's Lazarus Long.
DG Lewis
20. Snowkestrel
I think Hari Seldon from the Foundation series is a perfect example of a Mary Sue - a brilliant, pragmatic mathematician and historian without whom all of society would crumble. What author wouldn't want to be credited with saving the human race?
DG Lewis
21. MarkBernstein
Personally, I think one of the biggest Mary Sues in current SF is John Perry, of John Scalzi's "Old Man's War" and "The Last Colony". And I do regard that as a flaw in otherwise good books. The way that Perry always does the right thing for the right reason, and never screws up, makes him harder to believe in. And that makes it harder to get fully involved in the story.

At the moment, I'm a little less than halfway through "Zoe's Tale", and so far, the Mary Sue-ishness is enveloping Zoe pretty completely. I'm sorry, no fifteen year old is that decent, self-aware, and witty, and certainly not all the time.
Sherwood Smith
22. Sherwood
I think the difference between a good and a bad Mary Sue is how well she "earns" her stardom in the reader's perception. In Robin McKinley's Blue Sword, Harriman-Sol is pretty much a classic Mary Sue, but she earns every admiring glance and every win, which makes the book such a lovely comfort read.

In Twilight, the author *tells* us that Belle is the most popular, and tells us that Edward has spent a century before he saw anyone who smelled so good, was so beautiful, la la la. We're told what to think, the characters are shoved firmly in a circle around Belle.

(Though I have to say, had I read that book at thirteen, the bazillion loooong conversations "all about me" that is, how wonderful Belle is, how tempted he is, but oh no, he won't do that baad thing even though she's the center of the universe--well, that would have kicked the spindles right from under me. At age thirteen, that's a powerful, almost irresistible combo.)
DG Lewis
23. Steven Rogers
A number of past critics and authors have pointed out that Conan, of all fictional people, is very much Robert E. Howard's Mary Sue.
DG Lewis
24. Mary Mark Ockerbloom
In deciding who is or isn't a "Mary Sue", I'd say a key issue is the "it's all about me" focus.

A Dorothy Sayers can write Harriet Vane, or a J. K. Rowling can write Hermione Granger, by drawing on their own experience in such a way that they share it with us. They let us in, and when they do it well, we get a new appreciation of what it would be like to walk about in someone else's life, having experienced someone else's experiences. Yes, it's about them, to the extent that they draw on their experience, and it may even have overtones of wish fulfilment, in that the character manages to resolve things more neatly or happily than the author did. But that's also a part of what they learned, and share with us, a hope of how it might have been better.

Now a true Mary Sue, to me, is the Paris Hilton of genre fiction. It's the "I MUST BE THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE! EVERYONE LOOK AT ME ALL THE TIME!" overtone that to me defines Mary Sue. I don't think that criterion can be applied to Harriet Vane, or to Hermione Granger, however strongly they may reflect the personalities or wishes of their authors.

I do worry a bit that it might be applicable to one of my favourite young female characters in SF/Fantasy, James Schmitz's Telzey Amberdon. The perfect, attractive, rich, compassionate, helpful, Telzey, who can resolve virtually any problem? Oh no! Could Telzey, who I thoroughly enjoy, be a Mary Sue? Oh, the horror!
Beth Friedman
25. carbonel
For anyone who's interested in the historical definition of Mary Sue, here's the Paula Smith story that first described her.
Kevin Maroney
26. womzilla
jramboz @ 2: Jubal Harshaw is actually based on Erle Stanley Gardner. Which isn't to say that there's aren't Mary Sue elements in him, but I think less so than Lazarus Long in the later works.

Steven R. @ 23: I think that even if no other story did, "Beyond the Black River" would put paid to the idea that Conan is a Mary Sue; I don't think you can have a Mary Sue in a story that forlorn of hope for the survival of humanity. In general, Conan suffers too much genuine torment, gets thwarted in too many of his ambitions, and runs away in terror from things too often to be a real Gary Stu. Which doesn't mean there aren't elements of deep-down wish fulfillment in the stories.

I personally think the biggest MS in canonical sf is "beautiful starship captain, linguist, poet, and telepath Rydra Wong" from Babel-17. However, she's not Delany's Mary Sue--she's Delany's image of Marilyn Hacker as Mary Sue.
DG Lewis
27. Chris B in SEA
I think Mary @ 24 nailed it: Mary Sue's are character types who are so self-indulgent that they warp the narrative. It's not simply a matter that they're popular or they have extraordinary good luck, it's that the story begins to revolve around them.

Let's take a Star Trek "example" that I'll more or less make up on the spot:

Lt. Perkins is a recent transfer to the science department of the Enterprise (and a secondary character) when it encounters a rift in space that threatens to tear apart the Very Bonds Of Existence! Fortunately, she graduated with a degree in "Incredibly Obscure and Unlikely Quantum Physics" and consequently plays an important role in fixing things, working with Spock and debriefing Kirk himself. She offers the crucial piece to the puzzle and the ship goes on its way, a little battered but otherwise OK.

Later, Lt. Petrovna is a recent transfer to the science department of the Enterprise (and a secondary character) when it encounters a first contact scenario. Of course, we learn that she's taken to having drinks with Scotty and Bones, can beat Spock at 3-D chess, talks xenolinguistics with Uhura and Kirk just... can't... stop... thinking about her! They beam down to the planet where it turns out that she's also very good at living in the wild, can pick up on nuances that everyone else has missed out on and... oh yes, she's so mysterious!

A Mary Sue isn't just popular, everyone loves her or him. He's not just lucky, but nothing bad ever happens and if it does, it's either minor or becomes a boon (he lost his arm... and gained a super cyber arm that fights crime!).

I'd argue that very few of the characters listed here (except maybe Wesley Crusher) are true Mary Sues. They're good, sure, but they're not THAT good.
K Tempest Bradford
28. ktempest
I know Wesley was based on Gene, but I always liked the character. I cannot fathom why there was always so much Wesley hate -- he wasn't nearly as annoying as Counselor Troi often was. (Though I think both Wil and Marina are great actors.)
DG Lewis
29. PixelFish
I agree with Tempest that a Mary Sue doesn't have to ruin a book or episode. Although generally, I tend to use "authorial insert" to distinguish from the Mary-Sue-Wot-Warps-Reality. (If it is a stand-in for the author. It now it occurs to me that the Madame Pompadour Mary Sue wouldn't be an authorial insert. But she does have the reality warp thing going on.)

I also like Mary Mark Ockerbloom's remarks at 24 re: Harriet Vane and Hermione, and similarly, Sherwood's remarks about Harimad at 22. Yes, they do seem to be authorial inserts, but they have setbacks and have to work for their happy endings. There's not a feeling that they are entitled or just plain "precious".

Diana Gabaldon has this bit in her book on writing the Outlander series about how each of her characters tends to have a small nugget of her somewhere. She mentioned people who were discussing one of the Outlander villains, Black Jack Randall, and one lady was castigating him (rightly) for being a nasty piece of work. DG had the thought, "You have no idea that you're sitting next to Jack Randall right now." (Or words to that effect.

A_neonta @1: Yeup, Rhapsody is my go-to Mary Sue (or she was until Bella Swann came along) for explaining to people the pitfalls of Mary Suedom.
Josh Jasper
30. joshjasper
Spider Robinson made his entire career out of Marty Stu-isms. I'd argue that there isn't one single book of his that doesn't feature some sort of alternate Spider Robinson as a protagonist.
DG Lewis
31. Diana00
I don't have a SF/F character off the top of my head, but based upon my definition of Mary Sue, my favorite is Abby from NCIS. She isn't just really smart, she's a genius! She hacks computers, runs DNA, knows all about voice and face recognition software. You name it, she can do it! She runs the lab of a Federal Investigation Unit all by herself! She's cheerful all the time! And cute as a button in her non-threatening goth attire. Everyone. loves. her.

Whether or not she is an author insert or not is irrelevant to me. She is perfection and when she's in trouble, everyone stops what they're doing to save her.

Despite all of this, she is also the reason I watch the damn show.
Avram Grumer
32. avram
Patera Silk, from Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun, conforms to so many of the classic Mary Sue tropes that I suspect Wolfe designed him as a deliberately Mary Sue character.

Silk has exotic hair and eye color (blonde and blue-eyed in a Hispanic culture), is extraordinarily beloved (a beautiful prostitute falls in love with him almost instantly, and a grass-roots movement to elect him mayor materializes out of almost nowhere), and is unusually competent at things he's never tried before (burglary, crime-solving, sword fighting, piloting an airship).
Caoimhe Ora Snow
33. keeva
Speaking of Spiders, Spider Jerusalem is a totally wanking Mary Sue for Warren Ellis.

Mary Sues aren't always bad! Tempest is once again correct.
K Tempest Bradford
34. ktempest
Just a general question (prompted by several folks on this thread): why can't the author insert for a man be a woman? Who says that Stephen Moffat DOESN'T fantasize about being blonde and awesome and female? You assume because he's a guy his Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) would have to be a guy, too. But what if: not?
Michael Jones
35. oneminutemonkey
As far as Mary Sues go, Mercedes Lackey quite blatantly and knowingly wrote herself in as a Herald in her more recent Valdemar stories. "Herald Misty" (or Mysty... it's been a little while) is described as looking like her, wears glasses, putters around with books, and acts in a supporting role for major characters.

I guess then we have to ask where the line is between Mary Sue and simple self-insertion. Can you successfully put yourself into your own works and -not- be a Mary Sue? The 8-Ball suggests so.
DG Lewis
36. Julie Andrews
My first thought on reading this was.. 'Well, but she died.' I guess that means at least part of it for me is about the whole story arc and where the story leaves the potential Mary Sue at the end of it.

If she flounces off and leaves at least one main character pining for her, then that's a Mary Sue.

If she continues hanging around to have further adventures with her admirers, then that's a Mary Sue.

If she dies in some big, spectacular way to save everyone else and/or the world/universe, then that's a Mary Sue.

If she dies (or the nearest thing to it) because the Doctor wasn't fast enough or good enough to save her.. well, that happens to lots of people around the Doctor.

So for "Girl in the Fireplace", I don't think she's a Mary Sue so much as shorthand for the Doctor's life and relationships. She had to be a better-than-average match for him, because he had to care about her and love her and lose her in about 40 minutes.

I can see it more with River Song, but a lot of her superiority simply came from being from the future. She knew stuff, and was smug about it. Rightfully so, since the Doctor probably annoyed her countless times by knowing stuff she didn't. It's got to be fun to turn the tables for once.

We don't know her whole story though. And we may never know. She might be more likeable and less Mary Sueish if and when we meet her earlier in her timeline.

Perhaps I'm trying to say that Mary Sue isn't just a character, but a plot. So if you say a Mary Sue character story doesn't have to be bad, then my rejoinder would be.. as long as it doesn't have a Mary Sue plot.
DG Lewis
37. cbyler
Also, Fawn from Bujold's Sharing Knife books has a bit of the eau de Marie-Suzette about her. "Wow Fawn! Your insight into groundwork--an entire mode of perception you are unable to experience--is so very insightful!"

I interpreted this not so much as insight, but as Fawn inventing the scientific method (which works just fine on things you can't directly perceive, as long as they have observable effects). Which is still really impressive, but after all, somebody did it in our universe, so why not.

Anyway, isn't she a little young for an author insert? (I suppose the author could imagine herself younger, but it seems kind of at odds with the philosophy of going on, not back.) I would suspect Cordelia, if anyone. Always reasonable, persuasive, performs a successful commando raid on a highly guarded palace in the middle of a civil war... although since Bujold is such a good author, the extent to which the story bends around Cordelia may be disguised by its appearing to have been heading that way all along.

I wonder if this isn't part of why people associate Mary Sues with bad works - not just because a lot of bad authors use them, but also because they stand out from the work more when the author isn't skilled at making everything fit and work together. Every trope is more annoying if it doesn't fit the story.
DG Lewis
38. Blake Ellis
Anybody missing from this? Maybe James Bond and Superman?
And there are plenty of great stories about those two, right?
Chris Meadows
39. Robotech_Master
There are a lot of authorial insertions in animé fanfic, as you might expect.

Still, sometimes they can do it without turning into Mary Sues. For instance, the Undocumented Features series has authorial characters basically hobnobbing with their favorite animé characters not just from one show, but from a whole lot of them.

And yet, they manage the balancing act of coming off as flawed characters rather than super-uber-Mary Sue types. Strange, that.
Stef Maruch
40. firecat
Am I the only person who thinks that calling an author's wish-fulfillment-stand-in character "Mary Sue" is sexist? I think the best-known wish-fulfillment character is James Bond. It could also be argued that Sherlock Holmes counts. And how about Peter Wimsey?
DG Lewis
41. Westerly
"And I’ve yet to meet a sane person who did not recognize that Twilight’s Bella Swan currently holds the title of Queen Mary Sue of All Media at the moment."

Lord yes. The minute she walks into Forks the place becomes her kingdom, with the resident Gary Stu (old Eddie boy) reigning at her side. And not even his unremitting Stu-ness can compete with the way that life, the universe and everything centres around boring, boring Bella...Even he must succumb to the Bella vortex.

In regards to Harry Potter, the female character who functions as a 'Sue' in the book is Ginny Weasley. To be fair, she certainly doesn't start out as a Sue, but by the time the 6th installment rolls around she's amazingly popular, the highest goal scorer on, and the life and soul of, the Quidditch team, and relentlessly hexes Zacariah Smith which is either overlooked or receives warm approbation by teachers.

Luna worships her and even Ron and Hermione are uncharacteristically cowed by Ginny's disapproval, scoldings and anger. The twins repeatedly tell us just how awesome and deadly Ginny's hexes are, nevermind that all we ever see is the Bat Bogey Hex.

She not only becomes the focus of Harry's desire (Harry, like Edward just can't get enough of her incredible scent) but even Slytherin's are forced to admit to her attractiveness. The woman on the side of the road selling wares tells us that she's 'pretty', and even the Death Eater who is trying to hex her into oblivion is compelled to to comment on her attractiveness ('dance my pretty!') while she obliges. Not to mention the references to her movement as cat-like and her her long red hair whipping away etc. All of which put my Sue radar on high alert.

I also agree about Stephen Moffat's female characters (even though I really enjoyed Sally Sparrow). In fact, I thought that Sally Sparrow was the biggest Sue of them all. It's a little bit worrying because Moffat is a better writer than Russell T. Davies but I am assuming that Davies was responsible for Martha and Donna, neither of whom could be called Sues (even if Donna was used as a deus ex machina).

But there is one other Sue to out-Sue them all in the Whoverse and she's a Davies creation - namely, Rose Tyler.
K Tempest Bradford
42. ktempest
firecat: I don't consider it sexist, but I kinda get what you mean. There is a corresponding name for male characters of this type: Gary Stu. But I'm sure that term came along later.

Someone correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure 99% of the people who write this type of character in fanfiction are women (because way more women write it than man). So it makes sense that the generic name is female and, even when a male is involved, the character is still called Mary Sue. It's a brand name.
DG Lewis
43. Astraea
Laurel K Hamilton's Anita Blake has always been a blatant Canon Sue, and yet the first few books in her series were enjoyable. The annoyances of the Sue characteristics were easier to overlook before they'd been repeated almost verbatim twenty times over in each book, and when the plot was not centered completely around her special snowflake Sue-ness.

I think canon Sues can be in otherwise very good books or movies, but the longer it goes on the more likely the Sue will take over.

I do think that some female characters who share a lot of Sue characteristics are created by male writers are a significantly different phenomenon than Mary Sues as self-insert character. It feels a lot more like a projection of straight male fantasy combined with their idea of what women should want to be like. Elizabeth Swann from Pirates of the Caribbean and Kate from Lost are my two biggest examples. It just feels like there's something going on there that's different than a fangirl writing herself in to a story about her favorite characters, or a writer writing wish-fulfillment/fantasy for a projection of herself.
DG Lewis
44. PixelFish
Ktempest@34: I think I assumed Madame Pompadour was less an authorial insert because she was a historical figure, not because she was female. (After all the other two examples you gave were also women.) But I guess it doesn't follow logically that just because I would be less likely to use a historical figure as an authorial insert that everyone else wouldn't either. (I'm trying to think about a historical figure that I used to obsess over, like T.E. Lawrence, but I've read enough about him that I don't think I could use him as an authorial insert. I already have an idea of his personality from reading Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and it wouldn't work with me overlaid on top. He could still wander in Gary Stu territory easily with me writing him, but not authorial insert.)

(I still think Pompadour works as a Mary Sue, and not knowing the inner landscape of Stephen Moffat's brain, it is technically impossible for me to say if she is an authorial insert.)

Now I want to draw Venn diagrams.


As a side note: As a real life redhead, I don't tend to take red hair as a marker for Sue-dom, re: the comments about Ginny at 41. YMMV.
- -
45. heresiarch
cbyler @ 37: I don't think inventing the scientific method off the top of one's head is less ridiculous than inexplicable insight into groundwork, but I do like this point:

"I wonder if this isn't part of why people associate Mary Sues with bad works - not just because a lot of bad authors use them, but also because they stand out from the work more when the author isn't skilled at making everything fit and work together."

Awesome and powerful characters, who are designed to make the reader sympathize with them and thereby feel a bit more awesome and powerful themselves are endemic in fiction. There is certainly a level of wish fulfillment in all such characters, but I don't think that there's anything wrong with that: I like wishes. They should be fulfilled. It's only when they are awesome and powerful to the detriment of the story, and of our ability to empathize with them (who can empathize with someone with no flaws?) is this problematic rather than enjoyable.

I don't want to draw Venn diagrams; I want to draw gradients.
Stephen W
46. Xelgaex
I have to agree with the nomination of Heinlein's various Marty Stus. In fact in might be easier to find a novel from him that didn't have an authorial insert. Though I haven't read all his work, those that I have all seem to have Marty in there somewhere. But all have been good reads.

The trouble of defining what exactly is meant by "Mary Sue" seems to come up in every discussion I read about the term. So much so that my first reaction upon reading about the argument in the OP was to wonder whether the conflict had a difference in definition at its root.

Incidentally, I thought ktempest's reasoning @34 convincing, especially when I considered my experience with a perhaps related phenomenon in RPGs. It expands what characters could be considered Mary Sues while at the same time keeping well within the spirit of the term.
David Lev
47. davidlev
If anyone has heard Tom Smith's filk song "Hey, It's Can(n)on," he turns Hermione Granger from a mere author insert character into a full blown Mary Sue (and pirate queen) who gets perfect grades, defeats all the HP villains, and gets both Harry and Ron as her sex slaves (apparently she also looks quite fetching in pirate gear). This is as good an example as any between a character based on the writer and a Mary Sue. Of course, this is all done for humorous effect, so it might not count.

Would Harry himself count? The world does revolve around him pretty much literally, but he fucks up so much and is such a whiny bitch sometimes that I think he is disqualified.

And my go-to example of a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, actually) is Robert Langdon from Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. It was my realization that he was a Mary Sue that made me realize how awful the second book was And if I ever read the first book again, I'll probably have the same reaction)
DG Lewis
48. Al Harron
Steven Rogers, I'd sure like to know which past authors and scholars called Conan a Mary Sue, since none of the esteemed scholars I've talked with or read the work of ever say that.

As womzilla stated, Conan fails as often as he succeeds. He's unsuccessful in attaining the treasure he set out for in "The Tower of the Elephant" and "The Servants of Bit-Yakin", "Beyond the Black River" ends on a considerable downer, "Xuthal of the Dusk" ends with Conan literally flayed alive, and in more than a few stories he runs in stark terror from the Eldritch Horror instead of slay it. There's some where he would flee, but when the girl-of-the-week's in danger, he overcomes the fear. What's more, he comes very close to defeat in some battles, with only luck or outside interference saving his skin.

What about everybody loving/jealous/wanting to be him? That would certainly make his reign as king MUCH easier if he were universally adored, rather than the subject of many assassination attempts, baronial revolts and invasions. Every "informed ability" is explained as something he learned from Zamorian philosophers, Pelishti wise men, or Nemedian scribes, and his multiple languages are a result of a keen mind eager to learn. There are plenty of amazing people in history like T E Lawrence, Teddy Roosevelt and Richard Francis Burton who show similar capacity for intellectual subjects combined with great physicality: Conan's just a mythologised version of that breed of man.

As for "author insert", Conan, from Howard's own admission, is based on people he knew. So the man himself says that Conan isn't merely an idealized author insert. Perhaps on some very basic level, maybe, but there are plenty of other characters like Breckenridge Elkins that suit the author-insert mold.

Conan is not invulnerable, not everybody worships him, not all girls fall at his feet, and he's not some invincible juggernaut in combat. He's no Sue.
DG Lewis
49. Ling-Ling Akemi
What would be the male equivalent of a Mary Sue? Bobby Lee? The Alpha-Omega Timmy? Most stories have a central hero/heroine that an author uses for readers to emotionally connect with, so they can enjoy their work of fiction. In that case, does that automatically lump most novels into the wish-fulfillment category? (Hmm. I guess that's why they call that particular area of writing, FICTION.) The whole Mary Sue debate is purely subjective, and will be a topic of glorified contention for decades to come.

I put forth Frank Herbert's Dune Saga, and his 'Alpha-Omega Timmy': Paul Muad'dib Atreides! An epic character of no less than godly proportions.

We ALL have a desire to be loved. But the media has made it more publicly focused on women, reducing females of various ages to desperate, whimpering, simpering dolls of bleating, self-sacrificing fragility. It's rather sad, really, that it's overshadowed the ego-stroking, male megalomania of high ranking leaders of state, politicians, some members of the military, overachieving business moguls, a majority of the police force or the local principal. (If I may toss my two cents in, the whole 'Mary Sue' title can be argued as sexist by a portion of the female population.)

But I'm digressing.

I hope that we, as readers, are not overanalyzing every novel we come across and transporting them straight into the realm of 'Mary Sue-ish' probability, forgetting to simply enjoy the author's story. ;D (Heck, I'm not discounting the 'bad' novels out there, either. But then again, it's all a matter of opinion, since 'one person's trash is another person's treasure.' And speaking of fan-fiction, I came across one on ffnet entitled, "Vulcan Twilight", which actually attempts to crash the two most unlikely combinable areas of fandom: Twilight and Star Trek 2009!) xD

Alpha-Omega Timmy takers, anyone?
DG Lewis
50. BlueRose
Thank the gods, someone who spotted the EXACT same thing I did with most of Moffat's female characters. They're frequently 2D plot devices, scarcely believable, but his worst is River. And this is NOT coming from a Doctor/Rose shipper or a Doctor/anyone shipper; I just find River incredibly annoying and she's one of the major reasons why I've tuned out for the new series. I can't wait for Moffat to step down so we can return to quality Doctor Who, back when we had character development and growth, women who did more than have two facial expressions/get pregnant/married, and when death didn't turn into rubbish cartoon (omg! they killed Kenny/Rory) every other episode. Which is a shame because I like Matt Smith's Doctor...
DG Lewis
51. @MatchesMalone
I realize I'm replying to this 3 years after the fact, however, I can't truly agree with River Song being a Mary Sue. The reality of the character is that The Doctor met her for the first time, the last time she sees him. And as we now know, River is the daughter of his current companion. We have indeed seen the first time River met The Doctor as well. A case could be made for them traveling in opposite directions in time.
DG Lewis
52. Mazanett
Heck, practically the entire cast of Gargoyles are Mary Sues, but it was still a pretty epic show.

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