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.


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