150 Years of Mary Sue, by Pat Pflieger
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE: 150 YEARS OF MARY SUE

by Pat Pflieger

[presented at the American Culture Association conference, March 31, 1999, San Diego, CA]

Revised in light of information presented in "Girl Power: The New Cinderellas in Cinema," by Larisa R. Schumann; see end of the text.

Revised again later, to incorporate new information; added bits are marked: ex., [2001:] ... [/2001]

[NOTE: This is the full-length version of a much briefer paper presented at the conference. A bibliography and a more detailed description of the Mary Sues appear as separate files.]

I'd like to acknowledge the help of several fan writers and readers, especially Paula Smith, Kat, and Jessica Ross. I'd also like to thank those who helped me to find Mary Sues, particularly Ann Teitelbaum, Jane Mailander, Mrs Jim, and Russet McMillan. And special thanks to Amedia and to DDJ, for allowing me to rifle through their zine collections.


She's amazingly intelligent, outrageously beautiful, adored by all around her -- and absolutely detested by most reading her adventures. She's Mary Sue, the most reviled character type in media fan fiction. [1] Basically, she's a character representing the author of the story, an avatar, the writer's projection into an interesting world full of interesting people whom she watches weekly and thinks about daily. Sometimes the projections get processed into interesting characters, themselves. Usually, though, they don't.

Many hate her, but she is alive in every fandom. She fences with Methos and Duncan MacLeod; she saves the Enterprise, the Voyager, or the fabric of time and space; she fights with Jim Ellison in defense of Cascade; she battles evil in Sunnydale alongside Buffy Sommers. She impresses the heroes of both The Girl and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.; she makes Ben Stone and Mike Logan of Law & Order go weak at the knees; Ham Tyler of V marvels at her strength; Jasper Jax of General Hospital is captivated by her; Benton Fraser of Due South palpitates when she is near; she rules the night of the Vampire Chronicles.

Most often, Mary Sue is an original character created by the author of the story, but media characters also can become Mary Sues. Some start out that way: fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation point out that the overly wonderful, often-despised young Wesley Crusher is named for Gene Wesley Roddenberry. Adorable and omnipowerful Amanda Rogers, who learns that she is a member of the Q Continuum in the TNG episode "True Q," has had the name Mary Sue "ascribed to me so many times that I feel comfortable with it," as she explains dryly in a fan story. As Camille Bacon-Smith points out, Piper, in two Star Trek novels by Diane Carey, is a Mary Sue who stumbles, whines, and bunny-hops her way to Lieutenant-Commander. Megan Connor, of Sentinel, and Lisa Cusack, of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode "The Sound of Her Voice," also share elements usually associated with Mary Sues. Here, the Mary Sue gets in the way of what many fans consider the "real" relationship and/or outshines the "real" characters; many fans of Due South so resent the way the babbling, overactive bride-to-be in the episode "An Invitation to Romance" takes the focus away from interaction between Benton Fraser and Ray Vecchio, that it can be referred to as "that first season episode that everybody hated" or "that Mary Sue episode," and fans know immediately which episode is meant. Other times, however, a media character may be turned into a Mary Sue by a fan, most often in works of slash fiction, which explore a homosexual relationship between two characters.

[2001:] Sometimes the Mary Sue is the reader. After the movie Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released, the "Anywhere But Here" subgenre developed in its fan fiction. Written in second person ("you"), the stories take the reader through adventures with the Jedi, who are welcoming and accepting -- and are the character's comforters and champions. ElaineMc's "Comfort" magically brings the movie's Obi-Wan Kenobi to the side of the down-hearted reader: "From the corner of your eye, you see a glimpse of light. You blink, assuming it's a trick of sight. But, slowly, it takes shape. ... [The light becomes] a slim, strongly-built young man, with warm eyes, a gentle smile, and a braid of hair falling over one shoulder. ... 'I'm not sure what I'm doing here,' he admits, engagingly. 'I just felt... I felt as if someone needed me, very much. I couldn't stay away.'" [/2001]

By the term "projection," I don't mean that Mary Sue is simply a substitute for the author, though the character does allow the author to enjoy vicariously adventures in a world which gives her pleasure. In that sense, as fan writer Paula Smith points out, "... all characters for all writers are [wish fulfillment]." Mary Sue is more a placeholder, a term apparently used by writers of romance fiction, as mentioned in several essays in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Despite appearances, the essay authors agree, readers of romance fiction aren't identifying with the heroine of the work; their real focus is on the hero, with the heroine holding open a spot in the novel into which the (usually female) reader can slip mentally. Though this argument may seem simplistic in regard to romance novels, it does seem the basis for the Mary Sue: she holds a place open in the story for the author -- and presumably for the reader. She can be successful: fan fiction abounds in examples of original characters who are interesting in their own right. All too often, however, the character is a failed placeholder; her very obtrusiveness keeps readers from slipping into her place and into the adventure they have come to enjoy, as she shifts the focus from the media characters readers want to read about. [2]

When Mary Sue is an original character, readers recognize her by physical description and by certain elements of plot. The classic portrait is Paula Smith's, who gave her her name and defined her in Trek fiction in 1974: Mary Sue -- a beautiful and desirable half-Vulcan -- captivates Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, rescues them with a hairpin during an away mission, and -- fighting off the effects of the disease which has laid low her superior officers -- runs the Enterprise single-handedly before dying, wept over by her agonized superiors. Here is perfection of body and mind, celebrated by those whose opinions are important.

It's an image we find in other writing as well; as fan fiction writers have pointed out, Mary Sue has a long history. She is a type we see in fiction written in at least two centuries, especially fiction written by less-than-experienced writers. As such, she is a measure of the dreams of her creators, and a gauge of the times in which they write.

Nineteenth-century versions appear in the pages of Robert Merry's Museum. Founded in 1841 by Samuel Goodrich, by the time the magazine was absorbed by the Youth's Companion in 1872, it had featured works by every major nineteenth-century American writer for children, from Goodrich to Alcott, Jacob Abbott, Mary Mapes Dodge, and Sophie May. It also published works by lesser literary lights, most notably the subscribers themselves, who made the magazine their own from 1857 to 1868. While boys tended to write non-fiction articles, girls most often wrote stories and poems -- some about wonderful girls whose accomplishments and charms are tangibly appreciated by those around them. Emily Martin, who in 1862 saves a sleeping Indian chief from certain death by bear; Maia, whose gentleness and kindness are extolled by animals and elves in 1858; Unella, a white child raised by Native Americans in 1865, so lovable that she holds the entire village in a gentle thralldom; even little Ellen, who dies beautifully of her mother's thoughtlessness in 1849 -- all have elements we associate with Mary Sue.

Mary Sue is often easy to spot because she's impossible to miss. Put simply, Mary Sue is more: more charming, more belligerent, more understanding, more beautiful, more graceful, more eccentric, more spiritual, more klutzy. She has better hair, better clothes, better weapons, better brains, better sex, and better karma than anyone else. Even next to the strong and interesting heroines of twentieth-century media and fiction, she stands out. She is singular; she is impossible to ignore.

Her name is distinctive, symbolic, or descriptive -- and sometimes uncannily similar to that of her creator. Kielle Fantasia has a name made up of a spelling variation of her creator's name, "Kelly," and of a surname in Kelly's family tree; Saraid shares the Internet name of her creator but "is *not* a mary sue....the name just fit." Very often, the name is uncommon: Simplicity, Anasta, Unella, Maia, Janaris, Rowan, Callisto. Some names are so distinctive that the author provides a pronunciation guide: her creator informs us that Janaris is pronounced "Yah-NAH-ris." A number of names can be shortened to a variation of "Cat".

Mary Sue is physically striking. She has yards of curls in a distinctive color, usually auburn or jet-black or, like Rowan Michaels, silvery-blonde streaked with purple, which gives her "an almost non-human quality." Often, the character's skin color sets her apart: Unella's "fair and rosy" skin contrasts with that of the native Americans she lives with; Janaris Reed has "flawless deep caramel-colored skin". Mary Sue's smell is unique: Rowan smells of eucalyptus and lavender; Janaris, "like Nile lilies and jungle blooms"; Christine Chevalier smells of strawberries. Mary Sue's eyes sparkle in memorable colors: Saraid Manasdottir's eyes are "sparkling blue" in the twentieth century, though a "warm, sparkling gold" 300 years earlier; Janaris' are "panther-green". Mary Sue is muscular, but slim, athletic and graceful. She is tall -- in Highlander stories, she is as tall as Duncan MacLeod. She often sports an unusual -- but tasteful -- tattoo: Rowan has a tiger, Callisto has a small gothic cross. When not wearing leather -- usually black -- Mary Sue wears wonderful clothes that accentuate her slim -- but voluptuous -- beauty.

She has wonderful toys: Samantha Stewart-King's Vulcan lyre was "fashioned by the hand of Sesha The Maker himself" (28); Elanor MacPhail is accompanied by a tiny eight-legged, bat-winged Delphian Singjoy which only she can control. The toys may be delightful machines that sport humorous names: when she's not riding a black Vulcan low-rider, Rowan drives a candy-apple red '57 T-bird, and her computer, named "Pc," talks to her; Ashley Borden calls the computer she uses at work "Calvin," since "he is blue and manufactured by Kleinco" (76). And sometimes the toys are weapons: besides a rosewood-hilted sword, Rowan carries a "Barretta, switchblade and bayonet"; Callisto slays vampires with a chackram; Janaris, an Immortal, carries a katana which is over 1000 years old, part of a collection of at least 40 swords which includes one given her by Charlemagne, himself.

Mary Sue may be telepathic, like Samantha Stewart-King and Anne Langton. Or she possesses amazing empathy with the other characters. Mary Sue is astoundingly good at her job, or, indeed, at any skill she cares to cultivate. Emily Martin, shooting her first bear with her father's rifle, kills it with one shot. Janet Salazar, an office temp created by a writer who types 85 wpm, types 110 wpm, and does in one day of temping the filing and computer work it usually takes 3 clerks two days to accomplish. Janaris Reed can remember so well the taste of an ale she had in Bavaria in 1521 that she recreates the taste over 400 years later for her microbrewery; she can tell what liquor a man's been drinking -- even to the brand -- simply by sniffing his breath. Callisto reads and speaks 10 languages and can translate a book no one else can read; Rowan Michaels speaks many languages, among them Georgian, "street slang Parisianne," and Korean. When she plays classical guitar, "the world [goes] to hell."

Mary Sue's background is exotic. Jinaq is a Ferengi-Klingon; Callisto is half human, half vampire: she is immortal and "can drink blood ... if I can get to some but I can be around crosses sunlight and holywater." Samantha Stewart-King, born on Earth, was reared on Vulcan. Mary Sue is the youngest hero in the story -- unless she's the oldest. Anne Langton is abducted from Earth 300 years before she is found by the crew of Voyager, thus making her the oldest on the ship. The Highlander universe is one where Mary Sue is most likely to be one of the oldest: Janaris Reed is an Immortal only a few centuries younger than Methos; Saraid Manasdottir has "given very few clues as to how long she had been immortal. A passing mention of missing Rome, a comment on the Norse invasion of the Celts...these were clues, but nothing concrete."

Mary Sue is the toughest character who ever lived -- when she doesn't exude whimsy. Janaris has delicate hands, but Methos has "seen deadly accurate knives thrown with this hand, necks broken with this hand, and dozens of Immortals lose their heads to a sleek, savagely swift blade gripped in this hand. ... Jana was more than capable of taking care of herself." And she has, killing "one of the best -- and most treacherous -- Immortals in the Game." In Florida, Callisto has slain worse vampires than Buffy Sommers does in California: "Miami has it's share of vampires, but they tend to be more evil.'" Rowan Michaels twice slams her dislocated shoulder back into place, each time staggering and swearing like 15 drunken sailors; she almost emasculates Methos when he calls her "girl": "'Never.' she whispered in the silence of the room, as she slowly released her grip on his crotch. 'Never call me *girl* again.'" She is all-too-familiar with "that icy cold spot she always felt just before the shit hit the fan". Fearing that she's "becoming terribly predictable," she is reminded by a little nagging voice in her head that, "Predictable CAN get you dead." Her mere presence bodes ill: seeing Rowan come into his bar, Joe Dawson cringes: "'Ah, shit.' he moaned under his breath and waited for her. *This is gonna be bad.* he thought."

More often, Mary Sue's character has elements of whimsy. In Diane Carey's Trek novels, Piper uses a curling iron to escape from confinement to her quarters on the Enterprise and bunny-hops to the rescue of her superior officers. Ashley Borden keeps a coloring book at her desk to occupy slack times at work. Even Mary Sue's accomplishments may seem a matter of luck, as she plays down any element of skill. Ashley is brought with Ed Dillinger into the world of TRON and the Master Control Program and finds herself stepping in when he is on the brink of defeat on the game grid, instinctively tossing her disk at the opposing Red Warrior and being astonished when the disk connects: "What can I say? The disk seemed to have a program of its own as it spun the Red Warrior's disk away from Dillinger and looped back to me. I dashed past the surprised guards and out onto the grid. 'C'mon, you creep,' I challenged the Red Warrior. 'Pick on somebody your own size!' That has to rank as not only the most nonsensical but also the dumbest thing I've ever said." (89) But her actions inspire the other prisoners to overwhelm the guards, and the Master Control Program is defeated.[3]

Tragedy dogs Mary Sue. She has had a tragic love: Samantha was bonded with a Vulcan male who died; Callisto, an orphan, witnessed the death of the vampire she loved. Mary Sue has experienced the unthinkable: Rowan's mysterious past is apparently too dreadful to be described; Jinaq is a sex slave once forced to fight to the death; Anne Langton was sexually abused as a child; Janaris was raped by all four Horsemen who pillaged the earth during the Bronze Age, including Methos, her best friend.

Or Mary Sue's story may end tragically; traditionally, she dies in a beautiful scene, having saved everyone from everything. Deaths of nineteenth-century Mary Sues not surprisingly make use of elements familiar to readers of nineteenth-century fiction; their quiet Christian deaths are the signal to other chracters for repentance or awe. Little Ellen dies of the croup because her mother has neglected to get her shoe repaired: "When the sun arose in the eastern sky, the angel came to convey the spirit of little Ellen to that land where wind and tempest are never known," and her mother repents dutifully, sighing, "'All my sorrow comes from putting off to the future what ought to be attended to today,' ... as she laid her loved one in the cold grave!" (Almira) Maia's death is witnessed only by the elves who are her friends; with her last breath, she blesses them and dies with a "calm smile" on her face, and "in the sky were a host of angels -- they bore the soul of Maia to its heavenly home." (Pansy 12)

Mary Sue dies less frequently in twentieth-century works -- but no less nobly or beautifully. In an Internet story unfinished since 1998, Janaris, her mission in the story accomplished, is on the brink of probably being killed by her ex-husband. Weary of her long life as an Immortal, Saraid through her death gives to her student the Quickening that contains all her knowledge and essence. Callisto's tragic end is foretold: she will merge with the Slayer to "create the strongest slayer yet." In an epic battle with forces that include the boyfriend Callisto thought dead, she receives her deathblow and dies in the arms of her current love, "along with their unborn child". Her grief-stricken boyfriend, visited by her "translucent form," commits suicide with her knife so they can be together forever, and the tragedy is complete.

In some twentieth-century stories, imitation is the sincerest form of Mary Sue-ism, with authors duplicating the dynamic of the show itself. Rowan Michaels actually enters her show, as the unseen force behind the Highlander episodes "Comes a Horseman" and "Revelations." When Duncan MacLeod goes to a dangerous meeting on a bridge, she rescues him, though he doesn't realize she is pulling him over the bridge railing, just as he doesn't know she drags him from the river. When Cassandra, seeking revenge for Methos's evil deeds in the past, threatens him with beheading, she stops herself, not at Duncan's urging, but because Rowan threatens her: "Cassandra knew while Duncan probably wouldn't take her head. She had no doubts this one would." Even when the Mary Sue doesn't become an unseen element in the show, she may duplicate aspects of it. Rowan, a mortal in the Highlander universe, performs many activities viewers associate with Immortals, most notably fighting with a sword and working out just like Duncan MacLeod; Janaris, an Immortal like Duncan, like him carries a katana. In two Trek novels, professional writer Diane Carey replicates the senior crew of the Enterprise in a group of recent Starfleet graduates: one brash commander, one Vulcan friend, one doctor, one engineer with a colorful accent. Callisto, vampire slayer, looks just like Buffy, slays just like Buffy, falls in love with a vampire just like Buffy, and has her own tragic, angst-filled relationship with her current love. Just as Angel became demonic in the show, Callie's vampire lover also becomes a demon.

Because Mary Sue is the projection of the fan who writes her, she often has incredible insights into the characters of the show. Like many pieces of fan fiction, Mary Sue stories allow the author to express what she's thought about the characters and the show, with the character herself often expressing to the reader everything fans of the show say to each other. Rowan Michaels needs no explanation from Methos to believe that he has changed in 5000 years, because the author-viewer needs no explanation. Lisa Cusack, in a Deep Space 9 episode, has long and telling conversations with the established characters racing to rescue her, helping each man to come to deeper understanding of himself. Janaris spends most of four stories explaining Methos to Methos, Duncan to Duncan, and each man to the other. Janet Salazar, temping in the Cascade Police Department, spots immediately Blair Sandburg and Jim Ellison's romantic relationship, though her sensitivity may be heightened because she is gay, herself. Saraid Manasdottir knows instinctively that Duncan and Connor MacLeod were meant to be lovers, even before the men have an inkling themselves. This preternatural insight is often at the crux of the relationship between the Mary Sue and the media character; she understands everything. Looking into Saraid's eyes, Duncan "felt that he could tell her anything and she would understand, and forgive. Right now. Anytime. Forever."

The insights stand Mary Sue in good stead, for both nineteenth- and twentieth-century versions spend much of their time fixing things: broken hearts, broken spaceships, broken lives, broken episodes, broken series. Often she acts as a force for the redemption of another, be it an original character or the hero of the show. In the nineteenth century, Emily Martin "redeems" the chief she saves from the bear; he was asleep because he was drunk, tricked by unscrupulous whites into drinking alcohol. Once rescued, he swears, "Me no get drunk more" and ensures it by staying away from the settlement where he was tricked into drinking. (Martha G. 35) By dying, Ellen makes her mother realize how neglectful she's been. In the twentieth century, Rowan works for Methos' redemption in the Highlander episodes she invades. Christine Chevalier shows Benton Fraser how to accomplish his transformation into "Miss Fraser" for the Due South episode "Some Like It Red." In a story set after the events in the movie TRON, original character Ashley Borden recognizes that Ed Dillinger, the movie's villain, isn't such a bad guy; she aids him as he battles the Master Control Program in a story which basically is about his redemption. Faced with a Mulder discouraged about his work in the x-files, Tracy Jessup gives him a Good Talking To which makes him feel better about himself and what he's accomplished. Amanda Rogers finds Kathryn Janeway mourning Tuvok's death in the Delta Quadrant and literally takes her away for a much-needed break from her responsibilities and grief.

In media fan fiction, Mary Sue often "ties up loose ends," working especially on the characters' relationships, which is what interests most fan fiction writers. Her incredible insight into the psyches of the characters aids her as she fiddles with their lives, bringing together characters she sees as destined for romance. Holly, a detective working temporarily with Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, spends most of their not-very-mysterious adventure recognizing that the two should be romantically involved and seeking the golden opportunity to bring them together; in the tradition of the romantic novel, the mystery itself is essentially a way to break the defenses the two have put up. Saraid Manasdottir focuses almost more attention on coaxing Duncan and Connor MacLeod into recognizing their love for one another than she does on her own passionate involvement with the two. Janaris so completely understands that Methos and Duncan are destined to be lovers that as she gives Methos oral gratification, she urges him to pretend that she is Duncan -- and he does. The most dramatic "fiddling" with a media character's life is in "Buried Secrets," where Callisto, half vampire, ensures happiness for Buffy Sommers by tricking her into imbibing some of Callie's blood, thus making her immortal so that she and Angel can always be together.

In fact, if any single element defines the Mary Sue, it is her relationship with the other characters in the story. Writing 23 years after her defining essay, Paula Smith points out that "the truest mark of a Mary Sue is not how she's described or what she does, but the effect the sheer fact of her existence in the story has on the other characters in the story. If program characters start worrying endlessly about her, or go all gooey because she's just so darn cute or smart ... the girl's a Mary Sue." In these stories, Mary Sue is the center of the known universe. Unella has so many "cunning and winsome ways" that she becomes the "little pet and princess" of the Native American village which has adopted her; the "stern-browed warriors ... many of them," bring her gifts "at the close of each day," and, among the children, "many frowns followed the unlucky wight who displeased her." (Madge 172) In Diane Carey's Star Trek novel, Dreadnought!, Piper is at the center of everything: the message from the stolen dreadnought is keyed to her bioscan; the power-hungry admiral whose plans are about to be thwarted, Piper assures us, singles her out for death; she is the reason Sarda, her Vulcan friend, is at odds with the other Vulcans.

The other characters in the stories serve mostly to dance attendance. Lions and tigers carry Maia through the forest to do her chores, and the elves give parties in her honor; at the story's end, she goes from being the beloved of elves to being the beloved of angels. The training of Simplicity Williams to be a spy apparently occupies every waking moment of the spies who befriend her. Anne Langton is worried over by Chakotay, Tuvok, Tom Paris, and Q, who adopts her and confers immortality onto her; Tracy Jessup, new student at the FBI Academy, is rescued from her misery by Dana Scully. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy stand as witnesses to Samantha Stewart-King's noble suffering.

Mary Sue's impact on established characters can lead to what fan fiction writers and readers call "character rape," a portrait of that character so off-kilter as to be unrecognizable. This is most evident when a media character becomes the Mary Sue, which happens perhaps most often in slash stories, which explore homosexual relationships; the relationship may be between an established character and a character created by the writer, but most often is between two characters on the show. Thus, we have a love relationship between Walter Skinner and Fox Mulder of The X-Files, or between Jim Ellison and Blair Sandburg of Sentinel. Occasionally one of the male characters becomes what some readers and writers of slash call "wimpified": he is pictured as weepy and weak-willed, physically smaller than his partner even if the two actors are the same size, needing to be rescued, coddled, and cuddled by the other man -- in other words, a character altered in a way that fans read as "feminized," an apparent projection of the author of the story, who is most likely female. Readers of Sentinel slash deplore the "Blairy Sue," ostensibly Blair Sandburg, who in the stories is weepy, waily, clingy, and needs a whole lot o' cuddling from big ol' Jim Ellison. "Hard to believe," one fan commented wryly, "this is supposed to be the same guy who shouted down a psycho killer in the ep[isode] 'Cypher.'" (Mailander 29 D 1998) The author of most of the "Baccarat Figurines" series in X-Files fan fiction makes no secret of his (the author is presumed by many readers to be male) admiration of Skinner "the hunk"; his weepy, sulky Mulder is infantilized by Skinner, who calls him "baby" and is charmed "that someone that tall could make himself so small and cuddly," as Mulder "cuddles on [Skinner's] chest ... his usual pose with him"; when the two watch cartoons while waiting for Mulder's pre-sex enema to take effect, "Mulder [is] the one paying more attention." The stories struck appalled readers as "characterization *defilement*."

Established characters who haven't been shaped into a Mary Sue still may not be themselves around her. Thus we have Captain James T. Kirk, who runs a tight Enterprise, charmed almost speechless by Lt. Piper's flip answers to his questions. FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner becomes, in the presence of Special Agent Sarah Walters, a bumbling teenager in the throes of his first crush, pounding on her apartment door and threatening to "get comfy out here and make a racket" if she doesn't answer it; as they hide from bad guys, she scolds him for not wanting to detail his emotions for her then and there: "So don't even go that route Bud! I am sooooo tired of this stalling tactic that you have so down pat! What exactly are you scared of because I know you have feelings for me." Few would choose the moment when bad guys with guns are standing right outside the door to discuss love, but Skinner is unsuitably cowed.

Of course, the ultimate conferring of attention is sexual, and Mary Sue is the focus of stirrings in many stories. Nineteenth-century Unella's relationship with Ondino, the chief's son in the village where she lives, flirts with romantic love. Twentieth-century Mary Sues go further. Janaris has oral sex with Methos; "Bulletproof" is basically a lay-Walter-Skinner story which devotes almost as many screens to the graphically detailed sex between Walter Skinner and Sarah Walters as it does to the action; Saraid becomes the bed partner of both Duncan and Connor MacLeod; even Benton Fraser, famously chaste, finds himself succumbing to the charms of Christine Chevalier. [2001:] The reader of ElaineMc's "Welcome" series shares -- and is shared by -- both Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi. [/2001] In a funny and perceptive scene, "Mary Sue Q" Amanda Rogers -- an established character who learned that she is part of the omnipowerful Q Continuum -- explains to Kathryn Janeway her studied seduction of some famous Starfleet figures, starting with James T. Kirk: "I came onto his ship as Ensign Mary Sue Johnson, and, through a series of events that I created, managed to save the Enterprise from certain destruction. Of course, I did it without looking too powerful, just lucky. Anyway, he was so grateful, that seducing him was easy. ... I was a bold adventuress for Jean-Luc Picard, an intellectual for Christopher Pike, a noble Romulan soldier for this fascinating Romulan commander ... a warrior princess for Will Riker ... and of course, a Vulcan priestess for Mr. Spock. That was one of my greatest triumphs. Of course I had to induce Pon Farr ...."

In the nineteenth-century stories, the appreciation of the other characters is just as tangible, but in a form more chastely material. Impressed by Maia's gentle kindness, the king of the elves sends Elfletta, an elf-maid, to live with her; rescued by Emily Martin from the attacking bear, the Indian chief brings her a "beautiful deer with its fawn," which he has tamed for her. Taken by her biological parents, Unella receives from Ondino "a little box made of beautifully-veined wood exquisitely polished, and in it a small but heavy gold cross, made with little skill, but simple and beautiful." The are exotically simple and genteely pretty, the last two reminders of Natives as exotic, simple, and genteel; they are parting gifts, as their givers fade gracefully into wilderness, never seen again. These stories are of the type that Patricia Matteson points to as "Indian-romances," with the Natives marginalized, "voluntarily 'vanishing' as a paean to their 'nobility'" (19), though the marginalization is in keeping with Mary Sue stories in general; after all, the center of all these tales is Mary, herself. [4]

Twentieth-century Mary Sues are the more active in earning their adoration. While nineteenth-century Mary Sues tend to be the passive objects of others' admiration or actions, twentieth-century versions are more active agents of their own rewards and perils. The most active of the nineteenth-century version is Emily Martin, who shoots the bear -- and then faints. More often, a nineteenth-century Mary Sue will receive her adulation because she's vaguely wonderful; we never really see an example of what makes Unella or Maia so very special. The twentieth-century version may have charms just as vague, but she is more likely to actively earn her adulation. She does, not just simply exists. She slays, she runs a starship, she types, she wields a sword.

To some extent, this difference is in keeping with differences in heroines of the two centuries. In general, the heroines of nineteenth-century literature tend toward the passive, cultivating inner worth rather than outer skills. While Capitola -- in E.D.E.N. Southworth's popular The Hidden Hand (1859) -- captures villains, talks back to her guardian, and shoots dried peas into a man who has insulted her, Gerty, in Maria Cummins' The Lamplighter (1854), spends much of the novel learning "victory over self," as does Ellen Montgomery, in Elizabeth Wetherell's The Wide, Wide World (1850), Elva Newell, in Sophie May's "Elva Seeking Her Fortune" (1865), and the March sisters, in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868 and 1869). Gerty's moments of greatest heroism are those in which she sacrifices herself, smothering her natural desire to rage at the woman who destroys Gerty's only mementoes of the man who adopted her and tricking the man she loves into saving Gerty's supposed romantic rival, instead of her, from a burning steamboat. Ellen Montgomery recoils from the "wide, wide world" of household chores and practical skills, preferring to lose herself in her dreams, her Bible, and her prayers. Twentieth-century heroines are directed more outward, solving crimes, wielding phasers, driving getaway cars.

The character pattern, of course, can be seen throughout popular literature of both eras. Literary characters who are perfect have been created "since the dawn of time," Kelly Newcomb reminds us. Literary critic Deidre Johnson points out that nineteenth- and twentieth-century series fiction is filled with "supergirls: multitalented females who have everything, do everything, and outshine everyone." (19) Non-series characters also get into the act: Capitola, perhaps E.D.E.N. Southworth's most popular character, has all the material goods she could need, captures the most dangerous criminal in the county, and is beloved of everyone who meets her -- including the criminal. Nineteenth-century Elsie Dinsmore (1867-1905) actually dies during the second book of a 28-volume series -- and, after a proper deathbed scene, is resurrected to enjoy the after effects. Twentieth-century Nancy Drew (1930-present) can do everything "better than anyone else." (Johnson 20) The last two characters draw from an image popular in the nineteenth-century and described by Anne Tropp Trensky: the saintly child who is supernaturally beautiful, and who often dies because he or she is "too pure and fragile to survive the cruelties of the world". (389) In her death, little nineteenth-century Ellen fits this profile. Many older nineteenth-century heroines also die, as Nina Baym and Ann Douglas point out, their deaths "a reproach and an inspiration to the masculine mourners gathered to watch [their] demise." (128) The Mary Sues who die in the twentieth century are anything but pure and fragile, but their plot pattern draws from this image of nineteenth-century perfection. Their deaths are an inspiration to the media characters who witness them, an image of nobility and beauty that can become an icon of perfection.

Mary Sue must die for many reasons. The narrator of "The Confessions of Mary Sue" wryly points out how unfair it is that she always dies just as she and the media character are about to make their relationship permanent; her therapist is concerned about these fantasies. The death does serve the same practical purpose that the death of the media character's lover does on the television show: it clears the decks for next week. But the death also serves other purposes. There is the angst value. Readers love to weep; returning a copy of Katherine Paterson's The Bridge to Terabithia (which itself includes the death of a wonderful young girl), a young reader recently remarked to a librarian, "That was the saddest book I ever read," then asked, as the wary librarian steeled herself for a complaint, "Do you have any more just like it?" The noble death has always caught the imagination, especially if the deceased is young; Mary Sue is a Joan of Arc without the persecution. The death keeps Mary Sue memorable to those who really interest the author, fixing her in their minds as in amber, at the peak of her loveliness and strength and nobility and virtue. It can give the author the pleasant sense of attending her own funeral, seeing just how sad everyone really is. Even dying, Callisto takes time to note the anguish of Buffy, Angel, and the others gathered around her. The death also means that the Mary Sue never fails; having died, she can't go on to accidentally do something stupid or unnoble or unvirtuous. Nor can she become unbeautiful. And it means that the media character who loves her won't have time to fall out of love. Having seduced James T. Kirk, Amanda Rogers conscientiously kills off her Mary Sue character "just when [Kirk] would have begun to get restless"; the grieving Kirk is "secretly relieved that she was reduced to an icon he could mourn rather than a real flesh and blood woman that he would have to deal with."

Recently, some fan fiction authors have recognized that this much-reviled character does serve a purpose beyond allowing the author to live vicariously. Mary Sue is, they point out, a writer's baby-steps in writing. We seem to write her naturally -- and to kill her off just as naturally. Jojo, sister of the individual posting her stories and at age 7 one of the youngest writers in X-Files fandom, marries Scully to Mulder, makes them the parents of twins, and kills off the female twin, resurrecting her, however, before Mulder and Scully go to Disney World. When the writers of the Xena, Warrior Princess episode "The Quill is Mighter..." need to find a non-Xena character for Gabrielle to write about, they make her into a Mary Sue, fighting five barbarians at once, deflecting their swords with her abs of steel. When I created Simplicity Williams at age 12, she was a conscious effort to create an original character, though I was unaccountably hampered by advice I got from books on writing: when you're told to "write what you know," and what you know is being a 12-year-old white girl, that's what you write. Thus, Simplicity, though I made her physically different. I wore glasses; she doesn't. I had long strawberry-blonde hair and hazel eyes, she has long brown hair and "laughing brown eyes." She also has a "solemn little mouth," which I probably didn't. Of course, "write what you know" is meant to steer an author toward the kinds of things she has herself experienced. I've never been a spy; but I knew at age 12 that I would make a good one. And spying made a better plot than anything I knew about at that age. Despite our physical differences, Simps is recognizably my projection into the world of U.N.C.L.E. and befriends two men who bear remarkable resemblances to Illya Kuryakin, of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and Mark Slate, of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. -- my then-current heartthrobs.

Speaking to her own Mary Sues in the Subreality Cafe, Susan Crites explains that "just about every Writer who ever turned out to be worth five minutes of a reader's time started out with you." Readers and writers cringe, Crites notes, not simply because Mary Sue is such a startling insight into the wishes and dreams of another person, but because she is "like a security blanket -- once kids outgrow them, they're embarrassed by the whole concept of ever having used one. Until they get old enough for nostalgia, that is." Professional writers agree. "Beginners ... always write blatantly about themselves," Anne Lamott explains in Bird by Bird, "even if they make the heroine of their piece a championship racehorse with an alcoholic mother who cries a lot." (171) In his youth, Anthony Trollope built his own Mary Sue stories in his head, "for weeks, for months, if I remember rightly, from year to year. ... I myself was of course my own hero. Such is the necessity of castle-building. But I never became a king or a duke .... I never was a learned man, nor even a philosopher. But I was a clever person, and beautiful young women used to be fond of me. And I strove to be kind of heart, and open of hand, and noble in thought, despising mean things; and altogether I was a very much better fellow than I have ever succeeded in being since." (36-37) He credited this activity with his success as a novelist, for it taught him the discipline of the novelist: "In after years I have done the same,--with this difference, that I have discarded the hero of my early dreams, and have been able to lay my own identity aside." (37)

Mary Sues are the writer's exploration of the world she inhabits -- or is about to inhabit. They are adored by the other characters in the works, Paula Smith explains, because their authors are "investigating their brand-new power over the big bad world -- the power to stir men sexually. Sex doesn't take place in a young-Mary Sue story, but the writer is obviously fascinated by the fact that in the real world a reasonably presentable young girl can cause some guy or guys to act much differently than normal. This behavior difference starts with devotion -- and it is very pleasant indeed to have a presumably powerful man suddenly one's devoted slave. Heck, this ability to stir men sexually is the theme behind most of 'women's literature,' from cheap romance books to the Brontes' works. In the great works, the price of this power (often contrasted with the character's otherwise lack of power) is part of the story; in cheap works, the price is made out to be easy. In the Young-Mary Sue story, the price is never paid; the power just *is*. The adoration is explained by how naturally wonderful Mary just is." As the Mary Sue's attractions are celebrated and explored, the author gains vicarious recognition of her own innate power: erotic, intellectual, redemptive.

[2001:] Mary Sues are bigger than life for a combination of reasons. For one, Susan Crites explains, they "literally personify love and admiration of heroes." They are the template of what we admire. There's also the practical element, as Helen Pitt explains wryly. Without the brilliance and the looks, the character just wouldn't catch the attention of the active, intelligent, exciting characters of the show. The narrator of "The Further Adventures of Mary Sue" never actually strikes Vila Restal and Kerr Avon as heroine-type material:

"But you're not the sort of person we get involved with." Vila pointed out. [sic] Drat: for once he was thinking logically.

Unfortunately, he was right. ...

"And you're definitely not a devastating blonde." Vila observed.

"Nor is your hair strikingly black." Avon continued with an odd smile.

They were right. My hair was a boring brown. (4)
Not an intellectual genius, not the leader of a rebel base, useless even as romance material, the heroine is, as Vila observes, "'a walking definition of the word "ordinary".'" So they leave her to her ordinary life.[5] [/2001] Thus, Mary Sue's "more-ness" is her main defense. Another factor is the writer's lack of experience. The characters "have too big a core of reality. A beginning writer hasn't figured out, most of the time, how to just take little pieces of herself and grow them into life-like characters. That's a knack that comes along with time." In other words, she's bigger than life and twice too good to be true simply because she is us -- who we really are -- far too big to look realistic on a page. The narrator of Trisha L. Sebastian's "Woman Behind the Scenes" is Zarania the Great, who gathers up the starving children of Africa "And Takes them to 7-11 for free hot dogs/ And Pretzels/ And Slurpees/ And Candy Bars"; she is Vikki, who, roaring down the highway on her Harley, punishes the biker who cut her off by sending him "Spiraling off the highway,/ Laughing all the while, white teeth gleaming in the sun"; she is Paula, making love insatiably; Hitomi, slaying the ninja who raped her sister; Dr. Fowler, saving a life. "And he wonders why I don't like playing bridge/ With the neighbors," she notes wryly.

This recognition -- and the nostalgia factor -- may be why Mary Sue is coming out of the fan fiction closet. While many readers still gnash their teeth, many writers are having fun with her. They will knowingly write them, putting themselves and friends who love the show into the stories; Karin Ransdell and Pollytiks send "Karrie" and "Patty" off on a wild adventure with Ray Vecchio and Benton Fraser in "Karrie and Patty's Excellent Misadventure," while Susan Clarke and Gael Williams seek the ultimate Mary Sue, printing the results of their search in a zine of the same name, and Our Favorite Things #10 celebrates Mary Sue in all her glory. Most of these stories are humorous takes on the formula. Or writers who have unconsciously created Mary Sues will label them as such once the Mary Sue elements are brought to their attention, rather than keeping them out of the public eye: Melissa Roule cheerfully admits that she's been told that Christine Chevalier in "All Dolled Up" is a Mary Sue, while Kirsten Berry "makes no apologies" for her Mary Sue in "Believer," also thanking the reader who explained the term to her. So labelling the story is essentially a defense mechanism, especially for the neo-fan. The fan gets to have her cake and also eat it, inviting the reader to laugh along with her, since she knows the reader will laugh anyway.

Some fans have gone even further, deciding that it is time to "own their Mary Sue" and daring the reader to disapprove. To the members of the Mary Sue Webring, she's an "avatar" of whom they no longer feel the need to be embarrassed. Judging by the shows for which they have created Mary Sues, many of these authors are not new fans; they are old enough to be nostalgic about her, and what she meant to them. And she has meant a lot. Often she was their very first original character -- Simplicity Williams was mine -- and she took them on mental adventures they remember fondly. "You got me through an awful lot of the Grey Times," Susan Crites explains to one of her Mary Sues. "My writing wouldn't exist -- I wouldn't be ME -- if it wasn't for you." It is appropriate. We created her, and, true heroine that she is, she has recreated us.

-------

Listening to Larisa R. Schumann's "Girl Power: The New Cinderellas in Cinema" (presented at the American Culture Association conference, 31 March 1999), I was struck by the similarities between Mary Sue and the characters she describes in her paper. The Cinderella portrayed by Drew Barrymore in the movie Ever After, especially, is everything that defines the Mary Sue -- intelligent, funny, beautiful, physically strong, competent, lovable -- but there isn't the hint of self-deprecation we see in some of the Mary Sues cited above. From Schumann's paper, we get a sense that young teenaged girls now aren't as willing to abdicate their natural powers as were girls of previous generations; it's their right to be competent and strong, and to carry off the occasional prince over their shoulders. All power to them.

END




NOTES

[1] Fan fiction readers and writers are quick to point out that "Murray Sues" and "Marty Sues" show up in male-written fiction; I'm focusing here mostly on the female version. [2002:] I'd also like to point out that, while there is a single generally agreed-upon term for the female version of the character, there is no single often-used term for the male version: this hints that more attention has been made to the female character than to the male, perhaps because male characters are expected to embody the ideals of perfection associated with the character, so the fact that they do isn't noteworthy; perhaps because the dearth of admirable female characters in the source material makes admirable original female characters stand out all the more. [/2002]

[2] It perhaps can be argued that some heroines of romance novels are also failed placeholders: Laura Kinsdale cites heroines who are "just the sort of person one would gladly strangle if one met her on the street." (in Krensky 31)

[3] Actually, the elements of whimsy add an element of self-deprecation. The character is competent, but not too competent: she's still a little girl inside, and there's a sense that at least some of what she accomplishes is done by accident or luck. The self-deprecation element usually is annoying, as if a female character has to prove that she's really not that good, not really. The "demographics of whimsy" are hard to calculate, but I seemed to run across it in the older works more often than in the newer; perhaps earlier creators of Mary Sue felt more obliged to pull back from the notion of female as superhero than have more recent creators.

[4] The Museum was the first American children's magazine to publish letters from its subscribers, who included Native American children (mostly attending mission schools). Though some white readers claimed to be interested in Native Americans, they were not particularly responsive to the real thing, never mentioning them in their letters; the Native Americans did not contribute regularly to the letters column.

[5] The narrator, though, has the final word -- and revenge. Having conjured Avon and Vila by writing about them, she gets revenge on them through the same method:

There was enough paper beside my typewriter for a full length adventure. But if I couldn't be in it, then I was damned if they were going to be, either...

'The Federation officer nodded to his men as he watched his targets walk towards him. When they drew level, he gave the command and a volley of fire swept the narrow street.

When the dust had settled, it was possible to see the mutilated, and very dead, bodies of Vila and Avon.' (6)


the bibliography | the Mary Sues


Copyright 1999-2003, Pat Pflieger

To "Nineteenth-Century American Children & What They Read"
Some of the children | Some of their books | Some of their magazines
To "Voices from 19th-Century America"
Some works for adults, 1800-1872

To Titles at this site | Subjects at this site | Works by date
Map of the site