Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Mary Sue

Several years ago there were a lot of Star Wars books hitting the shelves and I was buying just about all of them. This was that golden age just before Episode 1 where the public’s hunger for more Star Wars was really beginning to peak and Lucasfilm happily obliged the fans with all kinds of books and merchandising. I, like many, many others, hungrily consumed as many of the books as I could get my hands on.

Dengar Rulezzzz!!!1!!One of them was Tales of the Bounty Hunters. Set in the time around Empire Strikes Back, this book featured short stories about those wacky hunters that Darth Vader hired to chase Han Solo and company. I liked some of these guys, Dengar was a cool character that I thought didn’t quite get the pop he deserved. IG-88 was a big, deadly looking droid, and who doesn’t like Boba Fett?

Then I got to the Bossk story.

Poor, poor BosskIt was a fairly disappointing read for me because Bossk didn’t even seem to be the main character. There was some stuff about him, but most of it was from the point of view of another bounty hunter who was trying to set him up. The end of the story essentially has Bossk captured and it is heavily insinuated that he was made into a Trandoshan-hide garment for an Imperial officer’s wife because, hey, who wouldn’t want a dress made out of that guy?

What set me off about this story was that writer Kathy Tyers just didn’t seem interested in Bossk at all and would rather have her own character be the focal point of the action. I didn’t quite put my finger on it 100%, but the thought did cross my mind that the character Tinian I'att was somehow some kind of author surrogate.

Flash forward a few years and through the wonder of the Internet, I am introduced to the concept of a Mary Sue.

Mary Sue is a derogatory term used to describe a character created by a writer who exists solely for the purpose of the writer’s wish fulfillment. Mary Sues (or Gary Sue or Marty Stu) join the crew of the Enterprise, go to Professor Xavier’s mansion, or meet Scully and Mulder and quickly become the center of attention. They solve the problems that the main characters can’t, capture the heart of Bilbo, Spock, or Harry Potter, and then die dramatically in someone’s arms at the end of the story.

I guess in theory a Mary Sue does serve a purpose. Written correctly, these proxies can give the reader someone to relate to. And of course, who wouldn’t want to save the Earth/galaxy/universe with Luke Skywalker/Spike Spiegal/Wolverine? In reality though, it seems like a sad cry for help. Someone is so sad and lonely that no one could possibly relate to his or her unique problems that he or she has to retreat into someone else’s fantasy world where his/her character kicks ass, takes names, and leaves a lemon-fresh scent.

As you might imagine, Mary Sue’s aren’t only confined to the realm of science fiction and fantasy fan fiction (is that sci fi and fan fan fic?). I have heard (on the Internet, so it must be true) that Dirk Pitt is a surrogate of his author Clive Cussler. I have seen the movie Sahara but I am not familiar with the character beyond that. Reading his description in Wikipedia certainly leads me to believe that assessment though. Opaline green eyes which can be either alluring or intimidating, indeed.

There’s a lot of stuff out there about Mary Sue, you can check out for yourself the many web pages about the subject. I recommend reading the short story where the name got its origin. There’s also a test you can take if you think your character might have Mary Sue leanings.

Incidentally, I scored an 87. Jon the Intergalactic Gladiator is a Mary Sue!


Avery said...

When I was a kid, that's how I used to play pretend; I'd take my favorite TV show or book and then re-weave the story around a character I created. I never knew there was a word for it (other than play), or that it had become an official writing issue.

I suppose inserting a "Mary Sue" (aside from the logical notion of it being a self-aggrandizing avatar for the author) gives the writer a feeling of more control. With this new person they no longer have to work as much within the set constraints of the given characters. But, at that point, it seems it would just be easier for the writer to go on and create their own original story and use the character for that, instead.

SQT said...

I can't think of how many times I've read characters that would qualify as the "Mary Sue" without realizing it had a name.

I can totally see how an author would fall prey to this. I can see that I would have to watch this tendency myself. There is something comforting about a character that we can sort of live vicariously through. I think it takes more courage to write a character who doesn't always get it right, who gets hurt and is all too human.

And at the same time it's still somewhat satisfying to see the main character kick ass and come out on top. So I guess it would take a delicate balance to prevent a character from fulling taking on the "Mary Sue" persona.

SQT said...

I tested a character I've been working on and came up with a 23, so I feel pretty good about that.

A Army Of (Cl)One said...

I got a 37, which is pretty Mary Sue. I am shamed for my clone trooper. (but isn't that the point of making a fan fic character)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Putting new characters in a familiar set-up is fascinating; I'm sure readers have seen me do it.

Alex said...

So, Bill and Ted of "Excellent Adventure" fame are pretty much completely Mary Sues (or Marty Stus, wtf ever!).

Darth Nepharia said...

It's what I do....why else would I live vicariously through my character on the web....

DonkeyBlog said...

Have never heard about Mary Sues, but when I was at school, it was always a favourite of English teachers to get their creative writing students, particularly the less imaginitive, and less gifted ones, to write themselves into a story they had read. I guess this is a good way of getting the creative juices flowing for those whose pipes were a bit blocked, but I'm not sure it needs to be developed into a complete novel which we are expected to pay for.

I am hearing vague cries of breeched copyright.

Kate S said...

Interesting. The character I thought would be less Mary Sue scored 34, the one I thought would be more MS only a 13.

Alex said...

Just watched Eragon:


Better movie than what the critics let on, though. In fact, quite enjoyable with brain turned on MED-LOW.

fringes said...

I read this entire post with great interest. That says something about your writing since I rarely read sci-fi topics. Very well done.

Thanks for visiting my blog yesterday during Mist's hostile takeover.

Professor Xavier said...

I know I'm a Mary Sue and I'm damn proud of it.

Asara said...

I'd have to agree with you on Dirk Pitt. My husband has a few of his novels, so I've read a couple, and it definitely seems like he's an Indiana Jones wannabe. The stories are good, and fun to read, but he's just too over-the-top action hero sometimes. I mean.. they find an abandoned plane in the middle of the desert, and he can make a vehicle out of it?? Give me a break.

I guess over the whole series, Dirk gradually gets older. This isn't a big deal, until he gets too old to be the hero, and suddenly, oh look, here's his son, just waiting to follow in daddy's footsteps. NO. Hubby agrees, he won't even read the ones about Dirk's son.

SQT said...


What's even more interesting about the whole Dirk Pitt thing is that not only is Dirk's son taking over the series, but Clive Cussler's son (coincidentally named Dirk) is taking over as the author of the series. If you look on some of the new books, Dirk Cussler is added as co-author. At least, I don't think he has authored a book solo yet..

Dirk is definitely a Mary Sue character, but I'm not sure if it's an extension of Clive or if it's a Mary Sue character created for his son. I'm sure a psychologist could have a field day with this one.