On the Fanfiction Origins of the Mary Sue

The term “Mary Sue,” originally meaning a kind of overly perfect self-insert character in fanfiction who would be dropped into a story to solve all of its problems, has been a battlefield of sorts in popular culture. Characters are called Mary Sues if they show even the slightest bit of wish fulfillment, and in response there is a feminist movement to reclaim the term, fueled by the idea that idealized male characters are the norm and similar female characters are unfairly maligned. This is what is fueling discussion concerning the character Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. However, I feel that, as the discussion over which characters are and aren’t Mary Sues due to their perfect (or perfectly dramatic) natures, the fact that the term derives specifically from fanfiction gets lost in the shuffle, and that it is crucial to remember that its origin comes not from big blockbuster movies but from fans of popular culture navigating their chosen works and worlds.

Before I go into greater detail, I want to make a few points clear. First, I do not think wish fulfillment characters are inherently bad, whether they’re male, female, or something else entirely. Second, I believe fanfiction does have merit as a space for active participation, as a source for good and/or interesting stories, and everything else in between. Third, I understand that the meanings of words can change over time. Basically, this isn’t a criticism of fanfiction, or lack of originality, or a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the natural evolution of language.

The earliest known use of the term “Mary Sue” comes from Star Trek fandom, specifically from Paula Smith’s parody of a common trend in Star Trek fanfics at the time. Essentially, many stories would involve a young girl (most Star Trek fanfiction was written by women in the 1970s) who would become the center of attention, would have some unique visual identifier that instantly screamed “unique,” and would have just enough tragedy to emphasize how special they are. While you can think of many characters in fiction who fulfill these categories (Uzumaki Naruto, Bella in Twilight), I think the real key to the “Mary Sue,” and why its fanfic origins are so important to remember, is that by being the center of attention they were viewed as 1) drawing focus away from the world and characters that form the basis for that fandom 2) their idealized natures, rather than feeling universal, felt overly specific to the point of making it difficult to empathize.

To expand on both points, when we look at anime and see the generic shounen hero with a unique and special power, or the generic shoujo heroine who all the boys fall in love with, they can be seen as attempts to have a broader, more general appeal. Even if they end up being cliches, and even if they’re considered by more hardcore fans as being “boring”—though I think this comes from a time when fandoms were more niche and the deepest fans tended to prefer the subversive/evil/morally gray characters—there is a desire for broader appeal. When a character’s quirks or backstory or overall qualities make them wish fulfillment for people at large, that is different from when those same traits make them inaccessible to a reader due to being overly specific. In other words, when a character feels as if they are designed solely to appeal to only the author and no one else, then the term “Mary Sue” comes to light.

Of course, even that criteria is subjective, as different people will connect to different characters, whether they come from fanfiction or not. Also, if the “Mary Sue” was such a problem that Paula Smith had to address it, perhaps it could be argued that there were enough people with that same fantasy that it could be considered a broad enough desire to not be thought of as “overly specific.” It also needs to be pointed out that the Mary Sue derives from an amateur space, where writers do not have editors or marketers or even the need for a coherent narrative. These sorts of stories tend to happen naturally from those who do not consider common “good story rules” such as conflict, character depth, etc., and in a way we all have our Mary Sue stories inside of us where everything just goes right.

However, the idea of the Mary Sue did not originally come from an explicit connection to women, narratives, and society, but rather an implicit one. Because Star Trek fanfiction was the domain of women, it is possible to argue that its values developed in a feminine space, which when expanded to also include men to a large degree made Mary Sues a target for criticism and conflict in ways that trivialized the wish fulfillment of women more than men. Perhaps the biggest issue with the “Mary Sue” is in her name: chosen to be generic, and to reflect a recurring type of character in fanfiction, the doubly feminine nature of the moniker infuses it with gender values. Even though alternatives have been created for males (Gary Stu, Marty Stu), they simply never caught on as much. It’s also interesting to note that criticism of the Mary Sue originally took place between women.

I have one last question to ask: does the term Mary Sue even need to be reclaimed? Have men really seized it as their own, or has it never really left the grasp of women at all?

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5 thoughts on “On the Fanfiction Origins of the Mary Sue

  1. I’m not sure Mary Sue needs to be reclaimed. I think the spirit of the term is still firmly caught up in female criticisms of (primarily) female characters, regardless of its widespread usage.

    But I think the problem of the Mary Sue has predated the term. And in all forms of literature, not only fanfiction. Mary Sue isn’t just a platform for wish fulfillment. As you said, a Mary Sue

    1) draw[s] focus away from the world and characters that form the basis for that fandom

    It’s a valid criticism when the setting, world, other characters, or events of a story are simplified and cheapened in order to make a main character more sympathetic or appealing. This is universal in all forms of storytelling – not limited to fanworks.

    (Not that being the target of a valid criticism makes something bad. So long as there’s enjoyment to be had.)

    Although, in reference to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, isn’t this made more complicated by the fact that the movie is, at least in part, an officially produced fanwork?

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  2. Pingback: New Year, New Anime: Ogiue Maniax Status Update for January 2016 | OGIUE MANIAX

  3. What’s interested me is how the more male-dominated spaces within fanfiction have not had such a backlash to self-insert fix-fics. There are many well-received anime and video game fanfictions that involve self-inserts falling into the fandom world as fans of the world. Epics seem helpless against introducing entire secondary casts of original characters that just so happen to be more perfect than the original source material cast.
    In the cases where authors have become aware enough of fanfiction terminology, rather than introducing original characters, they simply turn the protagonist into their self-insert in all but name. “What if Shirou was actually a geek? What if Naruto was actually a cunning schemer? What if Shinji was well-adjusted? What if Harry Potter was a rationalist?” And often these fanfictions unabashedly involve harems for said altered protagonist, so it’s not like romance is the thing that makes Mary Sue reviled. (There’s a notorious section of Negima fic…)

    The condemnation of Mary Sue originated from a specific sector: western live-action fandoms with popular slash ships.

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    • I have to admit that I’ve not read fanfiction actively in a very long time, so my conception of it might be dated, but I do recall seeing similar pseudo-self inserts. I’m reminded somewhat of an article by a Ranma 1/2 writer, Twoflower, about how many fans of Ranma 1/2 viewed the series in a very particular light that didn’t accurately reflect the work itself. You can read it here: http://suitablefortreatment.blogspot.com/2011/04/fear-and-loathing-in-nerima-real.html

      It’s not quite the same, but I can see this sense of wanting to “fix” a series by having its core characters act more like how you are or wish to be.

      Sometimes when I think about fanfics, I recall a Pokemon one I read years ago. It was simply someone describing their characters one player mode adventure (and then he beat Lance and had to fight Gary and then he caught Mewtwo!), and though I turned my nose up at it at the time, looking back there is a certain unabashed sense of desire and wish fulfillment that doesn’t seem as bad when it’s so out on the surface. In this way, having a self insert character in the guise of an existing character might be somehow…diabolical?

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      • Ah yes, fanon, that lovely space of misperception and false memory. It is, however, only criticized by people who revere canon. In fandoms where the canon is unsatisfying, (arguably the type of canon that most wants for fanfiction) fanon can sometimes be embraced as the superior option.

        I wouldn’t say alteration of an existing character is diabolical. Yes, out-of-character is very grating to a reader that wants the recreation of the feelings they got from canon, but that is not the only reason to read fanfiction. I just find it interesting how which factions of fans that ascribe to either position can sometimes match certain demographics. And this also changes depending on one’s emotional investment in a fandom! I have certain source material where I call out mischaracterization trends, and other source material where I much prefer “altered-character” fics.

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