Every professional you’ve ever heard of has started out somewhere, and in general, people start out badly. This is especially true for writers. Nobody begins their writing career with a perfect grasp on grammar, plot, foreshadowing, or character building. Writing is a process; the longer you work at it, the better you get.
But we don’t just start as blank slates, either. A writer’s first works, messy and flawed, have often been influenced by whatever media the writer has been consuming. More than that, personal experiences influences writers. This reality has been true for centuries, and is the reason why the term "Mary Sue" has entered the literary world.
Back in the 1960’s, Star Trek was an extremely popular show. Not ratings-wise, but it has its own group of die-hard fans, and those people created the first fan magazine, or fanzine. They mailed in stories, now called fanfiction, about the characters of the Starship Enterprise, and eventually a reoccurring theme made itself known. Fan authors were adding their own invented characters, and since many of the writers were female, most of the new characters were women as well. These female characters had a startling amount in common: they were often beautiful, had a near-genius-level intellect, beloved by the original characters, and involved in a romantic relationship with one of the male characters. This phenomenon was later parodied in one fanfiction called A Trekkie’s Tale, by Paula Smith, in which the character Mary Sue embodied every terrible stereotype found in these stories.
Since then, the term Mary Sue has been used to refer to any character, usually female, who is deemed “too perfect” by the fans. Originally intended for only a fanfiction author’s own creation, it has spread to even canon characters. Because of this, the definition has become somewhat distorted. At its core, Mary Sue refers to a character with an unbelievable amount of skill paradoxical to their established backstory, a superior moral high ground, and a lack of any development or growth. Lately, it has been applied to any girl who is slightly cool and does things that the male characters cannot do.
Male characters rarely have such standards applied to them. Luke Skywalker can blow up the Death Star during his first time in a star fighter, but Rey’s proficiency with a lightsaber is considered unrealistic even though she’d already demonstrated her skill with weapons.
It would be unfair if I didn’t talk about the problems with Mary Sues, because they do exist. It might be better to term them as simply poorly written characters, because that’s what they are. They don’t have a coherent character arc, they never make mistakes, and their actions defy all logic both internal and external to the story. However, there is an inherently sexist side to a Mary Sue, and that is the “better than other girls” aspect. Since most Mary Sues are written by women, this issue is a result of internalized misogyny on the part of the creator. Women don’t want to be like other women; we want to be better because we’ve been conditioned to believe that being a woman is weak. This manifests in a Mary Sue’s tendency to call other girls slurs, judge them, and condemn them for not being as perfect as themselves.
Like any other aspect of literature, Mary Sues deserve to be studied and critiqued. However, this term is not the kiss of death that many seem to think. It is merely a way for writers to get their feet wet and eventually grow beyond that. Everyone should start out creating Mary Sues, for they are often a reflection of ourselves.
Picture credit: Peter Turnley