Mary Sue Must Die!
By Gail Z. Martin
Imagine a character who is extremely attractive, in excellent physical condition, has but to look at a member of the opposite sex to successfully seduce that person AND is an expert with weapons, covert operations, all forms of martial arts. Everyone wants to either be this character or sleep with this character.
A real ‘Mary Sue’–right? Must be the writer projecting onto a character, living vicariously, building a fantasy alter-ego instead of crafting a realistic character.
Wrong. The name is Bond. James Bond. And I’ve never yet heard anyone describe Bond as a ‘Gary Stu’ (the male equivalent of Mary Sue) even though Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, was a former spy and had a lot in common with good ol’ 007.
The term ‘Mary Sue’ gets used a lot, and most of the time, it’s used improperly, even by book reviewers, in ways that are overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, aimed at female writers and female characters. Maybe that’s because there are three meanings for the term, only one of which is technically correct. Too often, the term is used incorrectly and translates into a generic put-down of any interesting and talented female character written by a female author.
Mary Sue #1–The Original. The term ‘Mary Sue’ comes out of Star Trek fan fiction, and describes an early story with Lt. Mary Sue who was braver than Kirk, smarter than Spock, better at everything than anyone, loved by everyone and desired by every man on the ship. It was a charicature, not a real character, and a cautionary example of bad writing by an fan author. I’ll argue that this–and only this–is the way the term ‘Mary Sue’ or ‘Gary Stu’ should be used.
Mary Sue #2– The Put-Down. As already noted, men can create superheroes and ace detectives, fearless warriors and super-spies with nary a charge of wish fulfillment. But too often, when professional female writers have characters who are 1) exceptionally good at anything, 2) good at more than one thing and 3) not ugly (horrors!) there’s likely to be charges of Mary Sue-ism. Why? Who says that a woman can’t be an astrophysicist and good at martial arts and be pretty? Or any other combination of accomplished, awesome and attractive? How does it add up that if a female writer creates such a character, she is obviously living out her fantasies as opposed to just writing an interesting protagonist?
Remember, we’re talking about pro writers here, not fan fiction. To me, this kind of put-down Mary Sue-ism is a veiled way to say that female characters can’t be strong protagonists, can’t have the same attributes that enable male protagonists to carry a story, or must be relegated to second banana status. Balderdash! The notion that a woman can’t be good at more than one thing, exceptional in her field, and still be attractive seems to be a way of telling women that they need to remain limited. Sorry, honey, the Mary Sue-ists seem to imply, but smart women can’t be pretty, or sexy, and no real women might actually be the world’s expert in anything, or have earned high skills in more than one type of achievement. (Quick–make a list of male protagonists that are handsome, experts in their field and can kick serious ass. Did you run out of paper yet? That’s what I’m talking about!)
Mary Sue #3–Intimidating. I’ve heard this less, but enough to note. Apparently there are some female readers who feel that reading about characters who are too awesome makes them feel inferior and dissatisfied. They feel pressure to measure up. They feel like they aren’t good enough by comparison. Um…there’s no delicate way to say this. Grow a pair (of ovaries). Who wants to read about wimpy protagonists just so the reader doesn’t feel outclassed? Do men put down a James Bond book or a Dirk Pitt adventure and feel the need to drink themselves stupid because they aren’t just like those (fictional!) characters? Does the awesome competence of Indiana Jones make men swoon and ponder their inadequacy? I highly doubt it.
We’re a hundred-plus years on from Jane Austin and the Bronte sisters. Women now outnumber men in medical school admissions in the US, and are playing increased roles in combat-level positions in the military. We’ve seen female astronauts, physicists, biologists, etc. in real life as well as champion female athletes, Olympians, body builders and martial arts champions. The idea that real, complex, accomplished (and good-looking!) women can master subject matter, kick ass, and win the love of a good (secure) man shouldn’t be open to charges of Mary Sue-ism.
Can we please dispense with the trope that all smart women are homely, all accomplished women are lonely, and that protagonist-level female characters are any less plausible than are male characters? Or to put it another way–how many real-life men have you ever met who measure up to Harry Dresden, James Bond or Dirk Pitt? If they aren’t ‘unrealistic wish-fulfillment’, then neither are equally awesome female characters.
And that’s why Mary Sue must die.
Check out my new Steampunk novel Iron and Blood, co-written with Larry N. Martin, set in an alternative history Pittsburgh in 1898. In stores July 7!
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Gail Z. Martin writes epic fantasy, urban fantasy and steampunk for Solaris Books and Orbit Books. In addition to Iron and Blood, she is the author of Deadly Curiosities and the upcoming Vendetta in her urban fantasy series; The Chronicles of The Necromancer series (The Summoner, The Blood King, Dark Haven, Dark Lady’s Chosen) from Solaris Books and The Fallen Kings Cycle (The Sworn, The Dread) as well as Ice Forged, Reign of Ash, and War of Shadows in The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga from Orbit Books. Gail writes two series of ebook short stories: The Jonmarc Vahanian Adventures and the Deadly Curiosities Adventures and her work has appeared in over 20 US/UK anthologies.
Larry N. Martin fell in love with fantasy and science fiction when he was a teenager. After a twenty-five year career in Corporate America, Larry started working full-time with his wife, author Gail Z. Martin and discovered that he had a knack for storytelling, plotting and character development, as well as being a darn fine editor. Iron and Blood is their first official collaboration. On the rare occasions when Larry isn’t working on book-related things, he enjoys pottery, cooking and reading.
Find them at www.JakeDesmet.com, on Twitter @GailZMartin or @LNMartinauthor, on Facebook.com/WinterKingdoms, at DisquietingVisions.com blog and GhostInTheMachinePodcast.com, on Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/GailZMartin free excerpts, Wattpad http://wattpad.com/GailZMartin.