Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary

Let’s talk about the Mary Sue. It’s damn-near iconic in the literary world by now, but for those uninitiated, it derives from the name of a self-inserted character that appeared in an old Star Trek fan-fiction someone wrote.

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It was bad, I s’pose…

The character was inserted into the established star-crossing universe where she was loved by all and could do no wrong. Since its ubiquity, the concept of a Mary Sue has been a mark of shame, stamped on characters that are unnatural in the story they exist within; all other characters love and admire them, even the antagonists – who are usually obsessed with them; they have no flaws, or none that actually cause any kind of conflict, and instead come across as endearing qualities; and usually, nothing is beyond their abilities to complete, fix, or otherwise succeed at. Writers of accused Mary Sues are seen as amateurish, scribbling out fan-ficy, self-insert trash that does not deserve to stand among the pantheons of the literary greats!

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This town ain’t big enough for two unrealistically-named protagonists

Unfortunately, nowadays Mary Sue is a term used as paint in broad strokes, criticizing with very little consideration to context or even…well, general consistency or understanding. To this end, things like self-inserts are lumped together with the worst of the worst, but I’ve got a problem with that.

There’s Something About Mary Sue

As mentioned above, a Mary Sue is difficult to find enjoyment in, but let’s crack that can of worms right open and dig in to exactly why. The original Mary Sue was essentially a “perfect” character, and by perfect, I don’t mean in a literary sense. A Mary Sue is perfect in a way where everything works out for them, and while I’d hope you understand why, I’m still gonna talk about it in detail because this is my blog and if you don’t like it I’ll turn this thing around and bring us right back to Winnipeg.

Aside from unrealistic concepts that destroy the suspension of disbelief, this all ultimately comes across as a lack of conflict in the narrative. One of the main things a story needs to do is be interesting, and simply following a guy going throughout his day with nothing eventful happening is boring, or as one of my writing profs put it, “Makes me wanna shoot myself.” Conflict is necessary to tell a story, something has to happen to the characters. It can come from many different places, it doesn’t matter, but it has to appear. Nobody cares about a day in the life of a character where nothing happens. Even news talks about what isn’t normal because the status quo doesn’t need to be reported on.

If all the characters love our Mary Sue, well then no conflict can come from a romantic plot, or a story of waning or strengthened bonds, or even a rivalry. If, in many cases, the antagonist is also diggin’ on ol’ MS, the stakes are difficult to solidify, leading to a lack of dramatic tension – despite the interesting prospects of having bad guys who don’t outright want the protagonist dead. If the Mary Sue is perfect at everything they do, there are no deficiencies that they need to cover with the help of other characters, flaws in their personality we want to see ironed out, and we never fear for their lives or success. Even worse is charming little quirks that are meant to be considered flaws, but are really just disarming, charismatic qualities that never really cause a problem and only make a character more likable.

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Who doesn’t love a clumsy girl?

Granted, it’s entirely possible for conflict to arise in a story involving a Mary Sue, but the closer they get to the conflict, the less dramatic it will end up. It’s almost like having a deus ex machina as a main character. We all know how frustrating those can be on their own when they appear, think about it being the protagonist.

Another reason why a Mary Sue is often seen as a terrible thing is because they are sometimes self-inserts of the writer (or their acquaintances).

Self-Inserts & Self-Indulgence

Given that the Mary Sue first appeared in fan-fiction, it stands to reason that the character would also be a self-insert of the writer. However, there’s nothing wrong with that in particular, and if I’m being honest (and getting to the point of this article), there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with self-inserts in general. The idea of a self-insert is obviously that the writer wants to put themselves in the world they are writing in, either one they create from scratch or one they have always loved, like those found in fan-fiction. The bigger question is why?

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Don’t think too hard Marky Mark, you might smash the pea

The answer should be quite obvious: it’s an exercise in what it would be like to exist in that particular world. When I wrote a self-insert fan-fic, it was for that exact reason. I was trying out an idea, and I wanted to have fun and just indulge in the what-ifs of a world I thought was sorta cool. Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with that, either. You can write about all your favorite characters fawning over your self-insert and there’s no problem with that, enjoy yourself. However, if you’re attempting to make a piece of literary work that you want others to enjoy, you have to be careful about those kinds of things. Of course you’re going to enjoy palling around with your role models, but will others? It depends, because your self-insert character might be a decently likable character in their own right, or relatable in some way that extends well beyond simply your own tastes or ideals.

The important thing to remember here, though, is that a self-insert character is not a Mary Sue, and vice-versa. The two can definitely overlap, as is the case with The Progenitor, but writers write what they know, and it’s unreasonable to demand a writer not put a bit of themselves in the characters that populate their stories. Furthermore, the insinuation that a self-insert is bad simply because of their origin does a massive disservice to the perspective the writer may have, the experiences they could speak of. Many of the greatest stories ever told carry measures of their author, giving insight to racial injustice, gender dynamics, and struggles of class.

A self-insert character can be relatable, if they resonate with the intended audience. A self-insert character in no way is trapped in the bindings of what make a Mary Sue so problematic. A self-insert character can even be just as downtrodden and imperfect as any other character in any other adequately-told story.

Separation Anxiety

The point is, Mary Sue characters suck because they don’t allow for much dramatic tension, if any. It’s their perfection that prevents them from ever being a character anyone but the writer can get behind. However, self-insert characters aren’t necessarily going to end up the same way, because they are wholly separate from what hampers the former. If you’re going to be concerned with either of these mines in the literary field, it would behoove you to learn to separate what elements are actually making a character problematic, rather than lumping them all together. If you want to make a self-insert character, just go for it, but also remember to put them in an interesting story full of drama and worthwhile stakes. Test their mettle the same way you would any other character – you might just find out something about yourself in the process.

Until the next post, Keep Yourself Alive!

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