Rana Bob's Field Guide to Mary Sues
by Rana Eros
Rana Bob's Field Guide to Mary Sues
HOW TO SPOT A MARY SUE
Recently, on one of the lists to which I belong, discussion arose regarding the definition of a Mary Sue. I've been in fandom long enough to have witnessed several permutations of this discussion, and what always amuses me is the contortions authors will go through in order to exempt their own original characters from the Mary Sue label. "A Mary Sue is always romantically involved with one of the canon characters, so my OFC isn't a Mary Sue." "My character is romantically involved with one of the canon characters, but she's not related to any of the other canon characters, so she's not a Mary Sue." "My character isn't related to anyone, isn't involved with anyone, and isn't friends with anyone, so she's definitely not a Mary Sue. She's just better at (pick your ability) than any of the canon characters." "My character can't be a Mary Sue, she helps guy A and guy B get together!"
In my experience, there are different models of the Mary Sue. Below I will list several of the most common and the distinct markings that allow you, the intrepid MS hunter, to spot them.
1. The Romantic Lead Sue. The most classically recognized species of Mary Sue, Romantic Lead Sue is she who gets involved with at least one of the canon characters and is usually adored by all the others. She is beautiful, she is clever, she is usually emotionally fragile despite having great "willpower." She often, but not always, has an abusive ex from whom the canon characters must rescue her at some point. Frequently, that ex is a canon villain.
2. The Cousin Sue. This variety of MS is related to at least one canon character, be s/he a sister, brother, cousin, aunt, uncle, grandfather, grandmother, etc. Usually, this MS is the canon character's favorite relative, despite having never been mentioned even once in the canon.
3. The Yenta Sue. The most popular MS in slash stories, Yenta Sue helps two or more of the canon characters realize their love for each other. S/he is often combined with Cousin Sue, or masquerades as Romantic Lead Sue for the first part of the story.
4. The Rival Sue. Rival Sue is better at at least one thing than any other character ever, including a canon character reknowned for that thing. It's often easy to pick out the nesting places of this breed of MS, as the author tends to say in the story notes that she doesn't like a particular canon character and this story was written with the idea of putting said canon character firmly in his/her place. Of course, this is not a foolproof system, as Rival Sue can also turn out to be Romantic Lead Sue as the story progresses.
5. The Fucked Up Sue. This is the one I have most often seen defended as not being a Mary Sue, because she's nowhere near perfect. She is, in fact, so outrageously unstable all logic would dictate she should be sitting in a nuthouse. Stories revolving around Fucked Up Sue tend to either involve the canon characters getting out of her way because she's so much bigger and badder than they are, or the canon characters trying to help her because she's so much more damaged than anyone ever, including the long-suffering canon characters.
6. The Canon Character Sue. Admittedly, this is the species I take most satisfaction in hunting. This is the one where the author takes the canon character with whom she most identifies and/or the one she likes the most, and imbues that character with her own traits to the point of warping said character. This is the MS responsible for such perennial favorites as Cutter!Obi-Wan, Pagan!Blair, Anorexic!Lex, and CryingJag!Draco, among others. The most cagey and sly of the MS genus, Canon Character Sue can be difficult to spot at first, but will always reveal itself in the end.
7. The Villain Sue. We all have a predilection for at least one type of MS, and the Villain Sue is mine. This MS is a more personal enemy to at least one canon character than any other enemy ever, including the ones we saw in the source material. Along with being more personal, Villain Sue is also often smarter, sexier, sicker, and more sharply dressed than canon villains, and usually tied to a canon villain in some way, be it ex-lover, sister, brother, ex-subordinate, or old cellmate.
None of these Mary Sues are mutually exclusive, and it is conceivable to have an OFC in any of these positions who is not a Mary Sue (and I'm talking explicitly female characters here, but this applies equally to male characters), but I've very rarely seen it done successfully.
HOW TO AVOID CREATING A MARY SUE
Think Royalties, Baby
There are a lot of characteristics that set the genus of Mary Sue apart from a standard OFC/OMC. The most important thing to watch for, in my mind, is whether your character is taking over the story. If so, and if you like it that way, then I suggest you do yourself and your fellow fans a favor and stop pretending you're writing fanfic. Take your character, put her in an original setting with original backup characters, write your story, and then find a more suitable venue for it than fandom. Why? Because you will be mocked, and your character will be hunted. I'm not being mean, I'm being honest. Fans have very little tolerance for the old bait and switch, and that's what Mary Sue stories are. They lure you in with the promise of being about your fandom, then turn out to be nothing more than the fantastic adventures of a character only the author and her close friends give a damn about. My advice? See if you can sell her. Hey, it worked for Laurell Hamilton.
If, on the other hand, you really want to write fanfic, but you have this plotline that requires a certain type of character in a certain position and none of the canon characters would work in that position without warping them out of recognition, then perhaps you should consider changing your plotline. Seriously, the less you need to use OCs, especially in major roles, the better in terms of fanfic. If you're really attached to your plotline, then there are a few things to watch for. First, make sure the focus of your story is still the canon characters. I know it's hard when you've put all this time and effort into creating your OFC/OMC and you really think they've turned out well, but if you don't want the Mary Sue label slapped on your hard work, it's best to keep the character in the background.
This is Your Canon on Mary Sue
Also, watch that said character does not have knowledge s/he could not possibly have regarding the canon characters and their situation. Be sure to separate your character from yourself completely when it comes to their knowledge base. In conjunction with this, watch that you're not writing the canon characters reacting to your OC unrealistically. Keep in mind that, for the most part, the canon boys and girls of fandom are a taciturn, suspicious, cautious bunch. They don't spill their life stories to strangers (unless they're Lana), they don't fall in love within three seconds of meeting someone (unless they're Kirk), and they really don't appreciate complete strangers coming up to them and saying, "I know your secret" (unless they're Mulder, but he's an exception to all kinds of rules). At the same time, most of them aren't likely to take an instant and intense dislike to someone they've just met unless that person does something deliberate to provoke them. So, make sure your OC is neither universally adored nor universally hated, and watch that individual character reactions make sense for those characters. Duncan is likely to protect your character if she's in trouble. Methos is not. Blair is likely to strike up a conversation with your character after meeting him on the street. Jim is not. If your character is not a Slytherin, chances are she can speak to Harry and he'll be distantly polite. Draco will not, not even if she's pureblood. Draco doesn't do polite.
Make sure your character's personality traits are balanced, and not likely to overshadow those of a canon character. Make sure he is neither too perfect, nor too warped, to be real. If you absolutely must make your character extraordinary in some way, choose a way that is not in direct conflict with a canon character. Lucas is a computer genius. Do not make your character a better computer genius. No, I don't care what your reasons are. Don't do it. It robs the canon character of a major trait, and that's going to make your audience resentful, both of you and of your character. Resist the urge to one-up the canon characters, whether because you want your character to be attractive to them (Romantic Lead Sue, anyone?) or because you love your character more and want her to show up a canon character you dislike (Rival Sue, anyone?). Also, do not give your character traits in the narrative or other characters' dialogue that are not there when your character acts or talks. Do not say she lives by her wits if you can't back that up with her actions. Do not say he is charming if you're not writing him being charming. Do not have Clark tell Lex, "She's got a lot of willpower," right after she has collapsed crying in his arms because she got a hangnail. Yes, I know this last example could almost be taken from the show, but it actually proves my point. We resent characters in canon who are pushed on us as something other than what their actions indicate them to be. What makes you think your character will fare any better?
Along with the above, you also want to watch that your character's presence is not warping the pre-existing relationships (as well as the pre-existing personalities). Harry already has a best friend. Two of them, in fact. He also has a greatest enemy. Obi-Wan already has a master and a padawan. Clark already has a deep and abiding crush and an archnemesis in the making. Lex already has the great love of his life, both het and slash. Lucas already has a nasty psychic who mind-raped him, and Jim already has an estranged brother. Buffy already has plenty of exes with serious issues. John Crichton already has an archnemesis, a sister, a father, several galaxies-worth of canon enemies, and a lover who is his match. Methos had three fellow Horsemen, and we have met them all. Do you see where I'm going with this? Not only is it not good policy to take your OC and thrust them into the spotlight by having them deeply involved with a canon character, chances are good there's already another canon character occupying that spot.
Knowledge is the First Step
Now, I mentioned I have a weakness for Villain Sues. I have yet to meet an author who doesn't have a weakness for at least one type of Mary Sue. The next time you get an urge to write a story that chiefly features an OC, take a moment to figure out what his role would be in that story. Chances are good, you've just identified your weakness. It's good to know this because, at least once in your fannish writing career, you will likely write a story which makes heavy use of an OC, and you'll want to keep an eye on yourself that you're not allowing your own Mary Sue tendency to come to the fore. It's not easy. You'll probably find yourself doing a lot more rewriting than you do for stories that don't use that kind of OC. In the long run, though, it's definitely worth it. You'll have a successful OC who is well integrated into the canon world, and your audience will be more focused on the success of your story and less focused on the traits of your OC.
HOW TO AVOID CHARACTER ASSASSINATION IN THE NAME OF MARY SUE
We're, Like, Soul-Twins
Now, there is one type of Mary Sue that the above advice doesn't quite work the same for, and that is the Canon Character Sue. This is the one I have most often seen rationalized away in discussions about how to define a Mary Sue. This is the one many authors aren't aware they write, they just know they get a lot of feedback telling them their characterization is warped for one canon character. They're not sure how that can be, because this is their favorite character and every time they watch the source material they're struck by how much this particular character is just like them and...yes, you see it, don't you? Overidentification tends to be at the heart of the Canon Character Sue. It's hard not to do it, too, because it seems only logical to fill in unknown details of a canon character's personality with details of your own personality when the character is so similar to you in other ways. This is why, I suspect, so many of the male characters in the source material are "feminized" in fanfiction written by female authors. I have caught myself doing it, though as a woman who has been accused of being "unfeminine" in her attitudes and emotions, I suppose my own brand of "feminizing" the male characters passes under the radar more easily because the behavior and feelings I write are more stereotypically male. Be that as it may, I have always believed that part of the point of writing fiction is to reach outside the realm of our own experiences, to attempt to inhabit the minds of those different from us. It rather defeats that purpose to appropriate those minds and mold them until they're more like ours in the details.
To combat the above tendencies, my advice would be to sit yourself down and make a list of the differences between you and the character before you start writing the story. Lucas Wolenczak may be an isolated teenage genius, just like you were, but there is no canon to support the idea that he is clinically depressed like you were, and in fact there is canon that would seem to indicate he is not clinically depressed. Furthermore, he may wear baggy clothes and it may be canon that he has been known to forget to eat when he gets caught up in a project, but it's a big leap from those two canon facts to saying he's anorexic or bulemic. There is no evidence Lucas is a cutter, there is canon evidence that he finds the idea of suicide or attempted suicide distasteful, and there is further evidence that he is more likely to explode in anger if something upsets him than go on a crying jag. He is not a stereotypical teenage girl, okay? And he most certainly is not you.
Blair Sandburg is a Jewish hippie child working on his Ph.D at the tender age of twenty-six. He wears earrings and has participated in protests in the past, but he's willing to work with, and be seen with, the police in his city. He's not a vegetarian, there's no canon evidence to suggest he's a devout Jew, and there is also no canon evidence to support that he is pagan. When he swears, he says "God." Not "Goddess," not "Lord and Lady," but "God." He has handled and fired a gun. He has knocked out various bad guys. He has been shown to have a hearty appetite, an ability to cope with setbacks that suggests either he's not depressed or he's on the right blend of medication and therapy, and no cutting scars.
(You'll note I mention cutting in both of the above examples. That's because my bad karma caught up with me recently and caused me to stumble into a big batch of "Lucas as cutter" stories. I considered sporking my eyes, but then decided bitching in my LJ might be a more viable option.)
One of Everything, and Supersize It
Above are two examples of how a canon character can be made Mary Sue by overidentifying with them. This doesn't touch on the other way a canon character can be made a Mary Sue. Namely, taking their extraordinary traits and making them extra ridiculous. There's canon evidence that by the age of seventeen, Lucas has a Bachelors in A. I. Given the context of that bit of information, I believe it's safe to say that if he had a Masters in anything, he would have mentioned it. Giving him his Ph.D at fourteen not only contradicts canon, it moves one of his primary traits from the realm of the impressive to the realm of the absurd. Blair canonically speaks more than one language. I don't remember how many, or if a number was ever given, but a reasonable list wouldn't be that hard to compile based on canon evidence of his travels. Tim O'Neill actually names the number of languages he can speak, and we see him using translation dictionaries in a few episodes to talk to various people. I'm not sure about Daniel Jackson, but I suspect mention has been made of how many languages he actually speaks, or he has at least admitted to one he doesn't, because that seems to be standard practice among shows where a character knows more than one language. I personally will only believe one character can speak just about any language that crops up, and that's Methos. Even then, an in-story explanation for how he knows that one in particular would be welcome. Any other characters, I'll only believe it if they've been given some ability to assimilate a language after hearing or reading a few words (and that kind of plot device usually has its own problems, but I digress).
In short, our guys and gals already tend to be extraordinary in the source material, and most of TPTB seem savvy enough to make the characters just extraordinary enough to be intriguing without being alienating. It's not wise to mess with that balance without a damn good reason, and I suggest you run that reason by a few other people before you really believe it's damn good.
HOW TO WRAP UP A RANT ON MARY SUE
So, those are the basics for how I personally identify Mary Sues. I have no doubt there points I've missed, perhaps even a species or two. Hopefully, though, I've given you enough information both to spot the wild Mary Sue and to avoid raising a domestic one. If so, I'll see you on the hunting grounds.
::dons hat and orange vest and makes sure her red pen is loaded before heading out into the virtual bushes::