Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Little Miss Mary Sue, Where Did You Come From?

The Following the the first in a series of articles exploring the concept of the Mary Sue character type.

Mary Sue is a familiar name to the majority if not all amateur writers who got their start through the internet in the last few decades.  It is a name that inspires fear, repulsion, and flaming anger and is considered one of the most scathing insults one can apply to another’s fiction.  There is no precise definition of “Mary Sue” except that it refers to a character, usually a specific character that a reader dislikes due to possessing certain unpalatable traits.  Mary Sue wasn’t always such a nebulous concept, though, and her history reaches farther back into the history of fandom than the advent of widespread internet use.  Mary Sue dates back, as do many common “geeky” things, to Star Trek.
In the early 1970s, fanfiction based on popular television shows was beginning to emerge.  Star Trek was one of the biggest focal points for early fanfiction, and the stories were often collection in fan-produced magazines and distributed at conventions.  A trend soon emerged among female fanfiction writers of simply inserting themselves onto the bridge of the starship Enterpise as some kind of exceptionally young and skilled prodigy.  These gals were usually perfect in every way and possessed the ability to make any male crew member - including Spock - to fall in love with them.  Adventures would be had until the author grew tired of the plot and had their gifted, desirable, and all-around perfect ensign die in some tragic manner to cap off the story.
This type of Trek fanfiction, often poorly written, was a recognized trend but didn’t receive any names (or at least names that stuck) until Paula Smith, who edited a fanzine called Menagerie, saw one particularly egregious example cross her path and decided to respond.  She wrote a short little parody titled A Trekkie’s Tale starring Lt. Mary Sue, a woman who distilled the common “young prodigy that everyone loves” traits into a single satirical package.  Following the publication of A Trekkie’s Tale, Paula and her co-editor Shannon Ferraro used “Lt. Mary Sue” to refer to that sort of plotline in their letters of comment and reviews for other fanzines.  As she entered the public consciousness, Mary Sue lost her military rank and became shorthand for any female self-insert character in Star Trek fanfiction, regardless of whether or not that character fit the traits the Lieutenant had.
Mary Sue remained within the Star Trek fandom for years, eventually spreading out from fanfiction and into discussions about the show itself, particularly Star Trek: The Next Generation and characters like Wesley Crusher.  It was only once the internet became a common gathering place for fans that Mary Sue escaped into the general consciousness and began to lose her precise definitions.  While there are still long lists of traits and behaviours commonly attributed to Mary Sue characters, the term has in large part lost a lot of usefulness as shorthand character critique.  This isn’t helped by the inflammatory stubbornness of many amateur writers who are too in love with what they’ve produced to accept any sort of criticism.  Inflammatory-minded critics may throw the term around simply to annoy the author or because they can’t actually explain why they don’t like a particular character.
On the other hand, for authors open to criticism from constructive-minded readers, a cry of “Mary Sue” may be general warning that something in the writing needs serious work, or the author simply has a lot of room to grow.  I’ll go into more details about how to improve a Mary Sue into something worthwhile in the future.

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