Interestingly, it looks from here like the pro-Sue side are defining her as “an original female character who does fun stuff”, and the anti-Sue side are thinking of her as “an original character who warps the story around her”. (I’d love to know if the pro-Sues think the anti-Sues hate female characters – or if the antis think the pros love story-warping – but I’m going slightly off-topic, here.)
So what I wanted to discuss was my definition of a Mary-Sue, and what its place should be in a story. Or, in fact:
What I Mean By Mary-Sue and Why I Hate Her
As many of you know, I first came to fandom via metafandom – and spent several months reading discussions of fanfic before actually reading the fic.
After a few months of lurking, I could have told you anything you liked about Mary-Sue’s. In detail.
- she is female.
- she’s an OC.
- she has purple eyes, and improbably coloured hair.
- she giggles, flirts, and is loved by everyone.
- she can do anything.
- she will instantly fall in love with Legolas.
- she will have a tragic backstory.
- she will be wonderful beyond belief.
The “female OC” bit, especially, was emphasised in pretty much every piece of meta I read.
Imagine my surprise when the first Mary-Sue I encountered was… Xander Harris.
[I am about to do some rather nasty ranting about a piece of fanfic. While I will not be naming it or directing you towards it, it’s quite possible that some of you will recognise which story I’m talking about. Let me just emphasise that I’m using it as an example, and please don’t mention it by name, rant about this specific story in the comments, or make nasty comments about the author.]
Like I was saying, I hadn’t yet read much fanfic. And I hadn’t encountered any Mary-Sue’s. But I’d read all about them – and was happily watching out for this female OC with purple eyes, and meanwhile, wondering what on earth was wrong with the story I was currently reading.
Something was wrong with it. It was a good story – fun and well written – and I was enjoying it. But something was… off.
It was about Xander. The non-magical, not-so-good-at-stuff guy.
The guy who was, in fact, so un-magical that he was the only person in the world whose soul could be sent back in time to fix the world and make things right again.
…which was kind of an interesting story idea, I guess.
And it showed flashes of his life, through the years – like him being married to Faith, and then kissing Buffy and feeling guilty. And I went “Ooh. Interesting. So he’s cheating on Faith…” – but no, he wasn’t. This was after Faith died, and instead the guilt was there to emphasise the tragic backstory and general woobieness of our hero.
Still, it was nicely written. And interesting that his wife had died tragically.
And while everyone else was busily becoming good at magic, Xander couldn’t because he was so non-magical – so instead, he went into magical weapons forging. And it turned out that, in fact, the more non-magical you were, the better you’d be at forging, and so Xander was destined to be the best weapons forger in the world.
Which meant that there were interesting weapons around. And had some fun stuff happen because of that. And they were certainly well thought-out.
And because he was sent back in time, he knew what was going to happen – so he stopped Angel from losing his soul, and saved Kendra, and saved Jenny, and stopped pretty much every disaster they dealt with in advance…
Reasonably logical, given the going-back-in-time premise. But I resented him for stopping Angel losing his soul – which was ridiculous, because after all, he was doing something good and saving Buffy from heartbreak, and why on earth did I have a problem with that?
And then he met Faith (who he’d been married to in the future) and was all concerned about her, and worried because he was supposed to end up with Faith and then have her die and marry Buffy, and which one of them was he supposed to marry now that he knew the future? Angst, angst, angst…
…the guy was angsting about which of the two beautiful women he should choose. Out of two women who loved him. This was his biggest problem? He was starting to irritate me a bit.
And there was this whole plot with Willow, too – the story wasn’t just about Xander – where she sent him back in time to prevent all the heartache they’d go through, and stop Tara dying, and stop herself from destroying the world.
Which was kinda interesting and time paradoxy, with her stopping herself back in the past, and it was a really cool plan that she’d thought of because when Faith had died she’d looked back and realised how much they’d lost when she saw Xander mourning for his wife… and was this WHOLE FRIGGING STORY about Xander?! EVERYONE KEPT TALKING ABOUT HIM. WHAT THE FRELL.
Behold. A Mary-Sue. A very definite Mary-Sue, despite his lack of femaleness or original-character-ness, or anything that I’d been led to expect.
The most satisfying piece of fiction I’ve ever written is Infestation. In which the Fang Gang hunt down a bunch of Mary-Sue’s and slaughter them all.
Mid-fic, I had Wesley research them and find the following information:
“Reality bends to suit their purpose
They are all, and we are worthless
Smiles destroy us, truth is lie
All they touch will shrivel and die”
Reality bends to suit their purpose. That’s what was wrong with Xander. The story was warping itself around Xander, and reshaping the world so that everything – everything – revolved around him.
The plot was about him. Willow’s plan happened because of him. The girls all loved him. The Scoobies all started listening to him. The world was made better by him. Kendra was saved by him. The world was all about him.
That’s why I resented him stopping Angel from going evil. He wasn’t just doing something good in his own story – he was stealing Buffy’s story, and making her plot his instead. All the character-building moments that made all these people what they were had been transformed into Xander-heroing moments, in which Xander would save the day AGAIN, and no-one would ever experience heartache because Xander would help them, Xander was so cool, Xander Xander Xander Xander…
IT WAS ALL ABOUT HIM.
I seem to have ended up with a slightly different idea of what a Mary-Sue is.
Firstly, she’s not a self-insert. Self-inserts work more like this. They’re similar, but they’re not the same. (Self-inserts are cute. Mary-Sue’s are destructive.)
And she’s not a female OC – not necessarily. If you want to write a female OC who can fight cyborgs and run the Enterprise and fly, go right ahead! And give her purple eyes and fluffy pink hair and a name like Twyla Moonlight Evensong! Woo!
The problem is not the OC. It’s not that she’s a girl. It’s not even the purple eyes. The problem is when the story starts warping itself – when everything, and everyone, and every single piece of anything ever is all bound up in the one character. With no room for anyone else.
That’s the Mary-Sue. She’s problematic. Sometimes, she’s downright toxic.
And I hate her.