Previously I presented my Mary Sue test, a (hopefully) more nuanced version of the many internet quizzes that help beginning authors determine if their characters are too unrealistic. Today, however, I’m going to go the opposite direction and discuss the problems with the concept of Mary Sues. Some of these problems I think pose no difficulty. Others are more concerning.
The most obvious issue–Mary Sue’s inception and ongoing prominence in fanfiction–is not actually one of my major concerns. Yes, the concept was created for fan fiction, but it’s obviously applicable to all fiction, and should very rightly be divorced from its roots. You’ll notice that my test doesn’t include any fan fiction-specific questions. Fanfiction has its own set of problems, but I don’t think that unrealistic characters need to be one of them.
Another objection I often hear is that the Mary Sue concept (especially as seen on Mary Sue tests) is unfair to science fiction and fantasy. There is truth to this, and it’s unavoidable: Fantasy and sci-fi simply have more room for this sort of mistake because there are Sue-like traits that apply to fantasy or sci-fi but not realistic fiction, but there reverse is not true. An immortal character or one who can fly, traits only found in fantasy and sci-fi, is immediately edging closer to being a Mary Sue. Still, I think, and my test confirms, that a properly written character can have a fair number of fantasy/sci-fi traits without setting off any red flags as long as zie is, in fact, a well-written character.
The bigger problem with the sci-fi ghetto issue is that it gives realistic-fiction authors the impression that Mary Sues aren’t something they need to worry about. Consequently, I see Sues all the time in literary fiction. They inherit fortunes but work anyway because no one else could fill their prestigious shoes; they don’t have the heart to fire their parents’ loyal housekeepers who do all their chores for them; everyone turns to them for advice (or ignores their advice at their peril); their handsome younger boyfriends spontaneously whisk them off to picnics in private planes. No magic powers needed here to create unrealism.
Mary Sues can also create a laziness problem where characters are evaluated based on whether they are Mary Sues or not without considering either what makes Mary Sues a problem or what other problems there might be with a character.
But, I think, the main problem with the concept of Mary Sues is the gender issue. While most character types default to male and the female character is the exception, Mary Sues are female by default and the male Marty/Gary Stu is the unusual variant. Female characters, especially those written by female authors, are far more likely to be slapped with this label than male characters; people like Captain Kirk and James Bond have practically all the Sue traits, but rarely get criticized on that basis.
The practical effect of the Mary Sue gender bias is to dismiss female characters and silence female authors by through use of a gendered concept that renders the character automatically worthless. The unfortunate implications are many: Men deserve wish-fulfillment fantasies but it’s silly and frivolous when women write them, it’s unrealistic for women to excel at many things but okay for men, and so on.
So let’s be careful with this term. Mary Sues definitely exist and there can be times when it’s helpful to use it with regard to both one’s own work and the work of others. But it can also become a lazy catch-all tool and a way to unfairly marginalize female characters and writers. Understand the term, but don’t immediately gravitate to it. Writing is complex and reliance on a concept like the Mary Sue will only hinder you from evaluating things accurately.