Mary Sue, Gary Stu: FU, by John Ostrander
Every single person who reads something I’ve written, including these essays, has a right to their own opinion of it – good, bad, indifferent. That goes with the territory. Sure, it’s nice to hear that the reader loves what I’ve done but I’m a big boy; I can take a brickbat or two. My rules are generally 1) actually read what I’ve done, 2) know what you’re talking about and 3) put a little effort into the critique.
That’s part of the reason I dislike the fandom use of “Mary Sue” and “Gary Stu;” its faux criticism. Fan critics tick off check boxes, add up a score – when they bother to do even that much – and then slap on a label.
For those not part of the culture, let me explain. As the all knowing, all powerful Wikipedia states: “Mary Sue, sometimes shortened simply to Sue, is a pejorative term used to describe a fictional character who plays a major role in the plot and is particularly characterized by overly idealized and clichéd mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors.” The male version is frequently referred to as Gary Stu. The characters are also sometimes described as an “author’s pet.” Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation is used as a prime example.
There are several “Mary Sue litmus tests” floating around the Internet to help determine the degree of “Mary Sue-ness” in a character. They’re checklists and were originally designed to help those authors writing fan fiction to determine if their character might be a “Mary Sue” or her male doppelganger. You can find the Original Mary Sue litmus test here, the self designated Universal Mary Sue litmus test here, The “Original Fiction Mary Sue Litmus Test” here, and “The Writer’s Mary Sue Test” here.
What emerges time and again from this various litmus tests is that they are intended to be tools for writers and, usually, for younger and more inexperienced writers, and as such I have no problem with them. Each test that I’ve seen has stated it is not infallible and that a character could conceivably score highly on the test without being a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. One test noted that Bono of U2 scored a 72 and he’s not a character; he’s a real person. Well, allegedly.
My problem is that none of them are meant or really work as a critical tool for someone other than the writer and yet it frequently gets used that way. Fans do it all over the Internet. The tests ask the author to check off whether certain statements or questions are true and it asks the writer to be honest. They ask for the connection that the character has to the writer and whether said character is really just an idealized version of the writer him or herself.
The writer is able to do that but the reader or critic really isn’t. The fan/critic assumes certain connections based upon 1) his or her reading of the story; 2) his or her reading of the character; and 3) his or her perception of what that relationship between writer and creation “must be”. It presumes a knowledge that the reader cannot possibly have. It is dishonest and it is lazy in that it does not involve true critical thinking. It simply allows the would-be critic to check some boxes and, based upon his/her limited understanding of the writer and the creation, make a pronouncement.
That, of course, is when they put even that much effort into it. It’s far easier to assume the character is “primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors” because that’s how it seems to a particular reader. They get to slap a pejorative and dismissive label on the work without having proven their case or even bothering with any of the tests.
Look, I don’t like broccoli, as many people who know me will tell you. I just don’t like it. I say they’re “tiny trees” and I won’t eat ‘em. I’ve been known to pick them out of dishes. I don’t have a reason. I don’t need a reason. I just don’t like broccoli. Doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with broccoli per se; it just means I don’t like it.
If someone just doesn’t like something I’ve written or a character I’ve created, I have no problem with them saying, “That’s broccoli and I just don’t like it.” Doesn’t mean that the character is a “Mary Sue;” it just means it’s broccoli. I can respect that. If the person has specific reasons for not liking a character or a story, trot ‘em out. Don’t hide behind a generic complaint like “Mary Sue.”
I think that the reason people do hide behind faux critiques like Mary Sue is that a real critique tells us as much about the person making the critique as it does about the work being critiqued. Perhaps more. To write is to lay yourself naked to the reader to a greater or lesser extent. It’s true whether you’re a creative or a critical writer. We use words as a mask; on the Internet some use different names all intended to make themselves anonymous. The only way to write effectively and truly honestly, however, is lay yourself open – an effect I have heard elsewhere referred to as becoming “naked behind the mask.” We assume a persona but the persona we assume still proclaims who we are because it is an aspect of ourselves. The same holds true with our characters. It holds true as well for those making critiques of the work – however anonymously those critics think they are appearing.
The mistake the young writers make in creating a “Mary Sue” or a “Gary Stu” is identifying only with the one character they’ve created when what is required is that you identify with all the characters, good and bad, greater or lesser, that are in your story. Do I have my favorite characters in a story? Sure I do. My job, however, is to make sure I’m emotionally invested into all the characters in the story. If I am not, then why should the reader be?
The last complaint I have about the “litmus tests” is that it may make novice writers self conscious at a time when they really can’t afford it. Uncle John is going to tell all you new writers out there a secret – odds are you’re going to start by writing crap. Reams of crap. That’s okay. We all do it. You’ll probably think it’s great stuff at the time when you write it; odds are it will be crap. Don’t worry about it. Keep writing.
Take all the courses in the world that you want, read all the books, take all the litmus tests – the only real way you’re going to learn to write is by actually writing. You will write stuff today that it will physically pain you to look at five years from now. If you keep writing, you’ll get better. If you do it and learn from what you’ve done, you’ll get better. If you have any real talent and skill, you’ll get better. First, you have to write the crap out of your system.
I am going to tell you the greatest piece of advice I got on anything anywhere in my creative life. It happened to be in an acting class back in college and it was taught me by a wonderful, mad, and now sadly deceased English actor/director/ unbelievably gifted teacher named Harold Lang. He told us we have a right to fail. You have a right to try something and have it not work so long as it was an honest attempt. So long as you put everything into it. Make big mistakes. Fail spectacularly. There’s no percentage in making small mistakes; you learn nothing from them. Make big ones, survive and learn from them and try again. Dare everything.
If a Mary Sue litmus test helps you, then by all means use it. There’s only one way to write and that’s whatever way works for you. Don’t, however, let someone else use the test against you. It’s worth nothing as a critical standard. It’s a cliché that seems to have authority because so many people use it. They’re wrong; it doesn’t; ignore it. Go make your big mistakes and learn. Keep writing.
The rest of you – keep your goddamn Mary Sues to yourself.
John Ostrander will be at the FallCon in St. Paul MN this weekend, where he expects to be nominated vice-president.