I hate Mary Sues.
It’s not, however, for the reason that you might think. We’ve all encountered Mary Sue characters — a product of fan fiction (typically an author insert) who can do everything, fix all problems, knows everything and knows exactly how to solve any given mystery. In my experience, Mary Sues are often not perfect, but charmingly flawed (so clumsy!) and very often that flaw ensures she is always the center of attention. Everyone loves her because the author wants it that way rather than because she is, in fact, lovable.
But at some point (I’m honestly not sure when) the Mary Sue shifted away from wish-fulfilling author insert to a woman who was good at too much. Quelle horreur!
I had a sneaking suspicion when I wrote Marduk’s Rebellion that I was going to hear that accusation leveled against the main character, Mallory MacLain. She is, by her nature, a highly skilled, badass kind of character: a super agent who neither wants nor arguably needs much support. She’s a loner, and she has the skill set to pull that off (or a least she’s convinced herself of this.) A friend of mine, with the best of intentions, came to me mid-read on the book and said, ‘Aren’t you concerned that people are going to think she’s a Mary Sue?’
I admit I was waiting for the accusation. I was dreading it. My friend certainly didn’t deserve the way I snapped his head off in response (Sorry!)
Here’s the thing though: I’ve had this feeling for a while that lurking underneath the ‘Mary Sue’ label is something kind of ugly. Here, I’ll give you some examples:
- The Shadow
- Doc Savage
- Iron Man
- Doctor Who
(There are plenty more out there.)
I grew up on these guys and it honestly never occurred to me that there was anything wrong with these multi-talented, skilled men of action. Yes, they were virtual demi-gods, but I didn’t read pulps or comics to read about normal ‘realistic’ people. And I loved it when their strengths so often became their weakness.
So I have heard it said that these characters are the male equivalents of Mary Sues (Gary Stues) but honestly, it’s not a accusation that’s leveled very often. Most of the time, these characters are given a pass and a high-five by men and women alike.
Always be yourself, as the meme says, unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.
But the female equivalent of these gentlemen is invariably labeled a Mary Sue, as my friend worried my main character would be.
See the problem?
Now someone can point out that any character who has no flaws is boring, and I can’t argue with that. I totally agree. The characters I named above all have flaws, usually flaws of personality rather than physical or mental aptitude. They are tortured souls, whose skill, intelligence and powers can’t bring them solace, bring back loves lost, or ease the guilt of the crimes abetted. (Heavy is the head that wears the crown, or cowl, or sonic screwdriver.) And that’s what Mallory is too. It’s exactly what Mallory is. The decision to make her that was very intentional, precisely because I was having a really hard time thinking of any female equivalents of these men (no, Catwoman is NOT the female equivalent of Batman.) We take such care as writers to make sure our women are good…but not too good.
Many years ago, I worked for a brilliant woman from New Zealand who introduced me to the idea of ‘tall poppies’ (which Wikipedia tells me is a gender neutral pejorative, but which she had insisted was, at least in her hometown, only applied to women.) A tall poppy was slang for a person who was too successful, too pretty, too smart, too whatever. A tall poppy stands out from all the other flowers, making them look short by comparison. And what do you do with a tall poppy?
You cut it down.
So I wonder, sometimes, if we have made the definition of Mary Sue so broad as to cover not only those character inserts from fan fiction to whom it originally applied, but any female character who wants to tread the same path as men have tread previously. Are we too quick to levy this accusation? I think so. I think it’s worth a hard look at the fact that we’re quick to apply this label to women but we have to go all the way over to Superman to see it consistently applied to a male. If we really want to start addressing equality in science-fiction and fantasy, we need to become a little more comfortable with the idea that women too can fill these rolls.
So IS Mallory MacLain a Mary Sue?
Well…she’s a psychic assassin-trained genius with her own personal AI, all the cool toys, a tortured soul, and a problem with abusing various vices to cover for her searing guilt over her past. She kicks ass, takes shit from exactly no one, and is arrogantly convinced of her rightness in all things, with horrific consequences whenever she is proved wrong. She doesn’t always make the right decision. She doesn’t always win. She let’s people down. Sometimes she’s downright selfish and does, in fact, have terrible taste in men.
Is that a Mary Sue? I suppose Mary Sue is in the eye of the beholder, and for some people, it will be. If any of the above men I listed can be considered Gary Stues, then yes, yes she is a Mary Sue. On the other hand, if being their female equivalent makes her a Mary Sue, then I’ll own it proudly.
As they say in the video game industry: it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.