21 July 2013

The Absence Sue

Mary Sue, as first defined in the Star Trek fandom, was an original character introduced to the Trek universe whose presence bent the plot to serve a wish-fulfilment fantasy of a fanfic's author.  Mary Sue was a self-insertion valorised to the detriment of the existing characters.

This definition has been expanded to include "any authorial self-insertion" even in original fiction, (and in the worst instances distorted to substantively cover "any female who is valorised at all, in any circumstance"), but lately I've been thinking back on the occurrence of Mary Sue as a fanfic insertion and wondering at the purpose she served.

In particular, I've been thinking about Mary Sue in relation to this web comic by Interrobang Studios.  It's a very funny comic!  In the first episode, "Mary Sue Must Die", the Enterprise suffers a Sue, and the crew takes drastic action.  But it's the second episode, and specifically this page, which has been bubbling over in the back of my mind.  This episode, "The Wrath of Sue", involves a veritable plague of Sues, which have spread from the Trek universe and gone to take over other stories.

The page features a bunch of different men characters from stories I had enjoyed over the years - represented here as "the greatest minds in the Universe" and I found myself saying: "Speaking of Sues...".

But, of course, these were men characters with their own stories, and thus the plot cannot be distorted to serve them, as it was shaped around them in the first place.  The Doctor and Sherlock there most definitely fit the "overloaded with virtues" criteria, but not the Enterprise crew.  There we have Kirk the action guy, Spock the Smartest, Sulu the Swordsman, Bones the Cynic and medical genius, Scotty the reliable, and Uhura the linguist.

Then it hit me.  The Smurfette Principle.  The stories where Mary Sue was born, and where we hear the most about her obnoxiousness, are the stories where the main characters are almost all men - and all different types of men - and perhaps one main female character (who usually doesn't get to do as much cool stuff as the guys).  A male fan of Trek has a range of male characters in which to identify, who are all cool and valorised in their own different ways.  A female character either gets to identify with the male characters, or with Uhura (who is cool and valorised but is frequently not given much to do in the plot).  The same with female Lord of the Rings fans.  There are a broad range of male characters, one of whom is likely to suit a male reader's personality.  There are no female characters in the Fellowship, and the female characters (particularly in the novels) are either brief appearances, or kept out of the main action.

We don't hear about the plague of Mary Sue inserts in Cardcaptor Sakura fanfic.  Or the Powerpuff Girls.  Sure, there might be a little, but where a story offers a range of female characters, who are not sidelined from the action, a female fan is in the situation which the male fan enjoys in Star Trek or Lord of the Rings.  A range of characters of the gender she identifies with, actively participating in the story as a main player.

And so I ask myself: Is Mary Sue - obnoxious and world-distorting as she can be - simply making up for a lack in the world she has entered?  When we see Mary Sue, should we be deriding the fanfic writer?  Or questioning the gender breakdown of the original universe?

Is Mary Sue in fact Absence Sue, working hard to make up for the 50% of the population missing out on the fun?


  1. Hmm...maybe its not just nostalgain that makes me like the old Dr Who more than the new seasons. The newer ones are more Mary Sue-y. And you have a good point regarding Mary Sues in male dominated shows.

  2. The last two seasons of Who haven't worked for me at all.

  3. That is really insightful - the Marty Stus are so baked into the stories that they escape attention while fear of Mary Sue characters prevents people from ever changing the status quo. Doubly damned.

    By the way, do you follow Adventure Time at all? Princess Bubblegum and Marceline are terrific.

  4. I mainly know of Adventure Time through my Tumblr feed. I'll have to get a DVD some time, since it sounds worth watching.

  5. I recommend it. It abounds in nifty, unexpected characters.

    Have you, by any chance, written anything for younger children? Jade (now almost 3) loves Disney princess books, but they're awfully dull to read.

  6. I don't think I could manage younger reader books - they're quite difficult! Diana Wynne Jones has a couple of young reader books, but otherwise consider investigating Jane Yolen.

  7. I had always pictured "Mary Sue" as a badly written overly competent authorial self-insertion into fan fic, but you do have a point about Absence Sue in shows like "Star Trek" and books like "Lord of the Rings," which leads to fan fic with female characters. It's a fascinating insight. Thanks for pointing it out. It's true that not every female character is a Mary Sue and I'll be reading those stories more carefully from now on.

    I have to respectfully disagree with you about "Doctor Who," however, because it is, basically, a show about one man. My impression is that the reason there is no strong female character is the same reason there is no strong second male character. It's a show with one protagonist and an ever-changing cast of sidekicks, and often prone to Marty Stu fan fics as often as Mary Sue fan fics because of that. (I'll leave it as an exercise for the commenters to argue whether or not The Doctor should ever be played by a woman.)

    Thank you for your insightful post.

    1. There have been plenty of strong female characters on Doctor Who. The balance shifts with various reincarnations, but very often the show is as much interested in the companion's story as the Doctor's.

      There's been strong male characters too (and by strong, I mean, someone who actually has a personality, as opposed to just being there so the Doctor can show how wonderful the Doctor is).

  8. Andrea,

    The history of "Mary Sue" is pretty interesting, especially given that a term invented by an editor of a Trek fanzine in 1978 to describe a very specific kind of character turning up in fan-fic (and with a lot of people at the time suggesting it really wasn't a common trope in fan-fic at all) has somehow morphed into a term for any kind of hyper-competent character in any kind of writing, even big-budget studio movies.

    I suspect that you're onto something. The new Trek movies fit: all the main characters are hyper-competent, but only one of them is a woman and she gets one small scene to demonstrate her competence before being relegated for the rest of the movie to fretting over the safety of her boyfriend.

  9. Counterpoint: self inserts in the Mass Effect universe, which does have a large number of interesting female characters who are given things to do.

    1. Self-inserts have spread to appear in all manner of stories (as I said, I'm sure there's _some_ Powerpuff girls fanfic with self-inserts). I personally think the distortional aspects of the Sue are one of the most important points: that she is like a mini black hole dragging all the attention from all the other characters.

      But then, I also don't think that characters in their own stories should be called Sues. Because then the plot focus is where it belongs: they're the hero of their own story. And, if, say Katniss is called a Sue (I've seen that), then so is Jason Bourne and James Bond. Original stories with impossibly heroic main characters are simply a sub-set of storytelling and the challenge there is not to make them less heroic, but to continue to have an interesting story, and have the audience continue to like the character despite them being 'shaken, not stirred' (Anita Blake being an example of this generally failing).

  10. I do not think you understood the term of Mary Sue completly. To understand it, you'll need to dig into character development and storytelling not only from the position of an enthusiastic writer, but also look upon it from a professional side. For example, Sues (and yes, also their male one) set themselfs as the center of everything. Not on a protagonist term that would allow you at least to connect with the character and all the characters that surrounds and interacts with it, but morelike using everything else around the Sue-Character to let her shine alone. A well-written protagonist would allow any other character around it at least shine with it in the same way the protagonist does itself. also, letting shine others more than the protagonist does from time to time.
    because this is how you interact with people you respect and care for in real life, too: you help them without forcing your help and opinion onto them, help them to rise and shine and to be happy- but still let them decide whether they they feel like to be in need of your help and advice or not.

    A Sueish character does not have that kind of respect: ignoring the personality of every other mate that's close to her, warping personalities and reality around the way how it pleases the protagonist and forcing itself onto everyone else, getting still respected and loved by everybody in the story (even if you have the urge to punch that person into its face if you'd met him/her in real life).
    A Sueish character forces its way into the head of the ready instead respectfully introducing itself and leave the judgement onto the reader alone if its worth to be loved or not. It DEMANDS to be loved and uses the reader to be part of the enjoyment the author kept him-/herself during writing the story. You're not part of the story. you're not even respectfully invited in it. you're brought their by force- and it's not a good one.

    Being an outstanding person doesn't make a character a Sueish character. narcissm and disrespect for every other character does.

    Imagne yourself as a person with a specific skin tone or eyecolor and I would come to you and call yourself a sue or fake- how'd you react? you would most likely call me a racist and demand I'd treat you in a respectful way as the person you are- and you'd had every right to do so! So why is it okay to treat characters in an inappropriative way? Because they are not real?
    If we do not respect the characters- or only our character alone- we will create most likely a Sueish character.

    Being outstanding doesn't. Being strong doesn't. Having unusual physicial character traits doesn't. Disrespecting and narcissm does.

    So take heart: do not look upon a Sueish character by the looks or traits. Try to respect that character and see if he or she will response to that respect or ever respected you and all the other characters in the first place. If so, you're not having a Sueish character at all; you're having the friend you can share an adventure with.


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