I'm surprised nobody has brought up this oft-discussed topic here yet. So...I'm doing it. Just because I was in a conversation with fellow-poster Starstruck about it on another board, and it's a topic I have a lot of thoughts about. Probably too many thoughts.
For those of you who haven't encountered it...probably not a lot of you..."What is the term "Mary Sue", and what does it have to do with writing?"
Mary Sue, as I understand it, is a term that was coined in Star Trek fandom. It refers to an original character in fanfic that is just so perfect/pretty/special, etc. etc. that it makes people reading fanfic nauseated. Original character in fanfic being a character the fanfic writer made up themselves, rather than a character that is present in the canon/original source material of the universe the fanfic is written in. A Mary Sue is the beautiful, talented, special female character that made Kirk or Spock or some main-cast character fall madly in love with, or otherwise alter their normal characterization in ways that serves to make the Mary Sue character all the more special.
There's a few checklists out there that people like to read down and compare to this or that character, to "see" if that character is a "Mary Sue" (Or "Gary Stu" for the male characters). It reads something like this:
Does the character have an unusual eye, hair, or skin color that everyone remarks on?
Do all the characters instantly fall in love with this character, except the Bad Guys who hate her on sight?
Does this character have a horribly tragic past that seemingly has no psychological effects on her personality whatsoever? (she's still the nicest, most loving and generous person around?)
Is this character extremely talented or skilled in a profession that the reader is supposed to think highly of?
Is this character only half (or less) human, the other half being something "exotic"? (half elf, half unicorn, half faery princess, half she-devil from hell?)
Do all the men want this character? Or women? Or both?
Does the character save the day, all by themselves, to the astonishment of everyone else?
The list goes on and on. Typically if your character has three or more traits, it is (oh no!) considered a Mary Sue.
So. That's how a Mary Sue is defined. Now, onto my hopefully coherently-presented rant.
I go nuts when people apply the term "Mary Sue" to original characters. I hate it. I LOATHE it. Here's why...
The Mary Sue checklist is not the true definition of the intent of the term Mary Sue. BUT it's what people use to "prove" a character they dislike is "bad". Have I confused you yet?
I know WHY the term Mary Sue was invented for fanfiction. Anyone who has slushed through bad fanfiction knows why. You get young writers (young in terms of how long they've been writing, and sometimes just young in general) who get excited about the universe they're writing about, and wants to one-up the original protagonist of the series. Because many SFF series already have hero-type characters as the protagonists...characters that are already the best at something, or are in some other way unique compared to the rest of characters in their world...and people get excited about getting something even "better", so that's what a writer tries to write...one-upping the universe's original protagonist *seems* the next logical step, and seems to need the fanfiction original character having even stronger/better/cooler powers than the "canon" characters.
It's like if you watch kids play with dolls..."But MY Teenage Mutnant Ninja Turtle has super EYE BEAMS that SLICE through DIAMOND!!!!" That's how kids, upset that their friend has the cooler action figure, try to shore their self-confidence up. All kids do it. I did it...I was very upset as a kid when some other kid has a barbie with cooler clothes than mine had. And if they said their barbie could fly, I wanted to give mine magical powers too.
So the writer puts their fanfic up, with this story about a character that's EVEN BETTER than the original hero, and readers, who also want another piece of that universe they are so enchanted by, come to read it. Except...who is this new character? Eww, yuck! That's so not true, why are all the canon characters acting horribly out-of-character in this original character's presence? The new original character clashes badly with the existing canon characters, and with the expectations of the fanfic readers. The readers know there's something WRONG with this original character, something false about it, something that does not fit the rules of the universe. The suspension of belief that is required when you read fiction is broken, and the readers razz the poorly-written piece of fanfiction, crying, "Mary Sue! Mary Sue!".
It seems obvious what broke that suspension of belief...the super diamond-cutting eye beams, right? It seems blindingly (ba dum dum) obvious. But...not really. Because once a writer gets some skill under their belt, they can write about characters with extraordinary traits. An experienced writer knows how to balance a characters, so that even their diamond-cutting eye-beams are twisted, and massaged, and given counters such as flaws, that make the character come to life. They can get this extraordinary character to "play nicely with others". But fanfic writers are not typically professional writers. (The few who write at a level that would be considered *mediocre* in the published fiction world stand out like utter deities among the fanfiction dross.) And this does not happen often.
So the term Mary Sue was coined to address the common issue of poor characterization, when a young writer takes the plunge and stops puppeteering existing characters and tries to make their own entirely from scratch. But...popularly, people think it really just means that the super laser eye beams are bad. That the purple hair with orange streaks is bad. They think the checklist of common traits found in Mary Sues defines the real issues that a Mary Sue has, the real issues that are making them dislike the fanfic they are reading.
That's...unlikable, but ok to me. "Mary Sue" happens so often in fanfiction that it was inevitable a term would be coined to refer to that particular type of character. I understand why the term popped up, and I understand how the definition can be inaccurate, but still work for the purpose of identifying a "Mary Sue". I'll let that be.
But...the term Mary Sue creeps into people criting original fiction, because many SFF readers wade in both worlds. (I do!) And that's where I REALLY get my feathers ruffled. Because it only takes a quick glance at some of our SFF classics and not-yet-classics to dredge up LOTS of main characters that fit the Mary Sue Don't List. The Hero archetype--Superman is an example of this--is chock-full of things on the Mary Sue Don't list.
And so I think, very strongly, that terming a character in an unpublished...or even published...original work a Mary Sue is terribly incorrect. It's not an issue of Laser Eye Beams...readers will happily believe your Laser Eye Beams...IF you are a good enough writer that you can get them to suspend their disbelief in general. Which is really a goal of ALL SFF fiction. Or any fiction, period. People only start picking on your laser eye beams when you're having characterization problems, and that's not something the popular definition of Mary Sue makes evident. So the term gives a lot of bad advise, all in one tight two-word package.
I also think the term Mary Sue penalizes the Hero archetype more than any other, and that makes me sad. Because I'm quite sick of all the anti-heros running around. I want more Superman, more Richard Rahl (without the preaching plots, but that's a separate issue), more Phedre, or Aslan, or Kvothe. Or more [insert your favorite Good-Aligned Hero here]. But with the Mary Sue whipping post being set up in every corner of the internet, I'm afraid it is going to kill budding heroes before they even start to bud. Before they even come close to germinating. I fear an overwhelming invasion of the anti-hero (ok, ok, I don't. I'm just sick of anti-heros.) I'm 100% sure that if I had been on the net and active in the would-be-writer community when I started writing--say, ages 10-13--I would be downright PARANOID of accidentally writing a Mary Sue character. (I'm confident enough now, but when I started, the least criticism, even if TRUE, would have crushed my dreams.) And I think it might have given me a whole set of complexes that I would have had to surmount. As things turned out, my approach to learning more about how to write was already pretty prosaic when I hit the net, and I felt little need to gulp down every and any speck of info as I probably would have done when younger.
There's a difference between telling a would-be author that it's going to be a freaking hard uphill battle to ever get published, and stomping all over someone's ambitions. It's like taking candy from a baby because the baby doesn't know karate yet. I think the term Mary Sue is just so subversive. Sometimes subtly, but sometimes overly if you get in bed with a bad critique group and they blame their lack of interest in your story on the Mary Sue rather than the poor characterization. I've seen readers leaving crits on the web who have a strong, "Ack, Mary Sue. This entire story sucks!" thing going on. Which is entirely unhelpful to a would-be writer.
So yeah. I grudgingly accept the utility of the term in fanfic, but I vigorously protest about it in original fic.
Of course, I could just be full of shit. And that's why I've posted this long post about the term Mary Sue. Am I full of shit? Overly worried about the impact a simple term might have? What do you guys think?