This is an exploration of the usage of a common fan fiction device in respected, published literature. It is, as in my Subtext Essay, neither a promotion nor a condemnation of said device, merely a compare-contrast between different characters and approaches in the Mary Sue genre. Mary Sue as a literary device can be somewhat controversial, as it involves the use of the author's own experience and opinions poured into a single character. The character is, in other words, the voice of the author herself. (I will be employing a presupposed feminine example when referring to authors of Mary Sues in the generic sense, unless where applicable, as it is largely a feminine phenomena. It is rare that you come across, for example, a Marty Stu.) I will not be attempting to discover what compells one to write a Mary Sue...I will simply acknowledge that she exists, and point out characters in literature and popular culture that bear a strong resemblance to this device.
To begin, we need a description of what a Mary Sue is like. Her abundant traits will be numbered, as there are many qualities that each Mary Sue possesses, with no two sharing the exact same description (although many are obviously similar). This does not mean that every fictional main character created is a Mary Sue...while inevitably most authors inject a little of their own personality in their works, it takes a special brand of inflated narcissism (or inexperience) to create a Mary Sue. There are also character "archetypes" and certain traits common in fiction. When the character takes on the appearance (or desired appearance) and personal interests of the author, it's generally a Mary Sue.
1. Mary Sue is the star. No doubt about it, you know who she is the minute she walks onto the scene. Every eye swivels to this instant belle of the ball, and she is the topic of conversation everywhere you go. When the majority of the characters spend their lives obsessed with the well-being and happiness of a single person, she's a Mary Sue.
2. Mary Sue is unique. She has unusual hair, eyes, voice, abilities, accessories, taste in furniture, whatever--she is set apart from the others. A disturbing propensity for green eyes is a feature common to Mary Sue, as is a tendency towards unusual height (Mary Sue is tall), ethnicity (Mary Sue is exotic), and appearance (Mary Sue is dead sexy).
3. Mary Sue is talented. She sings, paints, weaves, builds engines, speaks seventeen languages, and is lethal in a variety of martial arts. She invents new technology at the drop of a hat, can nearly read minds with her incredibly perceptive empathy, and absorbs information at the speed of light. Oftentimes she has seemingly supernatural "gifts" at her disposal.
4. Mary Sue is beautiful. Whether thin, curvaceous, exotic, girl-next-door...she's got the looks to make every male character within miles sit up and take notice. Of course, she more often than not scoffs at her alleged beauty, leading her friends and colleagues to remark, "Don't you know how beautiful you are?" That line alone reveals her true nature as a Mary Sue.
5. Mary Sue is intelligent. A 200-point IQ is not an unusual characteristic of a Mary Sue, as neither is multiple degrees in various fields (especially considering her typical youth) from highly respected schools. She is often a self-proclaimed expert in her particular field, and spends pages displaying a mind-blowing intellect to her astounded peers and superiors.
6. Mary Sue is sexy. This is not the same as being beautiful. Her sex appeal means that everywhere she goes, all the male characters seem to fall in her lap (sometimes literally, but as I was saying...). She often has multiple men fighting for the privilege of holding her hand, which is why I am of the opinion that the majority of romance novels are merely a thinly disguised excuse for the authors to get their Mary Sue impulses out of their systems.
7. Mary Sue has a tragic past. This is often merely an excuse to accentuate her uniqueness. "See, she's suffered so much, you HAVE to notice her." Mary Sue has seen her parents tortured and gruesomely killed, lost a sibling in a tragic and unforseeable accident, survived a traumatic and near-fatal injury herself, or has been repeatedly--and unjustly--jilted by a lover or six, making her burned by love and thus appealing to her many male admirers.
8. Mary Sue is loveable. Unless she is intentionally evil (shah, right), Mary Sue has an instant likeability, an ability to create staunch friends and allies on the spot, and make the alliance so strong that said associates are eager to flock to her side should trouble arise that she needs help with (not that she canít do it on her own; Mary Sue can handle anything...). This instantaneous likeability is only natural; after all, the author likes her, and who can argue with that?
9. Above all, Mary Sue is created in the image of her God--in other words, the author. She has the same hobbies, interests, political leanings, religious affiliations, moral stance, and often even appearance of the author (the final usually only shows up in the most narcissistic of authors). She often lives in the same city as the author, and they share occupations. Mary Sueís original purpose is to act as a jumping ground off of which the author to receive "inspiration", which is why she is applied so fervently by amateur writers--they take "write what you know" to a rather unsettling degree. Mary Sue is an often depressingly common phenomena in role-playing as well, and it is not unusual for role-players to write "fictional" stories about their character, ostensibly for experience points and to get a handle on the character when they know bloody well it's their personal opinions in another guise.
Now that we have clarified the exact attributes of this remarkable lady named Mary Sue, let's move on to the specific examples found in modern (and not-so-modern) literature. By the way, just so you don't get the wrong idea: I actually like, and am to an extent a fan of all the genres mentioned. After all, if I didn't like them, I wouldn't be devoting time to an analysis of each!
Ayla from the Earthís Children series. Iíve been reading the Earthís Children series for quite a long time. I first picked up Valley of the Horses when I was twelve, and acquired copies of The Plains of Passage, Clan of the Cave Bear, and The Mammoth Hunters--in that order. I did a bit of skipping around.
Ayla, the beautiful, courageous, intelligent woman of the Others is the main character in the book. She is, in my opinion, the quintessential example of a Mary Sue in full bloom. There is virtually nothing this prehistoric vixen can't do. A tall, beautiful blue-eyed blonde raised by a group of Neanderthals, she is from the very beginning set apart from everyone else in the book. Aside from the character jumping around screaming "Look at me! Look at me!", there is very little that is done to make her anything but a Mary Sue.
Ayla was originally discovered by a group of Neanderthals (referred to in the series as the "Clan") after her family is killed in an earthquake when she was five years old (tragedy!). Nobody wants the strange little girl with the odd-colored eyes (unique!), but eventually the Clan's leader takes pity on her, and allows his sister to raise her (likeability! Her adopted mother is apparently the medicine woman of the Clan, so she teaches Ayla everything about healing--a skill she puts to good use many, many times throughout the course of the series (talent!). Since she's so good with healing herbs, it stands to reason that she's an expert at cooking herbs, and is also an excellent cook (more talent!). She develops the ability to learn quickly, for fear everyone in the Clan will devalue her otherwise, and cast her aside. She also can read body language and nearly read peoples' emotions (still more talent!).
She is the only woman in the Clan allowed to hunt (unique!), and she becomes highly proficient with both a simple sling and spears, even to the extent of co-inventing a spear-thrower (talent! intelligence! creativity! blah blah blah!). She is protected by the Cave Lion, a very strong totem that means she will have a great deal of hardship in her life (of course, that's what makes her a Mary Sue!). While she was in the Clan, she was repeatedly raped by a man she hated (suffering!), and eventually bears his son. She is cast out eventually by the Clan shortly after her son is born, and is sent into exile (tragedy!). She is forced into living off the land by grace of her multiple skills, and quickly sets about to taming a cave lion AND domesticating the world's first horse, all the while engaging in pages of gut-wrenching grief and pathos, accompanied by vast amounts of inner monologue (insightful!), not to mention inventing many flattering new braided hairstyles with which to amuse herself during those lonely ice-age nights.
Eventually she meets a tall, handsome, thoroughly Caucasian man named Jondalar (romance!), only it is unfortunately after her pet cave lion attacks him and his brother, leaving the first gravely injured and the latter dead (tragedy!). During Jondalar's recuperation we see Ayla trying out her vast array of medical knowledge on him, and they start to fall in love, only since Ayla's so innocent and all, she doesn't know how to have sex (despite having had a child...a lot of this book stretches logic a bit far). She picks up his language in a remarkably short amount of time, thanks to her awesome powers of memory (intelligence!), which comes in handy when she reveals she was raised by the Clan, a race he is culturally conditioned to despise. He initially is repelled (tragedy! conflict!), but is quickly won over by her stunning exotic beauty, the fact that she is the only woman within miles (isn't it remarkable how your soulmate is always in some remote icy tundra, and never just around the block?), and he has a broken leg anyway so it's not like he can go anyplace else.
They soon get around to the sex, and of course Ayla quickly picks up a variety of pleasurable techniques that she had never even heard of before (how is it that chaste rape victims always give the best head?), and they decide to leave their little love nest and see the vast teeming cities of prehistoric Europe (population 63...ok, I'm exaggerating, but still...). She is immediately embraced by a group called the Mamutoi, and is quickly inducted into their ranks, earning their love and respect in a matter of days. She is even engaged for a time to one of their number (during which Jondalar becomes disconsolate to the point of nervous breakdown, such is the pain of being out of her circle of light), but in the end decides to leave and join Jondalar in the journey to see his family.
During her stay with the Mamutoi, she treats a small child's congenital heart defect (although he dies of it eventually, as she is limited by the current technology. Otherwise...), domesticates the world's first dog--a wolf puppy she obtained from its den after accidently killing its mother--and invents the needle. Really. She also learns that--surprise!--she has deep and meaningful ties to the spirit worlds, both the polytheist totems of the Clan and the Other's monotheist "Mother".
Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. Anita is a slightly less obvious Mary Sue, possibly because she is more flawed than Ayla. Anita has a decided dark side, due to the horrific tone of the world she lives in. Against a background of gruesome murders and hyper-sensuality, Anita kicks bad-guy butt and still finds time to charm her supernatural squeezes.
We can identify Anita as a Mary Sue by simply reading her physical stats: Petite with curly dark brown hair, brown eyes, pale skin... *looks at jacket cover* A startling resemblance, wouldn't you say? Anita is one of the more physically similar Mary Sues, notable because often as a way to protest their Mary Sue quotient, authors will have their character as physically dissimilar from themselves as possible (making it even more obvious than it would be otherwise). In a way, I admire Laurell K. Hamilton for being out and proud about her character's blatant Mary Sue-ishness...rather refreshing, in a way.
Interestingly enough, Anita has a specific religious affiliation: a former Catholic who converted to Episcopalianism after the Vatican denounced necromancers as immoral. This sounds suspiciously like the author's own moral convictions. Anita's moral quandries are often explicitly outlined for pages or even entire chapters, which is occasionally refreshing and interesting, occasionally repetitive and dull. Okay, we get that she's morally conflicted. You don't have to hammer the last nail into the coffin (sorry, couldn't resist that one!).
Anita has quite a few skeletons in her proverbial closet (although sometimes literally). She has voodoo in her blood thanks to her maternal ancestry--her mother's side of the family is Mexican--and has been able to raise the dead ever since she was a kid. Her mother was killed in a car accident when she was eight (tragedy!), and her step-family is ashamed of her dual occupations. She was evidently engaged for a time prior to the start of the series, but her financee broke it off because his family didn't approve of her ethnic heritage (rejection! prejudice!).
Anita Blake seems to have and be it all. She's strong, self-assured, witty, attractive, resilient, and completely competant at her jobs. Whether raising the dead or staking the undead, she goes above and beyond the call of duty. She's a necromancer, and has a magical "affinity" with all variety of dead beings (unique!), despite denying it (modesty!). She has an amazing, slightly suspect amount of education, knowledge, and experience for someone her age (she is 24 at the start of the series), and her appearance is often liked to a "china doll", with a delicate, yet dramatic beauty--especially considering she hardly ever wears makeup. She doesn't need it, see. Err, riiight.
Anita is also in the seemingly flattering position of being coveted by not one, but two supernatural creatures. One is the top vampire in town: the Master of a suspiciously accurate St. Louis, Missouri, the charming yet manipulative Jean-Claude. The other is leader of his pack: the earnest nice-guy-turned-furry Richard. Both are clamoring for Anita's place in their hearts and beds, and oh dearie me, which shall she choose? (I'm personally in favor of Jean-Claude, but that's neither here nor there). Anita also spends an inordinate amount of time engaging in sex-intensive magical rituals (the aforementioned Jean-Claude's source of power is--what else?--sex) and hanging around lusty and/or touchy-feely supernatural beings (werewolves et al thrive on physical contact, of course). Ooh, sexy.
Anita is special. Since hooking up with Jean-Claude, she's received three vampire bites that allow her nifty-keen supernatural gifts (accelerated healing, among others), and her relationship with Richard caused her to be named lupa (high-ranking female) of his pack. They're all three bound together thanks to some-or-other magical ritual they "accidently" stumbled upon one night, so they can never never ever be separated and leave the series devoid of romantic tension.
Anita gets kick-ass toys. A veritable arsenal is at her disposal: guns, knives, various martial arts abilities, and Edward. In her world, having a soulless psychopath for a best buddy is a real plus, since he can mow down all the baddies that she's too nice/good/moral to kill. She is, after all, the good guy for us to identify with. She's so nice...we see her crying and throwing up at murder scenes, and she's a softie for kids. She even sleeps with a stuffed penguin. Awww. Honestly, the whimsy can get a get a bit overdone at times.
Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. In stark contrast to Anita Blake's overt violence and sexualization, this particular Mary Sue is a proper young lady, perfectly adapting to the environment her creator lived in. This is a rather unusual Mary Sue, given the lack of a physical description of the character--we are told only that she has "dark eyes". This probably means that she has dark hair as well (although given the setting, is certainly Caucasian). Let's see if we can find other Mary Sue qualities in Lizzie.
Lizzie walks three miles in the post-rain mud (spunk!) to see her ailing sister (empathy!). She catches the attention of Mr. Darcy, the richest, most important man for miles (worthwhile!), and wins his heart with her saucy, no-nonsense attitude (more spunk!) despite being poor and lower-class (pathos!), and having a dysfunctional family. She can sing, dance, draw, speak all sorts of languages, and is judged an intelligent, literate person by her upper- class admirer (talent! intelligence! grace! blah blah blah!). Through a series of delightful romantic misunderstandings (conflict! romance! plot!), she and her dream-guy admirer (hell, I'm not knocking Mr. Darcy...if I had someone like him on my proverbial line, my life would automatically improve too) find True Love and live Happily Ever After in Regency-era bliss.
Throughout this entire scenario, we are treated to Jane Austen's candid, dryly witty views on her world and the realities of life for unmarried, eligible women. Lizzie acts as a mouthpiece for Austen's personal viewpoints, and you can find no better definition of a Mary Sue than that. Ms. Austen's Mary Sue takes a nearly-political stance on life, and in her own light-hearted frivolous way cuts through the niceties of the society of the time to reveal the stark truth about the necessity of marriage in the 19th century, at least for women. Lizzie also repeatedly declares her intention to refuse marriage for all but the deepest, most sincere love, likely echoing the sentiments of her creator (who remained unmarried to her death).
Nearly all of the characters excepting Lizzie's beloved sister Jane (which may be based on Austen's own close relationship with her nearly idolized sister Cassandra) are eventually revealed to have some or other crippling flaw that makes them social hypocrites, especially the characters who are alledgedly Lizzie and company's social betters. And even Jane is described as "too gentle" and soft and basically a doormat for people preying on her goodness.
Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. You don't often see the male counterpart to Mary Sue--affectionately known as "Marty Stu"--in fiction, possibly because women are more likely to become emotionally attached to and identify with their creations. Marty Stu is generally less likely to be as overtly flashy as his sister, but he still makes his presence known, and this particular Marty Stu is known all over the world. Luke's a pop-culture icon, and deservedly so, of course...George made him, George likes him, and as I intend to maintain, George IS him.
Let's start with the name. Luke...Lucas. Hmmmm. A bit heavy on connecting the dots, but that's okay. Luke is also one of the less physically-appealing Mary Sues--I've often likened him to a ferret with bad skin--but that's okay too. Surprisingly, Luke is one of the few Mary Sues Iíve noticed that doesn't see much romantic action--he saves the galaxy and gets the magic power, but he doesn't get the girl (fortunately, because it would be rather squicky otherwise).
Luke starts out as just an ordinary young man with a yearning to see the galaxy and all of What Is Out There (potential!). He's quickly whisked into all sorts of adventure after he finds a mysterious message from a beautiful princess, and goes off to deliver the message to its owner, Obi-Wan Kenobi. He returns with Kenobi to find his aunt and uncle killed (tragedy!), and decides to leave and find his destiny and save the galaxy. Along the way he befriends robots, bounty hunters and aliens (likeability!), and picks up a few mystical pointers from his Wise Old Mentor Kenobi. We're given quite a few hints that Luke is Not What He Seems To Be.
Serbindi from Circumstance. This is my own personal Mary Sue. When I created her, I had no idea that there was an army of like young ladies dutifully acting in their author's place. I just thought I was creating a generic Amazon character (was I ever that naive?...). Serbindi displays so many qualities of the Mary Sue, it's just ridiculous. She's tall, with auburn hair and hazel green eyes (slightly resembling yours truly, save the height...after all, I wouldn't presume to place myself in the action. *snick*). She is highly trained in so many arts of warfare, it's obscene. She can throw knives with deadly accuracy, and catch them in mid-air. She can hunt, and then cook her bounty. She can heal arrow wounds (including her own vaguely placed injury), and her stamina is so great, she is capable of running the day after receiving a broken ankle (what was I thinking?)! She also has her True Loyal Friend, Mabenti, and the attentions of a mysterious stranger. Since her friend is a lesbian, there's no competition for miles around. She is also slightly paranoid, distrustful of others, has exceedingly poor social skills, and flinches when physically comforted. In short, she has so many of my personality traits I might as well slap a sticker with the label "Freya Lorelei" on her ass and call it a day.
In my defense, I did try to lower her Mary Sue quotient by throwing in a few fairly serious flaws. For starters, she has atrocious social skills (again, mirroring myself) and cannot read other peoplesí intentions. Sheís trigger-happy and on several occasions nearly takes off her friendsí heads, simply because they startled her. She also has severe intimacy issues, and makes threatening motions at any sign of affection by others.