Quick roundup of what we’ve learned so far. We’ve talked about what a Sue is and how to recognise one, including a short list of the different types. We’ve also discussed why Sues as character types are problems: a potted summary is that their lack of characterisation distorts the story around them and glosses over serious issues. But last time I raised the issue of gender criticisms of Mary Sues – namely, that a lot of the flak they get tends to be couched in all these weird gender connotations. From a purely literary perspective, some of the criticism is justified: Mary Sues are bad characters. But some of it isn’t, and that’s usually where the gender stuff comes into play.
Which leads me to ask the question: can Mary Sues ever be a good thing?
Everybody loves to make fun of Mary Sues. They’re silly, over-the-top sparkly little messes, and pointing out just how stupid they can get is certainly this nerd’s idea of a good time. But the thing that everybody tends to forget is that Mary Sues are often the hallmark of young or inexperienced writers. The kind of mistakes that Sues embody – such as a lack of flaws, a lack of consequences for their actions, or a 360-degree panorama of adoration from every other character – are the sort of things you tend to see from writers who haven’t quite got to grips with their craft yet. They’re not exactly a finished product.
For me, this is where Sues come into their own. They’re a problem that a writer tends to encounter at the beginning of their journey, much like one-dimensional villains, or scene-setting which makes the reader think all the action happens in a plain, white room. The more you write, the easier it becomes to avoid this kind of pitfall. A solid awareness of what constitutes a well-written character is one of the best tools a new writer can have, and being aware of Sues as a potential writing problem is a part of that. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t know what the problem is.
Here’s a short list of questions you can ask to see if your main character is a Mary Sue:
- Does everyone love her?
- Does she ever find anything difficult?
- Do other characters care about stuff that doesn’t directly relate to her?
- How much time are you spending talking about her appearance, her heritage, or her incredibly cool powers?
- Does she change over the course of the story? How?
The ideal answers should be: no, yes, yes, not much, yes + explanation. But this is a very brief guide: there are plenty of excellent resources out there which will help with character building. There’s an extremely comprehensive Mary Sue litmus test floating around, plenty of writers’ resources, and there’s also my own ten-question test I used in the Strong Female Characters series. The bottom line is once you’ve identified your Sue it’s not the end of the world. There are plenty of tools to help you fix it, and in doing so you’ll become a better writer.
But Sues are still useful in their own right. Aside from being a test of skill for every writer they can also help writers bridge the gap between fanfiction and original fiction. It’s not uncommon for people to start out writing fanfiction, develop some confidence, and then start trying out some of their own original ideas and characters. Of course, this isn’t always a good thing.
But that’s not the only benefit of Mary Sues. They can actually be pretty empowering, particularly for young girls. Even though we have been getting more stories where women can actually do stuff instead of waiting to be rescued, there’s still a strong cultural narrative that places women firmly in a passive position. Films like Wonder Woman and books like The Hunger Games help, but they’re a drop in the ocean. Writing a Mary Sues in fanfiction can be a way for teenage girls to make their mark on a story that they already love.
Picture this. You’re a fourteen-year-old girl feeling overlooked. There’s a lot of big and important things going on around you but you don’t feel ready to meet any of them. You’ve got advertisements on all sides telling you to look a certain way, and maybe there’s people in positions of power telling you to act a certain way, too. Things which once seemed simple are suddenly incredibly complicated – sex, growing up, and all the weird expectations that come along with them. And you really love Harry Potter.
This is really where we can see the appeal of Mary Sues. In that situation, why wouldn’t you want to make a space for yourself in a fictional world you already love? And, to make things better, it’s a world where you can look the way you want, where you can be the most important person in the universe, where you can do whatever you want and where all the messy parts about growing up and falling in love will unfold in exactly the way you want them to.
Frankly, I’m the last person to judge teenage girls for writing Mary Sues. I’ve done it myself and I can understand why they do it. It’s escapism, it’s a creative outlet, and it’s safe – I completely get it. It can be a very positive force for the people who actually write them.
Confession time: I wrote several Mary Sues throughout my teenage years and every single one of them was jaw-droppingly bad. I actually found a brief snippet of something I wrote when I was thirteen on my computer and it was so awful I could feel myself shrivelling up. It was about this girl called Sofia who went to Hogwarts, had a mysterious past and was really good at drawing, and if I remember right there was a love triangle with Harry and Draco and then Voldemort wanted to steal her soul for some reason? The point is, it was terrible. Like, really, really bad. And that wasn’t the only one: I also wrote some Phantom of the Opera stuff, more Harry Potter but this time with the Marauders, and possibly also some Pirates of the Caribbean stuff as well. I really can’t remember. Fortunately for me, Quizilla, which was where it was all posted (for some reason, not really sure why I put fanfiction on a quiz site) got taken down a while ago. Hopefully they’re dead and buried.
But it was what got me interested in writing as a whole – not just actually making stuff but the mechanics of how it all works together. I got feedback, which admittedly wasn’t always helpful, but it encouraged me to go and get more. Once I got bored of fanfiction I had more confidence to move into writing my own stuff, because I’d tried out a lot of the basics in an environment I was comfortable in. And once I was getting proper criticism that got me interested in the mechanics of writing, which led to editorial gigs at university and eventually working in publishing. Now, I can look back on all the stuff I wrote in my teens and cringe-laugh, but I can also look at the stuff I’m working on now and see a tangible improvement. Writing is something I’ve really had to work at and without my legions of terrible Mary Sues I definitely wouldn’t have developed half the critical skills I have now.
So there you have it: my long-winded, slightly-TMI view of Mary Sues. There’s no denying that they are bad characters. They’re poorly written, poorly plotted and warp everything else to fit themselves. But a lot of the criticism they get isn’t justified, particularly when it starts straying into some of the weird gendered stuff. And they do actually have some benefits: learning to navigate characterisation is an important part of any writer’s journey, and they can provide an important outlet for teenage girls.
Are Sues stupid? Hell yes. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have their uses. It’s like putting stabilisers on a bike. They’re there when you need them, but sooner or later they have to come off.