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Shouldn't Sue her for trying
February 17, 2014 8:30 AM   Subscribe

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?
posted by MartinWisse (98 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
Can anyone point out a couple examples of Mary Sue characters? The definition seems to vary on the intertubes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:54 AM on February 17


I'm not regular on fanfic forums, but I think the basic premise of the article is wrong. Mary Sues, in my view anyway, do not just exist in fanfic, nor are they mostly limited to Star Trek and Tolkien fanfic. Any character, whether in fanfic or "official" works,* which is either an obvious author-insertion or otherwise just too damn good to be true looks a lot to me like a Mary Sue. Any character whose only "flaw" is to be too virtuous reads like a Sue to me.

My go-to example for this is Orson Scott Card, of all people. Ender kind of runs up against this at times, but his worst examples--that I've come across--are in his short fiction. A whole crapload of his characters in the Maps in a Mirror collection may as well be sues. They manage to accumulate ridiculous power/aesthetic abilities/whatever while never really suffering from any of the kind of flaws that make them, you know, believable as persons. The Homecoming series--which was weird as f*ck, by the way--had a lot of characters like this. It was really easy to see Card writing himself into his works here. Canon or not, I call Sue.

I guess that just ultimately means that I'm interpreting "Mary Sue" to mean "any of a certain kind of badly-written character in any work, canon or fanfic," rather than the more constrained meaning(s) that some have for the term. But if we're going with those constrained meanings, I think a lot of what the author has to say goes away for different reasons, i.e., that by looking at such a narrow sub-section of fandom, a lot of the problems the author complains about become inherent in the subject-matter rather than a feature of the gender dynamics of fandom in general.

I mean, check out the discussion over at TVTropes (you have been warned). It's a lot more sophisticated than the linked article seems to credit.

*The difference between fanfic and canon is simply that of license. There's officially-published stuff out there that's drek, and though I haven't read any fanfic myself, I'm sure there's some of it which is at least as good as the works it's based upon. The only difference is that one is put out by the legal curator of the franchise whereas one isn't.

**Yes, both Star Trek and Tolkien are male-dominated when it comes to main characters. This is known. Whether or not this is a good thing is an interesting question, but the works are what they are, so fandom responding to them that way is less interesting (to me anyway) than it otherwise might be.
posted by valkyryn at 8:57 AM on February 17 [5 favorites]


I think "Mary Sue" is nowadays often used for "any strong character I don't care for, usually female," so I see the point in this article, but it's such a stretchy term these days that I wonder if that's the only thing going on, or if it's more that "Mary Sue" is an overused insult to writers.
posted by xingcat at 8:57 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


There are, as far as I can tell, more people in fanfic writing who identify as women than men. If you're going to do a self-insert, you're probably going to gender that character like yourself. And the traditional Mary Sue, like, makes Captain Kirk look like a model of propriety, celibacy, and restraint. Getting people out of the Mary Sue mode wasn't about telling them they could never write original characters again so much as getting it through people's heads that stories about supposedly perfect people who get everything they want are not interesting. Yeah, it got its start in Star Trek, but I am actually quite willing to bet that somewhere out there are someone's lovingly crafted stories about a fourth Powerpuff Girl. I've definitely seen Mary Sue HP fic, and while it's not perfect, there's a pretty good supply of female characters there of all kinds of dispositions. (And I've seen guys do the same sorts of things with, for example, their D&D characters.)

We hear the most about it in male-dominated stories because the male-dominated stories have the biggest fandoms. Gender imbalance is obviously very much a problem for fandom, but I don't think it's this problem, to be honest.

And I agree, outside of fandom, male authors do this constantly.
posted by Sequence at 8:58 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


Seems related to this piece that has been on the blue previously.

a female character is allowed to get away with behaviour that, in a male character, would rightly be seen as abusive (or outright murderous) may seem - if you’re MRA minded, anyway – an unfair imbalance in her favour. But really these scenes reveals the underlying deficit of respect the character starts with, which she’s then required to overcome by whatever desperate, over-the-top, cartoonish means to hand. She’s in a hole, and acts that would be hair-raising in a male character just barely bring her up to their level. The script acknowledges and deplores the sexism the character faces in her very first scene – but it won’t challenge the sexist soldier’s belief that women don’t belong in this story by writing any more women into it. Not women with names and speaking parts, anyway.
posted by emjaybee at 8:59 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


What then should we do with Marty Sues?

I think I'll favour the lazy self-insert theory. Presumably the gender of the Mary/Marty Sue will vary according to what the writer seeks to identify with. Certainly seems that way within the fandom I frequent, where the characters are predominantly female, and the fandom predominantly male.
posted by bouvin at 9:00 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


Most literary novels about middle aged professors having sex with thier nubile, impressionable students are basically Mary Sue wish fulfillment. As are the unwaveringly perfect yet utterly bland power-fantasy protagonists of your airport best sellers.
posted by The Whelk at 9:00 AM on February 17 [11 favorites]


( I wrote my first fanfic of any actual length by saying I wanted to set up a stereotypical Gary Stu set up and then proceed to slowly drive him mad cause he's not getting the attention he thinks he deserves.)
posted by The Whelk at 9:06 AM on February 17 [10 favorites]


It's not necessarily about the lack of female characters in the narrative. Sailor Moon fandom was full of original senshi, Sailor Sun and Sailor Earth and so many other stars.
posted by betweenthebars at 9:07 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


I feel like John Galt and Howard Roark are prime examples of Barry Sues.
posted by dobie at 9:09 AM on February 17 [14 favorites]


I am actually quite willing to bet that somewhere out there are someone's lovingly crafted stories about a fourth Powerpuff Girl

I do not now remember the steps that led to this (especially because for the most part the only fanfic I ever read was the Law & Order erotic I would read aloud to my friends in college before I learned to handle my liquor), but at some point I ended up reading fanfic based on the movie Clue in which a Miss Pink shows up and is the Mary Sueiest of all Mary Sues, like, everything revolves around her and people think she is sooooooooo special and soooooooooo wonderful and the moral of this story is, yeah, basically any property beloved by people who have more passion than writing ability has the potential to be plagued by author-insert fanfic to no discernible end.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:11 AM on February 17


There are, as I have seen, largely two groups of definitions of Mary Sue -- one where it cannot be the protagonist of a story, because the story already bends around them, and one where it can. I sort of understand wanting to separate out the idea of Mary Sues in fanfic and (perhaps) secondary characters from Mary Sues as protagonists.

But the author here is clearly talking about Mary Sues only in fanfic, and -- honestly -- sometimes any added character at all in fanfic is, if female, called a Mary Sue. (Often protagonists of their own novels are called Mary Sues.)
posted by jeather at 9:13 AM on February 17


I think part of the problem with Mary Sues is that they are often inserted into stories where all of the available "types" have been taken. So, you want to write Star Trek fanfiction. probably the wisest course is to write stories about a ship or station that is not one of the main settings. Because, on the original Star Trek Enterprise, you already have Kirk as the square-jawiest, Spock as the thinkiest, McCoy as the Feeliest, Scotty as the fixitiest, and so on. If you want your character to have a role in the story, you need to either find a niche unfilled by an established character or you have to out-square-jaw Kirk, out-think Spock, and so on (or, for extra points, out-do more than one at their "signature move"). In table-top RPG circles, people talk about "role protection" -- if my fighter is supposed to be the badass in the group, it's not good form for someone else to be badassier, and there are better and worse ways for a GM to introduce NPCs that challenge my badassery. So, if we watch Star Trek to see Spock get thinky, it's a little annoying to see him out-thought by someone else's character, because the fan author is stepping on the "role protection" of the characters that we know from the series.

Not that gender issues don't underlie a lot of criticism of women-directed fandom, too. Frankly, one of the most Mary Sue charcters I think I have ever read is Frank Miller's Batman, where Miller gets to arrange the entire world to justify his fantasies of violent justice while making sure that Batman only attacks really bad guys, so the whole edifice doesn't collapse.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:14 AM on February 17 [30 favorites]


So, if we watch Star Trek to see Spock get thinky, it's a little annoying to see him out-thought by someone else's character, because the fan author is stepping on the "role protection" of the characters that we know from the series.

I think that's a really good point and it's also that we've accepted Spock as thinky; it's been legitimately established. He doesn't just run around saying "I'm so smart. I'm the smartest. Look at me be smart!" He has, over the course of a franchise, demonstrated that his character has this attribute. When someone comes in and basically says "I'm smarter than Spock" it's not unreasonable to think "No you're not." You don't just get to be like "Ms. FlyingReptile showed up. She was more beautiful than Uhura and smarter than Spock" because Spock has demonstrated his intelligence through in-world situations instead of the writers just telling you it's true.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:23 AM on February 17 [9 favorites]


Speaking of Trek: I feel like this author just got done watching Star Trek Continues, the professional-quality fan series (the one with Mythbusters' Grant Imahara as Sulu).

Last night I watched the two (so far) episodes and found myself thinking about gender imbalance in genre and fandom too. Star Trek Continues introduces a new female secondary character, Dr. McKenna, the "first" ship's counselor on a Starfleet vessel. Now, considering the writers' obvious sensitivity to gender politics (the plot of the second episode being all about an Orion slave girl desperate for freedom), I concluded that Dr. McKenna was included because the writers wanted to have lots of meeting-room scenes (or "senior staff meetings" in TNG terms), they didn't want them to be as much of a sausagefest as '60s TV culture caused them to be in TOS, and they knew it wouldn't make any canonical sense for Uhura to be in there. Enter the ship's counselor.

At no point did I think, "Uh oh, it's the Mary Sue," even when she had her awkward sexual tension moment with Kirk. The difference is one of credible plotting and characterization.
posted by Z. Aurelius Fraught at 9:26 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]


Actually, it's Gary Stu. And the perfect example would be Dan Brown's Robert Langdon.
posted by Ber at 9:29 AM on February 17 [12 favorites]


At no point did I think, "Uh oh, it's the Mary Sue," even when she had her awkward sexual tension moment with Kirk.

You would think that a Ship's Councillor would not have a "awkward sexual tension moment" with Kirk so much as as an "awkward discussion with my commanding officer that, no, really, SarFleet has sexual harassment policies and your hearing is in a couple of weeks moment" with Kirk. As a matter of fact, I imagine that Ships Councilors were created to deal with officers like KIrk. Well, and McCoy's jocular "haha, you damn half-breed" comments....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:31 AM on February 17 [10 favorites]


Ber: "Actually, it's Gary Stu. And the perfect example would be Dan Brown's Robert Langdon."

I think you mean renowned author Dan Brown's renowned symbologist Robert Langdon...
posted by Strange Interlude at 9:32 AM on February 17 [27 favorites]


Not quite fic, but I did recall that I used to know some people who played Marvel or DC superhero text RPGs, or in one case Transformers, that had mostly male players at the time, and in all cases I'm pretty sure they either banned or severely limited original characters because of the propensity for people to show up and be like, "My character is a telepath stronger than Professor X but totally able-bodied and actually knows kung fu and has a healing factor because he was a part of another government experiment" or whatever. Even when you have plenty of canon characters to choose from, why take one of them when you could be a bigger badass than all of them?
posted by Sequence at 9:34 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]


I was so anti-Mary Sue/munchkins that when I designed my first role playing character, I chose to be a human farmer armed with a quarter staff, with low perception, average intelligence and no magical ability (but good with cows, as he was a dairy farmer). It was a fun character to play, but sometimes I wish he had a BIT more perception (what with missing stuff happening right in front of him).

What I think people dislike about Mary Sues are the lack of weakness in the character. Kirk isn't a Mary Sue: he's smart, strong and charming, but also a bit impulsive and has trouble with relationships. Spock is even more popular as a character - and his best moments are his moments of vulnerability (Amok Time, This Side of Paradise). Characters without vulnerability are like shiny mirrors; characters with vulnerability are like windows. And as I get older, I find myself interested in character and vulnerability most of all in a story -- and stories of people who struggle (with poverty or powerlessness, disabilities, grief) are more interesting than simple adventure stories.

I do get annoyed when people dismiss a talented character - usually female - as a Mary Sue simply for being talented. I've heard people describe Alanna of Trebond (from The Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce) that way. But she's not a perfect character - throughout the books, you see her struggle to gain skills, have emotional difficulties, and never achieve some goals. That said, the character of her daughter, Ally, is more Mary Sue-like, and I found her books less interesting because of it (despite the stronger overall plot and Pierce's improved writing skills).
posted by jb at 9:34 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


> "Can anyone point out a couple examples of Mary Sue characters? The definition seems to vary on the intertubes."

Well, that's because the definition varies, period.

The term began as a joke/reference to the already existing occurrence of self-insert characters in fan fiction; a character who was obviously meant to be a stand-in for the author.

However, even in the very first "Mary Sue" parody story (which occurred, as has been noted, within the context of Star Trek fan-fiction), a number of typical characteristics were made evident - e.g. that the insert was done in a clumsy manner with poor storytelling, that the character was idealized and beloved by everyone, that they were in romantic relationships with other author-favorite characters even if that made no sense whatsoever, etc.

Such characteristics have become associated with the concept of the Mary Sue, and are now generally considered to part of the definition. In other words, a character that is *solely* a self-insert, but shared none of the other characteristics, would generally not be considered a Mary Sue. It refers to a particular kind of self-insert, the idealized, perfect version of the author.

But, because of that, the term is now often broadly applied to any idealized, perfect character, essentially on the suspicion that if it is not obviously a self-insert, it sure looks like someone the author likes to imagine themselves as being. The term has therefore expanded to include characters in "original" stories as well as fan-fic ones; any character is potentially the author's dream-version of themselves.

Naturally, the term is sometimes misapplied, and sometimes in a sexist way. It frequently gets applied whenever there is an idealized, perfect character, and not just when that such a character is evidence of poor storytelling. And although the term can be applied to both men and women (however, some people like to used "Gary Stu" for male versions) it often gets applied to female characters more than male characters, and any female action hero stands a chance of being accused of being one for doing things that male action heroes get away with doing with no blowback.

There are huge lists on the internet which contain characteristics that are often typical of Mary Sues (unusual eye or hair color, unusual names, etc.) I personally tend to use the following rough guide:

1) Is there character so perfect that it is annoying?
1A) Do they have no flaws, only "flaws" which never seem to get in their way in any fashion, or only "flaws" which are actually positive characteristics?
1B) Are they loved by everyone immediately, loved by everyone after a ridiculously short period of "dislike", or disliked only by other characters so obviously evil that they probably kick puppies in their spare time?
1C) Are they the best in the world at everything they try, the best at everything but the one thing their primary SO excels at, or the best at everything after a short training period?
2) Do they really seem like they are a person the author would like to be?
2A) Are they good at things the author would probably like to be good at?
2B) Do they share a profession or other characteristics with the author?

Examples I might consider Mary Sues off the top of my head would be:

- Mikael Blomkvist from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (middle aged journalist writes about a middle aged journalist who women find irresistibly attractive ...)
- Kvothe from The Name of the Wind (he is the bestest and most briliantest at everything from magicking to sexing and the people who hate him are all, like, totally jealous)
- Bella from Twilight (she is beloved by everyone except Very Bad People despite having no particular personality characteristics which would explain why anyone loves her)

But, others may disagree with these assessments ...
posted by kyrademon at 9:37 AM on February 17 [21 favorites]


You don't just get to be like "Ms. FlyingReptile showed up. She was more beautiful than Uhura and smarter than Spock" because Spock has demonstrated his intelligence through in-world situations instead of the writers just telling you it's true.

Jeeze, that character. Not only was Ensign Ms. FlyingReptile more beautiful than Uhura and smarter than Spock, but she could also fly, and every adventure required a detailed flying sequence to solve the mystery. What luck!

Also, I don't believe that every deck on the Enterprise would have 150' ceilings and a cliff for the Ensign to launch herself from. That's just a suspension bridge of disbelief too far!
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:38 AM on February 17 [6 favorites]


Also, I don't believe that every deck on the Enterprise would have 150' ceilings and a cliff for the Ensign to launch herself from. That's just a suspension bridge of disbelief too far!

Your jealousy is unbecomingly transparent.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:43 AM on February 17 [25 favorites]


I've been warned that Honor Harrington (David Webber book) is pretty Mary Sue-ish, even to the point where everyone loves her unless they are EVIL.

But the space battles are very well written, or so reports my SO who studies naval history and strategy. I've never read them, as I'm the one who is always skipping the battle scenes in books to get to the interesting character bits. (I love Bujold so much: in her first Miles book, Miles falls unconscious and the narrative skips the first big battle. A writer after my own prejudices.)
posted by jb at 9:46 AM on February 17 [3 favorites]


Also, I don't believe that every deck on the Enterprise would have 150' ceilings and a cliff for the Ensign to launch herself from. That's just a suspension bridge of disbelief too far!

That's why she doesn't need a turbolift.
posted by nathan_teske at 9:52 AM on February 17 [1 favorite]


"You would think that a Ship's Councillor would not have a "awkward sexual tension moment" with Kirk so much as as an "awkward discussion with my commanding officer that, no, really, SarFleet has sexual harassment policies and your hearing is in a couple of weeks moment" with Kirk."

Oh please. The entirety of Star Trek depends on there being no OSHA and no workplace harassment laws in the future.

(And also no advancements in maternal-fetal medicine, including in basic pain control, so while we can transplant hearts and teleport germs out of people and shit like that no problem, YOU ARE DELIVERING THAT BABY TRADITIONAL-STYLE WITH NO PAIN KILLERS, BY GOD, BECAUSE SEXISM. Even Queen Victoria had ether? Well this is STARFLEET and you're gonna SUFFER to have that baby!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:57 AM on February 17 [12 favorites]


Eyebrows: Uterine replicators are the most important future invention?
posted by jb at 10:11 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]


Yeah, definitely Kvothe. The first book was pretty good, but the second one took the latent Sue-ish possibilities in the first one and bringing them to full-on Sue.

It was really disappointing.

That and the fact that the second book was at least 150 pages longer than it needed to be. Due needs a better editor.
posted by valkyryn at 10:14 AM on February 17


But the space battles are very well written, or so reports my SO who studies naval history and strategy.

Ha ha no.

The enemy fleet struck first, at 500,000 kilometers distance, each cruiser and battleship unleashing the maximum volley of ship killer missiles. 150,000 missiles were launched in that first volley, of which a quarter where EMP based, designed to confuse and mislead the opposing force's sensors. Another quarter where anti-missile missiles, aimed at the anti-missile missiles of the defending fleet, taking out threat to the real ship killers. Of these 75 000 real missiles, 34 000 were caught by the fleet's own EMP defense, 12 000 were drawn off by decoys, another 6000 killed by missile defences. That left still 23 000 missiles bearing down on the ships of the brave eight fleet, each which now rolled to put their strongest sidewalls against the incoming fire. Point defences did their work, killing yet another 8 231 missiles, but still leaving...

And so on and so forth, for as many pages as it takes to slap a novel together.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:17 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


Eyebrows: Uterine replicators are the most important future invention?

Miles certainly thinks so.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:17 AM on February 17 [10 favorites]


Oh please. The entirety of Star Trek depends on there being no OSHA and no workplace harassment laws in the future.

Well, they just didn't air the episodes that were 45 minutes of the characters filling out Form 1175-AM/CML-E "Maiming and/or Loss of Ensign on an Away Mission (Unauthorized by Standard Protocol) or going to yet another Violation of Prime Directive Hearing. Like Dark Matter, they make up about 70% of the Continuity....
posted by GenjiandProust at 10:20 AM on February 17 [5 favorites]


Oh please. The entirety of Star Trek depends on there being no OSHA and no workplace harassment laws in the future.

And let's not get started about the fact that the galaxy of Star Wars appears to be inhabited by a race of humans who either evolved past the ability to fall off of things millennia ago or never developed handrail technology.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:22 AM on February 17 [10 favorites]


MartinWisse: sorry, I misspoke. By "well-written" I didn't mean good prose, but that the mechanics were well thought out in a way that my SO really appreciated as a naval historian. That said, he also reads ship & naval technical manuals for fun.
posted by jb at 10:23 AM on February 17


To continue the derail [pun intended], TVTropes: No OSHA Compliance
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:37 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]


Oh, man. Ayla in every book in the series after Clan of the Cave Bear.
posted by Hildegarde at 10:46 AM on February 17 [7 favorites]


The idea of linking Mary Sues and their prevalence to fandoms where female characters are less prevalent is an interesting one, if not 100% convincing.

After fifteen years of reading fanfic, one of the things I've discovered is that there's definitely a unique culture with each fandom's fanfic--and one element of that culture is implicit support for Mary Sues or a lack thereof. Note that I've never really seen a fandom where the support is explicit, because that's a bit contrary to the spirit of writing fanfic (you're supposed to be taking the characters and storyline in new directions, not so much playing within the author's universe with your own characters), but I do tend to only read fanfic in the big two (fanfiction.net and Archive of Our Own) so who knows about niche LJ groups or what have you.

If you compare Lord of the Rings fanfic (which I've been reading recently after a half decade away) to say, NCIS fanfic, there's a definite tacit acceptance of Mary Sues in LoTR that isn't present in NCIS fandom. It was kind of startling for me to realize just how many true Mary Sues (self insert, all virtues and no vices, ridiculously and effortlessly popular, automatically conversant in the Elvish language of choice, etc etc) there really are in LoTR fanfic.

It makes sense, though, given the paucity of female characters: this is a group of people writing about characters normal people have long since forgotten existed (pop quiz: is it Orophin or Oropher who is Legolas' grandfather?) but even so there's not a lot of female ones.

Add in fanfic's longstanding gender issues (lots of argument within fandom about why an audience of primarily female and primarily young authors prefer to write slash and in so doing write out canon female characters and canon het relationships, just to start) and it's a messy stew of authors writing bad fic with original female characters as wish fulfillment and authors writing spectacularly well written might-as-well-be-novels that are slash and the scorn of the latter heaped upon the former and oh yes the approbation of fandom as a whole on the latter as well. Messy, messy mix.

It's also worlds different from published authors writing uncomfortably Mary Sue like novels, but that's fine.
posted by librarylis at 10:56 AM on February 17 [3 favorites]


(but good with cows, as he was a dairy farmer)

...which was appropriate, because he fought like a cow?
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:09 AM on February 17 [8 favorites]


The best part of Honor Harrington is that she starts out with flaws, but they're the flaws someone with no understanding of women would imagine. Not that Weber is necessarily that person. Maybe he's just terrible at characterization.

'Honor paused to look at her lean, well-muscled but feminine shape in the mirror. Her exotic almond-eyed gaze moved over her chiseled cheekbones and sensual lips without seeing their attraction. If only I weren't tall and strong, she thought. No dudes want me because I'm tall. So many sad feelings!'
posted by winna at 11:14 AM on February 17 [13 favorites]


I think criticism of a work of fiction because it has a character who can be construed as a Mary Sue is mostly a continuation of misogyny by other means.

When an artist creates an ideal male character, he is often described as Christ-like or god-like, and this appellation generally increases the stature of the character in the minds and imaginations of reader and critic alike, but when the same thing is done with a female character, she is all too likely to be sneered at and denigrated as a Mary Sue.
posted by jamjam at 11:20 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


Yeah, there are wish-fulfillment characters which, when they are female, are called Mary Sues and when they are male are called Batman. There are also just competent female characters who are good in ways that the reader doesn't like, or who care about looks, or whatever, and are called Mary Sues.

Have you read the Chief Inspector Gamache books? He is the best cop. Everyone loves him except some of the bad guys. His failures are that he is TOO perfect, TOO honourable. (His wife, a minor character, seems to be just as perfect.) But this series wins all sorts of awards. Implausibly perfect male protagonists are in every single genre.
posted by jeather at 11:25 AM on February 17 [10 favorites]


I actually didn't know until very recently (as a result of something here on MeFi) that the origin of the term "Mary Sue" was from fanfiction and Star Trek fanfic at that. I'd heard it widely used in various lit-crit classes over the years and although I knew it was common in bad SF and particularly SF fanfic, I would never have thought of it as specific to SF or fanfic.

My understanding of the term "Mary Sue" -- and I think this is a pretty common understanding -- is that it's an unrealistically generic, unflawed character existing only as a placeholder for either the author to self-insert, or in some cases so that the reader can self-insert themselves, and vicariously experience the story. I'm sure you can come up with a long history of that throughout literature, and it's not always bad (in a lot of childrens' books it's quite intentional); but "Mary Sue" is always used disparagingly for this sort of thing when done poorly.

RLS' David Balfour in Kidnapped is pretty obviously a Mary Sueish character, but like a lot of kids/YA literature (particularly in the "boys adventure" genre) it gets away with this because it uses the readers' self-insertion as a sort of plot device to make the book more interesting than it would probably otherwise be. If Balfour were a more flawed character, i.e. if he had some particularly interesting vice, he probably wouldn't be a Mary Sue but at the same time the story might have more limited appeal since some readers wouldn't be able to self-insert as easily and would find it that much less engrossing.

Though I think tolerance for that sort of thing has definitely decreased over time. There's a lot of good modern YA lit that doesn't make its protagonists generic simply for the benefit of easy self-insertion on the part of the reader; that trick, today, seems pretty bush league. If you were to try and write and publish Kidnapped today, I'd imagine it would get sent back for a rewrite on the basis of Balfour being unbearably perfect.

OTOH, sometimes I think modern YA has gone too far in the opposite direction, making protagonists so tortured that I wonder if they are relatable to readers who don't share the same hangups.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:48 AM on February 17 [2 favorites]


Anita Blake, vampire hunter and wearer of impossibly cute outfits with ever-increasing powers and desired by every supernatural stud muffin that has impossibly gorgeous hair, might also qualify.
posted by Ber at 11:57 AM on February 17 [8 favorites]


I feel like books written for younger audiences get a pass on it, cause yeah the main characters are usually ciphers, stand-ins so the younger reader can project into the story.

Then again that's supposed to go away as you grow up and become more empathic and less self-centered and aware of other people - but what is the average courtroom drama/spy thriller/detective pulp but a Boy's Own Adventure tale with the possibility of fucking?
posted by The Whelk at 11:59 AM on February 17 [4 favorites]


I wonder if LOTR fandom is more tolerant of super-competent thinly drawn characters because that is pretty much what Tolkien wrote. The High Fantasy genre, which Tolkien sort of wrote the book on, is not exactly full of subtle characterization, and if a character has flaws, it's usually that one Heroic Flaw that makes them stand out. Ditto for the characters who arose from the pulps. It's not like Conan isn't a flat, omni-competent stand in for Robert E Howard, so he's a Mary Sue by almost any metric. It doesn't stand out much because the pulps were largely limited to that sort of character.

Nor is this necessarily bad -- Robin Laws (game designer and author) talks a lot about Iconic Heroes as opposed to Dramatic Heroes. The later learn and change (which is why we enjoy them, assuming they are well-written) while the former just do whatever it is they do (deduce crimes, solve medical riddles, know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, etc) usually in the process of restoring order to the world. Both kinds can have flatter or more rounded characterization, obviously, but generally, the things that make each interesting don't necessarily port well to the other type. Nolan's Batman movies didn't work for me partly because Batman isn't supposed to change; that isn't what he is for. The same is true for James Bond, the characters in LOTR and Star Trek.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:01 PM on February 17 [5 favorites]


Anita Blake, vampire hunter and wearer of impossibly cute outfits

Oh, Anita Blake. She started off so promisingly, but I had a number of customers who became increasingly perplexed with the series after about book 5 (when the power (and sex) arcs began going into overdrive), and sadly, one by one, dropped the series. I support the author's right to write what they like, but there are costs.

Incidentally, I liked this essay from Bookslut which resolved my nagging problem with the Blake series plotting by pointing out that the sex scenes began to appear as if they were wandering monsters from an RPG. "Going to the store? Roll on the Random Sexual Encounter Table!" It all became clear.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:07 PM on February 17 [8 favorites]


I wonder if LOTR fandom is more tolerant of super-competent thinly drawn characters because that is pretty much what Tolkien wrote.

No kidding. Re-reading the books after watching the movies, I was startled at how thin Aragorn's character is on the page. (Please don't kill me, Tolkein fans.) Viggo Mortensen and the screenwriters for the films give him this subtext of self doubt, of fear, even, and a haggardness that made it seem like maybe he really was 80 years old and maybe the idea of doing all this stuff just made him tired.

But in the books he is all 'What ho, good fellows, be stout of heart!" No self doubt, no fear, no tired, just a royal bloodline and a strong sword arm and noble sentiments (which come with the royal bloodline of course.)

I still love the books for their language and their worldbuilding and the fact that the hobbits, not the Elves or the human royalty, are the heroes... But I wish that Aragorn himself were a little less mythic, a little more human.
posted by OnceUponATime at 12:15 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]


As a writer of fanfiction (navigate to www.fimfiction.net, search for 'Cloud Wander'), I have deliberately avoided the use of self-inserts for precisely this reason: the temptation to create an idealized version of myself in the MLP:FIM continuum. I've have broken this rule exactly once (http://www.fimfiction.net/story/136661/today-i-am-a-monster), but I doubt that anyone will claim that "Pathfinder" is an "ideal" character. I share his level of brokenness.
posted by SPrintF at 12:36 PM on February 17


This comic is always relevant: Hogwarts' new student house, Sparklypoo!
posted by cadge at 12:42 PM on February 17 [6 favorites]


The YA book that I just finished reading for my Mefi Marginalia group (so much fun!) definitely has a Mary Sue character in Aurora Belle. TWO princess names! Whee!

I really don't like Mary Sues (or Barry Stus) because I feel like, just with the manic pixie dream girl stuff, they lead to unrealistic expectations that make it hard for real people to live up to, so suggesting they actually have some value as a balancing factor doesn't work for me.

In Masters of Sex, for instance, I feel like Master's wife is a Mary Sue.

[Warning:Spoilers!]
She is gorgeous, tall and slim with a figure made to model the lovely clothes they find for her character. She is the perfect hostess who gets along with everyone, even enjoying a better relationship with her mother-in-law than her husband has with his own mother--so of course, like a good wife, she also attempts to mend fences between them.

Attentive, sunny-natured and loving, she who wants nothing more than her husband's love husband and a child she can mother. She is also, in some ways, less prudish than her husband; she initiates (or tries to initiate) sex with Bill (despite strong cultural taboos against it and her own sheltered upbringing) on numerous occasions. She accepts his long work hours with little or no complaint up until she miscarries their child.

Putting aside how gratuitously the series has doctored the timeline to make fertility issues the real problem in their marriage, I take issues with this portrayal. Don't get me wrong, I think the actress is wonderful and love her in the role and I feel like the writers are trying to make all of their characters intriguing.

But continuing to perpetuate this Perfect Little Wife stereotype results in women thinking that if they DON'T do all of these things right they are somehow responsible when a relationship fails, and men assuming that (as long as they are not quite as neglectful as Bill Masters), their wife/partner/girlfriend should happily strive to meet all of their needs without complaint (or, you know, having needs of their own).

So I was a pleased when after a miscarriage and her husband neglecting her for his work yet again, Mrs. Masters vacationed alone, got a little drunk with strangers and proceeded to make up a pair of perfect imaginary children, a boy "My rock!" and a girl--after first acknowledging that sadly she was recently widowed as her husband was dead, dead, dead.
[End Spoilers]
posted by misha at 12:47 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


>(but good with cows, as he was a dairy farmer)

...which was appropriate, because he fought like a cow?


No, no, he fought with cows! He had +4 to hit bonus when attacking with a cow, +6 is he was wielding a double-handed steer. And the Vache-Glaive gives a +3 Damage bonus in most combats.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:50 PM on February 17 [7 favorites]


"Going to the store? Roll on the Random Sexual Encounter Table!" It all became clear.

That is the best explanation ever of the last several AB books I bothered to read.

(There is a point in one of the later books where we learn that Anita likes getting her cervix bumped during trans-species sex, which finally crossed even my admittedly very relaxed "WTF TMI" threshold.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:51 PM on February 17


I think it's possible for a character to be ridiculously perfect without being a Mary Sue. For instance the Iron Druid guy.
I see no evidence that he is a vehicle for the author to insert himself into his plot. He's wish fulfilment for the reader, not the author.
posted by Omnomnom at 12:59 PM on February 17


Can anyone point out a couple examples of Mary Sue characters?

Corran Horn! (I know I'm late to the party, but come on, he's the most blatant author insertion I've ever seen. He was too ridiculous for eight year old me to take seriously, and I would literally read anything if someone even intimated that somewhere within the pages a lightsaber might theoretically be swung.)
posted by protocoach at 1:12 PM on February 17


Everyone should read The Whelk's Gary Stu Avengers fanfic. It's a masterful subversion of the trope.
posted by Jacqueline at 1:20 PM on February 17 [3 favorites]


Yeah, definitely Kvothe. The first book was pretty good, but the second one took the latent Sue-ish possibilities in the first one and bringing them to full-on Sue.

The only way I can read those books is to look at him as a very unreliable narrator -- and there are enough hints to make it at least possible (like how in the present-day scenes, he doesn't seem to be super strong or awesome). I think (or at least hope) that the third book is going to pop the bubble, and turn the whole series retroactively into a tragedy.
posted by vogon_poet at 1:40 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


Can anyone point out a couple examples of Mary Sue characters?

The journalist in "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

actually I think Stieg Larssen's cock is the main character
posted by thelonius at 1:42 PM on February 17 [5 favorites]


The journalist in "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo"

Here is a bit of an antidote The Girl Who Fixed the Umlaut
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:44 PM on February 17 [5 favorites]


Oh god...spot on.
posted by The Whelk at 1:51 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


Mary Sues and Gary Stus as self-insert/wish-fulfilment characters will always be around as long as people are writing, well, anything really. I generally think of Mary/Gary as being creatures of fanfic, though most of the particularly egregious examples I can think of in published works are either male, in something that is basically published fanfic, or in the case of someone like Dan Brown's hero, both.

So to answer the article's final question - deride the author. Duh. Bad writing and characterisation doesn't suddenly become better just because it incidentally adds another female character to the mix. I'm sure there are arseholes that call any woman in a story they don't like a Mary Sue, but the existence of people misusing the term doesn't take away its validity or usefulness.

I like the perspective of the writers who started very young and cop to having written Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters back then, but as they got better they learned how to create characters with nuance. Mocking one's own efforts is second in fun only to mocking those of someone like Dan Brown, who as long as he's been writing only seems to get worse.
posted by gadge emeritus at 2:00 PM on February 17


C'mon. Of the characters in the novels, Lisbeth Salander is so the main Mary Sue it's painful. I had a deep, bewildering moment of "Should I continue with this? Has something gone terribly wrong with my life?" near the start of the second novel where she casually (having only been recently introduced to higher mathematics; self-taught, natch) proves Fermat's Last Theorem in a succinct manner while on vacation.

The proof was not provided in my edition.
posted by adipocere at 2:03 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


> "The proof was not provided in my edition."

Really? Mine had her proof written in the margin.
posted by kyrademon at 2:07 PM on February 17 [9 favorites]


As Fred Clark has pointed out, over and over, the protagonists in the Left Behind stories "novels" are thin stand-ins for the authors, who imagine themselves as absolutely awesome.
posted by SPrintF at 2:18 PM on February 17 [5 favorites]


she casually (having only been recently introduced to higher mathematics; self-taught, natch) proves Fermat's Last Theorem in a succinct manner while on vacation

I have discovered a truly marvelous book of this, which this comment box is too small to contain.

(Seriously, check it out. Singh makes the subject of Fermat's Last Theorem and its proof perfectly accessible, if not fully comprehensible, to the average layman. He also wrote the excellent The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-breaking, which is about the history of cryptography, including lengthy chapters on the Enigma machine and the decoding of Egyptian hieroglyphics.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 2:52 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


I think (or at least hope) that the third book is going to pop the bubble, and turn the whole series retroactively into a tragedy.

What do you mean "retroactively"? We've known from the start that this story doesn't end well, we just don't know how yet.
posted by valkyryn at 3:02 PM on February 17


Mary Sues and Gary Stus as self-insert/wish-fulfilment characters will always be around as long as people are writing, well, anything really.

Well, let's acknowledge that a lot of spec fic -- in particular -- is wish fulfillment as such. To bring up Larry Niven, for instance, you get an explicit acknowledgement of certain characters as tourists, like Beowulf Shaeffer so he can write a story about traveling to the center of the galaxy, or Louis Wu so he can gallivant around a ringworld. I don't think there's much that's really wrong with that as it can be fun, as long as you don't over-"special" this insert character.

I think a lot of other fiction definitely still brings a lot of authorial voice and experience even to characters who aren't ostensibly of the author's demographic. That's natural, too.

But Mary Sue as a phenomenon is particularly problematic in fanfic where getting to interact with the established universe and characters is part of the appeal, like a videogame. With Star Trek, however, you have the particular problem that Roddenberry created the whole thing as a wish-fulfillment authorial-insert fantasy of his own. All the original series characters were perfect, smart, brave, honorable, and so forth. This is exactly why an author like Ellison wanted to mix it up with a drug-dealing subplot driving "City". I think that's a great lesson in how not to Mary Sue your way into a story, by the way.

It's a lesson I wish RTD and Moffatt would take to heart about Doctor Who, as well. Too many of the reboot companions fall into the Mary Sue penumbra, and it really makes them not just problematic for gender and storytelling reasons, but comes perilously close to turning off fans looking for something less facile -- and let's face it, borderline creepy. (It's also a reason I'd like them to mix up the companion gender a bit.)

Anyway, I understand the mythic narrative structures at work, but the whole Neo "the One" approach is way too endemic these days. One of the things that makes LOTR work, despite being (see the Aragorn comments above) drawn very directly and intentionally from existing historical mythic narrative, is that Tolkien switches it up and throws in his very flawed, almost comically inept and out-of-place hobbit characters as vessels for the story and authorial insert. The Hobbit itself shows significant character growth for Bilbo, but remains a bit of a one-off with him back living his normal life afterward, just a bit more perspective. It's terrific, though, to watch the characters of Frodo and Sam in particular grow into -- as characters within their own stories -- the roles the myth requires.
posted by dhartung at 3:06 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


[ctrl]+[f]stainless steel rat

just sayin'...
posted by mikelieman at 3:47 PM on February 17


> "but the whole Neo 'the One' approach is way too endemic these days ..."

I was just talking about how pleased I was with The Lego Movie for subverting this much-overused trope.
posted by kyrademon at 4:04 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]


Kvothe from The Name of the Wind

Kvothe is now my default Mary Sue, or Marty Stu. It's a shame, too, because Rothfuss writes very entertainingly, and The Name of the Wind could've been a contender. But too much awesomeness at the expense of an actual plot sunk this book for me.

Also, Jake Sully from Avatar was a pretty blatant Marty Stu. As is Harry Potter, Ender...the list goes on. If you want to write a popular, general audience type of work, you do need to hollow out your protagonist to a degree so that the reader can fill those shoes and engage. But it's a delicate balance. Harry Potter is a frustrating character to me because he's so often so damn passive, and just reacts to things happening to him (actually I haven't read the last two or three books). But I suppose if Rowling had given HP more agency, it would lose some of the broad appeal.
posted by zardoz at 5:08 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


>(but good with cows, as he was a dairy farmer)

...which was appropriate, because he fought like a cow?

No, no, he fought with cows! He had +4 to hit bonus when attacking with a cow, +6 is he was wielding a double-handed steer. And the Vache-Glaive gives a +3 Damage bonus in most combats.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:50 PM on February 17
[3 favorites +] [!]


don't be silly! he fought with a quarter staff. It's just that if the party needed anyone to herd cattle or generally deal with livestock, he was skilled in that.

also, the story started with the village herd being slaughtered, which led him to leaving and meeting the rest of the party at the ubiquitous inn.

he also got to be the naive and deeply religious character.
posted by jb at 6:03 PM on February 17


C'mon. Of the characters in the novels, Lisbeth Salander is so the main Mary Sue it's painful

She's tucked off in the hospital or the crazy house for most of the series, though, while Blomkvist (iirc) saves the day
posted by thelonius at 6:26 PM on February 17


[ctrl]+[f]stainless steel rat

just sayin'...


I'm not sure if I'm reading you the right way, but I always saw the Stainless Steel Rat series as parodies, with Jim DiGriz's abilities being wildly over-the-top for comic effect, mocking the tendency of a lot of early SF "space adventure" yarns to present the protagonist as an übermensch without reservation.
posted by soundguy99 at 6:51 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


Ender

Ender as Mary Sue is kind of a weird line to take; he doesn't so much stroll effortlessly through difficulties because of his boundless awesomeness and universal likability as manage to limp through a nasty, cynical, manipulative meatgrinder of military/bureactractic desperation in a state of being merely psychologically shattered instead of literally dead. Not that there can't be the emo take on a Mary Sue ("oh how I have nobly suffered", blah blah blah), but Ender doesn't really seem to occupy that territory so much either; I don't think much of anybody really wants to be Ender by the end of the book, even if a lot of kids probably identified with aspects of the isolation and bullying and distrust of abusive authority he grappled with throughout the story. Ender's kind of a fucked up bummer of a kid, and even his notional grand victory for humanity is tainted with shedloads of moral doubt and questionable justification, to the point where he spends the rest of his life in the sequels trying to find a way to atone for that.

Anyway, on Star Trek and author inserts, I did a thing in Larp Trek recently because writer's block was getting to me and boy was that a weird tack to take. But kinda fun.
posted by cortex at 7:05 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]


Yeah, that "Josh" character in Larp Trek had the same name as the author, looked just like the author, and just *happened* to have complete control over the entire Larp Trek universe!

Man, sometimes it's not even subtle.
posted by kyrademon at 7:37 PM on February 17 [2 favorites]


> Can anyone point out a couple examples of Mary Sue characters?

Gregor Samsa is Mary Sue for FK. Different authors have different needs.
posted by jfuller at 7:39 PM on February 17 [4 favorites]


I wonder if LOTR fandom is more tolerant of super-competent thinly drawn characters because that is pretty much what Tolkien wrote. The High Fantasy genre, which Tolkien sort of wrote the book on, is not exactly full of subtle characterization,

Tolkien is the grandfather of the current form of the High Fantasy epic. I am a fan. This does not mean that I don't think Tolkien has a great deal to answer for in terms of his writing, including characterization. Unfortunately, we have had tons of extruded fantasy product descend from his starting point.

There were some things the movies did better than the books - characterization (by and large - I'm not overly pleased with the decision to make Gimli into comic relief) is one of them.
posted by nubs at 7:40 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


I have a friend who loves Tolkien, and the lack of good character development doesn't bother her at all.

Of course, she has a PhD in Anglo-Saxon studies and Tolkien's characters are basically just like those in ancient epics.
posted by jb at 8:02 PM on February 17 [1 favorite]


mocking ... an übermensch without reservation.

And this differs from my wish fulfilment how?
posted by mikelieman at 8:05 PM on February 17


I pretty much felt Katherine Kurtz's Deryni characters were all a bunch of Mary Sues.
posted by misha at 8:15 PM on February 17


C'mon. Of the characters in the novels, Lisbeth Salander is so the main Mary Sue it's painful.

I thought she was an Autistic Pixie Dream Girl.
posted by Strange Interlude at 8:48 PM on February 17 [3 favorites]


Sequence:
I've definitely seen Mary Sue HP fic
HP... Lovecraft??!
posted by valrus at 12:52 AM on February 18


Remember, the thing about Mary Sue isn't just that she's competent, but that she's SPECIAL, and everyone knows it.

The perfect example was from a fix of a shonen anime. The badass hero meets up with the semi reformed villain and servants to know what's up. And the utterly ruthless antihero, who cares about nothing but his revenge, behind tanning about this super-special girl he knows, who happens to have the same name as the fic writer, who is so talented and intelligent and beautiful. And the hero anus he knows her as well, and utterly loves her (chastely) for the utterly special person she is. A couple more of the badass main characters chime in, and admit they also know her and agree she is most special. And it's so sad, says the antihero, that everyone knows how wonderful and talented and creative and artistic and beautiful she is...except her parents. Why? Why, don't they appreciate her like we do?

I honestly couldn't finish the fic.
posted by happyroach at 12:58 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


> "HP... Lovecraft??!"

I am forced into speech because, in spite of my brilliant red hair and spritely green eyes, men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I, the world's foremost geologist, kung-fu expert, and magic-infused elf, tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the antarctic -- with its vast fossil hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice caps. And I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain.

Which would be so unfair.
posted by kyrademon at 8:02 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


I admit I had troubles with The Name of the Wind and Kvothe but it has been pointed out to me by others that he's supposed to be too perfect, too skilled because Kvothe is an unreliable narrator and he is twisting the events to suit his narrative.
posted by Ber at 8:55 AM on February 18


It's not like Conan isn't a flat, omni-competent stand in for Robert E Howard, so he's a Mary Sue by almost any metric.

What makes Conan interesting though is that he's often in over his head and despite his sinewy muscles, he doesn't always get what he wants; at times he just manages to escape to fight another day. Another difference is that he's far from universally loved. I think of him as a power fantasy rather than as a Sue.

And ditto to the comments of everyone about Kvothe yet when is that third book coming out.
posted by ersatz at 9:36 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


I just had a REALLY funky thought. Remember that episode of ST:TNG where we first meet Barclay, who is just this schlubby guy in engineering but who spends all his time in the Holodeck living out elaborate fantasies in which he is the specialest member of the crew and always saves everything and everyone loves him especially Troi?

Is that the first instance of a fictional character trying to Mary Sue/Marty Stu themselves?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:43 AM on February 18 [1 favorite]


Surely not the first? ... I mean, Walter Mitty springs to mind.
posted by kyrademon at 9:50 AM on February 18


(Although I will readily admit that Barclay specifically self-inserting himself into Star Trek fanfic while being a Star Trek character adds an extra-special something to it.)
posted by kyrademon at 9:55 AM on February 18


I am actually quite willing to bet that somewhere out there are someone's lovingly crafted stories about a fourth Powerpuff Girl.

I've never followed PPG all that much, but back in my fanfic-reading days I encountered fourth Magic Knights more than once despite trying to avoid it. That's about the same thing, except (admittedly partly because I'm not as familiar with PPG as MKR), so far as I know it's more of a fundamental violation of the universe involved.

I find it a little difficult to buy that the issue being solved there is a lack of female representation.
posted by sparktinker at 10:09 AM on February 18


I am, I must say, finding myself intrigued by the idea that there is a newish trope of minor or side characters creating, within a story, self-insert versions of the story where they are the hero. E.g. Barclay, Ron Weasley basically seeing himself as Harry Potter in the Mirror of Erised, etc.

I nominate "It's About This Nurse" as the name for the trope (as in, "So, what's Romeo and Juliet about?")
posted by kyrademon at 10:14 AM on February 18


Still not sure about Conan as an author insert. I can somewhat see it but as noted above he's often imperfect.

Back in the 80s there was a shared universe series called Heroes in Hell. Half of it was wretched but then you had guys like Robert Silverberg popping in for something truly incredible. He did three Gilgamesh in Hell tales, all of which were highly entertaining. In one of them, HP Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard run into Gilgamesh, who immediately reminds REH of Conan. In fact, Howard starts having fantasies about being crushed in Gilgamesh's mighty arms. Talk about turning Gary Stu over his lap and giving him a firm spanking.

Then there was the one where Gilgamesh and Uruk ruin Picasso's bull fight...
posted by Ber at 10:23 AM on February 18


I think there's a case to be made that every time we see Reg Barclay during Voyager, that is in fact just his refined, 2.0 approach to holofantasy. Like he figured out that if he keeps himself neurotic enough in his narrative, he can still e.g. have Troi be inexplicably tolerant of him doing things like showing up at the beach to abruptly ruin her vacation; he's still bumbling, but he gets to save the day repeatedly at a trans-galactic scope, etc.
posted by cortex at 10:34 AM on February 18


Jonathan Levinson in the BtVS "Superstar" episode could be considered a Barclay style "Mary Sue."

On the other hand the arguable raison d'être of BtVS was to subvert every possible variation of the Mary Sue concept, so no surprise there.
posted by xigxag at 11:10 AM on February 18 [2 favorites]


I'm pretty sure somebody did a story where the minor character Gandalf gave advice that totally won the War of the Rings. Probably made him an angel in disguise too.
posted by happyroach at 1:46 PM on February 18


Not the same. What we're discussing would be if J. R. R. Tolkien revealed that Gandalf had a diary in which he writes that he drops the ring in the volcano and then is crowned king. Possibly with a page or so containing nothing but variations on his first name paired with Aragorn's last name.
posted by kyrademon at 2:44 PM on February 18


I admit I had troubles with The Name of the Wind and Kvothe but it has been pointed out to me by others that he's supposed to be too perfect, too skilled because Kvothe is an unreliable narrator and he is twisting the events to suit his narrative.

I think this is a real stretch. There's nothing in the book to suggest that Kvothe is an unreliable narrator, and since Kvothe's awesomeness is front and center in everything he does, easily half the book, you'd think that if it were meant to be even a little ironic, that irony would be a lot clearer. Is it in the bookend parts, with an adult Kvothe?
posted by zardoz at 4:14 PM on February 18


My understanding of the books -- based on not actually having read them -- is that the legends around Kvothe are unreliable, so he is explaining the difference between the myths about him and the more mundane reality of what he did. (Which become less mundane as his superpowers increase.)
posted by jeather at 5:22 PM on February 18


There's nothing in the book to suggest that Kvothe is an unreliable narrator

I think there's some. Mostly with the inn sections since his friend Bast seems to think the Chronicler can get him to focus on the cool stuff and not the sad stuff. Leaving aside realiable/unreliable narration its easy to tell that Kvothe is full of himself. He's often a huge asshole and he constantly has to justify all the times he unnecessarily provokes the ire of others. Just because he's sometimes the victim of unfair situations doesn't mean he doesn't go out of his way to make things worse for himself. He's mostly getting away with his behavior for now, barely. I don't think his huge amount of tallent and intelligence will be strong enough to overcome his personality flaws forever.
posted by Green With You at 2:09 PM on February 20


Oh man, I can't stand Barclay. Almost every time I have turned on a random TNG episode, it's been about Barclay's Holo Fantasies Where He's The Hero. It probably doesn't help that the guy creeps me out a lot. One night I turned on a random Voyager episode and it was STILL about Barclay's Holo Fantasies! ARGH!

I dunno, I tend to think that most lead characters have Sue-ish qualities--at least, after awhile. But it's also kind of the nature of the beast that a lead character has to be increasingly better and better in order to continue to have story plots. Much as say, Anita Blake having another power-up at the end of every book got to be kinda much, a girl's gotta get out of another ugly situation somehow. But it's the ones that start out perfect and loved from the getgo that get everyone annoyed.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:20 PM on February 21


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