Today, we have a very special post on the blog. Nikki Kelly, the author of Lailah, is here to discuss the Mary Sue Complex, and she’s using two of our favorite YA MCs to do it: Bella Swan and Katniss Everdeen.
Though I’ve since learned the term “Mary Sue” has been kicking around the young adult literature world for some time, it only became apparent to me around six months ago—yup, I’ve been living under a rock.
I came across the term, along with some other new ones, such as “special snowflake” and “Marty-Stu,” when I was reading some reviews of popular YA titles.
In many of these, the reviewers tallied up the qualities of the main character (MC) and compared them against a checklist to see just how “Mary Sue” the MC was.
With my own debut YA title, LAILAH, coming out October 7, I couldn’t help but read those lists with an eye toward my own MC’s characteristics. Would my MC, Lailah, be dubbed a “Mary Sue”? And was this a good thing or a bad thing?
To determine that, I needed to understand the term fully, and so I looked to the dictionary definition—nope, not that one, the Urban Dictionary, of course!
It describes “Mary Sue” as follows: “A female fanfiction character who is so perfect as to be annoying … The Mary Sue character is almost always beautiful, smart, etc. … Often, the Mary Sue is a self-insert with a few ‘improvements’ (ex. better body, more popular, etc.). In short, she is the ‘perfect’ girl. The Mary Sue usually falls in love with the author’s favorite character(s) and winds up upstaging all of the other characters in the book/series/universe.”
Righty, so that’s the Urban Dictionary’s most popular definition of what a Mary Sue is. Next question, where and when did the term originate?—yes, I’m turning to my old and faithful friend, Wiki, for an explanation…
Wikipedia says: “The term ‘Mary Sue’ comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her parody story ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’ published in her fanzine Menagerie. The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (‘the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old’), and satirized unrealistic Star Trek fan fiction.”
So how has that term changed, evolved, and become popularized today?—Nikki, needs some more wiki!
“‘Mary Sue’ today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment and is commonly associated with self-insertion. True self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author; most characters described as ‘Mary Sues’ are not, though they are often called ‘proxies’ for the author. The negative connotation comes from this ‘wish-fulfillment’ implication: the ‘Mary Sue’ is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting.”
With this more complete definition, I took another spin through the Urban Dictionary and noticed that the “Mary Sue” can be further broken down and boxed into different types of “Sue”—because, well, why the heck not, in for a penny in for a pound, right?!
Here I want to explore two of the most popular: the “Victim Sue” and the “Warrior Sue.”
The first is defined as follows: “Victim Sues: The Victim Sue is your whiny, wimpy, pathetic female character who can’t seem to do much of anything except cry and get herself into trouble that the romantic interest of the fic has to rescue her from.”
And the second as: “Warrior Sues: The Warrior Sue is usually loud, obnoxious and (of course) an amazing warrior. She’ll usually have some tragic past that led her to become a warrior, and she’ll upstage all of the Canonical characters with her mad Sueish powerz.”
There’s more, of course, the Mage Sue, the Misfit Sue, the Punk Sue, yada yada…
But let’s stick with these two and think about who some of the most popular “Mary Sue” heroines out there in YA land might be.
I’m going to pluck out two MCs from YA and offer a checklist based on the above definitions.
Bella Swan from Twilight
Gets herself in trouble—check
Romantic Interest has to rescue her—check
Whiny, wimpy, pathetic female—subjective, I don’t personally agree, but I have read reviews that would suggest some would.
INSTA VICTIM SUE!
Bella was widely dubbed a “Mary Sue,” and I can’t help but wonder if it was this character, a possible “Victim Sue,” that gave rise to the “Warrior Sue”?
Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games
Upstaging of canonical characters with her mad Sueish powerz—check!
INSTA WARRIOR SUE!
Right, using the checklist, these two female characters can be pretty much placed within their respective “Sue” boxes. What’s wrong with this, you might ask? Well, it became clear early on as I was Googling and reading reviews that when MCs are noted as being a “Mary Sue” (whatever their “type”) it has a very negative connotation.
Let’s backtrack a moment to the Wiki entry: “True self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author … The negative connotation comes from this ‘wish-fulfillment’ implication: the ‘Mary Sue’ is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting.”
Let’s continue to use Bella and Katniss as our examples.
Were Bella and Katniss born from their respective authors’ “self insertion”? Were these authors’ creations, in part, fantasies of their own self, in a more exaggerated form, placed into worlds created from the depths of their imagination? And if that were the case, would that really make any difference to the audience? Does it really matter?
If the character is initially born from “wish-fulfillment,” fantasizing, day dreaming, whatever you want to call it, does the character created become too idealistic, thus making them “too perfect and lacking in realism”?
Let’s think about this … wouldn’t it actually be the opposite? If you, the author, give your MC a little part of yourself here and there—especially your flaws—isn’t it actually the case that since these traits belong to you, they are easier to show, explore, and explain? The characters become even more realistic—not less–as a result?
I’m going to take this one step further. If by definition, characters like Bella and Katniss can potentially be dubbed “Mary Sues,” and furthermore boxed into specific categories within that term, and “Mary Sue” carries a negative connotation, then why are both these girls so popular? Why have millions of readers the world over invested in them and followed them through their journeys? Why do we feel their highs, their lows, and love them? Why are they aspirational figures for so many?
However you look at it, the popularity of these and other “Mary Sue”- dubbed characters across so many popular YA titles, cannot be denied. The success of their stories is impossible to refute.
Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with the term “Mary Sue” in principle. As a shorthand definition for a character, why not? It’s no different than saying something like “he’s the Prince Charming of the story.” The problem is the negative connotation that has evolved and become anchored to the term—a negativity that is unfair and does a disservice to both the character and the author.
Are there pieces of me in Lailah? Only me and my besties know for sure. And that’s as it should be. Lailah needs to stand on her own two feet. And so, if my main character is dubbed a “Mary Sue,” I will accept the shorthand definition but refuse to allow the negative connotation seep in to either her or me. We both will stand on our own two feet.
Lailah by Nikki Kelly is on sale now! Buy your copy today!