Is the fear of writing "Mary Sue" protagonists impeding the creation of strong female characters?

I saw the term “Mary Sue” used in a literary review the other day and in wikiing it upwas surprised by how powerful the paranoia not to to a have a character be even slightly Mary Sue-like has become. They are even litmus tests you can use to detect and prevent Mary Sueness.

I realize it can be taken too far but IMO there’s nothing wrong with well written, competent characters that overcome obstacles and get the job done. Not everyone one needs to be a mentally tortured basket case with dark secrets to have fictional resonance.

I don’t know. Was a strong current of strong female characters being created before the coining of the word “Mary Sue”, and that stopped afterwards?

To me, terms like “a Mary Sue” are used to describe bad, lazy writing, in this case the childish wishful self insertion of the author in a story. And it deserves to be treated just like any other bad writing trope, like Deus ex Machinas or plot holes.

IMHO, it’s not a character’s strength or perfection that makes her a Mary Sue (although flawless characters are usually just bad writing, whatever you call them), it’s the way the other characters react to them. If everyone around her seems in awe of her amazing presence and ability, while at the same time inexplicably losing several IQ points (so that only Mary is capable of solving the problem at hand), *then *she’s a Mary Sue.

Thus, Kirk isn’t a Mary Sue because he has Spock and McCoy around to put him in his place. Even the Doctors from *Doctor Who *aren’t Mary Sues, despite being practically perfect in any which way - because they have their Companions around to point out their annoying character traits and blind spots, and occasionally, to save the day when the Doctor can’t.

I think it is. There’s plenty of hypercompetent or supertough male characters, and they are typically referred to with terms like “badass”. Equally capable female characters get slapped with the term “Mary Sue”. In my opinion, "Mary “Sue” is mainly a way of bashing a character without having to actually explain why you think they are a bad character. You scream “Mary Sue”, and everyone is supposed to just nod and agree that the character is bad, as if it meant “child molester”.

Is this actually true to any significant extent, or does it only apply to “equally capable” characters who get loaded down with crap we wouldn’t accept from a male character either? I don’t recall anyone calling Vasquez from Aliens or FemShep from Mass Effect a Mary Sue just because they’re badasses.

OP: Since your quote mentions Star Trek, I’ll mention that the writers intentionally made Captain Janeway of Voyager hyper competent, saying that people would only accept a female captain who was perfect. I’ve often wondered why they didn’t think it would go the other way around.

Being a badass is never a sufficient condition to be considered a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue would be a badass who is also the perfect woman who gets the perfect man, who solved everyone’s emotional problems, and only had good things happen to her. She’s never challenged in any way.

The question is whether a female character considered a Mary Sue by most would be considered a Marty Stu if male. This is one time I think it might be appropriate to look at the relevant TVTropes pages.

I always understood Mary Sue to mean essentially the female in a fan fic that was the authoress inserted into the story [sort of wish fulfullment]

Sort of like me writing some sort of Dr Who fanfic and sticking in a frumpy crutch using bespectacled brunette from the eastern US as a companion.

They probably didn’t want to be seen as portraying the first female captain as inferior. Unfortunately, they did both: they made her incompetent, to the point where organ thieves stole the lungs of one of her crew and she let them go with a warning, without even reclaiming the stolen organs; and they made her a Mary Sue, by creating a character who shouldn’t have things go her way (like keeping the respect of her crew), but does anyway.

They killed off Vasquez - even better than calling her a Mary Sue. And FemShep is in the odd position of being either male or female depending on your choice, so it’s difficult to bash one version without bashing the other.

How convenient. :rolleyes: It’s not that removing every variable except gender and still having both versions considered badasses proves you are wrong, it’s just that the bigots are hiding because they don’t want to prove you are right.

What’s next, dog whistles?

The hell with Vasquez - has anyone ever called *Ripley *a Mary Sue?

The idea of a Mary Sue being any strong female protagonist is silly. A traditional Mary Sue is very specific: a character who is so terrific and wonderful and perfect that she ends up dying a tragic death because the world is not ready for him or her. I do prefer this term, since it is a much more objective definition.

The term has expanded to mean any “too good to be true” character, usually a wish-fulfillment version of the author. The big element, though, is that the character is unrealistically perfect and very closely identified with the writer. And the “perfection” is usually defined as being highly sensitive and caring, not just competent.

If anything, strong female characters are impeded not because of the desire to avoid Mary Sues, but because of the tendency to make them “badass” with nothing behind it.

Ripley was tough and smart. But she was also human and lucky - and she knew it. SHe would not have gone out of her way to fight an alien. She was a realistic badass and worked in context of those films.

What annoys me are thing like the Tomb Raider movies, where we get the bland, obnoxious Lara Croft. Her personality is little more than one-liners, she’s simply a random superhuman badass who fights people (For ARCHEOLOGY!). Basically, she’s a female Indiana Jones-slash-Ninja. Just because.

That character is pretty much a Mary Sue. She’s perfect in pretty much every way. Her adventures are goddamn boring. The entire point is to go “Ooh! Ahh!” over her revealing costume and her amazing unstoppableness. Of course, she has a sensitive side but that doesn’t stop her in any way. Seriously, Sean Bean stole that movie because there was nobody else in it.

So, the issue is that female characters are often unrealistically strong in a setting which doesn’t support it. I have no problem with a mighty female superhero in a superheroic setting. I have no problem with a badass female hero in a setting which gives them plausible limitations and personality. Ripley is human: she wants to go home. She wants nothing more than to leave this nightmare. Her strength comes form the fact that doesn’t give into despair and knows she’s not some unstoppable badass.

I think you’d also find a lot of cheezy amusement in the male badasses. It’s possible to enjoy Lara Croft as a popcorn flick. But that doesn’t make her a good character, just looking at her as a bad copy of a 1980’s action hero, with girly bits.

It looks like the Criticism section of the Wikipedia article, which deals with concerns that the “Mary Sue” concept is limiting the creation of strong female protagonists, is based entirely on quotes from people involved in Star Trek fandom in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Since this is Wikipedia it’s entirely possible that whoever wrote this section of the article just didn’t do very extensive research, but the information presented only indicates that Star Trek fanfiction writers 20 to 30 years ago were worried about writing “Mary Sue” type characters. It says nothing about people writing original fiction, nothing about other fandoms, and nothing about the world since 1992. I suspect that Xena, Buffy, Captain Janeway, and other more recent female media characters have had an impact on how fanfiction writers feel about strong female protagonists.

This really means nothing, there are all kinds of “tests” for things on the Internet.

I’ve only found out about this term in this thread, but, Der Trihs, I gotta say that I’ve felt that your friend and mine, Honor Harrington, was way too good to be true before I ever encountered the term today. Not to say she lacks flaws entirely, but they are negligible when contrasted to her all too many virtues. Frankly, at this point I’m far more interested in the Torch skein of the Honorverse. Eric Flint seems to be able to write admirable characters who are not Mary Sues of either gender, but even with On Basilisk Station (the first Honor Harrington book), Weber was over-doing things with Honor.

My biggest problem with female fictional role models these days is that they pretty much seem to be men with boobs. I’ve found it disturbing for decades that one of the highest compliments that could be paid to a woman that didn’t refer to her sexual desirability was that she was “just one of the guys,” and female characters these days are as accustomed to using “__ing like a little girl” as an insult or “Man up!” as an exhortation as readily as male characters. (Hell, it’s not just female fictional characters; I’ve seen many female posters do the same.) It’s pretty unusual these days to find a young female heroine who is actually interested in “girly” stuff (except that, these days, everyone in fiction, men and women, melts inside at the idea of having children). We seem to have answered Henry Higgins’ question about “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” with a “She can. Here ya go.”

I couldn’t disagree more.

  1. The claim is objectively false. We have more strong female characters now in popular culture than at any other time in the history of popular culture. Yes, a lot of them are bad characters like Lara Croft, but MOST characters are pretty shitty, male or female, so that’s nothing new. So if people were afraid of getting slapped with the Mary Sue title why are we getting more female action heroes? Why is “Hanna” out in theatres right now?

  2. The fact is that outside of the dedicated Internet message board community, the concept of “Mary Sue” is completely unknown. I bet nine out of ten ordinary adults don’t know the term, and that might be a low guess. You’re goin g to be hard pressed to convince me that the “Mary Sue” concept is inhibiting anything when, to a nearest approximation, nobody knows what the hell it is.

I very much agree with smiling bandit above. I think writers’ propensity to make female characters “Mary Sues” prevent them from creating female characters who are strong in a realistic way. It seems like so many movies create female badass characters (usually sidekick/love interest types) who are impossibly thin, good-looking, witty, skilled in martial arts and weaponry, and are totally one-dimensional and uninteresting because of their complete lack of personality.

I agree with this. It seems like there are authors out there who think that in order to make a female character strong, she has to be the asskicking assassin type. And while I think there is a place for those kinds of characters (in the right setting), there is also such a thing as a strong female character who is also more traditionally feminine. For example, one of the better female protagonists I’ve ever seen is Mercedes from Pan’s Labyrinth. She’s a housekeeper/cook and a caregiver–but she’s also a rebel spy. You can tell she’s terrified of what she’s doing, and she never uses a gun (the only weapon she ever wields is a paring knife), but she’s brave and resourceful and does what she has to in order to protect the ones she loves.

Like I said before, it’s not like we can’t have the asskicking assassin types. I’ve written characters like that before, and had a blast doing it, but I know that there are other ways to make a woman strong.

Agreed. And even if the term were well know, its definition seems to change every few months and further mutates depending on just who is handing out the Mary Sue nametags. About the only character I’ve seen people have universal agreement about as a Mary Sue is Bella from the Twilight books. And it’s hard to disagree with that.

I think the Mary Sue accusation gets overused. There are genuine Mary Sue characters (female and male) but there are plenty of characters who get called a Mary Sue when they aren’t.