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

Absolutely. Lara Croft is not a Mary Sue. Poorly fleshed out, an stereotypical teenage boy sexual fantasy and one dimensional, no doubt, but it’s not like the computer programmer who came out with the concept considered her his embodiment in an universe he wished he was inhabiting.

It’s not even any self-insert in a story. The narrator in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” may be a thinly-disguised version of Capote, that doesn’t mean his path follows the idea of a masturbatory wish fulfillment fantasy the path of a Mary Sue story does, for instance.

Maybe it’s not the term Mary Sue what’s wrong here, but it’s overuse.

This definition, and it’s a common one, muddies the water quite a bit because it’s also commonly accepted that all characters reflect their author to a degree. Not to mention that most fiction is wish/nightmare fulfillment to a large extent. I think that it’s made clearer if one notes that Mary Sues are the author idealized and universally loved rather than simply somewhat like her/him.

Seriously. When I read all the paranoia and defenses about being Mary Sue-ish, I kept thinking that much of writing fiction is, on some level, projecting yourself into the protagonist and informing their choices and decisions. That this this gets broadly categorized and dismissed artistically as some kind of ham handed wish fulfillment if the protagonist is insufficiently humble is kind of silly.

I think there’s a distinction to be made here between fanfiction and other fiction. If I were to write an original story about a fictionalized version of myself then I don’t think anyone would have a problem with that, as long as the character were realistically depicted. But people read fanfiction because they want to read about characters they are already familiar with and like, not the adventures of a fictionalized version of the author. If someone is looking for say Harry Potter fanfiction then a story about a non-canon Hogwarts student is probably going to be disappointing, even if this character is not the most popular kid in school.

I think one good example of this is Kim Possible. Okay, she’s a cartoon character, but I usually prefer the “men with boobs” genre of female heroes and I really like Kim despite the fact that she’s into things like clothes and cheerleading. She comes across as completely competent and completely comfortable with being a girl at the same time. I think she makes a great role model for girls.

Nostalgia Chick calls this the Smurfette Principle.

When I think of a “Mary Sue”, I think of a character that everyone likes and fawns over even when they have no reason to, who always succeeds even when she shouldn’t and who has no flaws. Or very few flaws which only serve the plot point of making her more endearing to everyone around her.

Harry Potter is a Mary Sue. Hermoine isn’t. Lilly Potter is a Dead Mommy Mary Sue - everyone loved her and still fawns over her memory, years after she died.

Kirk isn’t really a Mary Sue. Sure, he wins in the end, but it isn’t because of Him, it is because of the people around him; Spock, McCoy, Scotty, et all. There are plenty of people who dislike Kirk and only beautiful women fawn over him.

I can think of many competent and strong female characters that I wouldn’t consider to be Mary Sues.

I thought that phrase referred to the idea that series not specifically aimed at women would likely have a cast of one woman and all the rest men?

Didn’t she die standing against Wizard Hitler, creating the ward that killed him? That seems like a pretty good reason for people to still think highly of her, or for one guy that loved her to get weird about it.

Nah - Harry Potter’s acclaimed because he’s ‘the boy who lived,’ but he still doesn’t have a huge number of friends at school - like when he was accidentally put into the championship; it wasn’t only his ‘enemies’ that were against him. ISWYM though - he does verge on Mary Sue-ism.

But I disaree with RickJay that the term is only known on messageboards; it’s also known among writers. Admittedly, I only know two properly published female writers in real life with whom I’ve discussed this very subject and knew for certain that they weren’t on messageboards in any way or form, but I only know about 7ish female writers at all. Both of them were very, very wary of being too Mary Sue but their publishers were OK with it as long as it sold.

I stopped writing Xena fan fic because people complained I was interjecting myself into the story.

Write a romantic character that beds Xena and people claim it’s the author? I found that extremely limiting. Can’t there be romantic characters that aren’t an authors fantasy?
Fan fic isn’t worth the trouble. I prefer writing my own original stories and characters.

To me, Mary-Sueism is all about how the setting and characters react to you, and not very much about who you are and what you can do (and certainly not about your past, animal companions, parents, or eye color). A setting with a female character that is impossibly competent is not necessarily Sue-bearing, but a setting in which everyone who meets a character has a strong reaction to her (and one can neatly sort characters into Good and Bad based on whether or not they refer to the character as ‘that bitch’ in their monologues).

An impossibly competent character who provokes reactions of awe, striving for one-upsmansship, contempt at showing-off of a relatively useless ability (with strong and at least semi-persuasive argument as to why this is so), fear, good-natured competition resulting in either success or failure, or casual dismissal as not relevant to the other character’s goals, is much less likely to be a Sue.

Quoth Sr Siete:

On the contrary; Croft is extremely fleshed out and quite three-dimensional. Unrealistically so, in fact. :wink:

Quoth Chimera:

What you said about Kirk, I would say even more so about Harry: The only thing he, on his own, is really good at is Quiddich. Most of his successes come from the help of Ron, Hermione, and his other friends.

She’s a classic larger than life hero, mainly unusual for being that in a period where everything has to be “grim and gritty” and being female at the same time. I don’t want her to be made “more realistic” by constantly failing or cheerfully massacring a town or repeatedly raped or betraying her friends or having an abusive husband. I’m tired of military sci-fi which is all scum fighting scum with no one to root for; it took me years to even decide to check out the series because my immediate assumption was that it would be just yet another of those.

I was a huge Honor Harrington Fan, and I still am. I actually think that what kept Honor Harrington from being a Mary Sue was the fact that she actually had quite low self-esteem in some ways; outside of her military career, she didn’t feel very empowered in her relationships. She didn’t think she was beautiful with her first lover, and when he was killed her depression and anger forced her hand into killing someone in a duel which gets her in deep deep trouble. I also felt like there was a constant feeling of guilt that undergirded a lot of her actions.

More of a Mary Sue: Sita from the Last Vampire series by Christopher Pike. And, before there were words for it, most of the heroines in Austen.

Before this thread, I honestly never associated the term Mary Sue* to be primarily about female characters or primarily a problem for female writers. It’s just something that happens in bad writing. Yes, I’d expect to see more Mary Sues in fanfic than in original work, especially female Mary Sues by female writers (See Most Fanfic Writers Are Girls), but that’s beside the point. It doesn’t mean that men writing about men are any less prone to creating Mary Sues. They are a product of bad writing, not bad girly writing.
*Please stop using male variants like “Marty Stu”; they all sound asinine. Just use “Mary Sue” for dudes as well.

On the one hand, the “Mary Sue” accusation is way overused. It’s just too easy to call someone a Mary Sue without going into anything wrong with the character.

Kirk, Spock, Kim Possible, Xena, Harry Potter, Hermione, Lily Potter, Lara Croft, and Buffy are not Mary Sues.

On the other hand… IS it actually impeding the creation of strong female characters? Even though the accusation is often groundless, possibly it causes authors to create better characters by being aware of the pitfalls.

As a compromise, I wish it were used much less, only in the most glaring cases.

The above is not a defense against being a Mary Sue (arguably the reverse).

No, it’s not impeding the development of strong female characters at all. The “Mary Sue” concept was never a comment only about female characters. There’s a male-equivalent term now to make this clearer, but it was always gender neutral. Second, Rick Jay is right that nobody has ever heard of this outside message boards. :wink: And third, if this thread is any guide, the term has now been broadened to the point that it’s lost most of its meaning, which means it loses most of its power as a criticism and there’s little reason for anybody to pay attention to it. I’m not going to go back and count, but it looked to me like most of the characters named in this thread don’t fit the category at all.

My understanding of “Mary Sue” was that it’s a character who is obviously wish fulfillment for the author, one who doesn’t fit into the fictional universe at all, is usually there to perfectly solve everybody’s problems and impress everyone with their awesomeness before they go away. In other words it’s what you’d expect if you stuck a big Star Trek fan on the bridge of the ‘real’ Starship Enterprise.

Robert Heinlein’s male leads frequently get slapped with this label.

I think Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a good example of a male Mary Sue character.