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To Mary Sue, or not to Mary Sue?

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  • To Mary Sue, or not to Mary Sue?

    Too much time on my hands and a question, you can also only read the conclusion (or nothing at all). I just wanted to share what I found when I searched for the true meaning of Mary Sue since it's one of the most used terms on the Internet.

    Mary Sue

    When a term is used too often, it loses meaning. A quick scan on the internet learns us that “Mary Sue” is one of those terms. The male version “Gary Stu”/”Marty Stu” is used less, but since it’s definition equals that of “Mary Sue” it doesn’t really matter for what I try to find; the true meaning of “Mary Sue”/”Gary Stu”. Why this quest? Well I want to be right when I call Ginny Weasley a Mary Sue.

    My first stop on my search was the source of all information you’re not allowed to use when you do research; Wikipedia. Wikipedia learned me that the name “Mary Sue” was taken from a Star Trek parody written by Paula Smith, she created the Lieutenant Mary Sue. A character created to mock the many wish-fantasies of young girls who wrote Star Trek fan fiction. To quote the editors of the Star Trek fanzine Menagerie;

    “Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy], if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.”

    Mary Sue, the creation of teenage girls who wrote Star Trek fanfic in the seventies.

    Wikipedia also taught me that “Mary Sue” only exists in fanfic, which kind of makes sense. I’ve not found the true criteria of “Mary Sue” yet, but it looks like an adult will never create such a horrible character. The watered down version we see in an official book/movie/comic/tv-series is officially called “Canon Sue”.

    My next stop is the TV Tropes website, the place to be when you look for which shows commit which storytelling crimes. Already in the first lines they state that there are no official criteria for Mary Sue. But that the most used reason to call a certain character a Mary Sue is when a character is an obvious self-insertion, only perfect. The character in question is special in any way possible; looks, intelligence, wit, talents, personality, origin, name, romances etc. Other criteria are that the story is all about the Mary Sue in question, the hero of the original canon loves her and needs her help. Actually everybody is busy with the Mary Sue. And the author goes often to great lengths to describe the awesome looks of her character.

    To be honest I’m not really interested in Mary Sue anymore, she is nothing but the creation of a young girl who want to be friends/lovers with a famous fictional character and creates a perfect girl to play out this fantasy. Let’s face it, most of us don’t read fanfics written by 13 year old girls who write about Star, the new Hogwarts student with golden hairs and violet eyes who helps Harry Potter to save the world and marries him in the end. No we care about the so-called “Canon Sue”, that annoying character in your favorite TV show. And those criteria are much more interesting since these Sues don’t have purple hair, silver eyes and parade around in Disney-inspired dresses. No these Sues are more subtle, so let’s leave Mary alone on fanfiction net and step into the fabulous world of failing professionals.

    According to TV tropes is “Canon Sue” a canonical character in a professional work who already has the attributes of a Mary Sue. Again we’re talking about a self-insert character, the writer creates a character who thinks like (s)he does, acts like (s)he does and does what (s)he want to do. So a “Canon Sue” is not that one female character who ends up with the hero and who is really pretty, popular and the perfect match for the hero in question. Bummer, so the characters most of us call Sues are no Sues? Hate it when I’m wrong. So I’ll dig a bit deeper in the hope that I’m right.

    I ended up on a site called Fanlore, never heard from it but it looks like a decent database. They don’t narrow it down to a self-insert. They do consider the Sue to be the lead of the story though. (which remains troublesome for everybody who wants to call the Too perfect girlfriend a Mary Sue.)

    “Canon Sue is the protagonist of a published work of fiction who is perceived to be the author's Mary Sue: an example might be an extremely attractive, witty character who is always right about everything, has numerous love interests and even more numerous superpowers or skills, and who is universally beloved by her friends and feared by her enemies. Or a protagonist who is not perfect -- in fact sometimes oh-so charmingly imperfect -- but despite being an ordinary girl (or sometimes boy) manages to win the admiration and affection of all around her and hog all the action or plot of the narrative in a Sue-ish fashion.”

    (Funny, on Fanlore the term “Willow Sue” is mentioned. “Willow Sue” is a canon character who is often used as a self-insert by fanfic writers. “Willow Sue” is of course named after Willow Rosenberg.)

    Hmmm, Ginny is still not a Mary Sue… I’ll continue; next stop, PPC.

    PPC learns me almost nothing new, only that “Canon Sue” is less likely to ruin the complete story, but something like that was already expected since most professional work is not written by 12 year old fangirls. But it’s description of Canon Sue is only that it’s a canon character with many Mary Sue traits.

    After PPC I ended up on Canon-Sue@LJ, a place where people can report Canon Sues, after reading through a couple of reports I can conclude that every character is a “Canon Sue”. I think this is probably not the best source of information, tragic through because Ginny is reported here several times. And one of those reports learned me something new; “Designated Love Interests”. According to this person a Mary Sue is somebody you want to be and the DLI is the person you want to be with. Hmmm, so there is a term for all those perfect love interests.

    Back to TV Tropes, what do they tell us about DLIs;

    “A character in a story who, despite being presented as the one true love of a central character, doesn't seem to have much of a relationship with said character at all. The catalyst for the relationship appeared off-screen before the series began, and save for maybe an occasional over-the-top gesture, never really appears to manifest. This isn't a matter of their love being subtle- it's more like they just kind of know each other but since he's a dude and she's a chick, they must have some sort of romantic attachment to each other because it's a law of the universe that opposite-sex-characters are always involved in romantic entanglements. Ultimately, this is a romance of necessity, not in the literal sense, but because of the assumption that the story needs a romantic plot or sub-plot to move forward.”

    This sounds like Ginny Weasley. Especially because in many rants (yes this causes more rants than Mary Sues) things like popularity, beauty and other shallow qualities of a love interest are mentioned. The “Designated Love Interest” is a trophy for the hero, so she shares a lot of qualities with the Mary Sue since both are perfect people. Only the Mary Sue in the center of the story while the DLI is waiting for the hero to come home so she can marry him.

    Time for a conclusion;
    Mary Sue is often used despite the character not being a Mary Sue. A Sue, Fanfiction (Mary Sue) or Canon ( Canon Sue), is often a real self-insertion (think of Bella Swan in Twilight) and not just a character who is too popular/talented/beautiful/special. Although it’s often not seen as incorrect to label a main character who has too many positive qualities and not enough (noticed) flaws as a Sue, self-insert or not. But these are rather rare outside fanfiction.
    Those flat but perfect love interests who end up with the hero are no Sues, because they are not in the center of the story. The correct term for those characters are “Designated Love Interests”.

    But does it matter? Not really I guess, most people will label annoying characters as Mary Sues and all the other terms can be forgotten since most people have no idea what those mean. But if I call Ginny Weasley a Mary Sue in the future, I’m at least aware that she is not truly a Sue.

  • #2
    I disagree. I've taken Mary Sue tests before with Ginny in mind and she's always passed it, at the very least as borderline.

    We can never know for sure that she's a self-insert until JK admits it, but there are strong indicators to this effect (often seen on MS tests)--she resembles JK Rowling physically (the red hair, etc), and she ends up with the character that JK has explicitly said she herself would want to be with. These and other comments strongly suggest that Ginny is who JK wishes she were, and is a self-insert.

    Ginny also hits a lot of marks in the Sue characteristics of being super special:

    1) She is special and unique from birth--she is the seventh child of a seventh child (in folklore the seventh son of a seventh son has especially powerful magic, and JK has explicitly referenced this lore while discussing Ginny, so she is aware of it and intentional about it--there really didn't need to be 7 children exactly), the only girl, and pretty much the only one with a really special name--whereas the other children are named ordinary English names like Ron, Charlie, Bill, Fred, etc, she is given the fancy Italian name Ginevra.

    2) She has many special talents--everyone says she is the best caster of the bat-bogey hex ever, people take time during the chaotic final battle to praise her on her excellent magical fighting skills (emphasizing them further in JK's classic "telling rather than showing" model of development), she can play multiple Quidditch positions really well (even Harry can only play the one role, Seeker).

    3) She never gets called out on her BS--when she hexes people in the hallways and rams into a Quidditch commentator for saying stuff she doesn't like, authorities and others just chuckle or reward her (slug club)--if anyone else did that they'd end up in detention. When she mocks people and is cruel and yells, nobody reacts like they did to Harry in OoTP, etc.

    4) She is exceptionally beautiful--in the last two books her beauty is emphasized again and again, to the point that even the bad guys (the Slytherins in the train compartment, skeevy vendors in Diagon Alley, and Death Eaters) take time out of their busy schedules to specifically remark on how hot and pretty she is (since this is obviously VERY important to the plot!). The only other female character who gets remotely this treatment is only pretty because she's part-supernatural being.

    And more...the thing is, there are many characters who exhibit one or two of these characteristics--Harry and Hermione have special talents, Harry has a special destiny, Fleur is super pretty, etc, but none of these people for instance match all of these categories--people criticize Fleur, Hermione, and Harry all the time, Hermione is not described as very beautiful, etc.

    TL;DR: While I agree the term is often overused in fandom, I think Ginny Weasley still does comfortably qualify as a Sue (even if not the most extreme case ever perhaps), based on definitions I've found online. And yes, there can be Sues in canon, as well as Stus.
    Last edited by sherrilina; 24-05-12, 08:53 PM.
    Promise that you'll return to me.

    icon by sireesanswar


    • #3
      From what I saw on the internet was that a Mary Sue is always the protagonist. The story is about a Mary Sue, she saves the world and she knows all. Ginny's role is small, it's actually so small that most fans feel cheated that she was the love of Harry's life because they felt it went too quickly.

      Also Rowling said that she is a lot like Hermione, so Hermione would be the self-insert. But Hermione is too annoying (at least that's what other characters believe) and plain to be a real Mary Sue, despite some serious Mary Sue-qualities.

      I agree that Ginny fits pretty much all the other Mary Sue-characteristics. But since she doesn't fit two of the most important characteristics, I suspect that JKR created the perfect girlfriend for Harry. The relation is really about Harry, he never thinks twice about if she wants him (He just kisses her out of nowhere in public the first time), he never supports her when she wants support (like when she is told not to fight by her parents in book 7), their childeren are named after his loved ones, he expects her to wait for him after he breaks up (never doubts that she moves on), she gives up the 'seeker' position so she won't get in the way of Harry etc. She is the trophy Harry 'earned' when he stopped Voldemort. She isn't perfect for herself, but she is perfect because Harry deserves the best.

      So yes I think "Designated Love Interest" is the correct term, but I suspect that the Designated Love Interest and Mary Sue share a lot.


      • #4
        Originally posted by Nina View Post
        From what I saw on the internet was that a Mary Sue is always the protagonist. The story is about a Mary Sue, she saves the world and she knows all. Ginny's role is small, it's actually so small that most fans feel cheated that she was the love of Harry's life because they felt it went too quickly.
        Well from what I've read this is not always true, so we'll have to agree to disagree about this part of the definition of a MS.

        Also Rowling said that she is a lot like Hermione, so Hermione would be the self-insert. But Hermione is too annoying (at least that's what other characters believe) and plain to be a real Mary Sue, despite some serious Mary Sue-qualities.
        Well JK has said that she *was* a lot like Hermione when she was younger--the implication being that she was based on a Past!Rowling, but not her now. So I think it's still possible that Ginny is an idealized self-insert, of who she would have wanted to be, or is now (after she grew out of her Hermione phase). The physical looks and ending up with the love interest parts don't fit Hermione, in terms of being a self-insert.

        I think that we mostly agree (I think Ginny fits enough of the characteristics to merit the title, you don't, etc), and that it's all just semantics--the problem with a term that emerged and evolved from a bunch of people... But in any case, I'm glad I'm not the only one who has devoted a lot of thought to this specific issue!
        Promise that you'll return to me.

        icon by sireesanswar


        • #5
          It's true that term Mary Sue is way overused and misapplied. But I recently came across a genuine Canon Sue - Lisbeth Salander from The Millenium Trilogy (the books on which the film The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is based). She solved Fermat's last theorem...while being busy with something else. And she didn't have any formal education in mathematics, she taught herself in like less than a year. Not that the lack of such knowledge stopped her from being super-hacker even before she developed any interest in maths. She was also a decent boxer who trained with heavy-weight men, despite having the physique of a fifteen-year old skinny girl. Has a dark and troubled past, obviously.

          It's very easy to guess which character is good in this trilogy and which one is bad. The good ones like her, the bad ones do not. It's that simple. The main male character is a Gary Stu who is desired by all women he meets but they are all okay with him not committing to any of them. he is also an investigating journalist, just liek the author of the trlogy - self-insert much? It's kind of fun if one reads it for the "so bad, it's good" effect, though. So yes, not only is Canon Sue alive and well but they can be found in books that sell millions and millions of copies.
          Xander: "Willow, you are the best human ever! I adore you! Well, that's the cookies talking, but you rock!"


          • #6
            Canon Sue doesn't have to be the protagonist, or the designated love interest. It's a common belief that Wesley Crusher was Gene Roddenberry's self-insert Gary Stu figure, even though he was on an ensemble show and not the lead (and it would have been a bit too much even for Wesley to be a captain at 14 )...
            You keep waiting for the dust to settle and then you realize it; the dust is your life going on. If happy comes along - that weird unbearable delight that's actual happy - I think you have to grab it while you can. You take what you can get, 'cause it's here, and then...gone.


            • #7
              I've seen that name pop up a lot (together with Bella Swan the most named Canon Sue.), but I don't know the character, thanks for mentioning. I guess that's another difference between Mary and her canon buddies besides the lack of long sparkling purple hair, not always a protagonist. Bigger chance that Ginny is indeed a Canon Sue sherrilina.
              Last edited by Nina; 27-05-12, 12:38 AM.


              • #8
                There is a character from the (frankly excellent) "Heir to the Empire" trilogy by Timothy Zahn, which is the nominally official Chapters VII, VIII, and IX of "Star Wars" (per the nature of the Star Wars EU), that is often argued about as whether or not she is a Mary Sue -- Mara Jade. I don't want to overspoil in case anyone might read the series, but google could produce tons of results, and it all falls along the same lines.

                1) she's beautiful
                2) she's very quickly considered competent by all major characters, becoming variously frenemies, enemies, UST interest, etc
                3) extremely important to the plot

                And various others. But she is an interesting threshold case -- is a new character into existing work a Sue if they are immediately elevated to equal footing with the existing characters, or only if they are immediately superlative and above them?

                Also, the STTNG episode "Hollow Pursuits" plays with the Mary Sue trope through the Barclay character's Holodeck activities.
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                • #9
                  I would say that it's possible for a character to be a sue without being elevated above the others, especially when we're talking Canon Sue, who seems to be the less extreme sister of Mary Sue. Especially if (s)he is new and gains his/her place between the established characters without too much time and developments. Which is pretty much the way a lot of original Mary Sues weasel themselves between the canon characters in fanfic.