Mary Sue could hardly believe it. She was on her way to college when she woke up right in the middle of Middle Earth. She spied her favourite elf, Marty Stu, in the distance. “I know you,” she said, “You’re Marty Stu, the unsung hero of the Fellowship of the Ring. The one who truly did defeat Sauran in Tolkien’s unwritten fourth book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.”
“Oh my goodness,” said Marty Stu, instantly struck by her beauty and forgetting to ask why she wore strange clothes and carried a mobile phone which still had Wi-Fi access so she could ring her mum. “Who are you fair maiden? I have only known you three seconds yet already you are the most beautiful, gracious and intelligent woman I have ever met.”
“I am Mary Sue and we were clearly meant to be together, on account of me getting hit by a truck on the way to my myths and legends tutorial and waking up here.”
“Yes, my love,” said Marty Stu, “I think you are right. It is our destiny to be together. Of course I will have to end my affairs with Arwen, Legolas, Aragorn and several of the hobbits, but you will be my bride. But first I must ride valiantly to Mordor, where Sauran has once again started his evil plans to take over Middle Earth.”
“I shall come with you, my beloved,” said Mary Sue, “only appearing to hinder your progress until I destroy Sauran with a few well chosen words and you realise that this whole story was about me all along.”
extract from When Mary Sue Fell Into Middle Earth by Sally Quilford
I would like to say I’d exaggerated the above extract, but it is probably indicative of many fan fiction stories out there in the Internet ether. If you Google ‘Worst Fanfiction ever’ you’ll find a story called ‘My Immortal’ which makes my sorry effort look as if I were channelling Tolkien.
‘Mary Sue’ is a recognised term for a fanfiction character which is clearly based on the author. It can also denote a character that is so perfect that their only reason for existence is to be adored by others.
The male equivalent of a Mary Sue is a ‘Marty Stu’. He is everything a man should be. Brave, handsome, a hit with the ladees, and the one who invariably gets the Mary Sue at the end.
It is not only in fanfiction that Mary Sues and Marty Stus abound. A Mary Sue in particular is a staple of many classic novels, written when women were only there to be protected and rescued by the hero. Laura Fairlie from Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White is passive to the extreme and seems even more so alongside her half-sister, the witty and proactive, Marian Halcombe. Laura is only there to be protected by both Marian and the hero, Walter Harcourt, both of whom treat Laura almost as if she is an imbecile child. When Laura wants to help them make money, she paints pictures. Marian and Walter store the paintings away, arbitrarily deciding they are worthless. They give Laura a few pennies out the money they’ve made by their supposedly more worthwhile pursuits, pretending that she has indeed sold the paintings. It’s akin to putting a penny from the fairies under a child’s pillow when they’ve lost a tooth.
A modern example of a Mary Sue could arguably include Bella Swan from the Twilight series. She is of no interest to anyone, either male or female, until a vampire called Edward Cullen falls in love with her and suddenly the lives of every supernatural being within a five thousand mile radius revolve around her. In a way, Bella Swan fulfils a young girl’s need to be popular in school. If she cannot be popular amongst her schoolmates, she will be popular amongst vampires and werewolves (even if a good majority of them only want to drink her blood and/or kill her).
Marty Stu characters are harder to pin down. The website TV Tropes (http://www.tvtropes.com) suggest that Mary Sue’s are mostly passive because at one time that was the extent of most women’s roles in stories. Marty Stu “is the personification of action, action and more action.” TV Tropes also argue that Marty Stus are forgiven more for being what they are “because they upheld stereotypically male virtues such as toughness, courage, and heterosexual promiscuity.”
Marty Stus which spring to mind for me are Ian Fleming’s James Bond and Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Both are tough, resourceful and very popular with the ladies. Yet we forgive them, because they do more to solve their own problems, whereas a Mary Sue’s problems are often solved by others. Even kickass Leeloo in The Fifth Element needs Bruce Willis to help her save the universe.
You’ll probably have a hard time thinking of a film or novel in which the ‘Mary Sue’ hero is saved by a heroine who personifies all the traits of a Marty Stu. However, Doctor Who often plays with that trope by having the Mary Sue type companion save the Doctor from some awful fate. And the appearance of the brave and sassy River Song will ensure that the Doctor gets saved for some time yet (at least until … oh sorry, spoilers).
That is not to say that either Mary Sues or Marty Stus are bad things per se. The Woman in White is one of my favourite novels despite Laura Fairlie’s passivity. Whilst I don’t much like James Bond, I’m a huge Jack Reacher fan and if Bruce Willis insists on helping me to save the universe whilst looking hunky in his orange vest, tell him I’m mostly free on Tuesdays.
But how can we avoid creating Mary Sues and Marty Stus in our own writing? I write romance, and it’s fair to say that every one of my heroines is a younger, prettier, wittier, slimmer version of me, though I pride myself on giving her faults too. I don’t know how Lee Child’s mind works, but since he is around six foot five inches and Jack Reacher is six foot five inches, I’d hazard a guess that Reacher is the man that Child would like to be. The irony is that male authors are not given such a hard time when they create superhero versions of themselves.
I would argue that most writers’ heroes or heroines are based, in part, upon themselves. When we create a character who is meant to be the good guy/gal, we tend to give them our best traits, along with other attributes of which society approves. What society wants from a hero or heroine has changed over the years and it helps to keep this in mind. In The Children of the Damned, George Sander’s Mary Sue wife is having a perfectly reasonable emotional breakdown on account of giving birth to a white haired demon child. His response is to slap her on the face so she shuts up. Way to show empathy, George! But at the time the film was made, it was not unusual for the hero to give the heroine a slap to bring her into line. Even Elvis Presley spanked a girl in Blue Hawaii (in fact he spanked a schoolgirl, which is rather more worrying). Such behaviour in films and in real life would, quite rightly, be frowned upon now, but at the time it was seen as acceptable.
Nowadays a hero is depicted as basically honest, brave, resourceful, not afraid to have a fight, and whilst he’s lucky with the ladies, and seldom turns down any reasonable offer of sex, he treats women well and respects them as people in their own right. Even an amoral hero like James Bond must always be kind to children and small fluffy animals. He may kill Blofeld in a suitably ironic fashion, but he would lose all his fans if he so much as harmed a hair on Blofeld’s cat’s head.
A heroine cannot be as promiscuous as the hero (double standards still abound sadly) and she must be basically honest and brave. Depending on the genre, heroines don’t really fight much. They tend to use their intelligence to get them out of problems. Hence my spoof Mary Sue’s assurance that she’ll sort Sauran out with nothing more than a good talking to. If the heroine has been promiscuous, a tryst with the hero will turn her into a born-again virgin, a la every bad girl James Bond has ever taken to bed, as satirised in the spoof Casino Royale (1967). The drawback being that she has to go away (often dying in the process) so that the hero does not have to choose between torrid sex with her and vanilla sex with the chaste primary Mary Sue. This can be seen in nearly every western or film noir from the 1930s, 40s and 50s. But it goes back as far as the novel, Ivanhoe, who is clearly in love with the exquisite Jewess Rebecca, but marries the more vanilla Lady Rowena because society, i.e. the readership of the time, expects it of him.
The important thing to remember, when creating any character, is to make them fully realised. Admittedly if it’s the hero or heroine, you will probably make them better people than anyone that you or I will ever meet, but as long as they have some faults too, they won’t come across as Mary Sues/Marty Stus. The TV Tropes page suggests that if you give a character a fatal flaw (or even more than one) it negates anyone’s right to call them a Mary Sue or Marty Stu. One example is Bruce Willis in the original Die Hard film. His fatal flaw, to begin with, is that he does not like his wife being more successful than he is. It makes him seem human and fits in with the attitudes of the time without making him completely unlikeable. We see that he genuinely loves and cares for his wife but is just a bit of an emotional dinosaur.
And that’s the important point. Even fatal flaws have to be forgivable to readers. Most importantly make sure Marty Stu doesn’t slap Mary Sue after she’s given birth to a demon child (or at any other time for that matter), or I’ll be around to give him a good talking to.