You know her. You've read her. Her name strikes terror deep into the hearts of fanfic readers everywhere. Reviled by many, defended by some, held responsible on occasion for almost all that is bad in the fanfic universe, Mary Sue remains someone we just can't do without. Who is Mary Sue, and why is she impossible to kill? Can anything be done?
Ever mindful of its responsibilities to the fanfic-reading public, Bad Fanfic! No Biscuit! staff tracked down one of these creatures at her lair and interviewed her. Here's what we learned.
Q (Badfic): Your name, as I understand it, is not actually Mary Sue?
A (Ophidia): No, of course not. It hardly ever is. It's only rarely that you get writers who are naïve enough - or self-aware enough - to actually put their own names on their author surrogates. Most have the decency to make some effort at camouflage - like saddling us with some outlandishly pretentious name. I mean, Plaidder won't tell me what her real name is, but I'm betting it's not Ophidia Varegia.
Q: And how long have you been working in fanfic?
A: I was introduced in 1995 or 1996, I think, in a Garak/Bashir story called "Sigh No More." The story spawned a series of sequels, but my author bailed out of the Garak/Bashir scene after about a year. I did do one X-File. Aside from that, I was on the beach until Plaidder brought me out of retirement for a brief cameo in the Sith Academy.
Q: How do you know you're Mary Sue?
A: Because my author told me.
A: Yeah. Before she sent me out there she explained the gig to me. "It sucks to be Mary Sue," she said. "It's a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it."
Q: Is that true?
A: That it's a dirty job?
Q: That someone's got to do it.
A: I'll let you in on a dirty little secret: all the characters in any story are, to some degree, Mary Sue. Because they're all created - or, in the case of fanfic, re-created - out of the author's own depraved brain; they have to be her surrogates. They can't really be anything else. Even if it borrows elements from other sources - and all writing does - in the end, your writing is not comin' from anyplace else but you.
Q: If that's true then why are Mary Sues considered a special - and, I must say, almost universally maligned - breed?
A: Well, non-Mary Sue characters tend to be more complex. They're made up of various bits and pieces of the author put in a blender along with a lot of other stuff and then pureed on high until they're poured into the frosty cold highball of narrative form. We're different because we haven't undergone the same process of transformation.
Q: Frosty cold highball of...
A: Let me try that again. Let's say you're getting ready to make someone a nice omelette. You've got your 3 eggs, your splash of milk, your block of cheddar cheese, your clove of garlic. Now, if you do what you need to do to all of these ingredients, you come out with a great omelette. If, on the other hand, you just throw it all into a bowl and stir once, what you have is a really nasty mess. If, on yet a third hand, you do everything else right but instead of pressing the garlic you throw it in there whole, you've got an omelette which is mostly all right if slightly bland - until you bite into the whole not-very-cooked clove of garlic, which makes you want to hurl.
Q: So we've now moved from highballs to omelettes.
A: The point is, you can have the same set of ingredients turn into many different products depending on the skill with which you prepare them - and part of that skill is knowing how to combine things. You have to be able to take what's in your head and synthesize it into something that's more than the raw material you started with. A good writer ends up with an omelette. A bad writer ends up with a nauseating sludgepile of raw egg and vegetable chunks. And a good writer who has a Mary Sue problem ends up with a pretty good omelette at the heart of which is concealed a giant lump of stink.
Q: Because Mary Sue is, to follow through with this ridiculous cooking metaphor, not sliced and diced?
A: Exactly. The one thing that separates a Mary Sue from any other kind of character is that we aren't the result of any kind of process. We're just plucked out of the author's fantasy life and plunked down into the story without being peeled, mashed, browned, or anything. We're raw, we're cold, and we're just so not tasty.
Q: But how can the readers tell you haven't been...processed?
A: I think what tips people off is the way our authors coddle us. Since we are, essentially, them, they get real sensitive about us. So for instance, my author has inflicted all kinds of crap on me in terms of the plot, but in terms of my personality, I don't have any major problems. I've got character flaws, but they're all flaws she thinks are going to endear me to people. You don't see me, for instance, betraying my friends, lying, cheating, stealing, chickening out in battle situations, that kind of thing.
Q: True. Although I have to say, I was expecting you to be a little more...
Q: Well, to be frank, yes.
A: Yeah, I know everyone says Mary Sues are supposed to be ravishingly beautiful. But that's the symptom, not the disease. The only reason Mary Sues all look like Claudia Schiffer is that that's how their authors want to see themselves. I think trying to see herself as Claudia Schiffer would make my author's head explode, hence she hasn't done the whole Mary Sue makeover on me. However, she is very concerned that people think she's funny, so I get to do comic relief all day every day. Yee ha.
Q: But a lot of authors idealize the canon characters too, don't they?
A: It's not just the idealization - although God knows that's annoying enough. The real problem with us is that our authors don't discipline us. We're the favorite children, and we get spoiled, and that makes us bratty. Everything we do has to be right, and if you happen to think one of us is behaving in a way that's bad, implausible, or just outrageously stupid, our authors don't wanna hear it. So when we're let loose into a story, we end up trashing the place the away a two-year-old trashes the dinner table. We hog all the attention, we do stupid shit that should get us killed and instead everyone calls us brilliant, we derail perfectly good plots by having mindblowing sex with the main canon lust object every five minutes -
Q: Well, you may think it's mindblowing -
A: -but the readers are all sleeping through it, I know. It's hard to make sex boring, but we manage.
Q: How do you do it? I've always wondered.
A: It's because we're faking it. No, seriously. The badness of Mary Sue sex is just one of the expressions of the major problem with us, which is that we're not real, and the readers know it. We don't have real bodies, we don't have real histories, we don't have real personalities - so how can you expect us to have real orgasms? The sex we have is as unreal - and therefore, ultimately, uninteresting - as everything else about us.
Q: I notice you never have sex.
A: Not with the boys I don't. I have plenty of sex with my girlfriend, which nobody is ever going to hear about.
Q: You mean you have a life?
A: Of course I have a life. But I know nobody wants to hear about it, so I don't bring it up. See, unlike a lot of Mary Sues I know what I am, and I make some effort to keep my worst natural tendencies in check. Hence, I don't spend a lot of time talking about my home life on Caledonia, or my wonderful girlfriend, or my singing career, because really, who the hell cares? People reading these stories are there for the canon characters. So I try to make myself useful, and to stay out of their way. That way I don't have to stink up the story just by being in it.
Q: So if a Mary Sue doesn't necessarily stink up a story, what explains the fact that so many stories with Mary Sues are so raucously bad? Isn't it simply that bad writers are much more likely to use you all than good writers are?
A: To some extent that's true. If you have no imagination, for instance, you're much more likely to turn out characters that look like you, simply because you can't figure out how to do it any other way. So yeah, a lot of us work for pretty bad authors. But there is a huge difference between a writer who will always be bad, and a writer who is in the process of getting better. Mary Sue is a stage that almost every writer goes through - again, because it's so closely linked to why people write. Every writer is really telling her own story. The difference between writing that people actually want to read and writing that needs to be stuffed into a box and put away in the attic until the mice eat it is whether you can make your own story also be about something else. Writers with a future figure out that in order to do that either they have to get the hell away from Mary Sue, or they have to make her someone readers can care about.
Q: That seems to me like a mighty tall order.
A: It is. That's why it's much safer just to avoid her and stick with the canon characters. Using someone else's character forces you to do a certain amount of transformation. You may identify like crazy with Darth Maul, but you are not a tattooed spiky-headed Sith Lord of uncertain provenance, and so when you try to write this tattooed spiky-headed Sith Lord, certain things have to change. It's by imagining what you would be like if you were raised in the wild by Tauntans or whatever the hell kind of backstory you give Darth Maul that you start doing what you need to be doing to make your writing interesting. But if you just can't stand to let Mary Sue go, there are some things you can do to control her.
Q: Such as?
A: First of all, if you're going to put yourself in a story, and not have it suck, then you have to be willing to treat yourself like you treat your other characters. That means being critical of us - at least critical enough to make realistic decisions about how we respond to danger, for instance, or who in this universe we are going to intensely annoy.
Q: You think most Mary Sue writers can do that?
A: Well, most of them clearly don't. But that doesn't necessarily mean they couldn't if they tried. There are some rules that help.
Q: And of course you're going to lay them out now.
A: Naturally. As you may have noticed, one thing we love to do is talk about ourselves.
Q: You don't say.
A: Anyhow, the main thing, like I said, is discipline. You can't let us become the main attraction. We've got to be supporting players, and the more marginal we are, the happier everyone is.
Q: Sounds reasonable.
A: So that means, for instance, that readers don't need to know our life history. It also means they don't need to get moment by moment updates on our feelings and perceptions. Similarly, they don't need to hear our judgments about everything and everyone in this universe. And finally, and this is a rule I would advise people never to break, we cannot, under any circumstances, boff the protagonist.
Q: That sounds a little harsh.
A: I know, but believe me, it's crucial.
Q: As I understand it, boffing the protagonist is the mission in life of most Mary Sues.
A: Well, that's a good test for the writer. If the sole and only thing that interests you about us is the fact that we get protagonist nookie, then you don't have enough self-control to work with us. Because that's a sign that we're just a vehicle for your private fantasies - and compelling as your private fantasies are to you, they are really boring to other people. If there's boffing to be done, use canon characters. That way you'll be forced to use your imagination, and that will make things interesting.
Q: But if you're not boffing anyone...what's the point?
A: Well, that's exactly it - you have to give us a reason to be in the story. Make us part of the plot. But for God's sake don't make us the technological geniuses who save the ship from blowing up. I hate that shit - it's too much pressure. I'm much happier in some kind of specialized minor role which is necessary for the resolution but not central to the action.
Q: I've heard that sometimes the canon character can actually be the Mary Sue. True?
A: Yep. If the canon character is acting like he's been possessed by aliens but the plot doesn't seem to explain that, then either something's wrong with the writer, or the character is One Of Us. Sometimes what appears to be a gross inability to grasp the nuances of characterization is merely the sudden and unannounced intrusion of a member of the Special Mary Sue Covert Task Force.
Q: I have to ask, though...why would anyone want to include one of you at all?
A: Because we can help contain and neutralize some of the problems that people associate with us. If you've got one definite, identifiable author surrogate who you deliberately relegate to a minor role, this can help you do less Mary Sueing when you write the other characters. We work as a badness quarantine - if you concentrate all the narcissism, ego need, and whatnot in us, it doesn't affect the rest of the characters.
Q: I dunno. From what I read it seems like you're more of a badness Typhoid Mary.
A: True. But I'll tell you this - getting rid of Mary Sue doesn't necessarily get rid of the Mary Sue problem. If you can't get some kind of critical distance on your own personal fantasies, needs, desires, and insecurities, they end up driving the story and any character you put into it. If you can't take a cold, hard, honest look at yourself, then not only will your Mary Sue stink to high heaven, but so will the rest of your writing.
Q: Wow. You're deep.
A: You see what I mean? You have to just shut me up when I start talking like that, or we'll never get out of here. I'm Mary Sue, I'll bullshit till the cows come home if people let me.
Q: Well, that's all the time we have for today, folks. We'd like to thank Ophidia for being such an edifying guest.
A: My pleasure.
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