In Defense of Mary Sue
by Debra Fran Baker
It may seem odd for a slash writer to be defending this cliche of gen fic, but I do have my reasons. I think she's been much maligned by everyone, and in fact that she is neither the evil thing to be avoided that most consider her or a mark of a poor writer. I hope that this will change some people's minds about her.
Mary Sue is the often derogatory term used to describe a specific type of original female character. She is usually a more beautiful, brilliant, brave and talented version of the author. She saves the ship or gets the bad guy's head or solves the mystery, and then she gets whichever regular male character to fall in love with her.
Yes, there are problems. Mary Sue is always perfect. Everyone always loves her - what few female regulars are her friends and all the men think she's the best. She never makes mistakes. In short, she is unbelievable, clearly the stuff of fantasy. Also, she's usually created by new writers who have not grown into their craft, and therefore is written poorly over and above her perfection.
So how can I defend this creature? Don't I want believable characters and good writing in fanfic? Well, yes, I do. I just think that her problems are overblown, and sometimes non-existent. Take the perfection angle. Yes, she's perfect...but often, so are the heroes she's sleeping with. They are strong, honest, brave, true and the rest of that boy scout stuff, and surely she should live up to them? And if I, as a slash writer, can take two men portrayed as heterosexual and put them in bed together, then a Mary Sue writer can put her idealized self in the same place. If she wants to save the Enterprise and wake up in Scotty's arms, more power to her.
Mary Sues fill a niche that many series, especially older ones such as Classic Trek, are missing - strong female characters. She's not just physically ideal, she's also intelligent and resourceful, and she earns her place in the hero's bed by rescuing him, instead of being a damsel in distress as female guest stars are wont to be. And why shouldn't that be them?
The other bugaboo is poor writing, and that, I feel, comes as much from the inexperience and age of the writers as anything else. It is not because Mary Sue is the writer's alter ego. This is a time honored technique, ranging from Jane Austen's Elizabeth Bennet to Robert Heinlein's Lazarus Long, and is nothing to be ashamed of. Not all writers have the ability to become great, but most can be at least readable. And the only way to improve is to keep writing. It doesn't matter if this writing contains Mary Sue. Work on her long enough and things will change.
One thing that writers can and do do is make Mary Sue a little more believable - they give her their faults as well as their virtues and the virtues they wished they had. Then she becomes another character, even if she's a trifle more heroic and prettier than anyone else. And eventually, she will become someone else, and a truly original character is born.
As a slash writer, of course, I rarely have a chance to use Mary Sues. Some might use them to bring their favorite pairing together, but I've actually not seen this myself. It's far more common to see m/m slash stories with few if any female characters, and few of them are original. Since we don't want to sleep with Jim or Blair, but rather we want to watch them sleep together, there is rarely a place for her. Even so, slash writers are so wary of Mary Sue that they avoid using ofc's even if they are just window dressing, for fear they are only a thinly disguised version of themselves. As the above says, this is not a problem so long as we believe the character.
In conclusion, Mary Sue is not the horror to be avoided that she is painted. She is actually a valid literary tool that not only fulfills fantasies but also often fills a niche that is often neglected, and she can provide valuable insights into both the author and to her writing techniques as they improve with time. So let her shine forth, if not as brilliantly as you would like. Make her a bartender in a special pub or the EMT that brings Fraser in. Don't be afraid of her. She's the nicest lady in fanfic, after all.