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Friday, October 02, 2009

Sweet Mary Sue: Female “types” In Fan Fiction

First published, in a somewhat different form, in Centero and in Spaced Out #17

I first wrote on this topic for Nikki White’s letterzine Centero, back in the days when fan fiction was limited to print fanzines, when there were a relatively small number of media fanzines in Australia and only a few SF/F universes in which to write. Now, on the Internet, there is more opportunity than ever before to write about Mary Sue and the mind boggles at what they’re doing with it. When I was writing fan fiction - and doing the occasional Mary Sue for fun - we were writing original Trek and Blake’s 7 and not much else(I think I recall coming across a Dr Who Mary Sue once, involving the Tom Baker version and a companion who never appeared in the live series). Nowadays, no universe is safe. There’s even an entire sub-genre that pokes fun at the Tolkien-related Mary Sue. I can’t quite bring myself to read the stories at which they are laughing, but judging by the send-ups, the genre hasn’t changed much. The object of Mary Sue’s affections is still pointy-eared, but these days his name is Legolas or Elrond. Poor J.R.R. would turn in his grave. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to stick to the universes I know best, though I think the sub-categories apply well enough across the board.

So, who is Mary Sue? What is the Mary Sue story? She is the heroine of a sub-genre of fan fiction, though she occasionally turns up even in the shows on which the fan stories are based, or even in regular print fiction - hey, I have even reviewed one on this blog!

Originally, the term as applied to fan fiction really only covered the area I'd call Supergirl. It has grown to the point where it falls roughly into three broad categories, each containing its sub-categories. Let’s call them, for convenience, "The Sweet Young, Thing", "The Nightclub Singer" and “Supergirl”.

The Sweet Young Thing comes in a variety of flavours. She is a priestess, a princess in distress, a slave-girl or a rebel leader's daughter - occasionally a scientist's daughter. Her usual function is to tend the hero's wounds and nurse him back to health. As her reward, she gets his undying love and conceives his child.

Alas, his undying love is often her death sentence! Our pregnant heroine would be a bit awkward to take back to the Liberator or Enterprise , wouldn't she? For an excellent example of this, see the original Trek episode "The Paradise Syndrome". Poor Miramanee - she was doomed from the moment Kirk fell in 1ove with her.

If the Sweet Young Thing is a princess, however, she has some chance of survival. Firstly, she has an "out" - her duty to her people, which doesn't allow her to run off with brooding Vulcans or handsome rebel computer experts. Secondly, for some reason, fan-writers seem to like the idea of Avon/Spock/whoever becoming the father of royalty. It's next best to his being a ruler himself.

The Nightclub Singer is mostly to be found in the Blake’s 7 universe, far more rarely in the Trek universe. (If you're old enough to know what I'm talking about when I mention Blake's 7, good on you. If not, go and find it on DVD - it's well worth it! )

She is a little older than the Sweet Young Thing. Often, she is a widow, with or without children, making her living singing for her supper. Her husband died fighting in the rebellion, which has understandably soured her on the whole business, but she ends up helping our heroes anyhow, complaining all the way, and has a quiet romance with one of them(usually Avon) before waving them goodbye; at least she survives the story and rarely gets pregnant! One Australian fan-writer who made this variety of Mary Sue her own was the late Monica Mitchell, who showed how well the genre could be done in the hands of a competent writer. Her heroines usually had romances with the villains of Blake’s 7 - Travis was a favourite - but occasionally leered lustfully at Avon.

The Nightclub Singer may also be a professional woman - a doctor or scientist, for example, who was working for the Federation and has broken away. She boards the Liberator and saves the crew before continuing on her way. She usually fancies Vila or Avon. If it’s Avon, she spars with him for most of the story, of course

Third is "Supergirl", who is more a Trek type than anything else, but sometimes appears in other fan fiction, and often in mainstream fantasy, such as Kylie Chan's White Tiger.

She may be even younger than the Sweet Young Thing - usually about sixteen. Despite this, she has a string of university degrees and a pilot's licence. In the original Trek universe (I assume there are parallels in the spin-offs), she will probably be telepathic and brought up on Vulcan. Despite the difference in their ages, she usually knew Spock back home.

All the male characters fall in love with her, but sadly, she is not for any of them, in the end; she sacrifices herself saving the Liberator or Enterprise and is remembered fondly by all, or she flies off into the sunset(so to speak) to save the day elsewhere. Or - sometimes - she marries the hero of the author's choice and live happily ever after, playing a major role in the civilization of which her man is the leader...

Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s classic “Kraith” series had a Mary Sue of this variety (well, she may have been over sixteen, but she had been brought up on Vulcan, etc.). She became pregnant by Spock and died in an ancient Vulcan ceremony that had a tendency to kill pregnant women, but had to be performed.

Although Lichtenberg was a big-name fan writer at the time and went on to write professionally, the Supergirl story is mostly created by younger writers trying their hand, and is the female equivalent of the space-battle stories written by earnest young boys. Possibly the author will progress beyond it, but if not, she is having fun and so are her readers.

I rather suspect there are professional writers out there still writing Mary Sue stories for their own enjoyment! In fact, I know there are; at least one major Australian novelist admitted at a conference that she did this.

And when you've written a whole lot of mainstream books, or even worthwhile genre novels, it's very relaxing to kick off your shoes, turn on the computer and wander the galaxy with sweet Mary Sue.


Adelaide Dupont said...

This is one of the most interesting Mary Sue articles that I have read so far.

Loved reading about the Nightclub Singer and the younger archetype which appeared just before her.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Adelaide, glad you enjoyed it! Do you read or write fan fiction yourself?

Adelaide Dupont said...


I write Enid Blyton fan fiction when I can. And I create stories in my head from my favourite books.

Anonymous said...

T'Rruel is one of the reasons I don't subscribe to the Mary Sue concept. She was the woman whose story you cited in your "supergirl" example.

She was not brought up on Vulcan, she was Vulcan, a master of the complex art of tokiel dance (imagine choreographing a physics proof with its theorems, and you'll have the basic idea). Her family owned a line of commercial spaceships. She and her troupe were guests being transported to the ceremony, she didn't come aboard as a crew member.

You might say that's all she was -- other than a prude and a racist who couldn't stand the idea of telepathically linking to another species, and whose feelings for Spock were considerably damped when she found out his mother was from Earth. In the "should Vulcan secede from the Federation" Kraith stories, T'Rruel would have been dancing for secession.

You would say perhaps, Lichtenberg introduced an original character with exceptional traits, so that makes her a Mary Sue.

But if that's the case, so is Spock, because he is an exceptional person (as is every member of the Enterprise crew). Also, Spock is portrayed in Kraith as coming from a high-ranking family with a certain amount of power and responsibility. T'Rruel's story was part of a sub-series within Kraith, meant to explore just what kind of woman a man like that could have for a wife, and why.

The Mary Sue idea has had a chilling effect on a lot of amateur writers, particularly women. If you look up Mary Sue on Wikipedia, go down to "Criticism" -- there's some material about Camille Bacon-Smith's research on this subject.

Bluejay Young

Sue Bursztynski said...

Nah, I didn't mean T'Ruel. I was thinking of Tanya - or "T'Aniyeh". She who was very young and a Vulcan expert and married Spock and died because she was pregnant during the - Affirmation? It has been many years. As a matter of fact, I still have my Kraith Collected and wouldn't part with it. Classic stuff.

What's your beef here? :-) We all write Mary Sue at some stage and some big-name writers still do it for fun. Hell, I enjoy the stuff as long as it's well-written, far more than I do some other kinds of fan fiction.

Women can write anything they like, just like anyone else. And fan fiction always was the kind of writing where you expected LoCs and they weren't always rave reviews. That's how we all learned and improved our writing.

This article was written in a spirit of whimsy. let's leave it that way, shall we?