In my column last week, I made a passing reference about Dante being a “Gary Stu.” It wasn’t central to my point, so I didn’t take time to explain it then for those unfamiliar with the name, but I thought I’d take this week’s column to explain who Gary Stu and his older sister Mary Sue are.
In 1973, Paula Smith wrote a piece of Star Trek fan fiction called “A Trekkie's Tale.” It was originally printed in her own fanzine Menagerie. The story is short -- barely over 300 words. But in those 300 words, Lt. Mary Sue is pursued by Captain Kirk, admired by Mr. Spock and helps Dr. McCoy. She saves an away crew, is given command of the USS Enterprise, receives numerous high honors from multiple planets and has a holiday instituted by the Federation in her honor. When she dies at the end Kirk, Spock and McCoy all unashamedly weep “at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness.”
It was a very unsubtle parody of other fanfics Smith had read in which an original character is written into the Star Trek universe. Typically, she would be the youngest engineer/doctor/officer/whatever in Star Fleet, and would be of such unrelentingly excellent character that she never had any flaws whatsoever. This, of course, led to the character being loved and adored by everyone. Not only did she always save the day, but would eventually sacrifice herself to save the captain/crew/humanity and everyone would mourn her tragic death.
These stories were almost always seen as transparent attempts to insert an idealized version of the author into the Star Trek universe. Largely, it would seem, as a means to gratify the author’s own ego. (In fandom parlance, this is sometimes referred to as egoboo, a portmanteau of “ego boost” that dates back to the 1940s.) These stories were less concerned about characterization and structure and narrative, and more concerned with showcasing how heroic the author was.
“A Trekkie's Tale” is, as I said, not subtle. Combined with its brevity, it might have been largely forgotten. But since Menagerie was Smith’s fanzine, she and co-editor Sharon Ferraro kept the phrase "Lt. Mary Sue story" in circulation when discussing or reviewing fan works in which the author committed the same sins Smith had been parodying. Smith also used the phrase when she wrote letters in to other fanzines. Smith later recalled, “We explained why the first couple of times we used it, but the term caught on because she's very identifiable: Here it is, that same character, and isn't it a shame because she's just so tiresome.”
That same character, that wish-fulfillment ideal, is Mary Sue. That blandly heroic protagonist that is meant as a stand-in for the author. The notion wasn’t original in 1973, but no one had really put a reusable name to the character type. Smith noted, “I identified a piece of humanity and put a name to it, but that's all I did. Everything I know about Mary Sue I was told by somebody else.” The name eventually reached beyond Star Trek and into other fandoms.
Men, it should come as no surprise, do this as well. Smith never wrote a male-centered parody, but the names Marty Stu and Gary Stu have been used to echo the same sentiments she had when creating the original Mary Sue. (I suppose which name you use depends on your preferences about alliteration and rhyming!)
Now, whether any given given character is a Mary Sue or a Gary Stu can be debated. In fact, Smith and Ferraro used to be on panels at science fiction conventions where who was or wasn’t another tiresome avatar for the author was hotly contested. They tend not to participate in those debates any more, but the question keeps coming up. Is Hermione Granger a Mary Sue for J.K. Rowling? Is Bella Swan a Mary Sue for Stephenie Meyer?
Interestingly, these debates tend to focus on females. James Bond and Superman were originally pretty obvious stand-ins for their creators, but they’re rarely talked about in those terms and, if they are, it’s usually done with a casual wave of the hand. Often with an addendum about how they quickly matured into solid characters in their own right. Why isn’t the same thinking afforded women?
Well, I don’t have NEARLY the space to address that in the remainder of this column, but Smith answered that question by saying, “Because the world we live in is not just a patriarchy; it's a puerarchy — what gets focused on in the culture is defined by boys and young men.” That puerarchy — the notion of extended adolescence that’s typified by so many video games and movies these days that are marketed to the 18-30 year old male demographic — is pervasive enough that people generally file sophomoric Gary Stu characters under “normal” wish-fulfillment fantasies but hold Mary Sue creators to a harsher standard. But I’ll save gender bias issues for a later column!
Creating a Mary Sue or Gary Stu character isn’t necessarily a bad thing in its own right. Writers are frequently encouraged to humanize their characters by putting some of themselves into each one, and writing a Mary Sue is an easy way to get used to doing that. It generally makes for a boring story for the reader, but it can be a valuable experience for the writer. Particularly when people can point out precisely why that specific Mary Sue character doesn’t work. It’s a step in the creative development process, but only a step.
Calling a character a Mary Sue or Gary Stu is, these days, seen as derogatory. It’s a claim that the author is not talented or adept enough to flesh out characters that aren’t simply an idealistic mirror image of themselves. That may well be true in many cases, but it’s also often a very dismissive approach to reading fiction if you write a character off even before they’re given a chance to develop.