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Master of Style

Mary Sue

On the comics blog recently, a commenter used the phrase "Mary Sue" in a way that i believe to be incorrect. But from all of his previous comments i know that person to be smart and well read, and the usage is one that i see a lot. I think of this usage as being a lot like how "beg the question" has evolved into meaning something entirely different than originally intended. But i could just be plain wrong, so i wanted to outline my understanding of the phrase and see if people agree. I don't mean to single out any commenter (especially ones whose alter egos are invading Kree soldiers); it's something that's been bugging me for a while and the fact that it came up recently just brought it to the front of my mind.

I've always understood the phrase Mary Sue to be when an author inserts themselves* into the story in a wish fulfillment kind of way. And that's how Wikipedia defines it. The name originally came from a parody of fan fiction where a Lieutenant Mary Sue joined the Starship Enterprise crew and just proved to be a wonderful officer and got to be romantically involved with William Shatner and everything else. Simple, basic fan fiction where the author is fantasizing about being a part of the story.

We really shouldn't see this sort of thing in professional writing, and i can't think of any examples where we do. The closest sort of thing i can think of in comics is Richard Rory (and to a lesser degree Howard the Duck) being a stand-in for Steve Gerber, or the Beyonder in Secret Wars II being a metaphor for Jim Shooter. But those characters don't qualify as Mary Sues because the point of them is not for the author to fantasize about being part of the story. It's to provide that external voice, or to do an autobiographical self-examination (see also every Woody Allen movie). We may or may not like the meta nature of this type of character, but it's not simply the author showing how awesome they would be if they could be in the story.

The above examples aren't really where i see the phrase being (mis-?)used, though. Where it always seems to come up is in cases where the author has what i call a pet character. One major example is Roger Stern's Monica Rambeau, aka Captain Marvel. The common complaint is that Stern made the character too powerful and too perfect and structured stories so that she could always be the hero. This post isn't about debating the merits of that criticism. I just don't think it's correct to call Captain Marvel a Mary Sue. Stern isn't trying to insert himself into the story. He's just (perhaps) going too far in trying to sell or develop the character he's created, at the expense of other characters or good storytelling.

That's a potentially valid criticism, and we do need a phrase for it (again, i use "pet character"), but i think it should be distinguished from Mary Sue. Maybe i'm fighting an uphill battle here, but i already do that with "beg the question" so i'm obviously not above that sort of thing.

*See previous post

By fnord12 | May 28, 2015, 10:04 AM | Comics & Master of Style | Comments (9)| Link


Not the giant ants. This is a Master of Style post, so we're talking grammar here. And i'm linking to a Kevin Drum post that is several months old. This is just a belated notice that i am following Drum down the dark side in using "them" and "they" as a singular third person pronoun.

By fnord12 | May 28, 2015, 9:31 AM | Master of Style | Comments (1)| Link

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