I wanted to be Julie Barnes. What thirteen year old girl wouldn’t? I mean, she had the long, straight blond hair, the model-slim figure, the beautiful face, add all that to a sad, checkered past, all the right clothes (for the era, oy) and, last but definitely not least, two strong, handsome defenders who would give their lives for her. So, if I wrote The Mod Squad fanfic where Julie acted bravely and selflessly, was placed in Mortal Peril and still managed to Thwart the Bad Guys, well, sue me. Living vicariously through fictional characters has been going on since Gilgamesh. I did mention that I was thirteen at the time.
And there, my friend, in the primordial ooze of the murky hormones of teen-age wish fulfillment and fantasy is where Mary Sues are born.
Mary Sue (or Gary Stu, we aim to be gender fair, here) is a shameless self-insertion character who is so blindingly beautiful/perfect/intelligent/empathetic/talented that she grates on the nerves of readers and turns any story into Twi – er, a simpering teenage romance.
Star Trek – Episode Mine
Act I, sc i: A plucky young Starfleet lieutenant with violet eyes, long thick dark curls, and impressive physical attributes is posted to the Enterprise. Her careful attention to duty and logical mind – for a human – immediately catches the eye of a certain stoic Science Officer.
Act III, sc iv: Said plucky lieutenant saves said Science Officer from the alien of the week.
“And the curtains close on a kiss, God knows…”
That is a painfully honest description of my first Star Trek fanfic, written in blue Bic and hidden within the pages of my vocabulary composition book. Unfortunately, that same plucky/courageous woman also showed up as a crime victim in Starsky and Hutch, saving Paramedic Johnny Gage in Emergency!, and being stalked by Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows. (Oh, look, we’re back to Twi – er, teenage romance again!)
When Gene Roddenberry and all the good prayers and hopes and thoughts of the Universe brought Star Trek back to the small screen in The Next Generation, a Mary Sue for the ages was along for the ride. Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher – brilliant, insightful, this kid knew how every ship’s system worked and could figure out an engineering problem at warp speed – all that wrapped up in articulate and cute and adorably innocent, with a dead hero father and a beautiful CMO mother. And the fanfic community rolled its collective eyes and gnashed its few remaining teeth.
Just how many times did annoying-Wesley save the day? I’m sure there’s a count out there in cyberland somewhere, just like there’s a count of Daniel Jackson’s deaths and how many babes Captain Kirk boinked. The veteran officers of the Enterprise couldn’t get along without him.
But, don’t blame Wil Wheaton. It’s not his fault his character was a painful attempt to draw ‘a younger audience.’ Or that Wesley’s ‘journey’ in the seven-year run of the series could never fully redeem the character from his MarySue-ish beginnings. @wilw on twitter, Wil Wheaton is undoubtedly one of the most self-effacing, generous, and personable celebrities that I’ve met (at D*C, Wil, if you’re reading this). His stint as a serial killer on Criminal Minds and his recurring appearances on The Big Bang Theory display his talent, and prove that he is not, himself, a Mary Sue at all.
But, after all that, my point – yes, I have a point! – is that if the late great Gene Roddenberry could use a Mary Sue, then I am in some stellar company indeed.
Hopefully, I’ve learned something about realistic, well-rounded characters since the 9th grade – at least how to spot a self-insertion character from light years away. And I’ve learned it from reading – and watching – some of the greatest scifi and fantasy writers out there.
Thanks, Gene Roddenberry. And Joss Whedon. And all the other truly great television, comic, and novel writers out there, for teaching me about character. And to Wil Wheaton and the other talented actors who brought those characters to life, the viewers couldn’t have come to love – or hate – them without you.
Until next time …
(For the first noted send-up of a Mary Sue, please see Paula Smith’s 1973 parody, “A Trekkie’s Tale.”)