The Game of the Gods is a sustained act of literary criticism that also happens to be a multipart fanfic. Constance Cochrane turned me on to it. In the frame tale, Varda and Morgoth* play at chess. Varda’s pieces and moves assert reality. Morgoth’s gambits are the different varieties of Mary Sues that turn up in Lord of the Rings fanfic. The play of their game consists of Morgoth telling that particular Mary Sue’s tale, while Varda tries to counter it by invoking logic, common sense, and the narrative integrity of Tolkien’s universe.
From the sound of things, LOTR fanfic readers have had their patience sorely tried. For those who haven’t had their patience tried nearly enough, Deleterius & cronies have been collecting LOTR and Harry Potter Mary Sues.
Further words on the Matter of Mary Sue, and related issues:
A Mary Sue story is the literary equivalent of opening a package that you thought would be the new jacket you ordered on eBay, only it turns out to contain a poorly-constructed fairy princess costume made of some lurid and sleazy material. It’s tailored to fit a human-size Barbie doll, not you; and when you hold it up to the light, you can see the picked-out stitchmarks where someone else’s name used to be embroidered across the bodice. The dress has been used but not cleaned, and appears to have last been worn during a rather sloppy romantic interlude …
MARY SUE (n.): 1. A variety of story, first identified in the fan fiction community, but quickly recognized as occurring elsewhere, in which normal story values are grossly subordinated to inadequately transformed personal wish-fulfillment fantasies, often involving heroic or romantic interactions with the cast of characters of some popular entertainment. 2. A distinctive type of character appearing in these stories who represents an idealized version of the author. 3. A cluster of tendencies and characteristics commonly found in Mary Sue-type stories. 4. A body of literary theory, originally generated by the fanfic community, which has since spread to other fields (f.i., professional SF publishing) because it’s so darn useful. The act of committing Mary Sue-ism is sometimes referred to as “self-insertion.”As it says on The Official Mary Sue Society Avatar Appreciation Site, Mary Sue
…is created to serve one purpose: wish fulfillment. … She did not receive her current name until the early 1970s. The original was Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old”) as immortalized in Paula Smith’s “A Trekkie’s Tale,” which she wrote and published in her 1974 fanzine Menagerie #2.Or, obviously, Galadriel’s secret love-child (Aragorn’s unacknowledged daughter) who runs off to join the Company of the Ring, sorts out Boromir’s problems, out-magics Gandalf, out-fights Aragorn during the melodramatic scene in which she reveals her true identity, demonstrates herself to be so spiritually elevated that the Ring has no effect on her, and wins Legolas’ heart forever. (See also the classic Nine Men and a Little Lady).
Mary Sue, as this archetype became known, was generally a brilliant, beautiful, multi-talented girl Starfleet officer who joined the Enterprise crew and usually either made off with a main male canon character’s heart (or several of them!), or died dramatically in his arms. I’m sure anyone in any fandom out there who’s read fanfiction can make a similar analogy within their own experiences. Mary Sues exist in every fanficdom:— the pretty new Immortal who stumbles into MacLeod’s (or Methos’) arms
— the uberpowered kid who joins Generation X
— the female bronzerider with her firelizard flock
— the kitchen-drudge-cum-HeraldMage out on her first circuit
— the notorious Marrissa Amber Flores Picard Gordon…
Mary Sue literary theory has changed my professional life. Before, when discussing manuscripts with my colleagues, I had to say things “You know, one of those books that keeps telling you how wonderful and talented and perfect the main character is and how much everyone loves her, but aside from that there’s nothing at stake and nothing really happens? No logic, no causality, no narrative development, just that character being wonderful every barfy step of the way?”
Generally they knew what I meant; we see a lot of books like that. But those conversations have gotten much easier now that I can say things like “See if the author will agree to rewrite it from another character’s point of view—that main character is a screaming Mary Sue.” Or: “I sent it back. The agent was all excited about how the author’s ‘expanding into a new genre’, but it’s just a Mary Sue with jousting scenes pasted in.”
So yay for the fanfic universe for putting a name to that. They came up with the idea of formalizing the role of the beta reader, too, which is another piece of really useful literature-generating technology. If that surprises you, recollect that the primary characteristic of fanfic isn’t that it’s amateurish or derivative; it’s that it’s legally unpublishable. Some very smart people read and/or write fanfic.
(Someday, not today, I’ll tell the story of how, years ago, Joanna Russ and I used Star Trek fanfic as a sort of Rosetta Stone to decipher recurrent themes and motifs in fantasy and SF written by women. It’s often easier to see underlying patterns and mechanisms in amateur fiction than in slicker commercial work. This started when Joanna identified and described some recurrent narrative motifs she’d spotted in the Trek slash of the day, of which the inverse relationship between incidence of explicit sex and liebestod denouements was the most obvious and least important. There was much more to it. She laid out her entire description; and I, considering it, said “Which is not to say that The Left Hand of Darkness is a specimen of Star Trek slash fiction.” Joanna’s jaw dropped, and we stared at each other in wild surmise. The patterns not only fitted; they explained some otherwise inexplicable plot twists in that novel. We were on to something. And—hey! What about thus-and-such story by Zenna Henderson? And that one by Leigh Brackett? And so forth and so on, ever onward. For the next few weeks we were stoned on literary theory and the codebreaker’s buzz of seeing a seemingly knotty puzzle resolve into plaintext.)
Trek fanfic writers may have identified Mary Sue and her brother Gary Stu, but they didn’t invent them. I imagine that tales have been told of Mary Sue since storytelling was invented. The folk process tends to exclude her (nothing so unattractive as using someone else’s Mary Sue), as does stern editing; but the minute you have single-author vanity publishing, lo! There she is!
Seminal fan articles on Mary Sue-ism include Dr. Merlin’s Guide to Fan Fiction, with its equally influential accompanying Original Mary Sue Litmus Test, both by Melissa Wilson; and Sebastian’s Self-Insertion and Mary-Sue-ism. For a longer view, try Pat Pflieger’s Too Good to be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue, or Writers’ University’s startlingly accurate Fan Fiction Historical Timeline.
Caches of Mary Sue-related resources can be found at The Official Mary Sue Society Avatar Appreciation Site, with its extensive links page; at Writers’ University, which has either the largest or second-largest collection of
If you don’t have time to read all this stuff, but want to grok Mary Sue in fullness via the quick immersion method, some notably sharp-tongued and inventive Hunchback of Notre Dame fans put together a superior Hunchback of Notre Dame Mary Sue Litmus Test, plus their original Create your own gypsy character generator, complete with plot outline and important details!
Mystery Science Freezer, a site for MST3K fans, has developed a useful vocabulary of additional terms for the ways stories go wrong. See their Who Is Mary Sue? and its accompanying glossary. I particularly liked “Aura of Smooth,” which they define as “The proverbial energy field self-inserted characters generate to bend the regular cast to their wills—i.e., trusting and/or falling in love with them for no stated reason.”
Shameless Setteis and Mary Sues, a candid, thoughtful, and unsettling article, discusses “head stories,” and Japanese manga and anime’s shamelessly enthusiastic use of all the cheesiest wish-fulfillment and poor-me cliches.
In Whatever happened to Mary Sue?, Eshva argues that Mary Sues have undergone defensive diversification in reaction to the fanfic community’s greater sophistication.
If you’re a writer and are now feeling painfully self-conscious about the possibility that you could be writing Mary Sues, Meet Sarah has some good commentary on how such things get written, and B5 Help for Mary Sues has pithy advice for getting in touch with your inner Mary Sue and viciously mugging her. Alternately, just read How to Write a Mary Sue Fic in Seven Easy Steps and check to make sure you’re not following its advice.
If you’d rather just make fun of the whole thing, start by reading The Netiquette of Badfic to keep yourself in the paths of righteousness. After that you might try The Godawful Fanfic Message Board, or possibly Melvin’s Mauve Mansion of Manlove. I don’t guarantee that those sites will have the best fanfic parodies on the web, but they definitely have the best names.
Addenda: PiscusFiche, in the comments thread, has contributed a splendid link to a five-page cartoon about the metaphysical effects of having too many Mary Sues converge at one spot: Hogwarts.
Also: At least one reader has reported being puzzled at my reaction to The Game of the Gods, which he described as an inconclusive episode that’s only about one page long. He’d fallen afoul of Fanfiction.net’s visually inobvious navigation links. If you’ve had the same problem, look for the pulldown menu in the upper-right and lower-right corners of the page. If you prefer, just to the right of the pulldown menu there’s also a button marked with a tiny forward arrow. Either one of them will enable you to access all the episodes, of which there are thirty-five total.
*I was going to explain who Varda and Morgoth are, but it occurs to me that if you don’t already know that, you aren’t going to understand the rest of the frame tale anyway. Just ignore it and enjoy the parodies.
(Admit it. You thought I’d forgotten about that footnote marker.)