Examining trends in fanfiction.
Mary Sue is one of the most well-known fanfiction tropes in existence – largely derided, it holds a cultural cache that extends outside of fandom. Greater than omegaverse or coffee shop AU’s, it transcends to its own indication of writing. There’s a feminist nerd media outlet named for it. The Twilight Saga, and indeed quite a bit of female-fronted media, is accused of demonstrating it. But what (or who) is Mary Sue?
The conceit is simple. A female character who is unusually competent at everything. If the car breaks down, she’s the one to fix it. She has a PhD in organic chemistry and could have played concert piano if only she had the time. Impossibly beautiful, but not vain. She has one characteristically charming flaw. She’s clumsy. She has glasses. She just loves Jane Austen too much.
Whatever the author’s favorite characters – she’s either friends or love interests with. The author’s least favorite characters are her enemies, but in the way where she will always triumph, will always come out on top.
There’s an implicit understanding that the Mary Sue exists as a kind of author self-insert. This is her worst characteristic because a character like the Mary Sue is impossible to develop in an interesting way. In power scaling terms, she’s an anime character with no equal. There is no fight that she cannot win, because the author loves her too much. Because she is perfect; the author has taken attributes from themselves (a brunette, a Jane Austen fan, bookish) and added just a bit more. She has violet eyes. She’s isolated at school, but only because she’s just So Good. So Cool. She’s a white girl from Ohio that personally knows all of the members of Stray Kids because of her cover of one of their songs on YouTube, and they love her for how much she knows about Harry Potter.
In the reading of fanfiction as escapism, the Mary Sue makes sense. She is you, a teenager who is stuck in a small town with no friends, with cruel acquaintances who don’t love any of the things that you do, who has been told for years that boys bully you because they like you.
Except that the Mary Sue is not bound by reality. She does all the things that you thought you could do if you allowed yourself a second to dream. To breathe. She goes to the coolest college, or learns eight different languages and can speak them all fluently. She’s well-traveled. She’s smart. She’s beautiful. She’s loved. She can be a doctor and a lawyer and a mechanic. There is no place where the Mary Sue cannot go because there are no paths that are barred to her by circumstance or fate; any setback is temporary. There is no world where the Mary Sue is not loved. Is not respected. Is not adored. At least, by the people who matter.
It’s easy to dismiss the Mary Sue in discussion because she is not real. But in many ways, that is what makes her important to the development of a writer, and a lone teenager stuck in a place that they cannot leave. Escapism as a form of self-love. Because if the Mary Sue is the writer, then there’s hope for the writer yet. There’s hope that the writer will someday get to do even some of the things that the Mary Sue is able to.
The things that we all wanted to do when we were young.
I’ve been thinking lately about fanfiction, not in the sense of stopping it because I’m “too old.” I’m at an age where it’s already horrifically uncool that I’m still both writing and reading fanfiction. I’m prepared for the fanfiction geriatric home that teenagers believe I belong in (I am 33).
Instead, I’m thinking about the place that fanfiction has occupied in my life. I joined the fanfiction community as a teenager, writing alternative endings for Fahrenheit 451 or Reign of Fire. I wrote and read my way through many communities, grew from fanfiction.net through LiveJournal and Tumblr and onto AO3. There’s a consistency to fan communities even as they morph and change over time. A place to call your own, especially as a kid who grew up largely isolated. I wrote self-insert Mary Sue characters, though I didn’t recognize it at the time, for Firefly.
I wanted to be cool and practical and sassy. I wanted to be needed. I was not getting those things in a semi-rural part of Kentucky. I did not get those things being a pasty nerd who played Age of Mythology and loved Dune. Fanfiction gave me, in a very small way, a community to belong to. Silently and from the sidelines. A community that let me change and grow over time.
This is my last, perhaps, column as Self Insert. It is fitting that it would be a self-insert itself.
Amanda Hudgins is an occasional writer, former rugby player and wearer of incredibly tall shoes.