I've heard the term "Mary Sue story" all my life, but only recently came to know what it really meant. This is probably because, even though I read a lot of sf and fantasy, and I hung around with sf fan writers, I never actually read much fan fiction.
The concept of Mary Sue comes from fan fiction. (For those who don't know: fan fiction is what fans of a TV show, movie, or book series, write for fun, based on the characters or world of that series. These stories take many forms -- not just Mary Sue -- and I will not go into it. Let's just say it's a huge subculture that includes anything from Star Trek to Manga to Harry Potter, and even old shows like Alf and Magnum P.I. You can Google it for more info: "fanfic" or "fan fiction" or "fanzine.")
When a writer or editor refers to Mary Sue, they're usually talking about a particular trope: where a story is all about admiring a central "guest" character who is not a part of the series. That character is too perfect for words -- a wish-fulfillment stand-in for the writer or reader. Basically, Mary Sue would be the new kid at Hogwarts who outshines everyone, and who becomes the leader of Harry Potter and his friends and impresses them greatly while saving the day from the baddies, and winning prizes, and just being the bestest of all.
I'll be honest, when teachers first described the common writing flaw they called "Mary Sue," I didn't realize they were talking about fan fiction. I thought they were talking about literary fiction. Because, you know, I went to grad school. If you take out the trademarked characters and material, and Mary Sue sure sounds like what we learn to write in college writing classes.
For instance, generally speaking, in literary fiction you're supposed to write something of import, but it is supposed to be based on your own real life experiences. But it's supposed to be ordinary, and you can't use anything that might feel commercially popular. (I mean, you can, but people act like you just made a rude bodily noise.) You're supposed to comment on ordinary life in a way that raises it to a higher level: so, although nobody actually admits it, you get rewarded when you manipulate and heighten real life into something it really isn't. It may be full of angst and anger, but it always seemed to me a kind of wish fulfillment -- like a dark comic book without the cool costumes.
You get to raise your petty disappointments and daily annoyances into into something important. And I'm not knocking that as a literary device. Sometimes small things are important. But sometime they're just narcissistic.
I remember once in a class where a student wrote about an event he had literally experienced in real life -- a funny story about real people who worked at the post office -- and the instructor thought it was great.... Except that it had a major flaw the instructor insisted had to change. The "narrator" of the story (who was a minor character, an observer) wasn't glorified enough. Those poor ignorant working people at the post office should have looked up to him more. There was a competition in the story, and the instructor suggested that maybe the main characters should say things like, "well, since you're a college fellow who reads books and all, why don't you be the judge?"
I happened to have a friend who had worked at the post office at the time of this incident, and she laughed when I told her of the instructor's comment. She recognized each of the people from the story, because they were so well drawn, but she also knew that even though they were working people, nearly all of them were well educated. One was a retired professor, another read a book or two a day, others were published poets, and moonlighted as singers or small business operators.
The point about this anecdote, though. is not that the instructor was ignorant about working people. The point is that, given his comments on other stories and other things he said, he really honestly felt that for a story to have import there had to be a Mary Sue character. The story had to glorify some kind of intellectual outsider -- the writer. And even if the story isn't about that character, you tell the story from that point of view.
I don't know that he knew he had this prejudice. He was an extreme version of the stereotype of the narcissistic academic fiction writer, but there were others.... Well, the reason I left grad school was because I was really tired of the Mary Sue nature of what we were pushed to write by nearly all the instructors. (That and I ran out of money.)
Another example of the literary Mary Sue: we had a writer in our sf writing group for a while who was a creative writing major. He was writing a fictionalized version of the trip he took across America after graduating from high school, in which he had sex with beautiful young women of every race, creed, color and income level. I will call him, for the sake of this example, "Billy." The main character of his story was also called "Billy." He was an open minded guy about everyone else's fiction. He had nothing against science fiction or fantasy. However his criticisms were always the same. "I think this story would be stronger if you centered the story around the blue alien, and made it more of a coming-of-age story about his trip across the universe, seeking love and sex. Oh, and I think you should call him Billy."
Am I exaggerating? Well, okay, he didn't tell us to name the character after his characters, but he always wanted every character to be just like his character -- the one he was basing on himself.
I say this not to diss the academic/literary writers, who are not all such clueless narcissists, but to point out that the urge to live out a story -- to inject oneself into the story in a glorified way -- is not limited to ignorant TV fans who don't read. It's a part of what we do as writers.
Mary Sue thinking is natural to our brains. It's one of those fundamental things. The biological purpose of our imagination is to help us see the possibilities, both good and bad. We naturally inject ourselves into hypothetical situations. It's how we learn. And furthermore, that part of the brain is hungry for stories. And it's that primal urge that makes us want to hear or read stories from others. Stories expand our experience, and make us better, smarter, safer human beings.
I'm going to spend a couple more days talking about Mary Sue, and her brother Gary Stu, not to warn you away from them, but rather to encourage you to look at them, recognize them and USE them.
Mary Sue helps us develop our basic storytelling instinct, she gives us a chance to explore alternatives, and for writers in particular, she gives us a clue to the deep psychology of readers. I'll explore each of these three things over the next couple of days.
Next time I will reminisce about my own first Mary Sue stories -- except I didn't realize they were stories at the time. I thought it was called "playing."