Fanfic Subgenres: Self Insertion and Mary Sue
Posted by Chris Lang on May 31, 2013 at 7:55 PM
Hello and welcome to Fanfic Subgenres, where I take a look at subgenres of fan fiction, and then find examples of those subgenres in professionally-produced works.
This time, I’ll be taking a look at Self Insertion Fics and the character type known as the Mary Sue.
Self Insertion is pretty much what you expect. It’s where the author puts himself/herself into the story. They somehow find their way to the setting of a movie, video game, TV show, anime, or whatever, and interact with the characters.
In a Self Insertion Fic, the author character usually is familiar with all the characters and their conflicts from having seen the show in his/her own universe, and tries to meddle with them. They try to be the matchmaker and pair their preferred Shipping couple together, or try to get characters who are quarrelling to put aside their feud, or even try teaming up with the hero to defeat the villains.
Of course, when such things go too far, many people tend to dislike Self Insertion Fics because they’re basically run by the author’s ego. The author basically steals the spotlight from the characters to such a degree that readers tend to be annoyed. This of course has led to several parodies of Self Insertion Fics where the Self-Insertion gets embarassed, easily trounced in battle with antagonists, and/or has all sorts of humiliating things happen to him/her (in manners which may or may not be in character for those dishing those punishments out).
A variant of the self-insertion is the Mary Sue, an original character that is basically a thinly-veiled substitute for the author. This character is usually native to the setting — in other words, she didn’t travel to the 24th century, she actually lives in the same time period as Jean-Luc Picard and the rest. Her male counterpart is referred to sometimes as a Marty Stu or a Gary Stu.
The Mary Sue, like the Self Insertion author-character, is often despised because she steals the spotlight away from the canonical characters. Often at times, the Mary Sue is ridiculously competent at whatever the characters are good at, whether it’s steering starships, performing martial arts, using the Force, or playing videogames. All too often, a Mary Sue will get many of the principle characters to fall for her. Generally, in all the worst examples of Mary Sue, the world will revolve around her.
Some Mary Sues are not quite as extreme as that. There are a few characters who are obviously based on the authors but are only minor characters who pop in as bit players. But mostly, Mary Sue has come to mean ‘That ridiculously attractive ridiculously competent thinly-veiled insert character who steals the spotlight and makes the main characters fall for her’.
Are there Mary Sues in professionally-produced work? Of course there are.
A number of Agatha Christie books have a recurring mystery novelist character named Ariadne Oliver. She’s clearly based on Agatha Christie herself. However, she does not intrude upon the story too much, serving mostly as comic relief. One of her main weaknesses is that being a mystery writer, she comes up with way too many ideas as to whodunnit and why. So of course she’s not going to be the one to solve the case.
However, this is not to say that the more negative examples of Mary Sue can’t find their way into mainstream fiction. One of the harshest criticisms of the Resident Evil movies is directed at the character of Alice. Alice is an original character not from the games. In the first movie, she’s a tolerable Badass Normal, but in the second, she starts gaining super-powers due to the experiments the Umbrella Corporation has performed on her. She is able to move with speed and strength beyond regular human capability, and take down the Nemesis creature in a fight.
Worst of all, she completely upstages characters who were the protagonists of the games. Jill Valentine attempts to do something ‘cool’, only for Alice to step in, interrupt, and finish what Jill Valentine was trying to do. It’s as if she’s trying to say “I’m the star, bitch! You don’t upstage me! You’re the sidekick!”
And she’s played by Milla Jovovich, who is married to the films’ writer/director Paul W.S. Anderson. Put all that together, and Alice is definately a Mary Sue in the negative sense of the term. I really wanted to like the character (as I tend to like strong female characters), but after the second movie, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, I found myself thinking they’d taken the character in a direction I didn’t care for. And I was wondering why Jill Valentine was even in the movie if she wasn’t allowed to do anything really heroic or ‘badass’.
Not that I’m defending the Resident Evil movies. They’re poorly-written films that play like Anderson and the rest of the creators were basically making the story up as they went along. A lot of the actions and motivations (especially those of the villains) make no sense. But all these problems are not helped by the all-too Mary Sue-like protagonist, and the fact that characters from the games such as Jill Valentine are only in the movies so that Alice can upstage them and/or keep them from upstaging her.
In any case, Mary Sues, whether you like them or not, are present in professionally-produced fiction too.
(Oh, and as of this writing, I’ve only seen the first three Resident Evil movies. Alice is a bit more tolerable Mary Sue-wise in the third film, but still there’s a few questionable moments. I have the fourth on DVD, but I haven’t been in any hurry to pop it into the DVD player).