Mary Sue Got a Makeover

(Or, “Scully, How You’ve Changed!”)




Dana Scully walked past the bubbling fountain centered in the wide, manicured lawn and stepped through the door of the two-story colonial home she shared with her husband. A scrumptious scent of roasting meat wafted in the air as she strode quickly down the hall. She reached the kitchen, hung with her favorite pink floral chintz wallpaper and fairly exploding with milky-white gardenia blossoms floating in crystal bowls.


Behind the island stovetop, her husband, Fox Mulder, was wearing a white chef's toque, a crisp white apron and nothing else. Between his long legs he held an enormous magnum of champagne, which he was struggling to open by pulling mightily on the cork in a suggestive motion that made Scully think more of bed than of breakfast. Hearing her heels tap briskly on the polished hardwood floor, Mulder looked up, his hazel eyes glowing with love.


"Scully!" he exclaimed. "You're home at last!"


Scully blinked in surprise. She and Mulder had agreed earlier that they wouldn't make a big deal of their wedding anniversary – she hadn't expected any fanfare tonight.


“But Pookie," she said. "I thought we agreed – no  celebration!"


"I know, Dana, my little turtledove," Mulder purred. "But it's our first anniversary. I prepared duck a l'Orange. Have some champagne."


"Well, what about the baby?"


"Your mother came and picked up our darling little Foxena and our poodle, William, for the night. I've taken care of everything, so you just go upstairs and put on that teeny-tiny black negligee, and I'll be right up with the duck..."


So now you’re thinking, “How can that be a Mary-Sue story? It’s got no original character to serve as the author surrogate!”


Wrong. That snippet is most definitely a Mary-Sue.


The scenario above is not Dana Scully's fantasy. And it sure as heck isn't Fox Mulder's fantasy. If you've ever written something even remotely like the snippet above, it's your fantasy, and you've written a Mary-Sue story.


Now, if you came in here looking for a diatribe railing against all Mary-Sue stories and recommending that their authors should be shot, you're going to be disappointed. I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with Mary-Sues. Yes, many of them are abominably written. But that's true of all types of fanfic. And yes, almost all Mary-Sues take great liberties with canon. But Mary-Sues don't have a corner on that market, either.


Truth is, there's a little Mary-Sue in almost all fanfic stories, and nearly all fanfic writers have written one or more Mary-Sue stories (you know who you are). A major motivation for writing fanfic is to play with the characters in situations the TV series would never allow, to show them doing things they wouldn't do on TV, to give them a little of ourselves and our fantasies. And that's all a Mary-Sue story does.


The real question is, how much of yourself you put into the character(s) and the story...and whether you're a good enough writer to disguise the fact that it's really all about you.


It used to be easy to tell a Mary-Sue story from a mile away. Almost inevitably they featured an original character, usually female, who served as a thinly veiled surrogate for the author. This character then met up with a male character from the series in some (frequently improbable) way. (In X Files stories, often the Mary-Sue character found a thoroughly soused Mulder in a bar. Just nevermind that Mulder rarely drinks very much and almost never appears to go to bars except in the line of duty.) Usually, though not always, the original character/author surrogate and the series character end up engaging in hot-monkey sex with each other that goes on for pages and pages. In fact, it’s not unusual to find that not much else happens in these stories.


This story pattern has been used so much and has become so obvious (not to mention so universally reviled) that it's been all but abandoned. Nowadays, most Mary-Sues don't feature an original character as a love interest for the series lead – instead they use a character from the series and change his/her characteristics so that he/she becomes virtually indistinguishable from the author.


Apparently people seem to think it’s possible to shed the “Mary-Sue” stigma by using a character from the series, as if merely failing to give the original character a different name could somehow prevent the story from being a Mary-Sue – or perhaps the idea is that if the author surrogate character is named Dana Scully, no one will notice that she’s filling in for Mary Sue.


In other words, denial is not just a river in Egypt; it’s also a fanfic technique.


The clear mark of  this kind of Mary-Sue story is that at least one of the characters exhibits behavior in a romantic situation that is completely out of character with the portrayal in the TV series. Even if you believe that Mulder and Scully are made for each other and are destined to marry, nothing that’s ever aired on The X Files suggests that they would live in a darling, two-story suburban home with a garden full of tomato plants and a Persian cat for a pet. There is absolutely no clear evidence in the series that either of them have ever had any such ambitions, especially with regard to the tomatoes.


Furthermore, as she's portrayed in the series, “sweetie” is just not a word Scully uses, except perhaps when talking to children or being extremely sarcastic. Mulder does not prepare duck, not while dressed in an apron or anything else. That's not his fantasy or Scully's. If you're writing Scully and Mulder that way, you're writing a Mary-Sue, and it's yourself and your own fantasies you're writing about.


It’s equally common to find a slash story in which one of the male characters has been turned into an author surrogate, although most slash authors are female. If you took the snippet above and changed the names from Scully and Mulder to Richie and Methos, you’d have a Highlander Mary-Sue story (in most cases, it’s Richie who becomes the author-surrogate). Believe it or not, I’ve read some stories frighteningly like that snippet, but instead of Scully and Mulder, the characters were Blair and Jim (The Sentinel) or Garak and Bashir (Star Trek: Deep Space 9). And those stories were unquestionably Mary-Sues.


Bottom line: If Jim Ellison starts cooing Shakespearean sonnets into Blair’s shell-like ears or Richie Ryan gives up motorcycle riding to learn to read Egyptian hieroglyphics so he can have more quality time with Methos, make no mistake about it – that story’s a Mary-Sue.


What’s wrong with that? Nothing. It’s your story; write what you want. That’s the beauty of fanfic – nobody can tell you what to write or how to write it. But good writers, like good actors, eventually learn to portray people who aren’t themselves.


And the truth is that neither your life nor your fantasies are anywhere near as interesting as Scully’s or Mulder’s – especially if your idea of a fantasy involves changing diapers and/or putting up chintz curtains. (Look, I’ve changed diapers and put up curtains. Neither is romantic or exciting.) And if readers prefer to imagine Dana Scully making arrests, as opposed to coping with diapers or curtains, who can blame them? Most of us are boring people with mundane lives. That’s why we like shows like The X Files and reading fanfic based on those shows; they let us break out of that dull mold for a while.


In other words, if you write Scully chasing mutants with her gun drawn, I’m there. I’m down for it if she and Mulder are doing the horizontal tango in the back of a Lariat rental car, as long as they’re not calling each other “my little cabbage-blossom,” even if he got turned on by the sight of Scully nursing their moppet. But the minute one of them refers to the other as “snookums” or Mulder volunteers to dust the knick-knacks while Scully carves radish roses, I’m hitting delete.


So, if you're wondering why people aren't reading or recommending your stories, or why they're flaming you for your characterizations, it could be because you've taken a character they love and given him or her a makeover – you’ve turned that character into yourself.

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