When I was in Ninth Grade, I won a thing.
That thing, in particular, was a thirty dollar Barnes & Noble gift certificate. I was still too young for a part-time job, so I didn’t have this kind of spending cash on me, ever. I felt like a god.
Drunk with power, I fancy-stepped my way to my local B&N. I was ready to choose new books based solely on the most important of qualities…BADASS COVER ART. I walked away with a handful of paperbacks, most of which were horrible (I’m looking at you, Man-Kzin Wars III) or simply forgettable.
One book did not disappoint. I fell down the rabbit hole into a series that proved to be as badass as the cover art promised (Again, Man-Kzin Wars III, way to drop the ball on that one). With more than a dozen books in the series, I devoured them. I bought cassette tapes of ballads sung by bards in the stories. And the characters. Oh, the characters. I loved them. Gryphons, mages, but most importantly, lots of women. Different kinds of women. So many amazing women. I looked up to them, wrote bad fiction that lifted entire portions of dialogue and character descriptions, dreamed of writing something that the author would include in an anthology.
This year I decided in a fit of nostalgia to revisit the books I loved so damn much. I wanted to reconnect with my old friends…
…and I found myself facing Mary Sues. Lots of them. Perfect, perfect, perfect. A fantasy world full of Anakin Skywalkers and Nancy Drews and Wesley Crushers. I felt crushed. I had remembered such complex, deep characters and didn’t see those women in front of me at all anymore. Where were those strong women who kept me safe through the worst four years of my life?
Which led me to an important realization as I soldiered on through book after book. That’s why I needed them. Because they were Mary Sues. These books were not written to draw my attention to all the ugly bumps and whiskers of the real world. They were somewhere to hide. I was painfully aware that I was being judged by my peers and adults and found lacking. I was a fuckup. And sometimes a fuckup needs to feel like a Mary Sue. As an adult, these characters felt a little thin because they lacked the real world knowledge I, as an adult, had learned and earned. But that’s the thing…these books weren’t FOR this current version of myself. Who I am now doesn’t need a flawless hero because I’m comfortable with the idea that valuable people are also flawed.
There is a reason that most fanfiction authors, specifically girls, start with a Mary Sue. It’s because girls are taught that they are never enough. You can’t be too loud, too quiet, too smart, too stupid. You can’t ask too many questions or know too many answers. No one is flocking to you for advice. Then something wonderful happens. The girl who was told she’s stupid finds out that she can be a better wizard than Albus Dumbledore. And that is something very important. Terrible at sports? You’re a warrior who does backflips and Legolas thinks you’re THE BEST. No friends? You get a standing ovation from Han Solo and the entire Rebel Alliance when you crash-land safely on Hoth after blowing up the Super Double Death Star. It’s all about you. Everyone in your favorite universe is TOTALLY ALL ABOUT YOU.
I started writing fanfiction the way most girls did, by re-inventing themselves.
Mary Sues exist because children who are told they’re nothing want to be everything.
As a girl, being “selfish” was the worst thing you could be. Now you live in Narnia and Prince Caspian just proposed marriage to you. Why? Your SELF is what saved everyone from that sea serpent. Plus your hair looks totally great braided like that.
In time, hopefully, these hardworking fanfiction authors realize that it’s okay to be somewhere in the middle and their characters adjust to respond to that. As people grow and learn, characters grow and learn. Turns out your Elven Mage is more interesting if he isn’t also the best swordsman in the kingdom. Not everyone needs to be hopelessly in love with your Queen for her to be a great ruler. There are all kinds of ways for people to start owning who they are, and embracing the things that make them so beautifully weird and complicated.
Personally, though, I think it’s a lot more fun learning how to trust yourself and others if you all happen to be riding dragons.
A girl making herself the hero of her own story is a radical act. Stop shaming girls for doing it. Stop shaming yourself for it.