Sometimes a work has wish fulfillment as a byproduct of the story (either within the work or within the fandom of that work), and sometimes the wish fulfillment is very much the center of the story. Sometimes the wish fulfillment is a single element within the larger story, and sometimes it’s the entire story. Whatever role wish fulfillment plays in the story (or in fandom’s interpretation of it), any writer who deals with wish fulfillment runs the risk of encountering one of the most common and vitriolic criticisms of a story—the “Mary Sue.”
The term originates from fanfiction, named for the insertion of an original character who was perfect, beautiful, instantly loved (and fought over) by everyone else, immensely and uniquely powerful, and otherwise steeped in wish fulfillment (usually as an author/reader proxy). The term quickly carried over into original fiction, where protagonists who were seen as powerful and beloved above all others and seemingly “without deserving it” were given the label, and mocked, shunned, and criticized. Another version of the term is “special snowflake” (often spelled as “speshul,” to mock the preciousness of the character within the story).
I placed “without deserving it” in quotation marks above because this is the most common critique of the Mary Sue, often the very reason for labeling a character as such, and it is very often if not always a sexist critique. A Mary Sue character within original fiction is usually the protagonist, who has a unique power or is somehow the chosen one, and thus is protected, cosseted, beloved, and otherwise given individual attention—often for reasons that appear arbitrary or beyond their control. They were born the child of powerful people (often more powerful for the union of two powerful entities), or they somehow happen to be born with the most powerful and unique ability that will shape the story to come and set them up to be the “One” to defeat the villain, or they seem to have a personality which immediately endears them to everyone else, even those who normally scorn others. The reason an author would choose to give their character a unique quality is fairly obvious—without it, why write about this character? The protagonist has to be situated in such a way that they drive the story and become the deciding factor in the climax, and thus they are often developed to be the only one to be able to defeat the villain. The Mary Sue develops because the character begins as a “normal” (or even “unfortunate”) person who otherwise would not be allowed to fight the main villain, but because of their unique ability to do so, is thus given the opportunity to be the hero. “Given,” and not “earned,” according to critics of the Mary Sue.
The reason I call this sexist is because examples abound of male characters who are similarly lifted up from normal circumstances to unique heroism through no virtue or hard work of their own, and they rarely receive any criticism at all. Consider Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker (and Anakin in the prequels), Peter Parker, Bilbo Baggins, Will Turner (Pirates of the Caribbean), Jake Sully (Avatar), Neo (Matrix) and Sam Witwicky (Transformers). Now I would be quick to add that I’m not saying these characters don’t learn and grow, don’t work hard, don’t develop their abilities—but the coincidences of genetics, fate, and objects (or spiders) which randomly select these ‘ordinary’ characters to become heroes don’t differ too much from those that identify a Mary Sue. And yes, I am aware that the term “Gary Stu” exists, but how often do you see it applied in reviews and criticism of a work? How often do you see male heroes who just happen to have unique abilities or powerful parents sneered at and mocked?
Now, I am not saying that it’s necessarily a good thing to have a “Mary Sue” character—some criticism of this trope is perfectly valid, with or without sexist undertones. And there has definitely been an explosion of “Mary Sue” characters, especially in YA, so much so that I could list female “Mary Sue” characters for paragraphs on end. I believe the reason for this proliferation is quite simple: wish fulfillment. Having the protagonist be the hero is obviously necessary for the story, but having them be “plucked” from obscurity through random coincidences of fate is a product of wanting the character to begin the story as ordinary. This transition from ordinary to extraordinary allows the reader to imagine much the same transition, and thus is wish fulfillment.
Before I discuss how to avoid writing a Mary Sue while maintaining wish fulfillment, let’s look at what’s not a Mary Sue.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of framing, having the special elements exist before the story starts—consider Bruce Wayne’s wealth, or Tony Stark’s wealth and intelligence, which allow these men to become superheroes but which predates the story’s start and so feels less random and “undeserved.”
Sometimes it’s the fact that the characters aren’t necessarily unique in abilities, they just happen to be lucky and/or hardworking in order to be the heroes, or they just have our focus for seemingly random reasons—I’m thinking of Star Trek (the new movies) where the crew of the Enterprise aren’t necessarily depicted as being super special, but rather simply one crew among many that just happens to find themselves in the center of the story and under our observation; however, I will add that Kirk’s encounter at the bar with Pike, who picks him out of the crowd because of his father’s identity, does fulfill some Mary Sue qualities.
Sometimes, the use of personality and choice allows the character to feel more active in becoming the hero, and undermines the Mary Sue element—such as Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings who is not randomly chosen to go on the ultimate quest but volunteers to go as a neutral party (his initial ‘luck’ at being the nephew of the ring-finder falls more in line with Mary Sue, but this only covers the first half of the first story), or Captain America’s Steve Rogers, whose patriotism and honor “earn” him the respect of his supervisors and thus the chance at the serum (I could make the argument that a female character given a similar personality would be seen as a Mary Sue who wins everybody over undeservedly, but I can’t think of any story off the top of my head that proves my point, so I won’t).
Sometimes, it’s just a feeling. Having the character unaware of what makes them special at the beginning, whether it’s their parentage, their species, or their power, makes them more “ordinary” from the start but also creates a Mary Sue feeling when they ‘randomly’ find out. Often, this is because their lack of knowledge makes them passive, even when they find out, because they are receiving the information and reacting rather than already having the knowledge and acting on it. Contrast Peter Parker’s flailing reactions to superpowers (which I will say quickly coalesces into a plan to act as a superhero) with Bruce Wayne’s unflagging drive to be a hero and avenge his parents.
Ultimately, there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing a Mary Sue. I think the spitting hatred many online critics give to characters even slightly suspected of Mary Sue qualities is partly sexist and partly frustration with just how many Mary Sues have appeared in fiction lately. If the transition from ordinary to extraordinary in your story happens to fall in line with Mary Sue elements, and it’s a form of wish fulfillment you really want to see, then by all means, have at it. You’ll get criticism and hate for it, but you would for anything—haters gonna hate. Develop that thick skin and write on.
But let’s say you want to write a story with wish fulfillment, but you want to avoid writing a Mary Sue—and for argument’s sake, let’s say you want to write a female protagonist, thus upping your chances of receiving said criticism. Is this possible?
Tune in next time!