Let’s say this flat out. I’m going to describe a character that could be defined as a Mary Sue. Are you ready?
-Character is obscenely wealthy, attractive, and priviledged
-Character possesses extrodinary skills and abilities.
-Character is supernaturally intelligent
-Character ROUTINELY beats/outthinks/outfights people the character should not logically be able to defeat.
-Character has a tragic backstory
-Character engages in noble sacrifice, to the point of death, to save friends/allies/the world, and is mourned publicly and widely. Everyone grieves.
-Character is the object of lust/love from numerous sources. Characters fall over themselves to throw themselves at this character.
If I wrote a character with these traits, it would be the biggest goddamn self-insert ever, woudln’t it? Man, how annoying.
When Bob Kane did it, they called him Batman. When Stan Lee did it, they called him Iron Man. Both of these canon male characters are extreme examples of self-insert, or Mary Sue characters.
They’re still fascinating characters to read. There’s nothing wrong with a self-insert or Mary Sue defined character. One of my FAVORITE Star Trek characters is from Peter David’s New Frontier books. The guy is actually and truly a teenage warlord who freed his planet from slavery. Jean-Luc Picard sponsered him for the academy, despite the fact that he had next to no formal training, and that makes no goddamn sense. He’s brilliant, unprincipaled, wild, he gets away with EVERYTHING, his ex is his first officer, and he gets an awesome ship that he can steer around like a crazy person and Starfleet Command seems to have no issues with this.
THE DUDE HAS PURPLE EYES.
And he is an awesome, fun, rollicking, joyous character. He’s a character I prize, one I loved spending time with. One I could embrace as a part of a canon I love. But damn, he is like a checklist of self-insert traits.
And if he was a female he’d be called a Mary Sue so fast it would make your head spin.
The same character, with a different gender, becomes a different matter. Why? Because we expect our male characters to be awesome. We’re trained by media to expect that male characters will appear, be awesome, be sympathetic, be amazing, be world changing, and that is how they are supposed to be. But if a female character is introduced that does not ‘know her place,’ then that means that she’s a stand in for the author.
Because we expect something different from our female characters. They are not supposed to equal to the male characters. They are supposed to be desired by the male characters, but not compete with them.
So when I create a male character, he gets a by. He gets to fall under the catagory of ‘normal’ for the fictionalized world, which is automatically several steps above the ‘normal’ for female characters. The same words, coming from Hill’s mouth should be just as badass as when they come from Coulson’s mouth, because they are BOTH SHIELD agents, and BOTH of them have clearance and BOTH of them are close to Fury.
So when I can write Coulson drop kicking bad guys and no one even raises an eyebrow, but I can’t write Maria having a discussion about how to handle the bad guy without getting mail about how “that’s not realistic,” well, then, we gotta take a look at why.
I write Darcy as an intelligent, self-assured, confident young woman with style and an awareness of the fact that she’s pretty and has a nice chest and a good head on her shoulders. I write her as thinking, “I’m only here because they want Jane and Jane wants me, but I can make something of this. I can prove that I can do something here, and use my polysci training to do something with this chance I’ve been given. AND I WILL MAKE THE MOST OF IT, because I’m not going to get another one.”
She’s not taking over the world. She’s not smarter than Tony or better than Natasha or stronger than Steve. She’s not hooking up with any of them, but she likes people and she likes these people and she’s going to treat them as friends.
And that does not make her a Mary Sue. That makes her a canon character that is fun to play with, and even more fun to develop. And I will be at Thor 2, cheering not for the fact that Jane got her man, or that Thor got his way, or that Loki got his revenge, but…
That Darcy got a chance.