On "Mary Sue" and "Lay" Stories
By Judith Gran

An interesting thread unfolded on ASC recently on the topic of "Mary Sue" stories. For me, the discussion provided a good opportunity to pull my thoughts together on this subject and a related one, the "lay" story, in which an alter-ego of the author gets it on with one of the ST regulars. I decided to synthesize my posts on this thread with a few additional thoughts in hopes of eliciting further discussion among ASCEM denizens who may not have been visiting ASC at the time.

The phenomenon of the Mary Sue story has become so overladen with parody that it's difficult, at times, to return to the wellspring of that phenomenon: the reality that in writing fan fic, we are really writing about ourselves. Most of our stories contain alter-egos in some form. Sometimes they're the ST regulars, sometimes they are alter-egos we create ourselves. In the early days of K/S fan fic, critics of the K/S premise used to allege that K/S was really a Mary Sue. Speaking for myself, I've used Areel Shaw as a Mary Sue, created an OFC (the Marxist-anarchist governor of a utopian colony planet who beds Kirk) as a Mary Sue, and most of the time I use Kirk as a Mary Sue, because Kirk is who I'd really like to be.

In my 20-odd years as a TOS fan, I have seen--underneath the good-humored and sometimes not-so-good-humored parody--a widespread recognition that the drive to put ourselves in a piece of fan fiction is a powerful motivator and one we shouldn't automatically dismiss in someone else because we are all prey to the Mary Sue-ish urge. After all, didn't Roddenberry himself say he created Kirk and Spock as alter-egos of himself? And don't even mention Wesley Eugene Crusher--please. (All I can say is that GR's alter-ego seems to have deteriorated over the years.)

In the old days, fans often acknowledged the Mary Sue-ish origins of their characters up front. If anything, it was considered an achievement to take a classic Mary Sue scenario and create a fine piece of fan fiction out of it. As an example, consider the print novel "The Displaced," published in 1979 or so. In it, a newly widowed 20th century housewife winds up in the 23d century, is captured by slavers and joins Spock in a sort of prison camp. Spock goes into pon farr, the heroine saves him, they stay together and have several children together before they are finally rescued by the Big E. The stuff out of which Mary Sues are made, right? But the maturity, integrity and honesty of the writing transforms it into a Good Story in spite of its Mary Sue-ish origins.

Pete Fisher's fan-fic novel *Black Star* is another example. The protagonist is a gay male trucker from the 20th century who's accidentally beamed up to the Enterprise while attending a Star Trek convention and becomes Kirk's lover. As is clear from Fisher's discussion of "Black Star" in his pro novel "Dreamlovers," he had had no exposure to fan fic at the time he wrote "Black Star," yet the novel bears the unmistakeable stamp of the Mary Sue archetype. But in its depth and originality and the quality of the writing, it transcends it Mary Sue-ish (Marty Saul-ish?) origins.

I could name many other examples of fan fic of equal quality whose genesis is obvious and acknowledged by their authors. Their common denominator, I think, is that their authors did not take the easy route to expressing their fantasies.They took the hard way, perhaps by reaching more deeply into themselves and their own experience and emotions, and created real characters and real stories in the process.

Personally, I think we should all acknowledge and nurture our inner Mary Sue and Marty Saul. Without them, fan fic probably wouldn't have reached the well-developed state it's in today, and indeed, might not exist at all.

Mary Sues become the object of parody when they are too blatantly a projection of the author's fantasies, when the Mary Sue character's exploits are not *earned* by any signs of ability or character or accomplishment that shows up in the story. In this kind of story, the author has taken the easy route to getting her character on the Enterprise and bedding down the ST character of her choice.When I first got involved in fandom in the 1970s, the Mary Sue du jour (that is, a character widely labelled and criticized as such) was Chantal of the "Diamonds and Rust" series. Chantal is a mysterious Capellan woman with long, flowing tresses "the color of starlight" who boards the Enterprise as Chief of Security, re-organizes the ship, befriends everyone aboard (except Spock, of course), beds Kirk and even moves into his quarters. Her exploits are too numerous to mention.

Is the "lay" story just a species of Mary Sue? Not necessarily. Especially in the more mature and bawdy "lay" stories, the female character is so openly and cheerfully out to bed the ST character that it's hard to make fun of her as a Mary Sue. Of course, you could say that this type of story is simply a Mary Sue that's conscious of its motives and has no need to dissemble by giving the character a more high-minded excuse to be there.

Conversely, the typical Mary Sue does more than simply bed the male lead. She saves the ship and fixes the engines with a bobby pin, usually before breakfast. In my opinion, the Mary Sue phenomenon and the lay-the-character phenomenon have always been separate, overlapping but analytically separate manifestations of the fannish subconscious.

Some principles that may help distinguish a "lay" story from a "Mary Sue":

#1. The typical "lay" story is a PWP, while the typical Mary Sue story has a plot -- sometimes too much plot -- that is fairly heavy on action-adventure.

#2. The typical "lay" story takes place off the ship -- on shore leave, or some place where the characters have the good fortune to be stranded. The typical Mary Sue story takes place at least partly on the Enterprise.

#3. The heroine in the typical "lay" story isn't a member of the Enterprise crew, but an outsider. The typical Mary Sue may not start out as a member of the crew, but she usually becomes one.

#4. The relationship in the "lay" story is often a one-night stand (or a one-pon-farr-stand), while Mary Sue stories involve longer-lasting relationships, usually deep love ending only in death, etc.

#5. "Lay" stories are often told in the first person, while Mary Sue stories are usually told in the third person.

Examples of some typical "lay" stories from R&R, probably *the* leading zine for "lay" stories in the old days:

(a) Female research scientist is working with Spock on a remote outpost when Spock goes into pon farr. Spock awkwardly confesses his condition, research scientist expertly helps him through it and helps him learn to enjoy sex. When all is over, they go back to their professional roles. Told in first person from female lead's POV.

(b) During shore leave on the Shore Leave planet, female crew member conjures up a replica of Spock -- actually several replicas, each with a slightly different approach and technique -- to entertain her. Finally the real Spock shows up, although she doesn't know it and thinks her imagination has simply conjured up a reluctant Vulcan. She, ah, has her way with him, and afterwards is so embarassed she decides to transfer off the ship. An outrageously bawdy story, told in the first person by the heroine and her best friend. (Note that although this story may appear to violate Principle #3 above, it is brought into conformity with it by the heroine's leaving the ship.)

I think it is of the essence of the Mary Sue mythos that the heroine be *on* the starship Enterprise. I think Mary Sue stories show that deep down, we want to do more than bed the characters. We want to actually be on the starship Enterprise, to serve with the crew, to be part of a mission. At least that's what these stories say to me.

People have asked whether female ST characters like the Romulan Commander of "The Enterprise Incident" or Valeris of ST VI are Mary Sue characters. To me, the Romulan Commander meets most of the diagnostic criteria for a "lay" story rather than a Mary Sue. The major difference between "Enterprise Incident" and the typical "lay" story is that the episode has a plot. Of course, you could argue that the romantic scene was not integral to the plot but rather a kind of story-within-a-story. We knew we were in for a romantic interlude the moment the RC turned around in the command chair and was revealed as a woman.

Valeris, on the other hand, has all the indicia of a Mary Sue, at least until she's revealed as a traitor. She's a Starfleet officer, she's on the ship, she's a participant in an action-adventure, and she's had Spock wrapped around her finger for some time, apparently.

Just the way it seems to me,


Back to the Archive

Please use the form below to feedback to the author. Your message will also be forwarded directly to the author. Thank you.

E-mail address
Homepage URL
Story Title or Subject

Counter Visits to this page since November 1999.