On "Mary Sue" and "Lay" Stories
an essay by Judith Gran
Originally posted to the Society
for Slash Diversity and COCO CHANNEL, circa 2000.
An interesting thread unfolded on the alt.startrek.creative newsgroup
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 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
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
#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,