Once Upon A Time...

When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?

by LJC

Once upon a time, Star Trek: Voyager decided to canonically visit the realm of fan fiction in the form of the Mary Sue.

Okay, quick refresher course...

Mary Sue is:

  1. A thinly-veiled fictional version of the author herself
  2. An original character who is the protagonist of the story
  3. Both.

On the whole, Mary Sue fan stories tend to be written by new writers whose first idea for a story follow a pattern of self-insertion (acting out their personal fantasy vicariously through an original character), and their "Mary Sue" characters suffer from the following characteristics:

  1. She's perfect. Literally. Everyone likes her, she can fix the warp core with a bobby pin and a smile regardless of whether or not she's an engineer, she's got an excellent singing voice, and she's psychic too...
  2. She's got violet eyes, martial arts training that makes Trinity from The Matrix look like Elmer Fudd, hair down to there, and is usually sleeping with or the daughter of someone we all know and love.
  3. She's maverick, headstrong, stubborn, always wins in the end, and always shows "them" how her way is better.

Regarding gender: Mary Sue is not an exclusively female phenomenon. Harry Stu tends to be cocky, maverick, and has all the girls swooning while the captain admires him for his courage, daring, cunning, swashbuckling, computer hacking, and romantic abilities.

Okay, now back to the matter at hand...

While Star Trek is known for having regular and supporting characters that fit the Mary Sue criterion (for example, Wesley Crusher is widely regarded as Gene Roddenberry's Mary Sue, as Janeway was Jeri Taylor's, and Seven of Nine is Brannon Braga's), there are rarely examples of original protagonists that fulfil so many of the criterion for the dreaded label of Mary Sue...

Until fairly recently. Show of hands: Who saw Ashes to Ashes the week of February 29?

Good. Now, let's administer the Mary Sue Litmus Test to Ensign Lyndsay Ballard. For each of the criterion she fits, we will award her 1 point.

  1. Transplanted 20th century native

  2. Unusual eye colour (violet, amber, etc.) 1 point
    As a Kobali, Lyndsay's eyes are violet.

  3. Unusual name (including spelling variations of common names involving y or e, Terran ethnic name on an alien world, etc.) 1 point
    Though born human, as a Kobali, Lyndsay's new name is Jhet'Leya.

  4. Her hair is mentioned repeatedly (down to her waist, fell in blue-black waves, etc.) 1 point
    She has the doctor change her hair colour to fiery red, when he alters her Kobali appearance to mimic her former human appearance. Her hair, or lack of it, is repeatedly referenced.

  5. Rules that apply to others are bent or broken for her

  6. Is often maverick or unconventional, bordering on insubordinate 1 point
    Ballard has a Klingon personal motto, is terminally late for her duty shifts, and as a Kobali, slips into her native tongue constantly.

  7. Excels at everything she turns her hand to or conversely, fails at everything she turns her hand to, but is forgiven

  8. Is connected to a member of the senior staff, either through familial or psuedo-familial ties ("adopted" daughter, etc.) or through a romantic relationship 1 point
    Was Harry Kim's best friend at the Academy, and enters a brief romantic relationship with him upon her return to Voyager. Harry was crazy about her at the Academy, but never pursued her.

  9. Is unusually physically attractive

  10. Interacts socially with the senior staff rather than her own peer group 1 point
    Has dinner with the captain in her quarters.

  11. Has uncanny or supernatural abilities and skills (does not apply if the character is Ocampan, Vulcan, Betazoid, or a member of a race with documented extra-sensory powers) 1 point
    Can fix the warp core with a hairpin and a stick of gum thanks to her nifty new 6-lobed brain and the Kobali's knowledge of engineering...

  12. Is unusually accomplished for her age

  13. Has a particularly traumatic past 1 point
    She died, and was resurrected. That counts in my book as trauma.

  14. Is universally liked and/or respected by the entire crew 1 point
  15. Has an excellent singing voice

  16. Is unusually skilled in areas outside her duty assignment (example: is a nurse, but also an expert hacker)

  17. Shares a hobby or passion with a male member of the senior staff

  18. Is recognised publicly for feats above and beyond the call of duty

  19. Dies a heroic death and is mourned by all 1 point
    First time around she died in Harry's arms, and he gave her eulogy.

How to read your character's score:

0-5 Pass
6-10 Needs work
11-15 Needs major work
16-20 Beyond help

Lyndsay's score: 10 points. Uh-oh. Not too horrible, but still not so good.

So what I wanna know is, why the hell did I enjoy Lyndsay and the episode despite the fact that she fit a huge number of criteria for the usually damning label of Mary Sue?

Question: When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
Answer: When she's so damned entertaining, you don't care...

The fact of the matter is, Ballard's character was likeable without being cloying, believably flawed without being transparent, and despite the retro-active continuity, her and Harry's relationship added the emotional dimension to this story that drew the audience in and made it 100 times more interesting than the mere plot would suggest. The character was then brought to life by an actress who leapt off the screen, sparkling with life, humanity, wit and charm. Ballard might have been just another Mary Sue stealing screentime from the folks we know and love if Kim Rhodes hadn't made Lyndsay into someone I was enjoying getting to know, and miss now that she's gone.

For all fanfic readers and writers complain, Mary Sues are not always 100% of the time cardinal sins. The problem is, only 1 in 100 writers (and in the case of canonical Mary Sues, actors) are skilled enough to pull it off.

Now, this doesn't mean that I trust the Voyager staff to populate the ship with new characters (or flesh out existing ones, like the oft-mentioned-rarely-screened Delaney twins, Gerron and the other Maquis from Learning Curve, or Sam Wildman who's daughter gets about 10 times the screentime she does) that are always this enjoyable. Also, while Lyndsay herself was well written, I do feel the need to point out that the episode itself was riddled with contrivances and continuity errors—two things that usually send me fleeing my television while screaming in agony. In fact, I'm filled with equal parts joy and dread at the upcoming Lower Decks episode, Good Shepherd because for every Lyndsay Ballard, we have a Vorik...

No offence to Alex Enberg fans.

Mary Sues are a tricky subject, because the fan's reaction to them is so volatile. We don't like to see screentime taken away from the characters we know and love to make room for a newcomer—particularly one who is so perfect she makes you want to heave. Not to mention, Mary Sues are often all in the eye of the beholder—an original character some may find fascinating, others may believe the biggest waste of time since Shatner's music career. But the fact remains that they have limited appeal. In fact, the person who usually enjoys them the most is the author, rather than her or his intended audience.

But what makes an original character entertaining to me personally is the believability and realism. A large part of this has to do with scale. If the author is going for operatic—as, alas, Jeri Taylor did in her truly appallingly dreadful novel Mosaic illustrating Kathy Janeway's early years—rather than realistic, you're going to lose me. It's awfully hard to sympathise and identify with someone living through the Nibelungen. I much prefer my original characters kept to human (or alien of your choice here) scale, because that makes them more believable.

Yes, Lyndsay Ballard's relationship with Harry was a little forced—in terms of the plot being contrived, and the retroactive continuity. It's a little had to buy, not to mention Harry's claim that he had always been crazy about Lyndsay doesn't quite work when you take into account the back-story we have for Harry and his relationship with his girlfriend Libby. That was sloppy, and jarring for long-time fans of the show—though it's very likely, with the current attitude of "Continuity? You're kidding, right?" of Braga's administration, that that gaffe (as well as Lyndsay not remembering Tuvok's promotion despite the fact that it took place before her "death") was brought up and dismissed.

But as is often the case with my entertainment, I will forgive a series these points if overall, it entertained me enough to not care. Those instances (particularly with Voyager, the least consistently well-written of all four Treks, particularly next to shining example of how fantastic the writing on Trek can be, Deep Space Nine) are rare these days. Which was why I was genuinely surprised I liked Lyndsay and Ashes to Ashes to the degree that I did.

I also recognise that I am pre-disposed to enjoy this type of story more than other fans. I have a vested interested in the Voyager crew outside the senior staff, having written several stories featuring the Delaneys, Gerron, and the former Equinox crew. In addition to writing about the crew, I run Star Trek Voyager: Lower Decks, an archive devoted entirely to those characters we've only seen once or twice, if at all, who keep the ship running while Capt'n Katie, Chuckles, and the rest are off endangering their lives battling the anomaly of the week yet again.

But unlike frequent Mary Sue Seven of Nine, who comes under attack week after week by fans tired of seeing 5-10 episodes a year heavily or exclusively featuring her, I've heard remarkably little venom aimed directly at Lyndsay or Ashes to Ashes writers' Ronald Wilkerson (co-author of TNG's Lower Decks as well as VOY's Learning Curve) and Robert Doherty. The consensus seems to be that while some fans would have been more interested in seeing a lower decks character whom they had already met, such as Jetal (Nancy Bell) or Joe Carey (Josh Clark, despite the fact that Joe's not actually dead, but was sent to his room without supper 5 years ago and we haven't seen him since) Ensign Ballard was a welcome addition to the crew. In fact, fans on Usenet's Trek newsgroups seemed to have been genuinely taken with the character and the actress, even though they agree that the episode itself was at times painfully contrived and suffered from the usual array of Voyager script problems.

So, how does this translate from canon to fan fiction?

I can't help but wonder, had I read Ashes to Ashes in a 'zine or online, if I would have enjoyed it as much?

Would I have been as forgiving of the contrivances and continuity errors (for example, Ballard being able to catch up to and locate Voyager since, in the past 2+ years she'd been gone, Voyager had made huge leaps across the Delta Quadrant using the transwarp drive, and other Plot Devices of the Week)? If a fan had sent me a story where Harry confesses he had always been in love with a girl he'd known for ten years that mysteriously we'd never heard mentioned before, would I have bought it? Particularly given that our favourite ensign conveniently forgets about the existence of Libby (the woman to whom he remained loyal, rather than submitting to the amorous attentions of the comely Jenny Delaney first and second season), who was practically his fiancée at the time that he was apparently too shy to ask Lyndsay out? Braga may not give a toss about character continuity, but I have a hard time believing I'd let a fan get away with it...

What, double standard? Me?

You betcha. I except better of my peers than I do the show, given its track record. If that sounds bizarre, you've got to understand that folks who read Voyager fan fiction tend to do so because it's better than the show. In fact, we've come to expect it. The Joe "Little Otter" Macedons of this world have spoiled us rotten, and we just won't stand for the kind of half-assed plotting and lousy continuity that the series itself is rife with. Replicators that produce burned pot roast? Gosh, that's cute. But cut it—that's not the way Trek science works, right? And Lyndsay is giving up on Voyager and herself, for that matter, awfully quick. The woman has only been back three days. It takes longer than that to adjust, yet no one ever voices that opinion because the plot requires them to remain silent, or else we can't have the infamous Trek reset button that sends Lyndsay back to her Kobali family—despite the fact that we are getting a multi-episode story arc involving the four Borg children adapting to life aboard Voyager.

Some stories work better as scripts, and others that work better as prose. I actually believe that, had this been a short story or novel with time to actually show Lyndsay trying for weeks instead of days to find her place aboard Voyager again, the story would have been more effective. Also, prose doesn't need space battles to be interesting (neither does Trek, but tell that to Braga) and so the false tension created by having Lyndsay's Kobali father attacking Voyager repeatedly could be avoided in part or whole, and that time better spent on actual character development for both father and the Kobali race. However, what engaged me most was Kim Rhodes performance as Ballard, which may or may not be translatable to prose. Certainly the dialogue would remain, but it was the actress who brought character to life that is the selling point for me. I don't know if I would have found Lyndsay as charming if it weren't for Rhodes subtle, winning performance.

So, bottom line: great character is a mediocre episode. On the whole, I'd give the Trek staff the same note I'd give any fan writer: you're treading a dangerous line with Mary Sue characters, and it takes skill and grace to pull one off without opening yourself up to being lynched by your audience. But if the payoff is worth it, then they can be thoroughly entertaining. But keep in mind that what separates a heinous Mary Sue from an engaging original character is the skill and talent of the author.

LJC has been writing, illustrating, editing, publishing, and archiving fan fiction since 1989 in a variety of fandoms, first for print fanzines and then online. She is a professional webdesigner and freelance journalist.

Read the Once Upon a Time archives:

  • Profic vs Fanfic
  • That River in Egypt
  • Tips for writing better fan fiction
  • Enough alphabet soup!
  • A 'zine! A 'zine! My kingdom for a 'zine!
  • When is a Mary Sue not a Mary Sue?
  • My Heart Will Not Go On, Thanks...
  • Canon Fodder
  • If you can't say anything nice... come sit over here by me.
  • Why research doesn't suck
  • Whomp Upside The Head IV: Return Of The Big Stick
  • AUs and You!
  • Mall Rats
  • Reality By Consensus: The difference between canon and fanon
  • The Rain In Spain In My Ass Is a Pain : dialect do's and don'ts