From self-inserts to imagines, how young women write themselves into the narrative
[This piece was written in conjunction with the most recent episode of the Fansplaining podcast. Follow us on Twitter or Tumblr, and if you’re interested in supporting our work—helping us commission more art and pieces like this—please consider donating to our Patreon.]
Let’s start with the woman in question. She isn’t usually called Mary Sue — she has a less plausible, more fanciful name. Similarly, she has less plausible, more fanciful physical features than your average girl: purple eyes, or really extraordinary hair. You don’t know her, but you know the characters that surround her — she’s a new student at Hogwarts, an important ally you meet in Rivendell, the person on whom Holmes and Watson will rely to crack the case. She is notably smarter, stronger, and/or more beautiful than her peers. She’s going to save the day — and maybe a character you know will fall in love with her, too. She’s a wholly original character, though she might resemble an idealized version of the author. She’s a super-girl, bending beloved stories around her, heroism in a world mostly made up of heroes.
Oh, also: she is the ultimate object of scorn. She is the literal worst. She is embarrassing, self-indulgent trash; she ruins the story with her competence, her desirability, and the way all those characters you love seem to love her. She’s been described an endless number of colorful ways, including (via Fanlore’s meticulous and depressing entry on Mary Sues) the “literary equivalent of publicly soiling yourself.” She is everything that’s wrong with fanfiction, with girls writing stories, with fangirls, period.
The most basic definition of “Mary Sue” is an original female character in fanfiction — which is largely about established characters and worlds — who is often close to perfect. Like, too perfect. Very good at her job, very desirable romantically or sexually, and sometimes very emotionally moving when she dies, tragically, and the other characters mourn her. The story usually centers around her, often warping established characterization in the process. She’s self-indulgent, to be sure, but she’s harmless, and framed this way, one might wonder why young girls writing themselves into their favorite worlds is the literary equivalent of publicly soiling yourself. If you have to wonder that, though, you might not be familiar with the way the world treats young girls.
“Mary Sue” was coined by Paula Smith in 1970s Star Trek fandom, in a very short story that began, “‘Gee, golly gosh, gloriosky,’ thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. ‘Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the Fleet — only 15–1/2 years old.’” Lieutenant Mary Sue, object of affection of Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the men of Star Trek: TOS, was meant to be a parody of what Smith had observed in the fanzines of the day: “The term caught on because she’s very identifiable: Here it is, that same character, and isn’t it a shame because she’s just so tiresome,” she told an interviewer at Transformative Works and Cultures in 2011.
The conversation, conducted 40 years after Lieutenant Mary Sue first stepped onto the bridge, is an interesting one, not least because of the vague sense of disconnect between the literary analysis around the term (why bending a story around your original character might make for bad fiction, or at least not-terribly-enjoyable fiction if you aren’t the author) and the gendered morass that the term has sunk into (or, arguably, where it began).
Mary Sues weren’t born in Trek fandom — one researcher drew parallels between modern self-insert fic and stories that girls wrote about versions of themselves in the nineteenth century — but the term was born in an era of paper zines, a time of limited space for fanfiction, and arguably one with a different relationship between fic writers and their readers. When she first coined the term, Smith says, “In the letter columns, we started seeing the writers react: ‘What’s so wrong with my story? I’m just telling a story that I think is great.’” Even detractors admit Mary Sues are about young girls finding their power and agency in a world of fictional landscapes that rarely afford such journeys to women. After all, the original Mary Sue was the youngest lieutenant in the Fleet.
The days of limited space and resources in fic production are ancient history: there is always room for another story in the internet’s archives, and the general ethos of the broader fanfiction community has long been “don’t like, don’t read.” Many stories are self-indulgent, whether they feature a stand-in for the author or or not. But hatred of Mary Sues is embedded in the culture, self-perpetuating, and has seemingly ramped up since fic came online. In the early digital days, some archives banned Mary Sues outright; to this day, blogs exist solely to call peoples’ original characters Mary Sues, and to deconstruct and mock them accordingly.
Once the seed was planted in cultural discourse, Mary Sue accusations became impossible to stop — the toxicity surrounding the term has spread far beyond fanfiction self-inserts. Not long after it was coined, “Mary Sue” became any original female character in fanfiction; for decades, women have been reporting that they stopped writing original female characters, then female characters altogether, for fear of the “Mary Sue” label. Canonical female characters seen as threats to male/male romances in fic got the term, too — one notable (and incredibly troubling) example is the treatment of Nyota Uhura in fic about the rebooted Star Trek films. And over the years, the term has seeped across pop culture, to the point where “Mary Sue” becomes any female lead, anywhere. Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen, and Rey from Star Wars are just a few slapped with the label. It’s just so annoying that their respective plots center around them, they must be Mary Sues.
(There are male Mary Sues, in case you’re wondering: “Marty Stu,” “Gary Stu,” and other variations have shown up over the years. People try to counter, even undercut, the inherent misogyny in the Mary Sue conversation by naming too-competent, too-desirable leading men — Captain Kirk, Luke Skywalker, and James Bond are famous examples. There’s an old joke: “What do you call a male Mary Sue?” The answer? “A protagonist.” It’s…not a particularly funny joke.)
But just as fanfiction writers are fighting back against historical scorn towards the practice at large, in recent years fans have been standing up for Mary Sues, too. Critics of the term are working to excise it from discussions around professional works, where it disproportionally targets women writing novels about female characters. In an act of reclamation, one of the most popular female-led geek sites on the internet took the term for its name. And within fan writing communities, people are going to bat for even the most self-indulgent Mary Sues, questioning why we shame young fans for making themselves the heroes of their own stories. But is a long-embedded stigma that easy to shake?
It feels like every other fanfiction writer you talk to has a tale of their own early Mary Sues. Not everyone got called out for them — plenty of people learned to self-censor when they saw others getting shamed. My podcast partner, Flourish, reports that her early original female character was a student who proved vital to a case that Mulder and Scully were investigating. My first fanfic was almost entirely original characters, sketched out on yellow legal pads — I took a minor character from a book series and gave him a diverse team of corporate executives (don’t ask, it’s a weirdly long explanation). But by age 14, when I fell in love with Buffy and learned about online fandom, I was writing stories featuring a banshee who was old friends with Rupert Giles named…Ophelia. (I swear to God, I had no idea about the implications at the time, I just thought “Ophelia” sounded pretty, just as I loved “Cecilia” until Simon & Garfunkel ruined it for me.)
But these days more women are pushing back against the original characters they once felt ashamed of. After all, why shouldn’t young girls write the most spectacular versions of themselves—and why shouldn’t they want to see themselves in a story? In recent years I’ve been especially interested in watching women, people of color, and queer people reclaim the self-insertion narrative from one of indulgence to one of vital representation. In a piece partly about her youthful love of Lord of the Rings, Ash Davis writes,
“Be the change you wish to see,” Gandhi said (sorta). So I wrote my change. I discovered fanfiction and wrote all the damn change. I went into the painfully white fandoms of the things I loved…and wrote black folk into every last one of them. If there were no black people, I made them. If they were tokens, I made them stars. Mary-sued the shit out of everything. It didn’t matter, you were gonna see me!
In another piece I love about reclaiming the Mary Sue (via a medieval mystic, Margery Kempe, who essentially Mary Sued her way into the Bible in her writing, chilling with Mary and romancing Jesus), Ana Wilson writes about placing the female body back into reading — and into writing.
Reading The Book of Margery Kempe alongside fanfiction makes it clear that physical, imaginative reading is still associated with women, still considered embarrassing, and still employed as a form of resistance to mainstream narratives. People, in short, are still using this style of reading to elbow their way into texts from which they are restricted, just as Kempe and other women did with religious texts.
I wish I had my own Mary Sues to claim, but on a personal level, I’m a little more ambivalent. When I talk about good old Ophelia the Banshee, both “female” and an “original character” (and pulling from a very specific strand of symbolic mythology, for that matter), it’s easy to assume that I must have been writing a Mary Sue. But I can’t remember any specific connection between myself and the character, beyond the connections I have with every character I write, from the weary narrator of much of my original fiction who, like me, works at a racetrack, all the way to a certain pansexual immortal time traveling man from the 51st century.
The relationship between a writer and the characters she both reads and writes is a varied and complicated one. Fanfiction adds a layer onto that — the original characters in question aside, most of the people we write about started out as someone else’s characters, at least before the original work went out in the world. In the hands of fans, individually or collectively, a character often becomes someone else in the process. I should clarify: I don’t mean that fans are likely to render them out-of-character. But with the space and care that fanfiction can afford, fan writers often draw a favorite world’s characters as richer, more complicated — more human.
So unless you’re writing self-inserts or original characters, fanfic is partly about getting into the headspace of a character you didn’t create. That, for me anyway, is one of fanfiction’s chief pleasures — I’ve written before that for most fans, fic isn’t about wacky plots, as people outside fandom often assume, but about understanding a character so well that the interesting part comes when you stick them in a wacky plot (sure, “there’s only one hotel room left” counts as wacky), apply pressure, and see how they react.
For me, in my post-Ophelia Banshee days, inhabiting other characters as I write fanfiction has been vitally important. I read and write fic for a simultaneous distance and closeness with these characters — I allow them into my head, but I’m not looking to project myself back onto them. Part of this is privilege: whiteness, and I’m especially thinking of the un-interrogated whiteness of my adolescence, often lets white people assume a “default” position. A disproportionate number of the characters on our pages and screens are white, and from that lens shared whiteness with characters feels less like commonality and more like a lack of difference. Part of it is the opposite of privilege: the minefield of my struggles with gender and sexuality — almost definitely a subject for a totally separate essay — have left me perpetually out of step with many characters I encounter on pages and screens. When I think about myself in relation to a story, I slip away — a bit ironic, I suppose, for someone fascinated by girls who write themselves into stories. Or maybe that’s the whole point.
But part of it’s not just me: I hesitate to get too reductive on the links between shaming girls out of their own stories and the kinds of things that dominate many corners of the fanfiction world, but one could draw a line from the embarrassment of the Mary Sue to the positioning of certain types of characters in fandom as “default.” In the vast landscape of popular media, at least in the Anglo-American context, we’re implicitly taught to view the white male character as neutral, blank, infinitely relatable. While media certain can shoulder some blame, fans should be held responsible, too, and the way young fans are encouraged, gently or mockingly, to step out of their own perspectives, away from their own backgrounds, and into the perspective of certain types of characters is one of the lasting legacies of the Mary Sue construction.
When we consider the Mary Sue and her position in fandom at large, those of us outside the real person fic space often tend to overlook the fact that as long as celebrity fandom has existed, fannish communities have been built on self-insert fic with female protagonists. For many readers, this kind of story is sought after, not an object of scorn. The self-inserts that populate a lot of boy band RPF, for example, are perspective characters that, just like Mary Sues, allow young women to gain narrative control of their relationships with the objects of their affection.
Perspective is important in fanfic. It’s obviously also important in all other fiction, ever, but fic can sometimes feel particularly preoccupied with it. After all, perspective shift is one of the bedrocks of the practice; fans love nudging the spotlight off a canonical protagonist. RPF is an interesting space to examine perspective, and the way the “default” (white, male) gaze gets shattered and refashioned. There’s the complicated sort of circular gaze of stories from the celebrity’s point of view, where the reader watches the celebrity watching a character who’s often a stand-in for the reader. And while second-person fic feels more prevalent in fanfiction at large than it does in the published fiction world, it often feels ubiquitous in RPF spaces. Lumped under a second-person umbrella stories that work very differently in form and function, from fleshed-out second person narrators to “x Reader” stories that eschew identifying details to “imagines,” short prompts that exist in a murky space between fiction and daydream fodder.
When you place those fleshed-out narrators side-by-side with Mary Sues, it’s an interesting study in contrasts: where a Mary Sue is too-perfect, the self-insert narrator is often fairly ordinary, beaten down in some way, frustrated with her situation, not quite aware of her own attractiveness or agency. (Part of the pleasure of the narrative arc is the realization, and reclamation of that agency.) These characters and this type of fic is wildly popular on Wattpad, so much so that the platform commissioned an entire anthology of second-person RPF entitled IMAGINES, released last year with a shiny silver mirror on its cover alongside the words “Celebrity encounters starring YOU.”
The imagines of the anthology are, a little confusingly, not quite the same thing as “imagines,” the prompts that are increasingly popular on Tumblr and Wattpad. The anthology’s stories, about chance encounters with celebrities, are narrated by women of various ages and backgrounds with clear characterization and perspective. They’re not all romantic: in one story, a mother embarrasses her teenage daughter when she brings home Nicholas Hoult for dinner, the “you” full of maternal affection for the actor; in another, “you” are on the run with Kim Kardashian, a freedom fighter in an America where the government has outlawed selfies (Kim is on the run because she keeps taking them, obviously). The “yous” are unremarkable, but there’s a bit of knowing space between the reader and the narrator: we can tell you’re selling yourself short, and we’re waiting for you to realize it.
Actual imagines, in contrast, leave you to do most of the work of constructing a protagonist. They are short, sometimes a single sentence: “Imagine: You and Ed take a camping trip to get away from the media,” reads one on a popular Tumblr devoted to imagines, accompanied by a gif of Ed Sheeran looking sort of bashful. How you met, the state of your relationship, literally everything about “you” is up in the air — whether the reader even feels compelled to fill those gaps is a matter of preference. The “you” in an imagine isn’t necessarily average-looking or untalented — the same blog offers you a gif of Sebastian Stan looking charmed accompanied by, “Imagine: When Sebastian first meets you he is speechless and stunned by your beauty.” Imagines are interesting often not because of what they contain, but what they lack — the wide-open spaces they leave, utterly customizable, whether you spin a single-sentence prompt into a 60,000-word story or just imagine you and Ed Sheeran sitting in a tent. As a self-insert narrator, you are as present or as absent as you want.
The protagonists of “x Reader” stories are similarly blank: often called “y/n,” short for “your name,” these stories are the most literal expression of “self-insert” imaginable, since the pairing is you, the reader, and the celebrity of the title. These stories vary, but sometimes they tread so lightly in an attempt to leave “y/n” as neutral as possible that they wind up feeling a bit like Mad Libs, instructing you to fill in, say, your favorite book rather than just name one the narrator might like. Sometimes x Reader stories follow a full narrative arc; other times they feel like a collected set of imagines. When I got sucked in researching, I wound up in a story where in each chapter, you successively date, then marry, each of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The prevalence and growing popularity of images and x Reader stories amongst younger fans is a fascinating shift when I think of the self-inserts of previous generations. If a Mary Sue is a projection, a young woman’s ideal self on the page, then an imagine is more likely to be a reflection: exactly who you are, at the center of the story. Mary Sues are aspirational, but in a way, so are these other self-insert forms: they construct worlds in which your fictional self, going about your incredibly ordinary life, is just as important as Lieutenant Mary Sue. The story still bends around you.
The overwhelming popularity of self-inserts on Wattpad, a fanfiction hub with a younger demographic than other archives, leaves me both curious and hopeful about young girls right now, writing themselves into stories. I know that reader x boy-band-star-of-the-moment isn’t exactly a new construction; while I was working on my weird diverse corporate team and Flourish was helping the FBI catch aliens, my contemporaries were writing themselves into Hanson’s green room and *NSYNC’s tour bus, stories they’d later disavow (and, haltingly, reclaim).
Today’s social media is restructuring our conceptions of personal identity—we increasingly center ourselves in our own narratives. Don’t worry, I’m not about to go on some “narcissistic millennial” rant. Quite the opposite: it’s heartening to see young women, young queer people, young people of color, center themselves in narratives when our screens and pages are still lacking. In the fanfiction world, just like in the rest of the world, we still hold marginalized characters, original or otherwise, to impossible standards. But perhaps our embrace of Mary Sues—even if they’re the most achingly perfect young woman to ever command a ship in the Fleet—will help change things for the better.