Monday, February 2, 2015

Mary Sue Who?

Image courtesy of Petr Kratochvil at
I know some writers who, more or less, live in fear that their female protagonist is a “Mary Sue.”

Ah, the dreaded, hated Mary Sue. Once you’ve heard what the expression means and have seen the pure contempt and derision that awaits, it’s natural to want to avoid the phenomenon. 

So, what exactly is a Mary Sue?

The term was originally coined in fan fiction circles to describe overly perfect female characters, particularly ones who were also badly written. You know, a female character that is all confidence, can fly, can make time turn back by singing, can make men melt with a single glance, and so on and so on. Oftentimes, the Mary Sue is also incredibly beautiful and is basically talented at everything. She becomes the center of the whole storyline and, to be honest, is more or less living out the author’s dream life. Like Barbie, but in storytelling form.

Don’t worry – there is a male equivalent too: Gary Stu. But to be honest, I frequently see guy characters called Mary Sues anyway.

So, there’s a lot of negativity surrounding the concept. There’s a lot of vitriol (acidic hatred) toward Mary Sues, and particularly towards the ones who write about them. It’s no wonder that many people are terrified of discovering that their protagonist is a Mary Sue.

But here’s the thing: outside the scope of fan fiction, I don’t think that the Mary Sue actually exists. Part of the definition of a Mary Sue is that she usurps the importance of the characters from the show – and since people who read fan fiction want to read about those characters for some weird reason, they’re not overly amused by Mary Sues. 

Without that key part of the Mary Sue definition, I feel like the concept loses a lot.  Yet I still see people grousing about it when it comes to original storytelling.

“Oh, Yukiko from Stormdancer is so overly perfect – what a Mary Sue.”

“Skye is a total Mary Sue. I really expect better from Agents of Shield.”

“Agent Carter is such a Mary Sue. What’s up with that, Marvel?” (Marvel’s Agent Carter)

“I can’t stand Korra. She’s a Mary Sue.” (The Legend of Korra)

“April from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles has become nothing more than a stupid Mary Sue.”

“Katniss is a Mary Sue. Why do so many people like her?” (The Hunger Games)

“Twilight Sparkle is a Mary Sue.” (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic)

Okay, seriously – I lost faith in humanity the minute I saw that last one. (Thanks, late night YouTube-ing.) Yes, there are people who literally think that Twilight Sparkle – from a show targeted at people under the age of 7 – is a Mary Sue.  Seriously.

And you know what I see happening in all of this?

There is real contempt for strong female characters. Really. I’m sure that Buffy had similar claims leveled against her. So did River from Firefly. Possibly Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager. It’s getting to the point where even little girls are going to have to hear this kind of negativity about their favorite resident alicorn – since Twilight Sparkle is smart and magical and can always save the day. (I know some little girls who idolize that pony, and it is totally adorable.) You know, I kind of made light of the Super Bowl commercial yesterday where they discussed the concept of “like a girl” being an insult (especially since it was sponsored by Always®), but there is something to be said for it.

It doesn’t make it any better that sometimes male characters get called Mary Sues, such as the protagonist from Patrick Rothfuss' The Name of the Wind.  I still think there is a kind of latent sexism about it. This idea hinges on the concept that if women aren’t portrayed as prissy, insecure emotional basket-cases, then they are a Mary Sue. And like telling a guy he does something “like a girl” is an insult, calling a male character a Mary Sue is supposed to be even more insulting than calling a female character one.

I don’t identify as feminist, so the fact that I think this ought to tell you something.

And if that’s not what people mean, that girls have to be prissy and not strong, then we seriously need to stop using the term outside of fan fiction circles. We have a whole world of classic descriptors to discuss the problem. Really, the problem is that the character is presented as too perfect. Perfection is uninteresting. It’s flat. If your character is already too perfect, there’s nowhere to go, really. There are great terms for this: one-dimensional character, flat character, uninteresting character, and so on. Yet these aren’t considered insults on the level of Mary Sue, despite the fact that they mean basically the same thing.

So, don’t live in fear of your character being a Mary Sue. Don’t live in fear at all. Just make sure that your character isn’t flat. You can do this by incorporating the old Aristotelian concept of “The Fatal Flaw.” If you haven’t already, you’ll probably be learning about good old Aristotle’s “rules” for writing plays. One of them is that the character needs a fatal flaw. In most cases, the Greek tragedies had hubris (overwhelming pride) as their fatal flaw.

For example: Yukiko’s flaw is that she doesn’t listen. It gets her in trouble. (Granted, I have to agree that Yukiko wasn’t a super-complex character, but she wasn’t perfect.) Skye’s fatal flaw is that she is too trusting at first (and it really is almost fatal). Agent Carter’s fatal flaw is loyalty. Yes, that is a flaw, especially in an espionage, back-stabbing setting. Korra’s fatal flaw is a combination of hubris and self-doubt. April’s flaw is that she constantly overestimates what she is capable of. Katniss’ fatal flaw is her desperation. Twilight Sparkle’s flaw…

Twilight Sparkle doesn’t need to have a flaw, people. She’s a character for a little kid’s show. Kids actually need to have heroes without flaws; they need to have the understanding that there are greater powers out there that can save them, people that they can aspire to be. Flawed characters are for older audiences. I can’t even believe that people get so worked up about My Little Pony. It’s an entertaining show – I’m not arguing about that. But the first rule in storytelling is KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. Please, let the little girls have their perfect alicorn princess that they want to grow up to be just like. Seriously.

And for the record, if Twilight Sparkle had a flaw, it would be that she is obsessive-compulsive.

Should you aspire to make your characters interesting, and not overly perfect? Yeah, absolutely. But if someone tells you that your character a Mary Sue, ask them what they really mean by that. If they say it’s that the character is too perfect, then it’s a valid complaint (unless you’re writing a children’s book). Ask what they think might make the character more interesting. Ask yourself how you could make the character more interesting.

If the reason is that the character has a bunch of guys vying (competing) over her, then just ignore it. Love triangles have been around for centuries. If people don’t like that, then the issue isn’t that the character is a Mary Sue, it’s that your critique partner doesn’t like love triangles.

So, let’s stop using the Mary Sue moniker outside of fan fiction circles, okay? It actually has validity in fan fiction. Outside of that, it’s just claptrap that allows people to say something negative without expressing why.

Now, I know that some of my readers here do write fan fiction. So, how do you avoid writing a Mary Sue character?

It’s actually pretty easy. Firstly, don’t let the character upstage the main characters from the show. If you’re telling a story from an original character’s perspective, that’s fine, but still keep the overall focus on the main characters. Secondly, make sure your character has a fatal flaw of some kind – some personality hitch that is a constant obstacle to her/him.

The most important thing to remember, in and outside of fan fiction, is that if somebody calls your character a Mary Sue but can’t tell you what they really mean by it, it’s a comment you can safely disregard.

All right. That’s enough ranting. I’d really like to start a discussion on this, so feel free to share your thoughts, especially if you disagree with me. I welcome debate as long as everyone is respectful about it.

Fire away in the comments! 

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