Saturday, March 25, 2017

Monthly Matinee March: Who Is Mary Sue, Anyway?

Who Is Mary Sue, Anyway?

Anybody who is into the writing scene, and especially into fanfiction, has heard this term before. But what does it mean? And why it is seen as a Bad Thing? How do you successfully identify a Mary Sue and what steps do you take to fix the problem? Is it really a problem at all? Let's talk about it.

The Origins of Mary Sue

This misunderstood bit of fan-speak originated from a satirical fanfiction called A Trekkie’s Tale, written by Paula Smith. This very short story points out a number of common traits that the author saw present in fan-made Star Trek characters. Namely, characters who were blatantly created for authorial wish fulfillment. This Mary Sue was an inexplicably beloved cardboard cut-out with no meaningful personality and a contrived role in the story that pushed all the other characters off to the side to soak up as much of the spotlight as possible. She was a simple, concise image of how flat and boring original characters like this really are stripped of all the purple prose, fluff, and ego-primping of these fanfictions.

The Evolution of Mary Sue

But odds are, most of you probably imagine somebody more like this:
Yes, Enoby Egogy Evony Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way was quite the odd creature, inhabiting Tara Gilesbie’s infamous Harry Potter fanfiction, My Immortal, a work so bizarrely awful that many people suspect it's a troll-fic. Not only did the protagonist share the same signs of poor character writing as Smith’s Mary Sue, multiplied a hundred-fold, but the story itself had an incomprehensible plot, with spelling and grammar errors so absurd it seemed intentional. What’s more, the entire cast appeared to be of the same caliber, either a pastiche of what the author liked, or else an arbitrary antagonist representing everything the author deemed uncool. Everything you need to know about this oddity can be found in this dramatic reading (NSFW for language).
No doubt about it, the characters represented here are Mary Sue characters, all of them blatant self-inserts, or else canon characters warped beyond recognition to serve the author's fantasies. Whether genuine or stealth parody, the terribleness of the character-writing in this story became legendary. But with the infamy of this fanfiction came a number of stereotypes associated with the term.

Teenage characters. Characters who dress “cool.” Characters with long or extravagant names. Characters who are half something other than human. Characters who are “pretty.” Characters who are “angsty.” Characters who are “overpowered.” Where is the fine line between a Mary Sue and a character who merely has these features? Sites like TV Tropes having over a dozen variations on the term (and another page on the same site admitting the confusion surrounding the term) do nothing to clarify what a Mary Sue specifically is, beyond being a Bad Thing.

When Everyone Is Sue, Nobody Is

Removed from its fanfiction-specific roots, Mary Sue becomes harder to define. It’s become increasingly common to describe characters outside of fanfiction as Mary Sues. Because so much of a Mary Sue is defined by how the original characters react, it's difficult to truly pin down a Mary Sue in original fiction. The hallmark of a Mary Sue is a lack of audience engagement and an overabundance of pandering to the author. What do we making of Barnes & Noble listing a number of characters as Mary Sues, placing iconic figures like James Bond and Little Orphan Annie, of whom there have been many variant interpretations and loving parodies, alongside the notoriously unpopular Bella Swan? Are Mary Sues actually a pervasive archetype in fiction, or is the term being mishandled? The overuse of this term has made it a cliché unto itself, losing its meaning and its usefulness in criticism when it comes to original fiction.

Perhaps it’s time to simplify who Mary Sue really is...and is not.

Mary Sue Is…

...a character who panders to the author.
Does this character get to do or say whatever the author wishes they could do or say? Does the plot hinge around these things? Does this character constantly trumpet the author's views and agenda, and does everyone else either conform to these views or serve as the enemy for not conforming? And does the author get personally offended if a reader criticizes the character? These are usually strong signs of a Mary Sue.

...a character around whom the morality of the story revolves.
Mary Sue is more often than not the product of ego. Even when they would clearly be in the wrong for something they say or do, the story will bend over backwards to insist they are just the best person who ever lived. They can do no wrong, and even when they do, there's always an excuse that makes it justified somehow.

...a character who is free from consequences.
This doesn't mean that the character never gets hurt or that nothing bad happens to them. It means that no matter what, that character will get to do whatever they please at whoever's expense and there will be no meaningful repercussions. If there are repercussions, the story will present them as an injustice to the character no matter how deserved they might be. Even if the character dies, they will always be right and the story will reward them.

...a character who has no faults.
It's commonly said that Mary Sues are characters who have no flaws. Even when they do have flaws, they'll be either cute quirks that never really impede the character or informed flaws that we know exist, but don't actually come into play. Because a Mary Sue is the idealized avatar of the author's wishes, they will be flat characters who have no significant failings.

Putting all of that together, we can form this simple definition:

Mary Sue (n.) [mair-ee. soo]
1. A character archetype centered around wish-fulfillment and/or personal gratification on behalf of the author.
See also: soapbox

Mary Sue Is NOT…

 ...a protagonist.
Simply being the main character is absolutely not a sign of Mary Sue. The plot usually revolves around the protagonist to a large degree and that's not objectively bad. Most stories have a protagonist, so be wary of using the Mary Sue label on a main character.

Being good at too many things isn’t good or bad. It all depends on how you justify it. Did they work for their skills? Are they ridiculously good at some things, but bad at others? Context is key. It's common to whip out this criticism when it comes to hyper-competent characters, yet being boringly competent is the only fault audiences can find about them. Hyper-competency can itself be a writing flaw, but it's not helpful to aspiring writers to call such characters Mary Sues when the problem with the story isn't author-pandering, but rather a lack of satisfying conflict. escapist character.
Mary Sues serve to satisfy the author’s fantasies. An escapist character identifies what the audience likes and lets them live it out through the character. Video game protagonists often fall into this category, but virtue of a medium seeking to make the player to feel empowered. Pulp fiction (the genre, not the movie) also frequently features escapist characters. Being escapist doesn't automatically make them better than Mary Sues; like all archetypes, they can be handled poorly. Even so, it's best not to mistake the two.

...attractive, cool, or trendy.
These things are fluff, window-dressing that has nothing to do with actual character development. Yes, Mary Sues are usually attractive and hip to whatever the author likes, but in comics especially, this isn't a good metric. Character designs tend to focus on things the author finds pleasing to look at and illustrate.

...a self-insert.
Mary Sues are usually self-inserts, but not all self-inserts are Mary Sues, and a character being similar to the author isn't a surefire Sue indicator. As they say, write what you know. Most writers put some of themselves into the characters they write, whether it be their interests, their habits, or their culture. Even direct author avatars aren't automatically bad; many webcomics feature the author as the main character, relating personal anecdotes about their daily life. A staggering number of gaming webcomics have the author frequently stand in for the game character, usually to poke fun at the game. Needless to say, this type of self-insertion is clearly distinct from Mary Sues.

This isn’t to say a cliché character is a good thing, but being cliché does not a Mary Sue make, even if many Mary Sues suffer from a load of cheesy clichés. Switching them out for more original ideas won't solve the core problems with a character; in fact, a lot of Mary Sues are infamous for being loaded down with overly-elaborate specialness.

Mary Sues? In MY Story?

This is a question many authors ask, especially as they start to worry about appealing to an audience. And they will invariably turn to one of many Mary Sue litmus tests on the internet. But tests can be cheated and they don’t get to the heart of the matter. By all means, take the test if you wish, but if you find yourself finagling on some of the points to manipulate the score—well, you’ve already got your answer. If you think your character is a Mary Sue, chances are you’re right.

So now what?

Forgive Me Father, for I Have Sued!

One thing people often overlook is that just about every writer starts out making characters like this. We all have stories we’ve made up when we were less mature that we look on with fond cringing. But there’s no reason to cringe! The wish-fulfillment and fun of making up a story where YOU get to have everything you want is often what kick-starts your imagination and makes you want to write stories. Just look at all the people out there who started out writing fanfiction. Writing with a target audience is mind is the big game-changer that gets writers to start caring about what people think and how to improve. Now, you have to answer big “why” questions.

Why are you writing this story? Why should the audience read it? Why did you make this or that character? These are the essential questions. And they aren’t easy to answer! Good writing, of course, isn’t easy. A novice author might insert a Mary Sue into their work because they just want to live out a personal fantasy, and if it’s for their own amusement, there’s no real harm in that. Certainly they might put their work out there and wonder why people don't care for it, but if they haven't answered the “why” questions, then they haven't reached the stage where they understand how to reach a target audience. It’s the author who is mindful of an audience that should take heed. Fortunately, mindfulness of an audience and a desire to please and entertain readers is probably the first indication that Mary Sue is probably not present here.

But all of that probably don't stop you wondering, right? So for your consideration, may we present...

Ten Simple Dos and Don’ts for the Sue-conscious Author.

DO evaluate your character’s role in the story and consider their personal motivations.
DO answer the 100 Character Questions.
DO NOT take a reader’s dislike of your character as a personal attack against you.
DO NOT load down a character with random flaws to make them seem “not too perfect.”
DO listen to your readers' constructive criticism about your character.
DO use your personal experiences as inspiration for your character.
DO NOT use your character solely as a personal soapbox for your all views and interests.
DO allow the character to make bad decisions or make mistakes.
DO your research when it comes to things about your character that you don’t have much personal experience with.
DO NOT attempt to force an unpopular character down your audience’s throat by making a popular character talk them up.

What if I Find a Mary Sue?

If you found a genuine Mary Sue in your own writing, odds are good you’re going to have to fix more than just the character, because a true Mary Sue dominates the entire story. But the first real step for fixing the problem isn’t writing-related; you must be willing to put aside your own ego and consider why you’re writing this story and what your target audience is. Answering that is the first and pivotal step into good character writing. And from there? We really can’t stress those 100 Character Questions enough.

And if you find a real, genuine Mary Sue in somebody else’s work? Well, let us ask you this—did they want your feedback to begin with? Remember, we all have to start someplace and not every writer is mature enough to understand or care about what the audience wants. Delivering feedback informing them about the nebulous world of Mary Sue might not be as helpful as you intend.

Sometimes it’s better to just let Mary have their fun.

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