The Symptomatic Mary Sue
Image by Nebezial at Nebezial.Deviantart.com
It's been a while since I've thought about this topic, mostly because it's a term people use when they're first starting out on their writing. Sure the phrase gets tossed in my critique group when someone's attempting a writing style or genre they're not used to, but eventually every writer stops hearing this phrase with experience.
The term will remain popular since it is a short phrase coined from fanficiton writing that describes a character flawed by the writer's wish fulfillment or obsessive creativity. At the start of anyone's writing career, the moment someone critiques your character and dubs them a Mary Sue, it's as if the world shatters and your writing is called into question. But is it really true when a moment like this comes by?
I've become less inclined to think so with time. Before I get into that however, let's cover what a Mary Sue is exactly. Over time the definition has begun to vary from person to person, ranging from self-insertion of the writer to a character who can do no wrong and is seemingly devoid of flaws.
Here's where I bring the title of this blog post into the mix. The earlier mentioned range of definitions make up symptoms of the writing crime. Understanding this is key to understanding a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a character who, through the writer's obsession with him or her, undermines the very power of the story.
Now when it comes to Mary Sue's, and clichés by extension, I've come to realize something. It isn't particularly tragic when you're starting out on a project and you've started out by working with the all too familiar Hollywood tropes and caricatures. That's going to happen on many early drafts, which is why you hear the expression less and less as you gain more experience as a writer. Your characters stop becoming Mary Sue's and simply become under developed and in need of more investment.
Here's the phrase of my own that I've started coining:
"A [Mary Sue/Cliché] is only a [Mary Sue/Cliché] until you work your way through it."
All of my characters start out bland and uber-tropey but I always make it a goal to never let them stay that way. It's as necessary to make sure you invest as much as you can in your characters in more ways than just one. Just like eliminating Mary Sue-like qualities from your writing is important when wanting to publish your work, you also want to eliminate them for the sake of sparing yourself from the backlash from your audience.
What can I say? I detest Mary Sues. They're spoiled brats who don't have to try and always get their way. They're practically Jesus because even if you, the audience member, disagrees, the Mary Sue is simply correct. Ugh, it's irritating.
I will admit on the other hand, that despite how we can all agree on this principle, many forms of media get away with without our notice. Sometimes it's on purpose, other times it's not, but below is a little slideshow of examples of definite Mary Sues. Mind you there are many more, but you'll get the picture.
Now don't get me wrong, as much as I don't like Mary Sue's I don't necessarily dislike the above shown characters. There's leeway to be found in the genres when it comes to Mary Sue's, especially in comic book characters and Dr. Who where being the Mary Sue is expected in the genre. The other two characters who appear on this list are slightly more beloved in their respective works, but ultimately become the two characters I do dislike the most.
In Game of Thrones, Jon Snow quickly became my least favorite character because how much of a Mary Sue he is. Now it's cleverly done since many people don't notice as he's painted as an unlucky, illegitimate child who never seems to get his way. Even so, once Jon get to the wall, everything is seemingly uphill from there as he is always painted as the victim who comes out on top as he suffers, never being in the wrong and even cheating death. (Not sorry for spoilers you should already know about)
In terms of the other mentioned character, Assassin's Creed fan favorite Ezio Auditore (for those who don't know), a very similar situation occurs. Every fan of the games glorifies this character for his palpable charisma, wonderful story arcs and great dialogue. The problem is, over the course of a trilogy of games, this character became too perfect that I couldn't help but begin to resent him. Most of this of course is do to the game makers providing fan-service for the die-hard fans. Therein however lies one of the reasons why we see a lot of Mary Sue's in movies, games and contemporary fiction.
Whether this will invite you to take a second look at the characters you love or not, the important thing is to remember the importance of investing in your own characters and working them out of those too-perfect states of being.
Ok so we get what a Mary Sue is, and sure, we see there are some exceptions to the rule depending on the genre, but how can Mary Sue's keep happening? Especially when writers try to be careful about that?
Well, let's step away from the Mary Sues that kind of sneak their way into their own fan-excused exception (again, like Jon Snow and Ezio Auditore) for a moment. If you're like me, by now you're getting a bit tired of these super hero movies. I know, I just said superheroes tend to get an excuse because the Mary Sue-ness is part of the formula. Sure, but bare with me. With all the super hero movies that have been pumped out, I've gotten annoyed with the lack of quality they've sported.
Sure the effects and the costumes are clearly top dollar, but its the lack of investment in the characters themselves (who already require some manner of effort to overlook their Mary Sue-like qualities). A big part of why Mary Sues tend to make it to the box office or the final print really is due to laziness (and marketing but I'm going to glaze past it). With the deadlines the super hero movies have had to deal with, it's understandable that they would invest more time in everything other than the writing. Even though this is the case, however, it shouldn't excuse it as a new standard of character writing.
There are other reasons for Mary Sues appearing in the final cuts of our popular media as well that tend to come from the best intentions. A lot of times a writer will worry so much about a character being sympathetic to the audience, that they invest too much. This is where the "chosen one" tends to come in. Loki from the Thor movies is a perfect example of this. In my opinion at least, Marvel works a little too hard to try to get the audience to pity Loki to the point that I come off resenting the character just because I feel like I'm being strong armed. Truth be told, I honestly feel little sympathy for the character and preferred the character be intentionally less sympathetic as he is often always exploiting others to achieve his goals. What can I say? I'd rather root for a trickster who unapologetically does what they want rather than be forced to feel bad for one that expects a sympathetic reaction when they are stopped by another character.
The other reason for Mary Sues often making that final cut is because of the writer's wishful thinking. As unclean as it makes me feel to name it, think of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series. Bella's supposed to be an unexceptional girl but a cluster of characters of the opposite sex are constantly falling for her. This is a great example of wish fulfillment on Meyer's part. The writer probably never experienced a cluster of the opposite sex fawning over her for just being so she wrote a character who did. (Disclaimer: I don't claim to know anything about Meyer's life but my point remains valid.)
If it hasn't been made clear yet, I'll just say it: Mary Sues are devilishly effective despite the flaws that come with them, especially when Mary Sues gain a fan following. The truth is, we'll never be rid of Mary Sues all together, but what we can at least do is make absolutely sure we do what we can to keep from writing the character that breaks our stories.