So, I said I’d blog more about Mary-Sues and I meant it. Here we are.
One of the big difficulties in defining Mary-Sue comes from the contradictory nature of what we expect out of her. Looking at the list of traits ascribed to Mary-Sue, we see a lot of contradictions on. Here’s a couple that I want to talk about:
10) A female character who is too passive or boring
4) A female character who is too powerful
So why the obvious contradiction? Neither of these can exist together, one must be false. And yet, both contradicting traits (too active OR too passive) both scream Sue to people. Why?
The reason is because there are actually two major types of Mary-Sue. The Action-Sue and the Drama-Sue.
Action-Sue is the character who is too powerful without any limits or breaks. She’s the one who kicks too much ass. She’s the girl who single-handedly saves the day without even breaking a sweat or mussing her hair.
Also, I’m using feminine pronouns, but the fact is, there are a LOT of Action-Sues who are male that never get called out as Sues. Even though they are terrible Sues. Ignoring the low hanging fruit of every super hero ever, think about the classic fantasy knight. He’s dashing, kind, strong, he saves the kingdom, thwarts the evil wizard, slays the dragon, then comes home and gets the princess AND half the kingdom. If he’s got a flaw, it’s something he nobly overcomes during the story and then he becomes the perfect king. How is this any more or less Sue-ish than if a girl does the same thing?
She’s sweet, she’s kind, she’s a picture of loveliness. And every time you turn a page, something awful is happening to her. And not just like, her toe getting stubbed or a bad hair day or someone calling her mean names. More like her dog died, she’s been disinherited, and she has to marry the same asshole who murdered her dog three pages ago. And that’s just the start of her woes. This the Drama-Sue. Through no fault of her own, horrible things happen to her. Constantly.
Male Drama-Sues are less common, unless you’re reading certain stripes of yaoi and I could spend a whole blog discussing the problems with yaoi but that is not this blog. They still happen, but less so, due to a lot of preconceived notions that we hold about gender. Women are expected to be passive and take awful things as they happen. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be active. If horrible things happen to them, society says ‘man up and do something about it!’ Oh, your evil uncle took the kingdom from you, the rightful heir? Well, if you’re a girl, you’re expected to flee from this tyranny and hide in a miserable cave until bandits sell you into slavery where some handsome prince will see your kind heart in the market and buy you out of bondage but not before a lot of awful, horrible things happen to you. If you’re a boy in this situation, you run and then RAISE AN ARMY AND KICK YOUR UNCLE IN THE POLITICAL NUTS, though maybe after some horrible things happen. Men are expected to be active, so male Drama-Sues are uncommon. Unlike Action-Sues, who generally have far more male examples than female. Just nobody calls them on it, because gender.
“But, wait!” you cry, “You’re not covering all the types of Sues. In fact, I’ve seen characters who are both really strong and full of drama. How can you say Sues are one or the other?”
This because there is a third type of Sue.
She is, in one scene, the strongest, bravest, prettiest of them all. No one can stand against her, every obstacle is defeated with a smile and an inappropriately vast display of power. And in the next moment, she’s suffering at the hands of cruel fate, unable to do anything. Unable to react. Unable to defend herself. And for no solid reason that the reader can see.
This is the Oscillating-Sue. One moment, she is the hard edged Action-Sue. The next, she’s a helpless Drama-Sue. And she’s always whichever one is most convenient for the story, rather than what actually makes sense. You can bet that her tragic past only causes her problems when it’s convenient, rather than in the middle of battle where her version of PTSD cropping up makes sense.
The Oscillating-Sue is the culprit for why it’s hard for many people to say what is an actual Sue and what’s not. Partially, this is because in modern media, there’s a demand that women characters to be EITHER a drama-sue or an action-sue. Give your bad-ass female character a flaw or actual emotional trauma, and people start screaming sue. Have a regency styled damsel trying to escape a bad marriage who suddenly takes control of her life in a powerful action, clearly she’s a sue. Heaven forbid we see actual balanced female characters who are both strong, in charge of their life, and also have real flaws and issues that they are coping with. Can you hear my eye-roll through the page?
But while this is a pressure that gets put on female characters especially, characters of ANY GENDER can run into issues of Oscillating-Suedom. It’s frustrating, as a reader, to see a character in one scene who is very powerful, too powerful even, and then the next scene, they seem unable to make even the simplest action which would resolve the unabashed hyper drama. Or the reverse, a character who has otherwise done little but wail and sob at the cruelty of fate, only to turn around and do a judo-chop on the villain at a key moment, which they either could have done at any time or is a power they spontaneously sprouted for the sake of drama.
Frankly, that’s a lot of why I don’t like Superman. He smashes through everything without pause (Action-Sue), only to be taken out by Kryptonite right as the bomb drops to one minute (Drama-Sue time), allowing for an over the top dramatic finale, that will ultimately be resolved perfectly in the end. He’s overpowered AND moping that Louis Lane won’t date Clark Kent. The overpowered quality to Superman is bad enough, but then he oscillates into Hyper Drama mode and I’m done.
But there is the crux of the Sue. I know there are many people for whom Superman is the height of storytelling. And that’s okay. Because sometimes, as a reader or a writer, all you really want is the Action-Sue. You want the unreserved ass kicking, the power player who can do everything. It can be empowering to see a character just wail on an enemy and save the day without restrictions.
And on the reverse, sometimes, you’re in the mood for drama and trauma and horrible things happening to fictional characters. Drama and tragedy exist as genres because they both fulfill a human desire to watch a train wreck and walk away with a few tears in your eyes but no actual harm to yourself or actual people. Over the long course of a story, you’ll probably see a little of both and that will be deeply satisfying in its own way.
Ultimately, what’s too much power playing in a character and what’s too much drama are going to depend on the individual and their mood at the time. What is one person’s Sue will be someone else’s really enjoyable tough character or heartfelt drama. It’s highly variable and also changes a lot across genre and subgenre.
And even if you have on your hands, either as writer or reader, a genuine Mary-Sue, that’s okay too. Mary-Sue is wish fulfillment. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with a little wish fulfillment, either as something you produce or consume. Sometimes, you really crave junk food.* Wish fulfillment isn’t inherently bad and you should find your character fun to write and read. But your story will be better if you take the time to round out your character and give them some genuine flaws, strengths, and agency within their own story. There is an entire blog to be had for discussing what makes for a genuine flaw in a character and what agency actually looks like (for those Drama-Sues), so I’ll discuss that at a later time.
And, readers, if you see some work that smacks of wish fulfillment and ramen quality characterization… I’m not saying you have to enjoy it or praise it. But respect that there is probably somebody for whom this is exactly what they want. Comment on specific things you don’t like about the character, the specific things that break your enjoyment of the story. Because so often, characters get labeled as Mary-Sues for specific instances, rather than being taken as a whole character. If a particular scene bothers you, then say so. But don’t trash the entire book or character because of it.
Enjoy what you enjoy. And stop calling out the Sue Mob when you run into something you don’t like. Because I think we’re running out of pitchforks in here.
* Or in my case, ramen. The cheap ten for a dollar kind, that isn’t just empty calories, it may even be negative calories considering the amount of msg and salt and other awful things in it. But sometimes, I really want some ramen and every once in a while, I give in to the desire and I make a bowl. But I certainly couldn’t go back to living on a diet of the stuff, like I might have during undisclosed times in college.