The Contradictory Nature of Mary-Sue

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.

The Action-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?

The Drama-Sue

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.

The Oscillating-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.

The Ubiquitous Quality of Mary-Sue

Everybody on the internet knows the term Mary-Sue.

The problem is that what the term means to individuals varies wildly.   Taken from this this very awesome post from Zoe-Trope on the subject of Mary-Sue, here’s a list of some things that seem to trigger reviewers dubbing characters a Mary-Sue:

1) A female character who is too perfect
2) A female character who kicks too much butt
3) A female character who gets her way too easily
4) A female character who is too powerful
5) A female character who has too many flaws
6) A female character who has the wrong flaws
7) A female character who has no flaws
8) A female character who is annoying or obnoxious
9) A female character who is one dimensional or badly written
10) A female character who is too passive or boring

…Yeah, it’s a pretty diverse list.  And it obviously contradicts itself in multiple places.  So what’s true?  Who is Mary-Sue?

Going back to its earliest origins, Mary-Sue is a fan character, often a self insert or close to a self insert, having a number of traits the fic author wishes they had. Mary-Sue was coined in the Star Trek fandom back when Spock and Kirk were the biggest ship around, which makes it pretty impressive that it’s stuck around so long.

But it did so with good reason.  Because Mary-Sue is ubiquitous.  Everyone’s run into her and most of us have written her.  And if we didn’t write her, we still had a version of her in the back of our heads when we were gawky, awkward teens, saying what we wanted to say and making friends with all the right people and being everything we couldn’t be.  Because ultimately, that’s who Mary-Sue is.  She’s a teenage ideal, the emblem of everything we wanted.  Or thought we wanted.

Because the fact is?  Teenagers don’t know shit about what they want.  They’re still learning who they are and striving to figure out who they will become.  And it’s an age where they’re inundated with messages about who that should be.  Teachers, parents, media, other kids, they’re all pushing teenage you to become something.  And maybe that’s something you want to be or something you think you want to be.  But through the process of being a teenager and growing up, you learn if that is someone you can possibly become, let alone someone you actually want to be.

And when you get closer to figuring out what you actually want and being who you are, looking back at that teenage ideal, that Mary-Sue in the back of your head, it’s so embarrassing.  It’s like looking at old photos, the ones where you had the braces and the bad hair cut that was so in vogue at the time and the overly tight leggings you definitely can’t wear now and probably shouldn’t have been wearing then, but now you’re a little jealous because wow your thighs will never be that tiny again and how can you be jealous of this gawky, awkward shameful person that you were?

All of those feelings get wrapped up around Mary-Sue, which is why it’s no wonder that, outside of the person who made her, she is universally reviled.  Not only is her presence in a story invasive, destroying good plot and characterizations in favor of how awesome she is, she reminds us of our own fumbling youth, the best and the worst of us.

And that’s why she’s not only stayed, but fulfilled her destiny and invaded everything.  She’s not just in fanfic anymore, she’s in common parlance.  She’s a descriptor and a label that gets slammed on all kinds of female characters, used the same way we might call someone we don’t like a slut or a bitch.  And this isn’t fair and it flat out isn’t useful.  It’s not fair to the teenager we used to be, turning the thing we thought we wanted to be into a dirty swear, as if our teenage self didn’t have enough problems. It isn’t fair to any number of perfectly valid and interesting female characters, who get dismissed and tossed aside under the label.  And it isn’t useful because if everything is Mary-Sue, the term loses all meaning and relevance.

As is pointed out by Zoe-Trope, the only uniting factor of the list is that Mary-Sue applies to FEMALE characters.  There is a male equivalent to Mary-Sue, which is Gary-Stu.  And you hardly ever run into it on the internet.  Why?  Because women are more prone to writing Mary-Sues than guys?

No.  Men are just as prone as women to scribing their teenage fantasies on the world, in RP and fanfic and as over powered, over perfect protagonists in fiction.  But it’s Mary-Sue who gets the bad wrap  because, as a society, we are more critical of women than we are of men.  If a woman does not fit the narrow scope of what the viewer thinks she should be, the blame is placed not on the viewer for having a narrow view, but on the woman for not jamming herself into that tiny crevice of an ideal.  Whereas for men, the window is already considerably larger, and if a guy doesn’t fit, it’s cool, he’s just breaking the mold.

And so Gary-Stu fades into obscurity and Mary-Sue becomes a slur slapped on every woman who dares appear in fiction.  It’s time to stop this.  Readers, please think twice before slapping the title of Mary-Sue on a character. And as for me, next week I’ll continue to discuss Mary-Sue, defining and narrowing what exactly we mean by this term, so it can still be useful without being a pointless slur.