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.

Aside

Fandom, Must We Keep Doing This?

Well, we’re having this conversation again. A shirt at a convention set off another round of discussion of acceptance of women and the geek community.

http://www.themarysue.com/greg-rucka-blogs-fake-geek-girl/
http://www.themarysue.com/wondercon-fake-geek-girl-t-shirt-response/

So, according to the creator, it’s okay that there’s a shirt about hating fangirls because there’s also one about hating fanboys.  Which you can’t find anywhere on the internet (the fangirl one is in the creator’s deviantart, but not the fanboy hate one).

My response?  Neither shirt is acceptable.  But the reason that the fangirl shirt is getting so much bad coverage is because there’s a lot of messages circulating right now that tell girls they are not welcome in geek culture.  It’s a very pervasive message, at least it is if the messages are directed at you and it comes both overtly and subtly.  And it’s not funny.

Rucka’s description of his daughter is hard and heartbreaking for me to read, because I’ve been where she is. I was a geeky girl in a very small town. I figured out I liked the fantasy genre before I understood what genre was. Playing house bored me to tears, I wanted to play dragons or talking cats. And it didn’t get better the older I got.

I experienced comparatively little ostracizing from my peers, at least in terms of overt bullying and shunning, but I wasn’t accepted for who I was either. In highschool, most of my friends were boys. Even with them, I never felt like I belonged, more like my presence was tolerated. If any of them had turned to me and said “you aren’t welcome here,” I would have quietly left, heartbroken and despondent. And I was uninvited from a few gatherings, othered and edged out by the boys around me at different times. Because of that, for all that I am geeky as anything, I still don’t feel like I belong in geek culture. It’s nearly impossible to get me interested in a show or a book if there isn’t some sort of fantastic element to it, sci-fi or fantasy. I game. I roleplay. I write and read genre. So why don’t I feel like I belong in geekdom?

Because of shirts like that. Because words like ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ are predominantly masculine words in our minds. Fangirl is one of the few descriptors that is clearly and distinctively female. And then people wear shirts that tell me that they flat out hate me.

I don’t find it very funny.

But okay, for the sake of fairness, let’s talk about the shirts as they were intended. When the T-shirt creator says Fangirl and Fanboy, he’s talking about the kinds of fans who talk your ear off for hours on the same subject even if you haven’t expressed any interest in continuing the conversation.  Fans who write elaborate and poorly written stories all set to showcase how fantastic their original character is.  Or who draw bad and explicit porn and then really want to share it with you.  Who will argue a point into the ground even when they don’t actually have all of the pertinent information.  Who don’t have the social graces to know when to stop staring.  Or talking.  Or start bathing.

Overexcited, over sharing, obsessive, and no brakes whatsoever.  Do you know who that describes?  Teenagers.  Basically every teenager ever, on some level. And telling teenagers that they are bad people and you hate them is telling someone you hate them because of things they can’t control.  Yes, someday they’ll stop being teenagers, but it’s not like they can rush the process. Growing up takes as long as it has to, no stops. And being a teen is hard enough as it is without adding extra hate, especially when you’re talking to geeky teenagers who are getting it from their peers.

Sometimes you run into adults who express this behavior and it’s harder to tolerate in an adult.  The thing is, there’s probably a reason the adult is like that.  They may have Aspergers or something similar. They may just be a nerd who spent their entire life alone and is therefore poorly socialized.  If that’s the case, they may literally be unable to tell when you’re actually interested in their debate and when you’re thinking of stabbing yourself in the ear to make it stop.  Body language can be hard to read.  It’s not their fault and the fact is, nobody wants to be That Annoying Fan.  But they may not know they’re doing it.

Which doesn’t mean we just let bad behavior stand under the umbrella of ‘they can’t help it.’  Geekdom is a community and we should be working to teach members of our community when their behaviors are inappropriate.  If somebody tries to derail a convention panel with a thirty minute diatribe of why Goku could totally take Superman or why Inuyasha and Sesshomaru are meant for each other, someone needs to stop them and inform them that now is not the time.  If you’re friends with someone who doesn’t seem to know where the boundaries are between normal fan behavior, try to have a talk with them about it.

People can be taught. With time and patience, teenagers will out grow their over abundant energy and scary obsessions.  And, let’s also be clear.  We’re all nerds here and we’re all fans of something. Sometimes we get overexcited no matter our age and talk more than we should and put our foot in it.  It’s embarrassing when we realize we’ve done it, but it happens.  Geeks of any age are not masters of social matters.

But another behavior that needs to stop is the hate and ostracizing of other fans. Are we not a community? Are we not better than the same bullies who made us feel so small and pathetic?