Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mary Sue: Analyzing a Hated Character Type

Originally posted on Young Writers' Treehouse

She's probably the most bashed character in the writer-world...but who exactly is she? And is there a place for her anywhere in literature?

Who is Mary Sue?

"Mary Sue" is a term used in the world of fiction to represent a certain type of character. It is most commonly seen as a bad thing, but there are also some characters that fit the description who are seen as well-written. There are many attributes that can make a character a Mary Sue and there are a lot of variants so it's hard to define, but I’ve boiled it down to 4 of the most frequent aspects.

Special

Even if they have humble beginnings or “normal” attributes (and they often do) Mary Sues always have something special about them—more special than anyone else in the story. For example: he is The Chosen One...she is an amazing singer and gets noticed by a talent scout...he has a heart so pure that even though he is an average guy he’s loved by extraordinary girls...she’s a master at archery even though she’s only been doing it a week...he is only 15 but a karate master! Yeah, you get the picture.

These characters are also special physically with their appearance often described in detail with Purple Prose (flowery descriptions). Perhaps he has raven black hair and sparkling green eyes...She’s too humble to know she’s beautiful but little does she know the hot new guy at school thinks she’s the most amazing girl he’s ever seen.

Perfect

The rare time that Mary Sue does have flaws, they are minor or even endearing...such as being shy, clumsy, rebellious to authority, TOO brave and daring, or TOO devoted and loyal. Oh, and anyone in the story who doesn’t think this character is special and wonderful is probably just evil or jealous. Because these characters are so perfect, they go through very little internal transformation: power does not corrupt them, they stay loyal to the quest, etc.

Disadvantaged

One of the reasons Mary Sues are created is because their writers are so desperate to make readers like their protagonists. Thus, they make the character talented, beautiful, kind...and one more thing: disadvantaged, in order to ellicit sympathy. This is why despite the fact that they are special and perfect, Mary Sues will often have tragic backstorys or are mistreated in some way. Common forms of this are bullying, poverty, cruel authority figures, or the loss of one or both parents.

A Version of the Author

Mary Sues are most commonly born when authors create a character that is a combination of who they are and who they wish to be. For example, a typical 15-year-old guy might write about an average village boy who gets a special power that makes him strong and skilled at fighting even though he used to be a wimp...and soon after he meets a beautiful girl who loves him for his heart, not his looks. On the other hand, a typical 25-year-old woman might write about a woman struggling to start her career who gets a big break when a handsome young executive recognizes her remarkable talents and promotes her to being the editor of a big magazine.

Examples: The Good, Bad, and the Ugly

Harry Potter
With both parents dead, his guardians treat him poorly for no reasonable cause. He soon discovers that not only does he have special powers, he is The Boy Who Lived and is looked on with awe by many people. His flaws are few...he breaks the rules but it ultimately is seen as the right choice. I have to roll my eyes at how intensly Mary Sue this character is, but he's beloved around the world and still comes across as reasonably relatable, so I'd call this character a Succsessful Sue.

Bella Swan
She’s just your average high-school girl...who just so happens to get obsessive levels of attention from multiple attractive men. When she becomes a vampire her skills are unusually high. Some have even noted how her physical appearance descriptions closely mirror that of the author, Stephenie Myer. This is one of the most cliche cases of Sue-ness I've come across. I know trashing Twilight is old hat..but really?!

Merlin
He seems to be a typical commoner until we learn than he has special magical abilitites. In fact, even among magicians, he is naturally superior! He is the chosen one and has a SPECIAL fate! I'd say this is a borderline Mary Sue..not too bad, but not too poor either. Plus, there isn't really much of a way to maintain the basic premise of the series without adding at least a bit of Mary Sue-ness to Merlin, so who can blame them?

Cinderella
She has a tragic backstory with both parents gone and now lives under the cruelty of her stepmother. She can talk to birds and mice, has a heart of gold, is essentially without flaws, is extraordinarily beautiful, and she is chosen above every other woman by Prince Charming! Even her feet are special...they fit a shoe no others can fit! She's a classic Mary Sue, but I can't help but love her anyways--another Successful Sue!

Luke Skywalker
The Force is strong with this one! He was born special and accelarates in his Jedi skills at an unusual pace, saving the day many times. He has few flaws and finds he has a special calling. Luke even wins the affections of a pretty girl (nevermind that she turns out to be his sister)! But hey, it's Star Wars. It's the classic Hero's Journey!

Gabriella
Beautiful, sweet, adorably shy, not only great in science but also an amazing singer, and one of the most popular boys falls for her. She's pretty much a dream-girl. Oh, and her biggest challenge? Choosing between going to an elite school or spending more time with her perfect boyfriend. Most of us would be happy if we could have even one of those options! And yes, her boyfriend Troy also qualifies as a fully fleged Mary Sue. A perfect couple, and perfectly facepalm-worthy examples of Sue-ness.

Is Writing a Mary Sue Ever Okay?

I've written some pretty awful Mary Sue characters in the past and this type of protagonist is often the mark of amatuer writing, but can these characters ever be considered good writing? Absolutely! Some books regarded as great literature have Mary Sues at the center of their stories...It seems to me that that difference between a good Mary Sue and a bad one comes down to if they are created as a result of daydreaming and the author's self-insertion into the storyverse or by conscious character design to make an engaging, believable story with an extrordinary yet relatable protagonist. Mary Sues can be inspiring and empowering to readers as role models, especially if the character's morals and willpower are shown to be the true source of their greatness.

Of course, simply making yourself aware of what attributes make up a Mary Sue can help challenge you to either avoid them altogether or be sure that when you do write one you rise above amateurish stereotypes for this type of character. You can do this by not being desperate to make your protagonist "likeable" and being self-aware enough to be sure the character isn't a manifestation of your own insecurities. You can be an important person without having a special skill, you can be loved without being physically attractive, and you can be a good person without being perfect.

So even if your protagonist is the Chosen One, is especially beautiful, or highly talented it can still be a good character as long as you examine yourself and be sure you are making choices for the right reasons and are still keeping your protagonist within the realm of being believable and relatable.


What are some other examples of Mary Sues?
Why do some work and others come off as amateurish?



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6 comments:

  1. Okay, my two favorite "Mary Sues" in this list are Harry Potter and Merlin. Something about the story lines, I guess, and the interactions with the other characters...

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    1. Yeah, I think Harry and Merlin are some examples of how Mary Sues can work...I mean, it's rare that I don't totally *facepalm* when I meet a Mary Sue but they do have their good points!

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  2. Enjoyed the breakdown and the insights (and the subtle dig at 50SoG, with its Mary-Sue-Squared heroine). OTOH, you should spell "amateur" correctly... Oh, the irony!

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    1. Yes, the 50SoG protagonist is shockingly Sue-ish! It's extreme.
      Can't believe I missed that, thanks for pointing it out! ^_^

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  3. I think that the reason Mary Sues like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker work out is that the world and characters around them are rich and interesting. The Star Wars universe has been explored for the last 30+ years, and it's still going strong. No one likes Harry Potter as a character (in fact, he's pretty whiny and annoying at times), but they love his friends and hate his enemies. It winds up balancing out, in a way--the focus is less on developing the main character (at least, beyond the classic Hero's Journey) as it is about exploring the world around him/her.

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    1. That is a very good point to make, Christine. A lot of Sue-ish novels are pretty flat, mostly revolving around one really fleshed out character (the "Sue") and 2-dimensional..we'll call them "backup" characters. But, Harry Potter and Star Wars, as you've said, created an expansive, seemingly endless world that almost allowed the main character to fade into and fit in with his side-characters. That's the balance, indeed, that allows those "Sues" and worlds to be successful (to iterate completely what you've said).

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