I Shall Stop Worrying About My Character Being a Mary Sue, Then

You know, I’ve been worrying that my quite talented main character is a Mary Sue. I mean, Mary Sue bad, right? We don’t want our characters to be Mary Sues. Or Gary Stus, for that matter. But then I read this article, and it occurs to me that I’m going to end up with my main character being called a Mary Sue no matter what I do. It is because she is

  1. Competent
  2. Doing most of the rescuing
  3. Female

I mean, she’s the Big Hero. She has to succeed at some stuff. She has to be good at what she does. And it seems that will be all it takes to get her dismissed as a Mary Sue by many people, because heaven forfend we have a ladyperson doing the outrageously cool things menfolk usually do.

There’s some excellent discussion of that in the article, contrasting Rey against Luke Skywalker (without many spoilers, don’t worry, although content note for some ableisms), which made my brain go bing. “Right. That’s not Mary Sueism, that’s heroism.” And then that thought was distilled by this paragraph:

But in any case, this is a convention of these sorts of movies. Kingsman also has a protagonist who is useless at the start of the movie and is an invincible badass by the end of the film. Most superheroes have a freakishly steep learning curve, even if they don’t have any powers. (Especially if they don’t have any powers.) If you are worried about realism, go watch My Dinner With Andre.

Indeed. When you have larger-than-life heroes, they rather require larger-than-life abilities. Therefore. I shall quit worrying now. My female lead is a fucking badass. I have other female leads in various works, and they are also fucking badasses. I will not be apologizing for that. Count this as a warning to those who may be tempted to cry “Mary Sue!” every time one of my magnificent women does something neat: I will be coming for your male heroes if you do that. I guarantee your faves are probably just Mary Sues with a peen.

So are mine, for that matter. I mean, the goddamned Batman, okay?

In other fiction musings, I’ve been re-reading quite a bit of my old stuff over the past few days, re-engaging with those worlds, and discovered the break has done me good. Distance helps me see things I wouldn’t have otherwise, like a distressing bit of inadvertent racism that will be easy to correct now I’m aware of it. And I’ve discovered I can kill some Darlings I’d been clinging to, convinced the story would perish without them. This may make the central novel a workable story rather than the gargantuan morass it was before. I’m very pleased about that. Busy tearing it apart and rebuilding it as we speak. Alas, that novel comes quite late in the series, but it’s the pivotal one, so returning to restructure it occasionally is important.

I’m going to go back to it now. Can’t stay away. This is my Christmas gift to myself: permission to spend time inside my story worlds, with only a few forays into the non-fiction world. One of which is coming up Wednesday or Thursday. Wait until you see what I found for Rosetta Stones for Christmas!

And so I leave you with a photo of my furry little muse, who, despite her occasional homicidal manias, is quite a bit gentler than my fiction Muse, an unforgiving dominatrix who is going to have her crop out any moment if I don’t get back to writing.

Image shows my notebook with my fingers holding a corner of it in the foreground. Misha is in focus just beyond it, lying beside me while I write.
Moi with notebook and furry muse.
I Shall Stop Worrying About My Character Being a Mary Sue, Then

24 thoughts on “I Shall Stop Worrying About My Character Being a Mary Sue, Then

  1. rq

    Not a muse – more like a meowse! :D Who happens to not be a-mused at the moment. Hooray for the benefits of a break, I hope the general reorganization goes well and without any meaningful snags along the way!

  2. AMM

    I haven’t seen the new Star Bores movie yet (and hadn’t planned to, given who directed it, but the descriptions I’m hearing of Rey have led me to reconsider it), but the claims that Rey is a Mary Sue just — leave me scratching my head.

    Isn’t the point of a Mary Sue that the Mary Sue character is a stand-in for the author? And that the author gerrymanders the plot to insure that the Mary Sue character gets all the fun? Does that mean that Rey is a stand-in for JJ Abrams?

    Yes, she’s a stand-in for the target viewers. But isn’t that true of the hero/heroine of damn near every book or movie ever made?

  3. 3

    For me, Mary Sue has always been about the author trying to prove that their past self was as good as, if not better than, their current self. A good example of a Mary Sue from Star Wars is Anakin Skywalker from Episode 2. He sounds like the teenager who thinks they are right, but us adults know is actually oh so very wrong… But the twist is that he IS right. All the time. Even when he’s being a total a-hole, everyone loves him. The audience, meanwhile, is expected to feel his anguish and feel sorry for him. To feel his love and admire him. Our job is not to find pieces of ourselves in him, but instead to fulfill him and his need to be accepted.

    It’s not enough to be the chosen one. You have to make them the chosen one who also has the admiration of all their followers no matter what they do. Then, they have to do things that, in the real world, would make them friendless and hated… but because they are a stand in for the crappy persona of the author, these things instead get them praise.

    In short, a Mary Sue is written by an author that is probably a terrible person IRL, who thinks all of their problems are because of other people, and use their main character to show everyone how great they really are.

  4. 5

    When you have larger-than-life heroes, they rather require larger-than-life abilities

    I don’t think it matters, if the hero’s origins story makes sense. When you’ve got a guy who’s an adjunct accountant in the lower reaches of the castle, who finds out they have royal blood, and suddenly are able to defeat experienced swordsmen after a few hours’ practice … then it stretches disbelief until it snaps. I don’t think most readers are going to go “uuuugh! a heeeeero!” but I admit I do go “ugggggh, a minor godling!” whenever someone’s powers jump off the curve ridiculously far. In fact the one that bothers me more than every other one I’ve ever seen is a certain guy who finds out his mitichlorians are out of sight and suddenly transforms from nerd larva to galactic badass. It’s just …. stupid.

    When someone talks about larger than life heroes, I immediately think of Cordelia Naismith and Miles Vorkosigan (with a hat tip to the rest of the cast) who are carefully put through their paces by Bujold balancing them on the edge between “swept up by events” and “came through with the right thing at the right moment.” You can actually buy a whole lot of craziness if you understand that great heroes are ordinary people who happen to be in extraordinary instants of time and something amazing happens. The “Mary Sue” is when everything about the character is special. Brilliantly lampooned in “The Trouble With Girls” and “Buckaroo Banzai”: the sushi chef ninja brain surgeon physicist pistol shooting iaijutsu master runway model with the president’s phone number on his speed dial. (cough) Iron Man.

    I always thought that one of the underlying ideas in Dune – that there is a long-term effort to produce a leader with special qualities – is pretty darned cool. I don’t think Paul Atreides is an interesting character, though. Cletus Grahaeme in the Dorsai books, is. Yes, it is possible to raise someone to wield power and to understand that wielding power is an art-form: Louis XIV or Frederick The Great come to mind. I like the idea of a hero that was raised to be a hero and grows with the sense of specialness; that’s why we like the arthurian legends and that’s certainly why we like “The Mists of Avalon.”

    So, yeah, have at it and have a great and interesting character. Just … dance on that line of believability. Avoid the standards: the special weapon, the special pet, the suddenly discovered noble blood.* We’ll be fine.

    (* WTF is it with the noble blood trope? Gah!)

  5. 6

    Oh, one more minor thing: I wish someone would someday write a character whose special ability is logistics.
    One of the things most people don’t realize is that the Germans (during the Franco-Prussian War and WWI) actually had leaders who understood that “one does not improvise the march of a million soldiers.”* Frederick the Great and Louis XIV were actually raised around subordinates who were careful to teach them enough about what they needed to know… When you look at history, you’ll notice that some of the greatest fuckups are the people who acceeded to power without having any practice at wielding it. It’s why we recognize Julius Caesar as such an amazing character, and it was Bonaparte’s fatal flaw.

    (* Von Moltke to Wilhelm)

  6. 7

    As the Gizmodo piece suggests, Mary Sue may simply not be that useful a concept outside of the context of fan fiction. A classic Mary Sue presents several problems:

    1. It uses the established protagonists mainly as mouthpieces to inform the reader how awesome the new character (Mary Sue) is. This is likely to involve one or more writing flaws: telling us of a character’s greatness rather than showing it, using previously well-developed characters as mere props or plot devices, etc.
    2. By shoving the established protagonists to a supporting role, it can be alienating to readers who wanted to read a Star Trek/Harry Potter/whatever story but find themselves reading a Mary Sue story. In particularly egregious cases, it can feel like the work is like some form of therapy or self-affirmation on the writer’s part, which is fine for the writer, but not something most people want to read.
    3. By being totally awesome, Mary Sue doesn’t hold the reader’s interest, because what challenge could be sufficient?
    4. By not possessing any real flaws (only the phony, “what’s-your-greatest-weakness-job-interview-answer” type of “flaws” like “is insecure because she hasn’t realized how awesome she is”), Mary Sue is an uninteresting character.

    The first two don’t apply very well outside of fan fiction. If there’s no established universe, then there are no established characters being pushed aside or used as mouthpieces, and readers/viewers aren’t being misled about what they’re getting, so 1 and 2 don’t really apply. 3 and 4 are still potential problems for original works, but I don’t think we need a special name just to describe an overpowered or uninteresting protagonist.

    As for Rey in The Force Awakens (no spoilers): true, there’s an established universe here, but I think everyone understood from the pre-film publicity that these three films were going to star a new generation of heroes, with the old favorites coming back mostly in supporting or even cameo roles. I don’t think Rey gets more than a begrudging, this-kid’s-not-bad acknowledgment from the old guard, not effusive praise. I’m not even sure she overshadows Finn: they both get to accomplish heroic deeds over the course of the film.

  7. 8

    TheRaptor, I’m just going to say that your definition of Mary Sue is … highly idiosyncratic. “Omnicompetent author standin” is the definition I’ve seen, much as AMM said at #2. The exact purpose the author had in mind is definitely NOT a requirement. And that’s why this sentence is so ridiculous: “a Mary Sue is written by an author that is probably a terrible person IRL, who thinks all of their problems are because of other people, and use their main character to show everyone how great they really are.”

    Every Heinlein novel contains a Mary Sue, although usually it’s a Marty Stu. Every novel that can be classed as “engineer porn” contains an omnicompetent character, and often that character is a Mary Sue. It’s far too great a stretch to say that all those novels and authors fit the narrow definition you have here. Do you think of the concept differently if the author standin is female instead of male?

  8. 9

    Every novel that can be classed as “engineer porn” contains an omnicompetent character, and often that character is a Mary Sue.

    What about Watney in The Martian? I’m OK with all the “I’m a botanist!” and I know that astronauts are incredibly well-trained and knowledgeable people (in general) but I was kind of waiting for him to uncover a plot to overthrow the president, and blink the codes to stop congressman Palpatine’s ninjas by alerting the CIA or something.

  9. 10

    I guess what I’m saying is that “Mary Sue” fantasy is probably more found on the male side of the gender-line; we just accept it as normal because we’re exposed to so much of it. There are a lot of Walter Mittys out there. (And some of them, like “Oh, John Ringo, no!” are horrifyingly transparent)

  10. 11

    That’s a good example of engineer porn, Marcus. I haven’t seen the movie, but from the descriptions I’ve read it sounds like the story lacks the effortless victories that truly mark the Mary Sue story. I could be mistaken.

  11. 13

    That’s the special ability of one of my current characters. The rest are all a bunch of bad-asses. He’s the guy making sure they’ve got the appropriate gear, food, papers, etc… He might be crap in a fight, but they’d be completely lost without him and they know it.

  12. 14

    Don’t know if you’d read the book but Watney was also trained and qualified to be an engineer / mechanic as well as a botanist – each astronaut had to be master of two things at least.

    Also what #11. Numenaster wrote too.

    Note there’s at least a few times – more than that in the book – when Watney does make a dumb mistake or two creating more problems for himself.

  13. rq

    It’s blue, obviously. That changes everything.
    And basically, you’re telling me that I should ignore the completely weird and random instance of a cat falling out of the ceiling at work on a Sunday just when I was working alone in the lab (true fact, actually). Gee, thanks. *sigh* I’ll never get to be the hero!

  14. rq

    I recently read a trilogy of (rather terrible) books about a religious sect that is training an army from boyhood through various sadistic methods. The trio of heros (who escape are (a) the bad-ass hero who may or may not be the Son of God (though probably not, because he’s just a person, but it’s the leaders’ desire to believe that he is that brings everything down in the end), (b) his nemesis-like friend, the uber-sniper and ultra-fighter and (c) the logistics guy, who’s been trained not in fighting skills, but in transporting and delivering weapons, food, and other supplies to various sixes of army under various conditions. Apparently there’s cadres and cadres of such people, so these characters do appear in books. Perhaps they need even bigger roles, though (because he didn’t do a heckuvalot of logisticking in the books, just on occasion when he needed to).
    The books were pretty shite, though. I liked the ending.

  15. 17

    It does amuse me that the latest “mary sue” accusations come from (amongst other people) Max Landis. The same Max Landis who wrote American Ultra, where the main character is a stoner burnout who is secretly a super-solder who is brilliant at everything and whose CIA handler falls in love with him.

  16. 18

    I’ve been thinking about this whole “Mary Sue” thing because … I dunno. Something was nagging at me. And it finally clicked: Luke Skywalker is the Luke Sue. I mean, c’mon!!! The whole start of the Star Wars arc was clearly Lucas’ fantasy-fulfullment walter mitty in space with a lightsaber and his very own spaceship, sidekick and evil nemesis. What blows my mind is whenever anyone points out what a bowl of kitsch-flavored crunch Star Wars is, some moron smiles and says “that’s what’s so WONDERFUL about it!” Uh. That doesn’t make a bad movie magically good.

  17. 19

    Numenaster. Nope, was just sticking to Star Wars, since that’s where this all started. Not a lot of women characters to pick from in there… So not sure why me grabbing a fairly obvious example had anything to do with men vs women authors.

    Either way, that’s why I said, that for me, the Mary Sue goes beyond just being the chosen one or even straight up wish fulfillment fantasy. And that, for me, I normally find the strongest examples to be of characters who you wouldn’t want to be friends with, but that all other characters insist on being friends with. I do agree, it’s a narrow view of it, and certainly all characters/authors don’t fit into that, but it helps me out when considering character actions. If a character is a jerk, then they should get some scorn for it.. and not praise.

    It’s a trope after all. Tropes have a place in literature, both good and bad, including the Mary Sue.

  18. 21

    The Raptor (#14)

    And that, for me, I normally find the strongest examples to be of characters who you wouldn’t want to be friends with, but that all other characters insist on being friends with.

    Now I’m imagining a character who is unpleasant on purpose because she would really rather people left her alone, but she’s cursed with outward Sue-ness and no matter how awful she is, people think she’s amazing.

    Also, an important part of Sue-ness is not just that people want to be friends, but that, as part of his or her specialness, the Sue attracts all the potential love interests. And this is one area where I think people are way more forgiving of male Sues than female Sues, because it’s an accepted (or even required) part of any male power fantasy to have women throwing themselves at the guy. (It’s always so heteronormative.) But women who attract all the guys are usually wicked temptresses, so the female Sue usually has to set herself apart by a) doing nothing deliberate to cause this attraction, and b) denigrating women who do deliberately look attractive as slutty whores.

  19. 22

    A. Nord. Omg, that would be a GREAT take on the Mary Sue. I’d read that.

    Oh yes, totally, all the love interests. I’ve seen both way too many times to count.

    For the record, I do not think Rey is a Mary Sue, at all. She progresses through the story, learning, in ways we never see Luke really do much of (Yoda aside cause that’s later – and heck, Vader gives all the training credit to Obi-Wan! Where was that movie?!) We’ve even got Finn, going through a much stronger hero’s journey of his own than Han ever had… Which, I enjoyed, a lot.

  20. 24

    Congratulations on your fictioneering, Dana Hunter. Might you some day have a female character with a lot of technical expertise? Expertise like what you demonstrate in your geology blogging.

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