Writing Rules and Fantasy: Mary Sues
This is the last in a series of articles about common writing rules and how they apply to fantasy writing. Earlier articles in the series:
The dreaded Mary Sue! Is there anything that will draw such derision and mockery towards your story as committing the ‘crime’ of Mary-Sueing? But how can one name conjure up this amount of scorn, and what exactly does it mean to be a Mary Sue anyway?
So what is a Mary Sue?
Mary Sue (male characters are sometimes referred to as Marty Stu) is the term given to a certain type of character in a story, usually one who annoys the reader considerably, seems too good to be true, and who dominates the story. Exactly what makes someone a Mary Sue, however, is pretty vague and disputed.
The term arose out of Star-Trek fan-fiction, from a story that used a woman called Mary Sue to mock the fan-fic phenomenon of including author-insert characters. In fan-fic these kinds of characters are pure, incredible, possess a variety of skills or great insight, and are beloved by all the other characters. They will usually turn out to be extremely special in some way, and often become romantically involved with one of the canon characters. The term moved beyond fan-fiction to refer to any character in a story who fits this type. The site TV Tropes has a long section on Mary Sues that explains more about the term and its origin.
Mary Sues, then, are strongly connected to wish fulfilment. These are the characters that make you sigh, that when things happen to them you tend to think: ‘well yes, wouldn’t it just?!’
The Mary Sue ‘problem’ (see below for discussion of whether this is actually a problem or not), is particularly prevalent in fantasy. This is because fantasy contains a high number of very powerful characters, as well as a lot of wish-fulfilment, and so certain character types have become tired through overuse.
Although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of these types, and the point at which they become annoying is highly subjective, these are the characters that a writer may want to take extra care with:
Chosen One: The Prophesied Hero or Heroine
The only one who can save the land. This character is Special with a capital S, usually marked out at birth. This idea pops up mainly in quest-fantasy, perhaps influenced by tales of King Arthur. Stories about chosen ones can still be fun and successful, of course, but there is also something appealing about a normal person bravely facing danger in order to do what they believe is right.
The Baddassest Baddass in Town
This character is just too cool, too awesome…and everyone knows it. Typical Badass traits include not caring what others think, defying authority, sharp shooting skills, a tendency to be rude to friends as well as strangers, and a gravelly or husky voice. Oh, and a hood. These guys love their hoods. If you write one of these characters and give them too many typical Badass traits, then it may come across as trying too hard. This is the type of character most likely to be met with an eye-roll.
Elite Level 20 to the Hundredth Power
This character just doesn’t lose. Ever. The reader is never worried for them, and if the writer isn’t careful, they can quickly become boring. Most typically found in epic fantasy, superhero books, and stories featuring magic users, swashbucklers, and assassins.
Just when you thought this character could not get any more awesome…BOOM! From the mists of legend they pull out the super move, the power beyond all other powers. Be really careful with this one. In almost all cases it will feel like a cheap way to get out of the hole you dug yourself into, a deus-ex-machina move that will have readers throwing your book at the wall in disgust. And it raises questions that you’d better know the answer to. Why does this person have this power? How come they can do it when no-one else can? Why didn’t they use it earlier?! This character pops up a lot in superhero stories, though this is also the sub-genre in which you are more likely to get away with it.
This is the character who seems to be special and is treated as such, often without much evidence as to why. This is the character who can get away with what others can’t, gets opportunities others don’t, and is loved no matter what they say or do. They are different from the chosen one because their specialness is not a plot point. They might be pampered and protected, or they might face plenty of danger, but either way it is clear that this is the special character that we are all supposed to adore. This is probably the most subjective out of all the categories listed.
Too Good For This Cruel, Cruel World
A variation of Speshul Snowflake. These characters are presented as being so pure or good that they are a shining beacon in a tarnished world. All other characters are flawed in comparison, and this one special person will often be all that keeps the protagonist’s hope alive. They are very rarely, if ever, the hero themselves. This character’s death may be responsible for the protagonist or villain’s final flip out. This is most common in gritty fantasy, and it should be noted that the reader very rarely actually likes the character involved (and is often secretly glad when they kick the bucket). Not quite the desired effect.
And This is Bad Because…?
Wait a minute. In many cases Mary Sue actually seems to mean: ‘kick-ass and special’. Why’s that a bad thing?
Well, it isn’t. Not necessarily.
And here is one of the biggest problems with the Mary Sue criticism. It’s too subjective. Your Mary Sue is my awesome hero. My Mary Sue is your sympathetic heroine. Your Mary Sue is my empowered female character. And it’s that last point that is particularly important because Mary Sue is a gendered insult. Most characters accused of being Mary Sues are female. The term for it is a woman’s name. Some people even claim that men cannot be Mary Sues (or Marty Stus or whatever) at all. Think about that. Female characters are annoying for being ‘too awesome’, but it’s just impossible for a man to be too awesome.
For a very interesting and more in-depth discussion of this point, read this article on adventures of comic book girl’s tumblr.
Other characters who tend to be easily labelled as Mary Sues are people from various minority backgrounds or socially disadvantaged groups. In other words, the term Mary Sue is in danger of becoming a way of saying: ‘I do not believe this person could or should possess such power’.
Or even simply: ‘I don’t like this character’. Because everyone seems to get accused of being a Mary Sue at one point or another. Too powerful – Mary Sue! Not powerful enough – Mary Sue! Too confident and independent – Mary Sue! Too shy and needy – Mary Sue! It’s one of the most illogical criticisms out there.
So What Can I Do?
Rather than getting bogged down with exactly what a Mary Sue is, perhaps it would be better to think in terms of good and bad characterisation. Is your character realistic? Do they act in a way that makes sense? Do they have any weaknesses? Are they dominating the story too much?
We can also think in terms of conflict. Does everything come too easily for this character? Does everyone like them? Do they have any real problems?
If a problem seems to be emerging after answering those questions, then regardless of whether the character is a Mary Sue or not, they may be letting your story down. In other words, although the term ‘Mary Sue’ is unhelpful, asking why such characters tend to be seen as annoying is actually very helpful:
- A character needs to be more than just wish-fulfilment if you want them to be an interesting person. They need to make mistakes sometimes, and to face real problems.
- If this character breezes through the story without conflict, then readers are likely to become bored.
- A character who is too powerful may be unrealistic. It can be unbelievable that they would not have solved their problems earlier.
- Readers may find it hard to relate to a character who is extremely powerful.
- When characters are too skilled and amazing, the story could lack tension and suspense.
- Readers do not like the feeling that the author is telling them who to like. It is better to actually write your protagonist as likeable and let the reader see this for themselves, rather than have every other character constantly assert what a wonderful person they are.
But, if you are ultimately happy with your character’s skill, power and importance, if you feel that they are confident, empowered and acting realistically, then don’t let the ‘Mary Sue’ issue stop either of you!
Title image by Thorsten-Denk.