On Mary Sue

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Mary Sue is every young writer’s worst fear. Writing advice from all corners hounds and hounds on and on about avoiding Mary Sue. They list categories and traits, they say it’s the worst kind of writing. The demon in the dark as it were. The female Mary Sue is mocked more often than her counterpart Marty Stu, but only because she stands out more. The advice tends to be that Mary is all together terrible and you should avoid any semblance of it, even though many of the traits one might ascribe to a Sue are not actually an issue in and of themselves.

What is Mary Sue?

She’s an outline. A cardboard cutout. A first stab.

The trouble with Mary Sues is that most characters actually begin their lives as one. Conceptually, many characters in a blanket swath will fit the bill. They sometimes come into our imaginations as these phenomenal and powerful individuals adored by the people around them. We really love them and because we love them, we begin to fret. We worry. We fear that maybe we’re doing something wrong. We run these characters through every internet test and (gasp) we turn out a positive. Sometimes a very high positive, but that doesn’t mean the character is automatically bad. There’s nothing wrong with your character being special.

Many of the complaints you’ll find about Sues around the internet are actually symptomatic. They don’t address the real issue at a Sue’s heart. You can have incredibly powerful characters with incredible eyes and hair colored in a way that doesn’t appear in nature, who are deeply kind, or nearly invincible without them being a Sue. Superman and Batman, for example, are both rather classic examples of characters who could (and sometimes do) count as Marty Stus. Yet, they manage to escape the trap, remaining both as compelling characters and cultural mainstays. Idolized rather than despised. Part of this is genre and expectation, but another real aspect is the realization that the traits aren’t what matter. The application is.

The trouble with actually identifying a Sue in your own writing comes with the understanding that every Sue is individual to their writer. Usually, Mary Sue is a character that we love and adore. She fulfills our deepest fantasies and desires. She exists without us having to worry about reality. She can do what we would do and say what we would say. This is why Mary Sue is not anything to be ashamed of. She is the purest of pure fantasy. She is want and desire, everything that we wish we could have been. It is fantasy without the intrusion of any reality, not even that beholden to the worlds they exist in.

Again, this is why Sues are not inherently bad. Let your imagination run free during the character creation process, no matter how weird, out there, or overpowered it might seem.

A Sue becomes a Sue by presentation and context. They face no true challenges. They do not struggle. Everyone wants them, everyone wants to be them. They are often supposedly kind, compassionate, and wonderful. Though these traits tend to be informed, rather than actually seen. The characters of the world that they exist in do not react to them in any kind of realistic fashion. They take actions that would be generally forbidden by their setting and receive no repercussions for any reason other than being either a protagonist or the protagonist. Often, they so flagrantly defy their own setting rules that they undermine the drama presented.

However, the real crux of what makes a Sue a Sue is how other characters react to them and how the narrative frames them. Other characters are not given a voice, they no longer act for themselves. Their entire existence becomes dependent on the wants, dreams, needs, and desires of the Sue, even when it makes no sense given the context the narrative has previously set up. More than that, the narrative often smooths their path for them. They are the best even when they screw up or do something that would get another person killed with no explanation other than “ProtagonistTM”.

What makes Mary Sue bad writing is actually the over focus on a single character. It’s not that she’s in defiance of some iron clad writing rules, which she isn’t, or breaking with gender norms (which… she usually isn’t either). It’s that everything else in the story must bend into a singular, selfish focus. Instead of building the characters around her up, Mary Sue makes her compatriots less and thus diminishes the story by extension. No one is more of a badass, regardless of whatever training they have or how the narrative presents them. No one else is cleverer or more skilled, unless it’s specifically pointed out that it is okay for X reason. No one else is capable of performing their own actions or living their own lives or pursuing their own goals unless the narrative authorizes them to do so. Anyone who breaks with the Sues opinions or disagrees with the Sue is evil, or soon will be down the line. They are painted as antagonists hurting her goal, even when their suggestions are reasonable.

There are no shades of gray, the world of the Sue is black and white.

As a result, the characters in question end up as puppets. They dance on the strings in accordance to where the plot points them. Their side narratives are rarely fulfilling and they rarely receive full character arcs. It’s often easy to feel the overhand of the author shuffling the pieces around to drive the plot forward, like the Wizard of Oz with neither the curtain nor the Oz.

This is why Sues are more obvious in fanfiction because the reader is already familiar with the pre-established world and they don’t feel like they belong. They are just as prevalent in regular fiction, but harder to spot due to having no prior experience with the setting.

Having one in your own work isn’t some shameful mark and fixing it is fairly easy, you just need to start thinking from the perspectives of other characters in the story. Begin humanizing them, begin having them react the way they’d react to any other character, and your Sue problem will go away in fairly short order.

No need to throw what could be the beginnings of an awesome character in the trash bin. It’s not unfixable, if you want to correct it. Besides that, there’s nothing wrong with a character being special.

-Michi

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