“Mary Sue” is a derogatory term for the protagonist of a work of fanfiction. Fan fiction, for those who don’t know, is a story about characters from a work of published fiction, TV, movies or comics. written by a fan rather than the people who produce that work. Any fan who has ever written down a new adventure for the crew of the Starship Enterprise has written fanfiction. It has no standards for publishing or quality, it just has to be written down by a fan of the work in question.
Generally a Mary Sue is a character of either gender (but typically female, probably because fan fiction authors tend towards the female – sometimes male characters are referred to as Gary Stu) who represents the author in a fanfiction. The label has grown in many ways generally it refers to any character who gets to live out a fantasy without effort, risk or negative consequences, as this tends to be the way fanfiction authors write themselves into stories. Early critiques of the Mary Sue archetype refer to the character as “perfect” within their own narrative but that’s not a meaningful qualifier, as it’s quite subjective when applied to characters in a story.
There’s a certain amount of jealousy inherent in the “perfect” critique, the kind of jealousy that you typically find when people see a singer on American Idol and figure they made it to the finals because she’s pretty or he’s handsome. It ignores the hard work and effort the person has put in to reach the place they’re in and yes, maybe there were some elements in there that weren’t “fair” like being born with a certain amount of natural talent or good looks but there has to have been more to it than that. But when we’re talking about characters it gets a little more complex.
I think Mary Sues provoke a strong reaction from people because they tickle that same jealousy vibe in our mind. But, at the same time, we want to see characters in fiction who are extraordinary. Otherwise they wouldn’t be anymore entertaining than our own circle of friends and we’d just spend our time with real people rather than these shadows and phantasms. So a good writer gives us characters who are more perfect than us but also gives those characters situations far beyond anything we could realistically tackle, situations that push those characters to the very utmost limits of their abilities.
I’ve said time and again in this space that the point of a writer is to provoke emotions from their audience. Mary Sues provoke contempt because they seem to achieve things safely and effortlessly when we know that, in real life, things are typically achieved through effort and peril. A competent writer avoids this by creating in us a certain admiration for the character as they overcome adversity, allowing us to experience the rush of empowerment while the character overcomes challenges that only a person of their skill could possibly accomplish. A poor writer doesn’t show this adversity, or shows it poorly, and earns our contempt as a person who wrote a Mary Sue.
When people complain about Mary Sues I think they frequently mean characters who get to live out a fantasy without facing any difficulties. Without risk, effort or consequences the character comes off as flat, dull and uninteresting.
Let’s examine a character who is a Mary Sue by the traditional definition – which is to say, he’s pretty much perfect. The character John Wick, from the movie of the same name, is considered the perfect hit man. From the very beginning we see people in the Russian mob who know what he’s capable of deferring to him. When he finally snaps and destroys a team sent to kill him with little trouble we start to realize just how deadly he is. For the whole rest of the movie the Russian boss is terrified of this force of nature who is coming for him and anyone who can get out of John’s way does.
However John Wick still has his problems. His wife was ill and died at the beginning of the film. He’s injured during a botched attempt to kill the son of the mob boss and takes refuge in a hotel for assassins where, in theory, no business is conducted. But there’s enough money on John’s head to persuade someone to break the rules and try to kill him in the hotel. John survives because an old friend helps but suffers more injuries in the process. His next move against the mob results in his being captured and, again, he escapes only with help.
Finally he offs the boss’s son but his friend is discovered and killed in retaliation. John finally finds the boss and wipes out his bodyguards in one last confrontation that ends with a brutal grapple between John and his nemesis that John barely wins. He staggers away in the rain, barely able to remain upright.
While John could easily be classified as a Mary Sue by the traditional definition, given his hyper competent fighting prowess and obvious wealth on display through the film, most people don’t consider him one because the amount of difficulty he endures throughout the film makes us feel admiration for his endurance, determination and single mindedness.
Unless, of course, you deplore violent movies in general and that ruins the experience for you. Because that movie… pretty violent.
But to the point – the fact that no one seriously considers John Wick a Mary Sue is one of the reasons I tend to use my own definition of the term. Because John does show us the power fantasy of being able to take revenge on the powerful, wealthy and downright criminal creeps who feel free to occasionally make our life miserable. But the price he pays for it is horrendous, the kind of price only a fictional character could pay. The risk of his own life was made apparent during every fight, the effort comes with every grunt of exertion and every moment of pain, the consequences made clear more and more people turn against John.
Now to the final point of this post. By this point I hope you’ve all seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens because we’re going to talk about it a bit in a spoilery way. And by “it” I mean Rey.
There’s been a lot of talk on the internet about how Rey may or may not be a Mary Sue. By the traditional definition she’s not – straight up. She flat out runs from the lightsaber – and by proxy the Force – when it’s first offered to her and she makes a number of fairly minor mistakes along the way, enough that no one would consider her perfect.
But given the reasons I think people react badly to Mary Sues I think I know why people see her as one.
Rey clearly represents three fantasies fulfilled. First, the fantasy of finding a place of belonging after being an outcast. She finds a home for herself by leaving Jakku and joining BB-8, Finn, Han, Chewie, Leia and the rest of the resistance. She risks leaving Jakku and possibly never meeting those who left her there again. While facing the reality that no one’s coming back for her isn’t necessarily a huge risk it undoubtedly cost a lot of effort – enough that I’m willing to let the ease with which the rest of the cast accepts her slide. Han did want to ditch her at first and Finn kind of needed her there for a couple of obvious reasons. The movie wasn’t focused on intense character developments so lack of further effort to live out this first, very character driven fantasy is fine. That the responsibility of finding Luke and bringing him back into the fold falls to Rey also makes it clear her living out this fantasy is going to have consequences for her in the future. While responsibility isn’t always a negative consequence it frequently can cause problems and is definitely a consequence.
The second fantasy Rey lives out is the fantasy of being very good at a number of mundane tasks like flying, fixing and fighting. The risks there are pretty obvious, every time she does these things she’s taking her life in her own hands. The biggest example of this when she take the Millenium Falcon into the air the first time. There’s a lot of good piloting in there but a fair bit of bad piloting as well. She could very easily kill herself and Finn doing this but she manages not to and I’m willing to give her this one on sheer audacity. The effort in this is set up in the opening montage as we see Rei’s life on Jakku – it’s clearly hard and difficult and will have equipped her to do all of the things we see her do in order to survive – except maybe pilot a starship but again. A pass for the audacity. I like that kind of thing, in moderation. There aren’t that many consequences for this but only because the consequences you’d expect from this kind of hypercompetency are overshadowed by the next bit.
The third fantasy Rey lives out is the fantasy of power beyond the lot of mortals.
Or, y’know, she can use the Force if you want it to sound mundane.
Point is, Rey has supernatural powers. She doesn’t start with them, not in any noticeable way, in fact the movie spends a little time hinting the powers might actually belong to Finn, not her, so these are new things to her character. She uses the Force in four cases. They are:
When she repels Kylo’s mental attack and counter reads him. Rey doesn’t run any risks here, failure doesn’t leave her any worse off and success is all up side, but it clearly costs her something and it has the consequence of making him angry and her drawing the attention of the big bad as a potential resource – just like any skilled person would be, only more so. Not a particularly Mary Sue event.
When she forces a guard to let her out of her restraints and leave his weapon behind. Again, failure doesn’t leave her worse off – well, maybe strapped down a little tighter – and success is pure profit. She does have to work at it, Rey tries three times before succeeding. While Kylo gets angry again and puts the guards on Rey this is still pure profit over where she was with no noticeable consequences. But this kind of surprising move twice in a row starts to raise eyebrows, especially because we know this isn’t the kind of thing a person can pull of without a lot of training.
When she uses telekinesis to rip the lightsaber from Kylo. A third time, this is a situation with no risk. She wouldn’t be any more weaponless if she hadn’t tried this. Worse, it’s apparently effortless as she overwhelms Kylo without a struggle and again this doesn’t bring her any negative consequences. Pure Mary Sue.
When she channels the Force during her lightsaber duel and defeats Kylo Ren. You’re probably tired of hearing this but her situation literally can’t get any worse when Rey tries using Force combat so she wasn’t really risking anything. Worse, as soon as Rey opens her eyes she’s in an unstoppable battle trance and proceeds to demolish Kylo. She even avoids negative consequences like guilt over killing him when the earth splits in two and conveniently separates them. That last bit is really bothersome.
In short, Rey’s Force abilities mostly got her out of sticky situations in a rather convenient fashion without much rebounding on her. Seems to fit the bill, doesn’t it?
So Rey is a little bit of a Mary Sue, or at least the way she’s written could easily provoke the same kind of reaction from people. There was definitely some poor writing at work in there. But saying that Rey had a touch of the Mary Sue identifies the symptom – what was the problem? Why did Mary Sueisms work their way into Rey’s character arc and what steps can be taken to shore up the weak writing in the future? Or at least in stories we write where characters explore similar themes?
Well, I think that’s a post for next week. Hope you’ll join me then!