Friday, March 29, 2024

The tired myth of the "Mary Sue"

Today, I'd like to discuss a notion that's been on my mind for a while now: the concept of the "Mary Sue" and why writers need to just let it go. I'd been trying to wait for a good opportunity to appropriately soapbox, but then I figured, there's no better place to soapbox than one's own blog. And yes, I look at the visitor statistics, so I know people are seeing this. Time for another essayrant (new portmanteau I just invented).

As someone who regrettably grew up doing a lot of writing networking over the Internet (I feel like no one should ever spend their youth doing any sort of networking over the Internet), I was quickly exposed to the world of fanfiction, and the world of people who read and discuss fanfiction. Both are equally terrifying in their own ways.

Fanfiction is exactly what it claims to be: original fiction pieces written by fans of a fictional work, purely for fun (or sometimes more for social clout in the fan community). There is no quality control much like independent publishing. I have read some very, very good fanfiction by talented writers that could easily be turned into licensed novels. I have also read some fanfiction that would only make the publishing cut with a lot of editing and much more skill development on the part of the writer.

But you know what? In fanfiction, an amateur labor of love for something you're emotionally invested in, writing skill doesn't actually matter all that much, in my opinion. What I really think is a bigger problem is when other fans read said fanfiction and proceed to critically tear it apart unsolicited--or worse, publicly denounce it and make fun of it. And nowhere have I seen more of this than attacks on what are perceived as "Mary Sues"--or, to put the issue in its real light, character shaming.

The idea of the Mary Sue character emerged, as I understand, in the Star Trek fan community, which was really the first big fandom based on a work of fiction. (I'm amazed that there could even be a global fan community in the pre-Internet days, but that just testifies to the passion and devotion of Trekkies.) Lots of people wrote lots of Star Trek fanfiction, and at some point, someone wrote a story that starred an original fan-created character (colloquially known as an "OC") named Mary Sue. When she circulated this story, it was panned and derided by the fandom because they deemed Mary Sue unrealistically flawless and unnecessarily romantically involved with a major canon character.

And then, unfortunately for this poor writer, her character's name passed into common fanfic parlance as a derogatory term for any character perceived as being too perfect. Other nuances of the "Mary Sue" trope include: too many skills and talents, a tragic character arc, and a seemingly gratuitous love life (such as having a relationship with a canon character, or attracting an unusual number of suitors).

Of course, with the advent of the Internet, this idea caught on like wildfire, and some people seemed to have made it their personal crusade to antagonize Mary Sues, not just in fanfiction but in all fiction. I saw so many people call out Mary Sues on websites and message boards, sharing others' "bad" Mary Sue fanfic (without their permission, I might add) for laughs. There were (not sure if they're around anymore and I don't care to check) even multiple web pages that purported to let you test your character for Mary Sueness, adding up flawlessness points to see whether your character was showing "warning signs" of being a Mary Sue.

Now, before I go any further, I have to preface my counterarguments with the simple fact that if someone takes the time to write and code an elaborate Mary Sue character test, it really says more about them than the writers they're slamming. So my writing an essay questioning the existence of the Mary Sue as a valid label may be somewhat unnecessary. Still, based on my experiences, I believe character shaming is a real issue in the fanfiction community, based on some common misperceptions that deal with being a skilled writer, crafting enjoyable characters, and most importantly, treating your fellow writers with decency and respect. I'll deal with those three in that order.

First off, I believe that when people complain that a character is a Mary Sue, what they are really trying to say is that they think the overall story wasn't well-written. I've never seen a fantastic story by a competent and skilled author, except for one character who was glaringly poorly-executed. Authors don't work that way. If you know what you're doing as a writer and have years of experience, training, and education, people usually don't make well-informed complaints about the quality of your writing.

The kinds of writers I have seen who write "Mary Sue" type characters fall into certain categories. They're often young--very young, sometimes even in junior high. You simply can't expect someone who's just starting out in their writing journey, and who isn't even an adult yet, to suddenly turn out masterfully crafted stories. I've seen people on the autism spectrum write Mary Sues. And I've also noticed that a lot of Mary Sue stories come from people who are mentally ill and come from troubled backgrounds.

I believe the Mary Sue is usually a psychological phenomenon that speaks to a deep unmet need in the writer. They're the type of person who, for whatever reason (adolescence, neurodiversity, mental illness), is craving acceptance, power, love, accomplishment. Frustrated by their real lives, they craft a character who gets everything the writer wants. As that is usually the whole purpose of the story, it's obvious why technical aspects of prose and storytelling take a backseat (or sometimes aren't really in the car at all) to a highly personal and emotion-driven wish-fulfillment narrative that doesn't hold any meaning to an outside audience.

Of course, I'm not saying authors should never write anything that has personal meaning to them. I believe that what a work means to its creator is part of what gives it soul and beauty. But stories that exist purely to be psychological vent sessions, and aren't trying to make any literary contributions to an audience, are going to fall flat with anyone besides the writer.

Basically, really skilled and well-adjusted writers don't write Mary Sues. It's been my experience that if a character in a story is irritatingly flawless, it's just a symptom of the story as a whole not having been well-executed, because good writers can write likeable strong characters.

That brings me to my next point--it is a fallacy to equate character strength and/or minimal flaws with a poorly written character, and I don't think characters should ever be shamed for being strong. Yes, characters with glaring flaws can be interesting and sometimes downright entertaining. We can learn a lot from them as they struggle and triumph over their weaknesses--or in spite of their weaknesses. We identify with characters who aren't perfect, because none of us are perfect.

But that isn't the only way or reason to like a character. I believe strong characters also have their place in fiction. They inspire us as an ideal to strive for. They teach us through their good example as they triumph over adversity. And we identify with all the things they do right, because all of us also have incredible strength and potential despite our human shortcomings.

Yes, characters who obviously have way too much going for them and who always get everything they want aren't usually fulfilling to read about. But neither are miserably pathetic characters with no redeeming traits. (Using the Mary Sue logic, if strong characters = bad characters, everyone's favorite type of character should be the 80-year-old, mentally disabled, disfigured quadriplegic with a disagreeable personality, right?)

In addition, as counterintuitive as it seems, trying too hard to avoid either of these extremes, agonizing over a character to make sure they fall as close as possible to the center of the strength-weakness spectrum, can actually lead a writer to diverge from their original vision for a character and negatively impact that character's development, as well as the overall narrative. Just as no one likes a ridiculously strong character and no one likes a ridiculously weak character, although most people don't consciously realize it, intuitively, no one likes a character with a forced personality.

I personally experienced this problem the first few times I wrote Terra, the human protagonist of my Neopets fanfics. Unfortunately, by the time I started writing the fics in earnest toward the end of college, I was acutely aware of the Mary Sue "problem". I had seen very many Mary Sue human characters in other Neopets fanfic--Neopet owners who were beautiful, wealthy, highly talented, possessed superpowers and/or wings, were the prophesied chosen ones who would save the world, etc. In a lot of these stories, the Neopets themselves were reduced to almost an afterthought, barely-present sidekicks tagging along a demigodly owner who all the interesting things happened to. I found it glaringly obvious that these stories were all about glorifying the owner, and I didn't find them a fulfilling read.

Well, when I first started developing more ideas for my Neopian Times stories (besides the silly, somewhat cringey stuff I submitted in high school), I was absolutely terrified to portray my Neopets having an owner, because even though I was conscious of all the things I didn't like in Mary Sue owners, I was way too worried that any way I wrote an owner, someone would find some reason to label her a Mary Sue. (Honestly, the owner character in my high school stories had such a lack of a personality that I think her being a Mary Sue was a non-issue--she pretty much just sat around drinking slushies. I was not great at character development back then.)

So for the original version of Draik Expectations, I didn't mention an owner at all. It wasn't until Worth Fighting For that I realized I actually had a good backstory for Hyren, and that since it was his adoption story, it would have to involve an owner. I figured I could avoid the Mary Sue trap by making Terra a young teenager, a simple powerless human who liked exploring Neopia and thought swords were cool.

But when the plotline for Worth Searching For started to solidify in my brain, I began to worry again. This story would involve an adult Terra, caught in a serious situation she would have to handle herself, separated from Blynn and Hyren, and with Pharazon being extremely unhelpful and ultimately turning against her. She would also have to tackle the task of rehabilitating a villain--again, on her own. How, I thought, could I portray a character doing these big, important things without making her come across as unrealistically strong?

Well, honestly, in the version that got into the Neopian Times, I didn't. I was so paranoid about writing a Mary Sue that I instead wrote a Terra who started off on the right foot, but when she got to the Werelupe Burrows, she just fell apart and let Isengrim use her as a doormat, interspersed with occasional bouts of passive-aggressiveness. She barely did anything helpful, and the only reason Isengrim (whose character I also did not handle well) decided to change was out of the fear of losing his owner again.

It wasn't long after Worth Searching For ran in the Times that I realized just how dissatisfied I was with Terra's character development. In trying too hard to not make her "too strong", I had made her annoyingly weak, a poor fit for her role in the narrative and Isengrim's character arc, and even inconsistent with a lot of her portrayal in Worth Fighting For and the first few chapters of Worth Searching For. And, just as troubling, I had written a character I personally did not enjoy. She didn't say what I had wanted her character arc to say. I didn't find her fulfilling to write about or read about. I had lost my vision for her, and I wasn't okay with that. 

So I rewrote Worth Fighting For and made some drastic changes to Terra's character. (You can read more about that in older posts on this blog, under the "Neopets" tag.) And, moving forward, I tried to write her more sincerely, including allowing her to be as strong as both she and I wanted her to be. In Shadow Play, I even took the big step of giving her a cool magic sword, which is a huge no-no in all the Mary Sue tests. And you know what? I just don't care anymore, because I'm finally satisfied with who she is.

Plus, in all this ballyhoo about "overly strong characters", somehow it's never brought up that there are quite a few beloved canon characters who display a lot of strengths and not many (if any) flaws. Batman, Superman, Aragorn, many of Hayao Miyazaki's protagonists, Link from the Legend of Zelda series, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Princess Celestia spring to mind. Just being very strong doesn't make a character off-putting--as I discussed in the previous section, it's really got more to do with how skilled the writer is, and the intent behind their work. Good writers know how to make strong characters resonate with their audience just as well as flawed characters.

And in reality, actual human beings run the spectrum from being very flawed to being incredibly strong. If, say, Martin Luther King Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi, or Abraham Lincoln, or Jane Goodall, or Nelson Mandela were fanfiction characters instead of real people, I'm sure the fandom would be hollering "Mary Sue" all over the place. People with a lot of admirable qualities really do exist, and it would be unrealistic to write like they don't.

Finally, I would argue that strong characters, when implemented well, actually contribute to the overall balance of a cast. Just like in real life, in any group of people you are going to have those with a lot of flaws, those with few flaws, and those with a more even balance. Some people have a big, glaring flaw, but lots of strengths. Some people have lots of flaws but an incredible strength. People come in all types, and characters should, too.

Again, I think Terra is a pretty good example of this in how she meshes with the rest of the cast. She's brave, smart, kind, wise, and a talented swordswoman, but she's also very shy most of the time, and she often struggles socially to the point that it's become a running joke that she's totally unable to make friends with other humans. I think she provides a good counterpoint to characters like Pharazon, who struggles with a number of weaknesses and needs Terra as his mentor and guide, Hyren, who has a lot of physical strengths but sometimes isn't in tune with his moral compass, Isengrim with his many skills but complicated psychology, and Blynn, a true-chaotic-neutral agent of mayhem who gets kind of carried away sometimes just trying to make life more interesting. Rather than stick out like an overly-strong sore thumb, I feel that Terra, as befitting her status as their owner, is the glue that holds the group together and helps them work as an effective team.

All this is to say, I'm not sure fussing over tabulating character strengths and flaws is really helpful when creating a character and/or a cast of characters. I think writers should start with what appeals to them, what they want to write about, and what they feel will work best for the story they want to tell. If you approach character creation from this angle, it's difficult to go wrong. At any rate, I've found that once you get going on a story, characters tend to write themselves, and you'll discover they have all sorts of quirks you never imagined when you started.

I want to wrap up by discussing what I feel is the real problem with the Mary Sue labeling phenomenon: being respectful of other writers. At its core, I believe the issue at hand isn't that people are creating unrealistically strong characters. It's that other people are shaming and bullying these writers for doing so.

Look, nobody enjoys a poorly-written character. I'm right there with you. But it doesn't do an ounce of good to spend any time or energy publicly lambasting characters or the writers who create them. It doesn't make you look smart, it just makes you look mean. And it certainly doesn't help the writer either in improving their writing or feeling better about themselves.

As I mentioned before, most people who write Mary Sues are struggling. They need compassion and kindness, not criticism. And beginning writers need encouragement and constructive critique, not for someone to simply swoop in and tell them their writing is stupid, or worse yet, repost it on social media with some snide remarks and laughing emojis.

Is it okay to dislike other people's characters? Absolutely. But telling them that, especially unsolicited, is not going to help anything. It's one thing to give an honest, yet diplomatic, constructive opinion of a character when the writer asks. It's quite another to rant about how much you hate a character in a public forum or to the writer themselves.

Besides, if someone writes a Mary Sue character for whatever reason, how does that ultimately affect you? Nobody's forcing you to read anything. Nobody's forcing you to make the author's insecurities your problem. Just like with 99% of everything posted on the Internet, you're better off completely ignoring it. That way, you won't get annoyed by a clumsily-written character, and an author won't get their feelings hurt. Everybody goes home a winner.

So, let's retire the whole Mary Sue thing. It's not helping anyone. Yes, people write wish-fulfillment characters, but shaming them for it won't improve the situation. And it's equally annoying and unproductive when people go around nitpicking decently-written characters and giving them negative labels. It fosters so much contention and divisiveness among a writing community that's supposed to be just that--a community. A group of people who should be there for each other. Let's focus less on who's right and more on what's right: kindness and respect.

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