So! Before I got distracted by the Game of Thrones finale, I was ranting on about Mary Sues. Quick recap: a Mary Sue is a character (usually female) who stands at the centre of the fictional universe. Their flaws never cause them problems, they’re multi-talented, they always get the guy (or girl) of their choice, and they’re disgustingly attractive. They’re more of an ideal than an actual character, and this is usually what causes the bulk of the problems. Feel free to refresh your memory in the previous post.
I’m slightly late to the party when it comes to ranting about Mary Sues. A quick Google will tell you that I’m not the only one who sees an issue with them. There’s countless articles listing the worst Mary Sues in fiction, cartoons showing them being defeated in cartoonishly bloody ways, and tests to show writers how to avoid them. It’s an entertaining rabbit hole to go down.
Mary Sues are characters whose reputations precede them. The label is enough to cast serious doubt on any character it’s applied to. One of the most common criticisms about Ginny Weasley, for example, is that she’s a Mary Sue, and this is something that’s often said by people who wish Harry and Hermione had got together. The label was also hastily applied to Rey, the mysterious ingénue at the centre of the new Star Wars trilogy, but whether she is one or not still remains to be seen. (Come on guys, at least wait until her character arc is finished before you judge.) Mary Sues have become so reviled that labelling a character as such can be quite an insult – and no wonder, when it puts the work in the same category as My Immortal.
Let’s be real. While the term can just be used as an insult, Mary Sues are badly written characters, and the term is a useful piece of shorthand for summing up the flaws in both a character and a work that this kind of writing can lead to. In my last post I talked briefly about the kind of problems that Mary Sues can cause, but I’ll go into more detail here.
First, let’s look at character. A Mary Sue’s biggest problem is that they do not have flaws – or if they do, they never actually have consequences for the character in the way that real flaws do. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue has a hot temper – she can say whatever she likes to Professor Snape and she won’t get in trouble for it. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is clumsy – she can stumble off the edge of a ravine and Edward Cullen will be there to catch her. It doesn’t matter if Mary Sue is shy – this won’t affect her ability to date Draco Malfoy, the Phantom of the Opera, or that one hot dwarf from The Hobbit.
There are two ways that this lack of flaws can go. The first is the demonstration of informed attributes. I talked about this a bit in my Strong Female Characters series, so I’ll ty to be brief. Essentially, this is when readers are told that a character is angry, blunt or cowardly without seeing them exhibit any anger, bluntness or cowardice. In this instance, characters will talk about how angry our Mary Sue is, but she won’t actually express any anger. The second is the opposite. Our Mary Sue will demonstrate anger, bluntness or cowardice, but none of the other characters will act as if that’s what she’s done. Her flaws, if she demonstrates them, do not have consequences.
Effectively, this means that a Mary Sue doesn’t have flaws – if a tree falls in a forest, etc. She cannot be described as clumsy if we don’t see her fall over. She cannot be said to have anger issues if they don’t cause problems for her. She cannot be treated as a being with flaws, because flawed characters fail, and get spots, and grow old and eewwww, who wants to read about that?
This leads me nicely into the second issue I want to talk about: how Mary Sues affect the world around them. Mary Sues are not only flawless, perfect characters. Everyone else has to acknowledge that they are perfect and flawless, including the author. Mary Sues are by definition perfect, and that means they are also the best, most important, attractivest and greatest character evah, you guys!
What this means is that Mary Sues are essentially black holes. It’s not that they exist in all their perfection – that’s not the problem. The problem is that their perfection bends the rest of the universe around them, until they are at the centre of the story. Everything is warped to fit around them, including setting, mythology and other characters. This is where the other side of a Mary Sue’s flawlessness comes into play. If she does actually demonstrate something that could be construed as a flaw, other characters will not change their perception of her because of that. The classic example of this is Anastasia Steele. She’s actually an incredibly bitchy character, and both her internal monologue and the things she actually says are peppered with extremely nasty comments about women. However, nobody ever calls her out on this. She doesn’t even get a raised eyebrow. No-one, literally no-one, thinks that anything she says is unkind. Throughout the series all the other characters treat her as if she’s the kindest, most precious little darling that you ever did see – even if what she actually says or does directly contradicts that.
This is where people really get irritated at Mary Sues, particularly in fanfiction. At their very worst, Mary Sues can completely change the fabric of a story just by existing in it. Take, for example, the popular Harry Potter fanfiction cliché – Harry Potter’s secret (and better) sibling. If you’ve read any fanfiction it’s likely that you’ve come across this before, but the basic premise is this. Harry Potter has a sibling (usually a sister) who also got a lightning scar from Voldemort. They were then separated and only re-united when she arrives at Hogwarts, where she proceeds to live out the entire series but just, you know, better. This premise completely undermines the basic plot of the series. Pretty much everything Harry went through was affected by the fact that he was the only one to survive the killing curse. Having more than one person survive smashes all that to pieces. And it’s not just Harry that plotline affects – the entire wizarding world was also affected by Harry’s survival, and developed accordingly. Having another survivor doesn’t just ruin Harry’s backstory, it also disassembles a huge amount of worldbuilding. The idea of there being a ‘Chosen One’ doesn’t really work when you’ve got a spare handy.
But this isn’t the only reason why Mary Sues should be avoided. Let’s look at another hallmark of the Mary Sue: the tragic past.
Not all Sues have a tragic backstory, but the vast majority do. This comes in many shapes and sizes. It can be anything – from being catapulted into space as a baby and being stranded on Earth, or at the darker end of the scale, child abuse, rape and murder.
These are serious subjects that should be handled with tact and care. But that’s not what happens with Mary Sues. A Mary Sue’s tragic past does not function in the same way as it would for another character. It does not leave claw marks in her personality; there are no scars in her psyche. A Mary Sue’s tragic past exists for her to share it, tearfully, with her love interest, and then never talk about it again.
It goes without saying that this is incredibly disrespectful. While being blasted into space as a child isn’t exactly common, unfortunately abuse is. According to the NSPCC, one in fourteen children were subjected to physical abuse in 2016 – a rate that was three times higher for disabled children. And it’s likely that the real number is much higher, because a substantial amount of abuse cases go unreported. It goes without saying that something like this cannot be brushed aside as easily as the Mary Sues make it look: it’s something that will affect everything about a person for the rest of their life.
Personally, I’d like to believe that the reason why Mary Sues gloss over their terrible pasts in favour of making out is because most of them are written by authors who might not understand the full implications of what they’re saying. This could be for any number of reasons, including age and inexperience, but it rarely comes from a bad place. It is hard to write tactfully and thoughtfully about subjects as difficult as these at the best of times, but a lack of understanding is only ever going to make it worse.
But good intentions aside, I worry about how this kind of portrayal would affect people dealing with such issues in real life. Take My Immortal – the infamous Harry Potter fanfic drenched in black eyeliner. The main character, Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way (no, I’m not making that up) is one of the most ridiculous characters in fiction. She is a self-proclaimed goth who dresses like a music video and gives all her friends stupid nicknames: Ron Weasley becomes Diablo, Hermione Granger becomes B’loody Mary Smith. She also self-harms. As you might expect, this isn’t treated as gently as it should be, and it becomes another thing for readers to laugh at. I’m in no position to comment about how this might have made self-harmers feel, but I don’t think it would’ve helped.
The term Mary Sue covers a multitude of sins. I’ve touched on some of them, but not all. A poorly-written Mary Sue isn’t just a bad character: she can completely derail an entire fictional universe, and trivialise the effects of a whole host of problems with a stroke of the pen. I hope I’ve given a decent summary of the kind of problems that a Mary Sue can cause.
But have you noticed how all through this post, I’ve been talking about girls? For the next post, I’ll be talking about gender. Bring lipstick.