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Joyful Girl

Andrea Blythe's blog about writing, reading, and everything else


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On "Mary Sue"
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I know there are family and friends who read my blog who probably don't know what a Mary Sue is, so please allow me to explain. As I understand it, Mary Sue has come to mean a female character who is completely awesome. She's smart, attractive, kicks ass, makes friends, and "they warp plots and universes and other characters to their needs." There are those who would say that Mary Sues are too perfect, too good, and therefore unbelievable. "Mary Sue" has, unfortunately, come to be associated with bad writing.

There are some interesting discussions going on about Mary Sue bashing (found thanks to astridv, and whom I sort of stole the formatting of this post from), namely that Mary Sue bashing a bad thing. For example:

Storming the Battlements or: Why the Culture of Mary Sue Shaming is Bully Culture, by boosette
Writing "Mary Sues" is empowering. Writing them being awesome is empowering. Calling Mary Sue, and contributing to an environment such as the above, which encourages the denigration of female awesomeness in fiction, which encourages the bullying and harassment of participants in female awesome, is participating in that culture.

Calling "Mary Sue" in this environment is shaming women for empowering themselves.
 
The Mary Sue Police and Why I Cannot Abide It, by niqaeli
So what if Mary Sue is as brave as Kirk, as smart as Spock, as kind as Bones and fucking all three? What harm does she do you? Why do you need to police her and by extension her writer? Is it because she's poorly written or is it because she and her writer dared to think that they could be that and have that and therefore they need to be cut down to size?
 
Actually, I'm just lazy and blogging the short version instead, by goldjadeocean
My essential problem with the Mary Sue phenomenon: when you have Dr. Dr. Dr. Daniel "I speak 23 languages and married the alien princess" Jackson on your show, and you call Sam Carter an unealistically talented Mary Sue, you have issues.

I'd been meaning to write a post called "In Defense of Mary Sue" but I see that I was beaten to it, by astridv 
And now we're at a point where writers - and not just fanfic, original as well!- are so concerned that their OC will get called Mary Sue that they rather change her gender to avoid that issue. I have seen that sentiment uttered by *dozens* of authors over the past years. And we end up with even fewer female characters than before. Awesome, fandom. That sure backfired.
 
Several years ago, when I first heard the term "Mary Sue" is was within the negative context that the above writers described. I sat back and read the rants about these awful, terribly unrealistic Mary Sues infiltrating the written word, and I nodded my head in agreement. I told myself that I would never write a Mary Sue, that my characters would be realistic and flawed and awesome in that way. (Which was all pretty arrogant on my part, now looking back.)

I haven't really thought about Mary Sue since.

What these posts point out, and what I did not notice at the time, is that I was buying into the concept that girls should not be awesome as boys. I was happily agreeing that female characters who were awesome were too perfect, while at the same not questioning that the exact same attributes as depicted in a man was okay. (See: goldjadeocean' s point about Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter in Stargate SG-1.)

This is a huge personal discovery for me.

I now notice that I tend to "check" my female characters. In general, I don't want any of my characters to be "perfect". I tend to like them to be awesome, but flawed. I equally try to have my male characters also be flawed. But this process of downsizing the godlike awesomeness of my characters has been more conscious with my female characters, because of one long ago conversation about Mary Sues, and my desire to not want to be one of those "bad" writers.

Will all of this change my writing style, or how I approach my characters? Probably not. Though I will question myself every time I make choices about my female characters, especially if it's in terms of checking them in some way. I will question myself as to why I'm making that choice. Is it because it's really and truely the best thing for the character and the story? Or is it because of I'm afraid of the Mary Sue?

I still need to follow up on the links, but thanks for the interesting post! I never thought of "Mary Sue" as a gender-related issue, because whenever I read articles about it, the writer always discussed it in relation to either sex. My gut reaction was always, "Well, sure, when you put it that way, it seems silly. But is that kind of character always 'wrong'?"

I have a problem with discussion of "cliches" or "tropes" in general. Sure, some things we call cliches are over-used, but that kind of name-calling is dismissive, contibutes to an atmosphere of elitism, and basically makes writers afraid to use these "tropes" or "cliches" even in a way that's beneficial to their stories. Most of these cliches have been around for awhile because they serve a purpose in storytelling.

I bet there's a negative label for almost any character type or story motif you can think of. I dunno... I just want to be able to use the character that works for my story and my themes. Labels like "Mary Sue" or "Speshul Snowflake" don't really help and just make me feel intimidated. :\

Very good points, especially about the concept of cliches in general. Tropes are not a bad thing, and in most cases, they are nearly impossible to avoid.

I'm an odd duck when it comes to elite-ism and I have to watch myself with it a little bit. In general, I don't believe in the concept of "high art", because it's all so subjective and a steamy romance can be just as valuable to one person as an intellectual literary novel can be to another. However, on the other hand, I think I can fall into the trap of elitist tendencies, and I have to watch myself to make sure that I'm actually thinking about things instead of assuming based upon some sort of snobbery on my part. (Though there are certain things, like slow moving zombies and "correct" zombie lore, which I an quite happy to be a snob about.)

Ooh, this is all very interesting! I'm not sure I buy into the idea that bashing Mary Sues is bashing women, or that changing the gender of the character solves the problem - there are Gary Stus, after all!

But the idea that we might check our female characters to stop them being Mary Sues calls for a more definite definition of the term. The original definition is "is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author or reader."

Under this definiton, I'd class Gillian Key - http://www.myspace.com/taliagryphon - as a Mary Sue. She utterly fits the stereotype. She's hopelessly attractive to every man she meets, she's the best at everything she does, she's always right, and she never fails. She's clearly a piece of wish-fulfilment on the part of the author.

That said, I don't think a Mary Sue alone ruins a book. Bad writing ruins a book. I've read plenty of books where the heroine was hopelessly attractive, superior, etc, but didn't irritate me because the writing was so good. In the case of Gillian Key, the books are terrible which highlights the heroine's flaws (or lack of).

Well, yes, there are lots of Gary Sues out there, however, I think the issue becomes gendered because they don't tend to be called Gary Sues, and the concept of a too perfect man (James Bond, perhaps) is more acceptable (at large) than a too perfect woman.

I think these people I've linked to are largely discussing fanfic culture, which is a whole world unto itself, as I understand it, and not something I'm very much involved in.

I do definitely agree, though, that bad writing is bad writing whatever the characters, and a fun fast paced plot can save a book that have a Mary/Gary Sue (again, most James Bond movies).

Hope you don't mind - I'm quoting liberally from your post on my blog!

I don't mind at all. Nice of you to check, though. :)

great info and links. thanks for sharing them.

You're welcome. I'm glad you found it interesting. :)

I'm sort of disenchanted with the term Mary Sue.

In the beginning, the term was applied to fan created characters that were absolutely perfect with no flaws. As you said.

However, the term has undergone the same sort of mutation as words like "fag", "faggot", "gay", and so forth.

Well, maybe mutation is the wrong word. It's changed.

There's a term called "fanbrats". These are usually teenagers and women who, in my experience, are almost always either slash fans, or fandom in general is their raison d' etre. The reason for their existance.

When presented with a female character they do not appprove of for whatever reason, she is labled by these women as a Mary-Sue. It does not matter where she came from. Maybe she's canon, maybe not. But she does not fit into the fanbrat's created view of the fandom and is therefore an object of scorn and derision.

It's when the term is applied to canon characters that it bothers me because in orginal works by the orignal authors, there's no such thing as a Sue, but rather just bad writing. The character is there because the Author has a specific task or role for this character (see: Ginny Weasley or Nymphadora Tonks) and they are there to fill it. But, because the fanbrat has other ideas and the character conflicts with those ideas, they slap the Sue label on them and then scream about it everywhere they can.

That said, I agree with you in that the Sue label is often applied to the female character way more then the male, but I think the reasons need to be clarified as to why that label is applied.

To use Sam Carter as an example. Does she get the Sue label for simply having that rare combination of beauty plus brains with a huge amount of self-doubt, daddy issues, and social awkwardness?

Or is she labled a Sue because OMG! She represents a threat to that hawt Daniel/Jack pairing?

Interesting! I think defining the why of labeling via those questions kinds of questions important, too. Just as I feel an author needs to be aware (in the back ground) of why they are making the choices they make in their writing.

I can see how some people might have seen Sam as a threat to the Daniel/Jack pairing, though I hadn't thought of that before.

The thing is, Sam canonically is not a threat. Jack is Hetro, he was married and had a kid. Daniel was married and had a kid. Neither one has demonstrated the slightest interest in a same sex relationship.

So what threat? Is it less about the true love and more that Sam represents everything the person wants to be or hates and that Sam gets the guy is more then the fanperson can stand?

So they demonize her. Sam is evil, sam is a threat. Jack and Daniel must be pure and unsullied. Oh hey, there's Pete. If the fanbrat is feeling genorous, they pair her off with Pete, or give her a heroic death.

If not, she dies horribly or becomes a screaming bitch who is then promptly put on a bus or any other number of things.

Or, we turn the coin over and the character becomes the Avatar of the person. i.e. Harry/Hermione or Harry/Luna, River Tam and Jayne and so on.

However, Russell T. Davies is probably the most epically guilty of this in the matter of Rose Tyler.

I wasn't really thinking of the "threat of Sam" in terms of sexuality. In terms of Stargate, I tend to think of them in the team format anyway rather than any pairing offs. Whatever pairing there was (with the occasional exception of Sam and Jack), being nonsexual, involved unique dynamics between each of the characters. Though, as I said, I can't really see removing those dynamics from the whole of the group.

You seem to know more about the interworking of fanfic than I do. (What I know is strictly from discussions such as this.) So, I'm finding it interesting to hear how Sam tends to be treated in the "fanfic" world.

And I loved Rose. I've never been so sad when a character was removed from a show.

I'm a fanfic writer by hobby, but there's also a rythmn to how the world of fandom, any fandom, will work and function. It's kind of cliche. In any Fandom of a certain size, there are always archtypes with certain views.

Ah, I was thinking of pairings, and in most cases, that usually means sex.

And . . . Rose . . . Oh dear, what can we say about Rose?

Well, let's start with RTD. My problem is RTD is that he is the British equivalent of George Lucas and he broke one of the unwritten, but fundamental rules of Doctor Who; A Companion changes when the Doctor does.

When RTD is on his game, he's brilliant. Dalek's stealing Earth to make a giant cosmic doohickey? The Master turning every human being on the planet into a clone of himself? Those are both the high level widespread threats that Doctor Who thrives on. More importantly, they demonstrate imagination and creativity.

Problem is that like Lucas, RTD can't write romance for shit and he botched Rose when Ten came along. It's not Billie Piper's fault. Singers rarely manage to make the crossover between music and acting and she tried, she really did. But she and Tennant didn't have much onscreen chemistry and certainly not the kind she had with Christopher Elecctson. Then, on top of that, RTD dropped heavy handed romance subplots which he sucked at writing.

Then, he bungled it further. A lot of fans have reffered to Rose as the Avatar upon which RTD could play out his crush on the Doctor/Tenannt. Without saying yay or nay to that, I will point out that The Rose Tyler who traveled with Nine had some steel in her spine and was pretty clever. The Rose who traveled with Ten tended to fall back on the damsel in distress model for the most part and then, even after she left, RTD ham-handedly continued with "The lonley god" archtype, which, if nothing else, screams of hero worship.

RTD also broke one other fundamental rule of Doctor Who: The Doctor is not a romantic hero, he is a loner anti-hero. A friend of mine is rabidly anti-Rose and one of her points is that the Doctor sleeping with Rose is like a human sleeping with a Chimpanzee. It's cross species and downgrading.

Unfortunutly, the Fox movie set a precedent, and opened the door to the Doctor being a romantic hero.

Now, on the one hand, I feel for the Doctor. His wife and children died ages ago, he lost his grandaughter, and he's lonely. Ace was probably the first person to make him feel young again, then there was Grace, and then Rose, who was there after the Time War and made him feel alive again after all that he'd done. Even Time Lords need to occasionally have a shag.

On the other hand, the Doctor is a loner. People may come and go, and he has a host of friends, but in the end, Doctor Who os the story of a Time Lord and his TARDIS pursuing a lonely task a universe's gaurdian.

And in my opinion, that's how it should be.

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