So, I realize that everyone has heard of Mary Sue characters, but the thing that bothers me is that Mary has never really been as clarified as she could be. Girls go around crying Mary Sue at every character with long pink hair, then go and create even worse Mary Sue characters in the false illusion that they're making nonMary Sue characters (or even anti-Sues) when in fact they're doing the opposite. Allow me to explain how this seems to happen.
First of all the term "Mary Sue" desperately needs to be clarified to these people, so this brings us to the very important question: What IS a Mary Sue?
At least everyone can agree on one thing. Mary Sues are characters that are so perfect it's annoying.
But. What do they mean by perfect? Everyone has different ideas of that, naturally. Unfortunately, this is how many fanfiction (and other) writers make their biggest mistakes.
When you hear the name Mary Sue what pops up in your mind? A beautiful princess who gets everything she wants, has magical powers and is loved by all the other characters around them? Is that really perfect to you?
Are you sure that in your heart you wouldn't rather be the mysterious emo that everyone else dislikes and is seriously misunderstood or the tough butt-kicking karate girl with short hair? These kind of characters can just as easily be Mary Sues as the girly girl Mary Sues that writers seem to be under the impression are the only ones.
"But my character has faults!" some might point out. Granted, this may be true, but your idea of perfect might in fact include these faults.
A common example of a Mary Sue fault that isn't really a fault is that they get into trouble because they are too caring or too nice to everyone. Well. . . This is an obviously stupid way to go about giving your character faults, BUT it's definitely not the only stupid way. You see, many people only pretend to give their characters "faults" by giving them something supposedly bad that they actually think of positively. Someone who thinks it's cool and funny to be sarcastic might make their Mary Sue character sarcastic, thus making them even closer to their personal definition of perfect.
Heck, if the author thinks shooting a gun off in an orphanage is a good thing and makes their character do it, then their character is STILL a Mary Sue, so long as it's portrayed as good (whatever "good" means. More on that soon).
Why do we hate Mary? While some of the writers might hate her because they hate girly girls in general (and labor under the impression that only girly girl characters are Mary Sues) true authors find her degrading not just because of her (usually) corny looks, background or history. Oh, no. That's the least of the problems with Mary Sue. We hate her, because she can do no wrong.
Mary Sue cannot do anything wrong. Sure, she can trip over a rock if it's funny and cute or maybe even accidentally press a button that blows up a city if it adds to the plot (naively assuming there is a plot). But she can't do anything that makes her a bad person. She cannot do anything morally wrong. At least, (and this is the most disgusting part) what's morally wrong according to the author.
"Ah, so as long as I make Mary do something unchristian she isn't a Mary Sue?"
No. Remember, this is perfect according to you. Even if you use the words "morally wrong" we all know that you're not thinking of it that way. You're not thinking, "This is the part of the story where Mary Sue makes a mistake that the audience knows is wrong and doesn't want her to do!" Give me a break. You're thinking, "This is the part of the story that makes Mary Sue more deep and mysterious and interesting!"
Also, it doesn't help that a lot of people skate over describing Mary Sue as sweaty, smelly, fat or anything like that even when it would be the realistic thing to do. Still, I'm not saying that just because you did use one of those words you're character isn't a Mary Sue either.
Mary can be your own twisted, lame or just plain pathetic idea of perfect.
Everything she does is your type of perfect. Basically reading about a Mary Sue regardless of what person's type of perfect she is feels like reading "BE LIKE ME, BE LIKE ME, BE LIKE ME," which is both tedious and insulting.
Then there are the "self-insert Mary Sues." There is nothing wrong with inserting yourself into a story. However, when people do this, they tend to make themselves seem (admit it) cooler than they really are. This could be by focusing on or emphasizing the (in some cases exaggerated) most interesting things about themself (which sometimes even leads to them getting big-headed and sometimes even believing they're really this mysterious, great person in real life). No wonder the phrases "self-insert" and "Mary Sue" usually go together.
How can you possibly try to portray yourself this way and not get a Mary Sue?
I guess, what I'm really trying to say, is that "perfect" is a very very very broad word to use as a definition for Mary Sue and if that's the definition you're going to use, don't you dare turn a blind eye to your own Mary Sues just because they don't fall in line with someone else's idea of perfect.
It doesn't matter whether they have long, flowing pink hair, special abilities, or who they fall in love with (it doesn't even matter if the author personally believes they ARE perfect). It doesn't matter if they're a tomboy full of flaws either. A Mary Sue is a character who is plainly, mercilessly and unfairly worshiped by the author (directly or indirectly, usually indirectly or even unintentionally so watch out). It's in the portrayal. What could be a Mary Sue in one author's hands could be a perfectly reasonable character in another's.
Real people could take a so-called "Mary Sue test" and score as a Sue. What then? Is the person unrealistic? Perfect? Not at all! How then do so many "self-inserts" get labeled as Sues? Because of how they are PORTRAYED.
How can stereotypical perfect characters in cartoons be bearable? Because the cartoonist is not worshiping them; they are making fun of them.
Mary Sues are not so much characters who are "so perfect that they are annoying" but characters that authors worship. "Perfect" is merely a differing opinion among everyone in the world. So Mary Sues are types of characters *portrayed* as perfect.
One could even go on to say that "perfect" isn't the only thing characters can be unfairly portrayed as. Instead of perfect, maybe evil, mysterious, deep, interesting, random, tough, or funny. It all comes down to how much the author is forcing their opinion on the audience (by doing so, they are either worshiping their character or a view of their character that we may or may not share, in an obnoxious and unfair way).
(I do have to admit at least, it seems that negative opinions are generally more tolerable than positive ones. Everyone loves to hate, but nobody likes a goody two-shoes, and calling a character out every so often can be good for a story).
One could go even FURTHER to say that not only characters can be unfairly portrayed, but THINGS in your story as well. Emotions, objects, lyrics, perhaps even the plot... The list is quite infinite.
One way to avoid doing this is to show and not tell (not even show AND tell. Worry about showing). Be fair. It's almost as simple as that: keep your opinions out of it.
While super-strong, beautiful, all-holy princesses can be corny and obnoxious that's not always the stuff Sues are made of and certainly not the only.
FALSE IDEAS OF MARY SUE:
Many people who claim they hate "Mary Sues" actually just hate girly girls. Most of these people tend to be girls themselves, who are bitter at the stereotype and mistake it for Mary Sue or vice versa.
Others mistakenly believe that Mary Sues are girls who don't fight for themselves or rely on men. Regardless of whether that's stupid or not, it's NOT what Mary Sue means. One of these characters wouldn't be a Sue if the author portrayed them as an idiot. They would be however, if you were supposed to look up to them.
Yes, that's right: stereotype Sues made to make fun of Sues are contradictions, for Sues never make fun of themselves.
Also, Sues are not "characters who are underdeveloped." That is simply a bad character. Underdevelopment and Mary Sue characters, while they tend to go hand in hand, are not the same thing, and the absence of one doesn't necessarily mean the absence of the other.
When all is said and done, perhaps what we need to realize is that Mary Sue isn't a type of character, but a type of attitude.
Oh, and you know all of that goes for Gary Stus too, even though I used Mary Sue as the example instead of the less heard of male-version, right?
I'd LOVE to hear your feedback on this. Long comments are especially welcome!!
Proud Mary Sue hater forever!
EDIT: Another thing I thought of... It seems like Mary Sues boil down to the problem of narcissism especially since many people think of their Mary Sue characters as themselves (or something they want to be). I saw this stamp [link] and I highly recommend thinking about the point behind it. It falls into the same category as the whole Mary Sue/self-obsessed culture that there seems to so much of today. This is a rather excellent stamp as well [link]
Just for fun I'm gonna make a list of the most common types of Sues:
The "crazy psychopathic murderers"
The "sexy, butt-kicking ones that no one can get the better of" [link]
The "Random, crazy, hyper onez" (99% of the time being "random" really means being cliche).
The "depressed, deep, dark emo/goth/same-difference-always-dresses-in-black type"
The "warm/caring/friendly/a-million other adjectives that no one pays attention to" aka no personality kind.
For further cliches [link]
Fun fact: there is never, I repeat NEVER a need to state a character's breast-size. The end.
(In other words, avoid making things up out of narcissism and/or lust. It's unprofessional and lame).
I made a separate deviation on self inserts for more clarification: [link]
Your writing skills are impressive.
One way that "Mary Sue" types always stand out to me is if they steal the spotlight on a constant basis.
Yes, the main character (if there is one) should get more attention than the minors. However, a balance is still needful. Every character should get a little time in the spotlight, even if it's only a short turn.
The spotlight thing is usually what separates readable fan-fiction (you know, the type that actually has a plot and keeps all of the canon characters mostly "in character") from vapid nonsense.
Also, as you mentioned, the "show don't tell" part is crucial. Show the characters to the audience, and let them think what they will.
I saw a forum signature you might also appreciate: "I am willing to suspend my disbelief, but not hang it by the neck until dead."
Haha, that's a great quote.
I really enjoy reading your essays. They're short, simple and make their points well.
I believe that Mary Sue is a character that the *author* thinks is so perfect that the character does not have to do anything but show how perfect they are for the entire story. The character does not need to change--- because she's perfect! She doesn't need to grow--- because she's perfect! The same can apply to characters that are purposefully given so many flaws it's unbelievable, such as the depressed emo. The emo does not have to overcome any of her faults! She's totally awesome being her depressed, lonely self throughout the *whole* story! This Sue-author will beat me over the head with her precious character until I 'get' how perfect she is, even if she isn't perfect but flawed. This author treats her flaws/struggles as endearing qualities and doesn't let me form my own opinion. Thus something that is supposed to be a flaw or challenge the character becomes something the author thinks is (or portrays as) a positive point. Like you said so well here:
"You see, many people only pretend to give their characters "faults" by giving them something supposedly bad that they actually think of positively."
When I see a Mary Sue of course I start to dislike the story. Not because of the Mary Sue. But because of the story itself. The story does nothing for me. It doesn't go anywhere. I'm stuck in a loop of perfection with a character I don't like--- I don't like perfect characters, and I don't like perfection either.
"(naively assuming there is a plot)"
There is rarely, if ever, a plot in a Mary Sue story. The author thinks that once their OC is done, 99% of the work is done. XD Yeah, because coming up with a plot takes only 1% effort....lol, NOT.
There is one point you made I'd disagree with, unless I am totally misunderstanding you, and that is this line:
"One way to avoid doing this is to show and not tell (not even show AND tell. Worry about showing). Be fair. It's almost as simple as that: keep your opinions out of it."
I agree with keeping my opinions out of it, but if I only did showing in my original novel, it would be a million pages long. In order to keep pace while I'm writing my novel, I have to do both showing and telling. I show the things that are important, the things that add to character or plot, and sometimes I even show things like setting when I feel it plays an important role.
But there are many occasions when I find it most appropriate to tell instead of show. Let's say my character needs to run down the street to the house on the end. The running down the street is not all that important, it's what happens when she gets to that house that is important. Now, I could pointlessly describe every step she takes and what she feels while she's running, or I could sum it up in one sentence: "She ran down the street to the house on the corner." (which is telling) and save the showing for more important moments in the story.
A better example would be that I could easily get away with (or even prefer) 'telling' what happened to a character during her day rather than showing it all when it wasn't important (aka summarizing):
"I spent most of the day at school slumped over my journal and doodling. On the way home, I stopped and got a coffee.
When I came to the front door of my apartment, I noticed it was open just a crack. Heart fluttering, I just stood there staring. It was dark inside there, and the first thing that came to mind was not Oh my God! but Did any snow get on the carpet? I don't want any mold!"
Ahem. Maybe not the best sample of my writing ability ;_: but I kind of forced it out just for this comment, lol. As you can see, the first two sentences are 'telling' or 'summarizing' what happened during her boring day, while the next sentences go back to 'showing' or 'being in the moment' because something interesting has come up.
Err...now that I've written that wall of text I'm wondering if I misunderstood you. Maybe you were referring to only doing showing when it comes to portraying to the main character? If that's the case, I agree with you. My main character did not introduce herself by stating her personality. The first chapter shows her personality in what she does and thinks. There's a bit of telling in the second chapter, where she simply mentions that she is diagnosed with a disorder. But it is done as a part of a longer introspection that, with her constant worry and doubt, only proves that she does indeed have this disorder. The small bit of telling was done to make a point.
no no no
ash is just a lucky idiot
RED is the Gary stu
At least, I think that's what you're getting at. Otherwise I'd be questioning my own characters. A case of it's all in the execution, not the concept, I suppose?
The only criticism I can give is that your language gets a bit convoluted at times; I've spent a minute eyeing the sentence "stereotype Sues made to make fun of Sues are contradictions for Sues never make fun of themselves," and
On another note, in your artist's comments, at "there is never, I repeat NEVER a need to state a character's breast-size," I just about died of laughter. So true X'D
First of all, it's a major mistake to consider a Mary Sue to be a type of character. In truth, it's rather a specific situation. That's why so many people get totally side-tracked when trying to define a Sue: they keep looking at the characters themselves. While certain character traits and archetypes do correlate with Mary Sues, the true reason lies with the author and their motivation.
Second thing is, the situation itself. You said it yourself, you just forgot to put a fullstop. A Mary Sue happens whenever an author wishes to impose his/her impression of a character onto the reader. Basically, the individual impressions of the reader don't matter. A Mary Sue is presented in a way the author believes her to be, and leaves no leeway for the reader to judge the character on their own.
That's exactly where things get tricky. A lot of authors do manipulate the image and presentation of various characters, often highlighting or exaggerating various traits. The thin line that separates these characters from genuine Mary Sues is whether the author can leave things just as a presentation, and then wink at the audience: "Well, that's all she wrote. So, what do you think? What's your verdict? Do you buy it?". A Mary Sue writer skips that last step. S/he knows better. S/he knows not only how s/he wants to present the characters, but also how the poor devil is supposed to be percieved. S/he has a list of all the correct adjectives that the reader has to use when describing the character, and s/he won't take a "no" for an answer.
These don't have to be any specific types of traits, the image doesn't have to be positive, and a Mary Sue doesn't have to be a girl. The essence is in making the assessment of the character for the readers, presenting this assessment as a fact and shoving it down the reader's throat. It doesn't apply if the descriptions or narrations are provided from a specific character's point of view, rather than author's own (an opinion of a single person is not a fact, it's an opinion. We're still free to disagree). This makes the line between a Sue and non-Sue so thin and hard to notice, and gets a lot of characters accursed of being Sues just because someone in the story presents them in a very positive light.
At the same time, some authors are able to stretch the line in the opposite direction by creating exaggerated, over-the-top characters that are presented in a detached, impersonal manner. I remember once finding a discussion on whether Alucard from manga Hellsing was a Mary Sue. It ended with someone stating: "Alucard is not a character, he's a plot device". It shows pretty well how much a Mary Sue depends on the presenation core. Even an indestructible and seemingly almighty monster-on-a-rampage of a character can still be loved by the audience- as long as the readers are allowed to discover just how indestructible and seemingly almighty the character is on their own.
Third, it's not the character themself that we find so annoying. It's being robbed of our right to make up our mind about them. It's the feeling that the author tries to force their feelings and beliefs onto us. What we really hate is not the characters, but the situation itself.
Well, that's all I wrote So, what do you think? What's the verdict? Do you buy it?
Even with the examples I already gave, my personal favourite is Roland Deschain of Stephen King's "Dark Tower" series. The man has every single trait of a genuine Mary Sue: almost supernatural skills, unreasonable strength of character, is always- always- right and can get any other character in the story, no matter the gender, to fall in love with him unconditionally (to different ends, true, but still). Yet, all of these make him impressive rather than annoying. The reason? Stephen King himself seems to consider his over-powered character friggin' scary rather than amazing. Because of that, he never tries to convince the audience that Roland is the most amazing guy they ever read about. He just describes him with a healthy, "what-the-Hell-is-this-man?" attitude. The audience is free to buy Roland for themselves.
It all seems to boil down to an old good rule: 'Show, don't tell'. As long as you're presenting the positive traits of your characters instead of claiming s/he's got them, everything will be alright. People love strong, capable characters. It's something that never changed across millenia, even if you look back at Illiad, Oddysey, ancient Asian epics or old Viking tales. The whole trick is to show your audience that the character is strong, about providing believable proofs to that. When an author sounds so desperate to convince us how awesome their character is that they don't want to leave us any choice... It's only natural we start to suspect a hoax.
Frankly speaking, I find Hunger Games pretty bland in general. Most of the characters, Katniss included, feel more like plot devices than genuine people to me: I can't see their feelings, motivations, wishes and thoughts beyond the basic, surface ones that push the story onwards at the moment :/ Katniss definitely got saved from the Mary Sue label, but I feel it happened at quite a big cost. The whole story could use a little more of a human touch. Besides, it's not that it's not okay for the author to like their characters. It only becomes a problem when s/he thinks s/he's got a monopoly on telling people what their character is really like.
As far as the negative opinions go... Did you ever see a villain who is so pointlessly evil it just makes your eyes roll? One that tries to put Darth Vader out of the pedestal of the arch-villain of all times by killing babies, burning whole towns for no reason at all, executing his underlings for being in a bad mood and generally acting like his whole existence is based around proving what a horrible debased person he is?
Yup, that's a Mary Sue too. Actually, I think it's the most common type of a Mary Sue in all fiction together. The basics are the same: The author thinks s/he's got a better idea than you do as to what to think about the character, and shoves it down your throat to the point where you just find it lame.
Portraying the character's views is all about just showing what they think, and why. The only trick is to leave your own mindset aside for a while and to imagine what your character would think in this or that situation. You're not trying to talk to the reader, to convince them of anything. You're not presenting a positive, a negative or a neutral point. You're just showing the truth. "This is what this character thinks. This is what s/he said. And given his/her personality, it makes sense." The author just needs to remember they're not the part of the story. The characters are. The author's job is to give a solid, objective relation on what the characters themselves see, think, feel, say and do. And whether the readers will agree? It's up to them. After all, the characters are merely presenting opinions, not a "one-and-only-truth". Whether they can convince the readers- that's another story. And that's what makes reading fun.
Your messages are a bit mixed, I see that it's not just perfect princesses who are mary-sues, but just annoying characters on the whole, but...? Should no-one acknologe their power? Should they not have friends? Should they always have apperance/personality flaws like being fat, smelly, ugly, annoying, bitchy, mean, vile, cruel, ect...? I mean, if characters are meant to be at least loosely based on real people, I know for a fact at least some of them have these traits, some of them really are quite nice. I'm not trying to be rude or mean or anything of the sort, your tutorial really is top-notch and something that needs to be on DA, but you just seem to be repeating the same message over and over, but basically all you're really saying is "Don't make bad characters," over and over. I understant that you're getting the message across that it's not the perfect princesses and humbly amazing schoolgirls that are Mary Sues, but it turns out more of an preach against Sues rather than anything that actually teaches you what you need to know.
I mean, even if the character is fat, smelly, obnoxious, bitchy, immoral and such, if her behavior still makes the badass canon character behave like a total wuss, then that character is a Sue. If that character surpasses the canon characters in their special fields (for example, manages to tame an animal not even the animal-loving and animal-loved canon character could handle) or steals their script, then that character is a Sue.
Some people tend to think giving flaws to a character is enough to save her from the Mary-Sue land, except it's a trap; the point isn't to give flaws for the sake of it, but to create a realistic character and be careful about how the people around her react. Even in real life there are people who are fairly good and some other who are simply terrible, except even if they're saints, they still do wrong stuff and take bad decisions, make mistakes and have strive in order to improve. They're still insecure and have their fears and their thoughts that make them human.
Damn, this has taken the wind out of my sails as a writer. ):
As someone who creates bios for OCs for fanfictions (almost as much as I write them into stories, I enjoy writing the bios), this fear always scares me to death that I'm somehow writing a character who inevitably will be a Mary-Sue despite my efforts not to have her be one. Then, I find myself overcompensating for writing her into existence by changing a million things in an attempt to "un-sue" them, I end up changing them so much that I no longer write them or enjoy using them anymore. Then I abandon them. It seems the term itself lends a complex of discouragement to writers like me.
I do understand your deviation and I find many of the points to be valid, if not all of them. I do hate characters that lack dimensions or seem to be too perfect with no explanations.
I will say this: I wonder, is it ever truly possible to write characters the author doesn't sympathize with? Or feel is perfect to some degree? For some reason, I don't really feel like that is possible.
I can see where you are going with what you said.
I do apologize if what I said sounded like I was angry or upset, neither of which was true. I was more bemused and a little shaken when I read it.
So, if I understand correctly, its about being neutral in tone and not showing favor towards any one character over the other that has as much of a hand in whether an OC is considered a sue, as is the character itself?
Thanks again for replying.
No, you didn't either. I appreciate you taking the time to explain to me.
I would agree with your idea. People have no problem hating but I find, from personal experience that goody-two-shoes are just as hated. It all makes sense.
Thanks for everything! It all makes more sense now
This is really interesting. I love to write, but i always fear that my characters became the horrible «Hollywood style» cliché. When i read this, i realise that it's very difficult to create a character without create a «perfect imperfection». Even if i will have some difficulties to apply your advices, thank you.
ps: sorry for my English, i'm a french canadian...
Thanks for the comment
Maybe we can start with this. Why does it matter whether something is a Mary Sue or not? Some may like them, some may not. But that's how it always is with characters, isn't it?
In the same way, a Mary Sue character does not compare to a nonMary Sue character. They're cheap, shallow, obvious (note how most beginners tend to use them). They take no talent to write.
In the same way that some people may "like" the story about the boy walking down the street, that doesn't mean that it's a well written story, just as the fact that some people accept Mary Sues doesn't mean they are well written.