Thursday, May 7, 2015

WTF is a Mary Sue / Gary Stu / Marty Stu [[Updated]]

A Mary Sue (for female characters) or Gary Stu / Marty Stu (for male characters) is a character who effectively stands in for the author and acts as a form of wish fulfillment. This type of character is most often inserted into amateur fiction that takes place within an established narrative. For example, "Emily was a new student at Hogwarts. She was intimidated by all of the young wizards and witches around her; but when she saw Prof. Snape her heart skipped a beat . . .". While there is nothing inherently wrong in wish fulfillment fantasies, in published literary works it is often seen as a hallmark of an amateur.  

[Edit 5/7/2015 10:55 AM EST] +A. Miles Davis brought up a good point and I would like to add it to the definition.

The issue with a Mary Sue character isn't the part where you're putting yourself into the story. It's the part where you're better than everyone at everything within that story without an actual reason to be; that all attention focuses on that character to the exclusion of proven experts; and there is a false pretense of modesty about it.

Batman, for example, doesn't fall under this trope due to the actual training he puts himself through to become an expert in his field of Batmaning.  There are things he cannot do, he has limits (and sometimes will admit so), and doesn't prance about "accidentally" solving crimes.

Bella Swan, as a counterexample, is a useless lump of nothing that everyone inexplicably wants and is treated as this perfect thing, to the point where she has a vampire-jesus-baby.

[Edit 5/7/2015 12:56 PM EST] +Dan Head had some additional thoughts on the subject of the Mary Sue that I felt should be included:
1. Every author puts themselves into every story. So does every reader. This is why writing is inherently personal, and also why two readers take different messages from the same works. The idea that "only" amateur authors put their own hopes/dreams/fears into their work is totally at odds with reality.

2. The issue with a Mary Sue (I hate that term) is that it's a viewpoint character around which the whole plot revolves for no good reason. An excellent example is in the current season of Agents of SHIELD. Skye is our viewpoint character. Like her or not, this is okay. What's problematic is when OTHER CHARACTERS' arcs revolve around their unaccountable fixation with the audience surrogate, Skye. Specifically, Fitz & Simmons have had an interesting relationship dynamic independent of Skye. But sometimes the writers fall into the trap of having them obsess about their relationship with Skye in context of their relationship with each other, and it's just bad writing. It's putting the AUDIENCE SURROGATE (not the writer's surrogate) into the center of every plot point, especially when it's transparently because the work itself is escapist. So the audience surrogate HAS to be there, or else the audience isn't escaping.

3. Writers write. Those who can't spend time calling stuff a "Mary Sue". Writing is hard. It's also imperfect. This is not news.

6 comments:

  1. Two things:

    1. Every author puts themselves into every story. So does every reader. This is why writing is inherently personal, and also why two readers take different messages from the same works. The idea that "only" amateur authors put their own hopes/dreams/fears into their work is totally at odds with reality.

    2. The issue with a Mary Sue (I hate that term) is that it's a viewpoint character around which the whole plot revolves for no good reason. An excellent example is in the current season of Agents of SHIELD. Skye is our viewpoint character. Like her or not, this is okay. What's problematic is when OTHER CHARACTERS' arcs revolve around their unaccountable fixation with the audience surrogate, Skye. Specifically, Fitz & Simmons have had an interesting relationship dynamic independent of Skye. But sometimes the writers fall into the trap of having them obsess about their relationship with Skye in context of their relationship with each other, and it's just bad writing. It's putting the AUDIENCE SURROGATE (not the writer's surrogate) into the center of every plot point, especially when it's transparently because the work itself is escapist. So the audience surrogate HAS to be there, or else the audience isn't escaping.

    3. Writers write. Those who can't spend time calling stuff a "Mary Sue". Writing is hard. It's also imperfect. This is not news.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Also: I've not read them, but I suspect people are missing the point of the Twilight novels. Bella is Everygirl living a fantasy. If she was in any way extraordinary, she wouldn't be Everygirl, and that would totally ruin the escapist aspects of the work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'll ask my wife about that Dan since she's read it and will be able to accurately answer it.

      Also, I added your first comment to the post.

      Delete
  3. I'd be really surprised if drizzt qualified.
    I don't even see how a character, outside of the worst amateurish fan fiction, could represent an authors wish fulfillment. Especially if he shows up in shit written by different authors!

    I suspect the people whining about him are just whining to whine. But, and this is a big but:
    Disclaimer: I've never read anything him him in it!

    I think part to the issue is that he's "dark and angsty". Well, so was Elric... How does he compare to Elric?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Charles, excellent post. The only thing I object to is the word "Batmaning." Not the word itself, but the fact that I believe it should have two "N"s.
    Yep. That is all. Keep up the rabble-rousing.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I see how characters can appear Mary Sue-ish to some and not to others.

    From what I have seen, a critical component separating Mary Sue's from "proper" characters is that Sues never show any critical weakness, and are never really "threatened" or "stessed" during the events of the plot. Human sadism/empathy demands that the reader must see the protagonist suffer at least in a small way in order to connect with them, even in comedies.

    With the assumption, let's look at Drizzt. Does he ever really fail at anything? Some would say no, emphatically. I haven't seen him fail, but I haven't read every Drizzt book either.

    But does he suffer? Immensely, at least in the Dark Elf trilogy. Sure, he was an epic athlete, natural Cuisinart and virtually super human in ability to kill things and not be killed by things.

    But, did all those numbers on his proverbial character sheet help his sanity one tiny bit? Nope. Did his two-handed coin-flipping oh-look-at-me ability prevent him from becoming homeless? Nope.

    So, we have at least two ways in which Drizzt "suffered". Does this mean he is not a Mary Sue? It depends on who is reading.

    If someone can empathize with Drizzt on one or two of these points in which he suffered, then he cannot be a Mary Sue, because, well, he just got screwed in spite of his epic level combat modifiers. However, if the reader feels no pity for Drizzt on the points in which he does suffer, or doesn't believe that he should be suffering ("He's being over dramatic!"), then Mary Sue he becomes.

    You can look at Superman the same way. Practically unkillable. Can zoom in on your DNA and somehow can understand it and conclude that your dying. No one can stop him.

    But, somehow, the writers of Superman made him a great character. How? They went for his mind. He is so damn goody-two-shoes boy scout that he gets himself into real trouble all the time. He hurts over the people he can't save. He makes himself vulnerable with the people he loves.

    Conan, John Carter, Sherlock Holmes, and all of our great characters are incredibly powerful in the own ways, but are often balanced with a critical weakness that the authors judiciously exploit. And, over time, characters lose weaknesses, gain new ones, get old ones back, and so on, just like life. Just like us.

    ReplyDelete

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