Episode 44: Who is Mary Sue?

On May 25th Kasie and Rex took on stock and cliche characters, specifically “Mary Sue.” Here are the show notes:

Introductions

Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, English Instructor, fiction writer

Theme for the day

Stock Characters and the Mary Sue Complex

Agenda

  • What are stock characters?
  • Who is Mary Sue?
  • How to avoid these caricatures
  • Upcoming events & news from the community
woman showing her purple lipstick
Photo by Oleg Magni on Pexels.com

Segment 1

We’ve made mention of The Mary Sue multiple times on the program. Usually with disdain and in reference to authors not putting in the effort to generate 3-dimensional people. Today we’ll talk about where this trope comes from, how to avoid it, and some other similar phenomena like stock characters, archetypes, and cliches.

So let’s start with some definitions. What are stock characters?

A stock character is one who is familiar because he or she appears frequently in stories albeit in various forms. Some examples:

  • Fezzik, Hagrid, Hodor — the gentle giant
  • Wicked Queen, Evil Stepmother, Mother Gothel (from Tangled) — older woman who envies younger woman’s beauty and therefore suppresses her in some way
  • Merlin, Gandolf, Yoda, Dumbledore — wizened old wizard (see also Wise Mentor episode and this link to a full list)

Not all stock characters are one-dimensional, flat, or boring. But if you recognize them, they’re probably a “stock” character.

This varies a little from the cliche character. The cliche character is 1) familiar like a stock character but also 2) predictable sometimes in a very trite or overdone way. Examples include:

  • Damsel in distress and/or the horror film girl who should RUN AWAY but doesn’t. Call her Nancy.
  • Brooding bad boy, Rebel Without a Cause, Matt Dillon in Outsiders, Dylan McKay. Yum and yet snooze.
  • Government, authority, high school principal. Think Mr. Rooney, Big Brother. All about sucking the fun out of everything.

Also this list and this one.

Stock and cliche characters often have this in common: A Singular Focus. One obsessive need that is diametrically (diabolically?) opposed to our hero’s primary purpose.

Segment 2

The most famous (infamous?) of these is Mary Sue.

Origin: “Mary Sue” is the name of a character in the 1973 parody story “A Trekkie’s Tale” published in fanzine Menagerie #2 by Paula Smith. Main character Lieutenant Mary Sue was “the youngest Lieutenant in the fleet — only fifteen and a half years old” had a genius-level IQ, and died tragically. The Mary Sue character satirized unrealistic characters — a common occurrence in Star Trek fan fiction.

The opening of the story:

“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise.

“Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.”

Captain Kirk came up to her.

“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?”

“Captain! I am not that kind of girl!”

“You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.”

Mr. Spock came onto the bridge.

“What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?”

“The Captain told me to.”

“Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”

From the Wikipedia entry:

“Mary Sue” today has changed from its original meaning and now carries a generalized, although not universal, connotation of wish-fulfillment, and is commonly associated with self-insertion, though the characterization of upstaging the established protagonist(s) of existing properties remains fundamental. True self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author; most characters described as “Mary Sues” are not, though they are often called “proxies”[for the author. The negative connotation comes from this “wish-fulfillment” implication: the “Mary Sue” is judged as a poorly developed character, too perfect and lacking in realism to be interesting.

Often the Universe itself will bend itself and break its own rules to help the character.

Lack of a definable personality: The character accomplishes things and handles plot points, but when asked to give a trait defining that character it is impossible. A way to determine it is to try to describe a main character without mentioning what they look like, their profession, or their actions in the story plot. If you can’t then there’s a problem.

The character never has any credible threat to them, is perfect, does not learn or grow as a character, and solves all the problems presented easily. Old days called the Pollyanna- after the “perfect girl”

So Mary Sue could be the author putting him or herself into the story and yet painting a royal portrait — right? Where the artist makes the king more handsome than he really was — creating a character that is both more physically attractive or strong, or intellectually capable.

Some Characteristics of a Mary Sue from this link:

  • Beauty: Usually with exotic features
  • Brave: Mary Sue is a brave, brave woman. She may have (slight) moments of fear, but her quick wit and awesome skills bring her the confidence she needs to prevail.
  • Kind: Mary Sue is kind and compassionate. Many notable acts of kindness.
  • Tragic backstory: Despite being raised with no parents, in object poverty, or with no limbs, Mary Sue beat the odds and overcame her disadvantages to become powerful or successful, while making very few (if any) enemies.
  • Intelligence: Mary Sue is so smart everyone respects her opinion.
  • Likable: No one hates or dislikes Mary Sue except misguided jealous people.
  • Accepted: If Mary Sue is an outcast in the beginning, she becomes accepted by everyone by the end.
  • Nothing to worry about: Mary Sue won’t starve and she won’t be homeless. Good things come to Mary Sue. Always.
  • No Drawbacks, No Flaws: Or else one that isn’t a real flaw, like being too pretty or slightly clumsy.
  • Triumph in the end: Mary Sue wins over evil. Every. Single. Time.
  • Special abilities: While most Mary Sues can do anything, each Mary Sue has exceptional, almost super hero-like talent in at least one or two areas.

Segment 3

Common Mary Sue traits from this site:

Physical:

  • She will be described in Purple Prose and in incredible detail. Saying she’s slim with long black hair and blue eyes only tells you what she looks like. Saying she’s a delicate, willowy goddess with flowing tresses that shimmer onyx like the feathers of a raven and sparkling cerulean orbs that shine like the ocean and radiate with femininity tells you she’s special.
  • She will also have unusual eyes. No Mary Sue has brown eyes, regardless of her race. Often, it’s a color not found in nature, like violet or gold.
  • She is almost never depicted as putting any effort into maintaining her impossibly “perfect” body. She never has to diet or exercise to stay in fighting shape.

Skills/Abilities:

  • Mary Sue is The Chosen One, even if the setting already has one.
  • Not defined by her personality, but rather by her special powers, fantastic romances, and random acts of heroism.
  • Relatedly, there’s no effort to her skills. She never actually trains or learns anything to become more powerful
  • Incorruptible — so much so that she may be unaware of the concept of temptation.
  • Her skills will generally be inexplicable and poorly defined. Many of them may play no role in the plot, not even as a Required Secondary Power; they’re introduced solely to make the character seem even more awesome.
  • She’s a perfect judge of character, and she’ll be right about everyone. If everyone suspects an ally is really a backstabber, she’ll be the only one to trust him. If everyone believes the villain is really a good guy, she’ll be the one to suspect him.
  • She will get special treatment in-universe; anything the canon characters would have to fight for or earn, she just gets automatically. The classic example is the 16-year-old American Harry Potter “exchange student” who goes to Hogwarts, is immediately given a spot on the Quidditch team, and doesn’t have to wear the uniform.
  • She is not bound by the rules of the universe, whatever the setting may be. Nobody will ever comment on the impossibility of what she does; they’ll just assume she’s that talented.

Relation to other characters:

  • She will always be better than the canon characters, regardless of what canon has established they can do or whether it makes any sense. Her powers will often be similar to those of the existing characters, only with all the downsides and limitations removed. If the characters need a new skill, she’ll often already have it. And even if she does need to learn it, she’ll pick it up in no time.
  • No matter how the Mary Sue acts, other characters will be inexplicably drawn to her. All of her ideas are brilliant, all of her jokes are funny, and all of her advice is spot-on. Anyone who doesn’t react to her this way is usually portrayed as evil or stupid. She doesn’t have to do anything to deserve this treatment; she’s an impossibly good person because the author says she is.
  • She will be related to a canon character in some way. This (marginally) helps explain such phenomena as her being a Copy Cat Sue and other characters accepting her so easily.
  • Most characters give her more heed than they normally would. The good guys never stop praising her. The bad guys never stop belittling her (and thus making themselves look bad).
  • They talk about her when she’s not present. At least one will confess to being secretly in love with her (if more than one does, they may fight each other over her). The villains will obsess over her, to the point of destroying themselves in their jealousy or opening themselves up to redemption and the realization that she was good all along

Common complaints

Why can’t I just be normal?

Why does everyone have to pay attention to what I’m doing all the time?

Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!

(check out this blog of MarySueProblems)

Similar concepts from TVTropes.com:

  • Can’t Argue with Elves(for ideologies instead of people): An entire race is presented as perfect, incapable of fault, and always right in an argument.
  • Alternate History Wank(for countries in Alternate History stories; also known as Republic of Mary Sue): A group, faction, or even county that is wildly successful in an alternate version of history.
  • Creator’s Pet:A character who is loved by their creator but hated by the fans. Jar Jar Binks
  • Superior Species(for species instead of people): A species better than all other species in every thinkable way.

Examples of Mary Sues:

  • Katniss Everdeen- the Hunger Games
  • Bella Swan- Twilight books
  • Rey – Star Wars
  • James Bond
  • Beth March- Little Women
  • Superman
  • Supergirl
  • Captain Dylan Hunt- Andromeda (Kevin Sorbo)
  • A number of Heinlein characters- as stand ins for the author himself.
  • Captain Marvel
  • Ginny Weaselly – Harry Potter
  • Andrew “Ender” Wiggin -Orson Scott Card’s Enderverse Worse as they go on.
  • Wesley Crusher- STNG

Segment 4

Variations on the Mary Sue character from TVTropes.com

  • Villain Sue- The evil version, but again never has a real threat against their power.
  • Sympathetic Sue-  Feel sorry for me!- This version of Mary Sue is often put into action by authors who think that a character can be made likable by making the reader extremely sorry for them through constant tragedy
  • Anti-Sue: A Mary Sue who has many “anti-Sue traits”—ugly, clumsy, untalented, etc—but is still a Mary Sue by other means, such as being worshipped by everyone or always succeeding without fail.
  • Black Hole Sue: Much like a black hole, this is a Mary Sue who “sucks in” the plot and characters to her. Characters will behave outside their personalities, logic will be defied, and rules will be broken for her sake.
  • Copy Cat Sue: A Mary Sue who is a carbon copy of the creator’s favorite character (same abilities, same backstory, etc.)
  • Possession Sue: A canonical character-turned-Author Avatar.
  • Relationship Sue: A Mary Sue whose personality, arc, and traits all go towards being the perfect match for another character.
  • Einstein Sue: A Mary Sue who is amazingly smarter than others, even if said others are professionals and said Mary Sue is an everyday person.
  • God-Mode Sue: A Mary Sue who is so amazingly powerful that they can never be defeated.
  • Jerk Sue: A Mary Sue who is mean or maybe even cruel, but are still treated as an ideal person.
  • Marty Stu: A male Mary Sue
  • Lemon Stu: this is a Mary Sue who can and will sleep with anyone and everyone they want to, on top of being a Sex God.
  • Mary Tzu: A tactician Mary Sue, able to overcome every battle and war no matter if her side is outgunned and overpowered.

Upcoming events in the literary community:

Words & Wine: A Readers’ and Writers’ Monthly Socialwill be Tuesday, June 18 from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. and feature best-selling author and blues historian, Clair DeLune, author of South Carolina Blues. She’ll present on Music of the Carolinas. Learn the unique history of music in our state as she shares rare icons of the lore. This will be her first presentation since she shuttered her 29-year radio show at the end of April — Blues Moon Radio.

Words & Wine for June is sponsored by Mark Rapp, CEO/Founder/Owner at ColaJazz. Mark manages Soda City Brass Band, High Fidelity Recordings and USC ColaJazz Camp. Mark will perform. Words & Wine is held at the Lourie Center, 1650 Park Circle (behind Maxcy Gregg Park), Columbia, SC 29201.

The Petigru Review, SCWA’s online literary journal,is currently accepting submissions of fiction, nonfiction and poetry through July, including flash fiction, flash essays, novel chapters and cover-art. We’re also looking for book reviews and craft essays to post on TPR’s website. Check us out at www.thepetigrureview.com. Submit soon as the new issue is beginning to take shape! The editors can’t wait to read your work.

Ready to support Write On SC? Go to Patreon.com/WriteOnSC to become a patron.

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