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thinking about Mary Sues

There's a lot of discussion going on about Mary Sues, and what makes a Mary Sue, and Sue shaming and so on. I'm kind of ambivalent, or at least confused, so I have all the following thoughts about it:

-- awesome male character = badass. awesome female character (often) = Sue. Double standards at their worst.

-- wish-fulfilment is not bad. It is not necessarily good either. It can be done badly (too many things to count) or it can be done well (P&P!). I think it's easier to do badly than many things, and where a lot of us (all of us?) start. My first original character was a golden-haired, sapphire-eyed princess-healer-seeress-sorceress with the most powerful magical talent EVER HEARD OF. And she was Chosen by Fate to save the world from an alien invasion.

-- screaming "Sue! It's a Sue!" at any sign of an OC is offensive, and also stupid. The Sueification of canon characters is every bit as prevalent as OC Sues, if not more so, and not only bad writing but bad analysis too.

And bad analysis makes Auntie Jane cry.

-- there are such things as Sues. They can be, but are not necessarily, any of the following: original characters, cool original characters, cool characters, flawless characters, or self-inserts/author avatars. That is, those kinds of characters are not necessarily Sues, though Sues generally are one or more of them.

-- Sues are bad.

-- personally, I suspect the Cult of Nice is largely to blame for the overuse of "Mary Sue." Concrit, even if welcomed by the author, is likely to be flamed by other readers. Just about the only criticism you can freely offer is "X Character is a Sue" -- so people do. Even when what they really mean is "your character is badly written."  In Austen fandom, the acronym "FWC" was similarly overused.

-- when it comes to Sue vs not-Sue, what really matters is NARRATIVE ROLE. An attractive, talented person about whom the story revolves is more likely to be a main character than a Sue. For instance, the narrative attention that Harry Potter receives is justified by his significance to the story. It's his story and therefore most of it revolves around him.

He's merely a major character in Snape's story, however; and there'd be a real danger of Sueification if Harry was the central character to that story. No matter how flawless or beautiful or powerful or whatever your original character is, if you keep it in its narrative place, in all probability it won't be a Sue.

For instance, Faramir in Lord of the Rings is beautiful, so pure of heart that he can reject the Ring (I would not take this thing, if it lay by the highway. Not were Minas Tirith falling in ruin and I alone could save her), speaks for the author, is loved by his entire country, and has Númenórean superpowers (I perceived [Gollum's crimes] clearly in his mind).  When he and his men are being chased by Ringwraiths, he holds them together through sheer charisma (and/or more superpowers), and rides back to rescue those who've fallen behind.  In short (hah), he's distilled awesome.

In lesser hands, he'd have been a Sue of epic levels.  However, Tolkien limits him to his proper narrative role:  a major supporting character, but not a central one, whose existence is only once alluded to until halfway through the book, and who only appears in person when the main characters enter Gondor.  Even there, he is but one of several important characters, less significant in himself than in his effect on others. 

Can a main character be a Sue?  Certainly -- if everybody and everything revolves around a character to a degree that is not merited by the character's in-story significance, he/she might very well be a Sue.  Isabella Swan from Twilight is a popular example, but I'll stick my neck out and add Sophia Stanton-Lacy from The Grand Sophy, who practically warps reality around her (imagine if Emma Woodhouse's schemes always worked, she was always right about everyone, everybody who doesn't approve of anything she does was wrong and possibly deluded, and she was the central figure in everybody's lives). 

Incidentally, the novel in which Sophy appears is consistently the most popular Heyer, and she is probably the most beloved of all the Heyer heroines.  It just goes to show that even Sues can be attractive and engaging.

So, to conclude:  you don't need no stinking litmus tests!  Just make sure your character's narrative importance is commensurate with its importance to the story being told.  This won't necessarily make your character well-written, but it will save it from the darkest depths of Suedom.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Apr. 17th, 2010 04:47 pm (UTC)
Cult of Nice....
...odd how it applies to criticisms and not to characters. I got into a row some years ago on MEFA for making an adverse comment about a piece by another author, and yet the actual Tolkien characters could be traduced by any contributor virtually ad lib.

That attitude spreads beyond lit. crit., of course. I keep meeting with it in my private and professional life. Y ou can't (in Britain at least) make an adverse comment - however well deserved - on a piece of school or college work, or a school report, or an exam. script, without being hauled over the coals. You have to be Nice to the point of rank cowardice and hypocrisy. And yet the people who insist on sinners and idlers being thus treated with kid gloves are the same people who sneer at anyone who clings to old-fashioned virtues like courage, truthfulness or (perish the thought) chastity. Like the movie scriptwiters who turned Faramir into a juvenile, snivelling, bullying wimp because the original was Too Good to be True. On the assumption, presumably, that anyone that Good cannot possibly be True. I've said some pretty nasty things about those scriptwriters in m y time, ha-ha!
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


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