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Mary Sue Must Die: a call to arms

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nrjxll Relationship Status: Not war
Sep 9th 2012 at 8:45:48 PM

My friends, fellow writers, and those of you who are neither friends nor writers but for some reason are reading this thread anyway:

I know some of you are probably looking at this right now and thinking "oh no, not another Mary Sue thread". I can't blame you; there's been three in the last day or so. And that's part of the reason I'm writing this post.

Most people who have bothered to think twice about it are aware that exactly what a Mary Sue is supposed to be has become... disputed. To quote a relevant post from one of those other threads:

  1. Some people say marysue is only a fanfic term others think it includes canon.
  2. Some people think it's a female only trope others think it is for all genders.
  3. Some people think Mary Sue is "bad thing/bad writting" others thing it can be "charming and good", others that a sue can be written well.
  4. Some people think just being perfect makes a sue, others think having few flaws make you a sue, others think that even flawed characters can be sues.
  5. Some people think every Author Avatar is a sue, others don't.
  6. Some think it's all about how the other character's react to her, others think a sue is on itself a sue regardless of the plot and character interaction.
  7. Some think it is an inmature isult and others a valid description and a form of good criticism.
  8. Some think we must use the "original" concept, others that the concept has "evolved".
  9. Some people believe that you can measure how much "sue" a character is. Others that a character is either a Sue or not.
  10. What's the main trait of a sue?, being disliked?, being too perfect? bending the plot?
  11. Some people think it exists. Others don't.

In the past, I've been of the opinion that what this represented was the decay of the term - that there was a core concept underneath all of the use for "bad character" and ludicrously-flawed "litmus tests" and arguments that really did mean something. But slowly - I didn't fully become convinced of it, in fact, until just before writing this post - that opinion has changed.

The term Mary Sue is not decayed. It's not disputed. It is meaningless.

Whatever it may have meant originally, whatever any individual person thinks it means, it's become so widely abused in so many ways that it's no longer a relevant means of criticism. If someone calls my character a Mary Sue, what am I supposed to take from that? That the character bends the plot in her favor, that too many things go right for her to suspend disbelief? That she has too many "special" traits - or traits believed to be special by one of the many self-appointed Sue Police on the internet - to be realistic or well-written? That the reader is just verbally abusing me with a common amateur-writing insult and has no intention of making any meaningful point? I certainly wouldn't be able to tell.

And that's why, as of this moment, I'm declaring war against the term "Mary Sue", and urging the rest of you to do the same. I won't use it. I won't start or participate in any threads debating the finer details of what is and isn't one. If I see a character who makes me think "Sue", I will take the time to rephrase my objections into something more articulated and concrete - the character has no flaws; everything revolves around them; I just plain don't like them; or whatever. And I'll do my best overall to put Mary Sue in the linguistic graveyard where it belongs.

I seriously doubt there's anything I can do by myself - or even with everyone else on here - to challenge what's now become an entrenched part of internet writing culture. But when success means never having to see another debate about the arcane trivia of an utterly meaningless term, I think it's worth the effort regardless of my chances.

Who's with me?

MorwenEdhelwen Aussie Tolkien freak from Sydney, Australia
Aussie Tolkien freak
Sep 9th 2012 at 8:50:25 PM

I know some of you are probably looking at this right now and thinking "oh no, not another Mary Sue thread".
That's exactly what I was thinking. What is with the Mary Sue threads anyway? I kind of get the feeling that this term is a big deal. And I agree with you.

edited 9th Sep '12 8:51:41 PM by MorwenEdhelwen

The road goes ever on. -Tolkien
nrjxll Relationship Status: Not war
Sep 9th 2012 at 8:52:20 PM

I don't know, but there's a reason I'm calling for their demise.

Sonzai from Singularity Station
Sep 9th 2012 at 8:53:08 PM

Really, nrjxll, another Mary Sue thread? tongue

edited 9th Sep '12 8:53:47 PM by Sonzai

Danger: Intense gravimetric distortions nearby. Please reverse the polarity on your deflectors now.
MorwenEdhelwen Aussie Tolkien freak from Sydney, Australia
Aussie Tolkien freak
Sep 9th 2012 at 8:55:37 PM

Why is it such a big deal?

The road goes ever on. -Tolkien
SnowyFoxes Drummer Boy from Club Room Relationship Status: I know
Drummer Boy
Sep 9th 2012 at 9:17:21 PM

-slams seal of approval on thread-

Yeah, this really needs to stop. Another thing I see that may or may not be completely relevant is people saying "Your character is a Mary Sue" without explaining what makes the character a Mary Sue, leaving the author to stumble into a random interpretation and take it as gospel. And an Anti-Sue is born.

EDIT: Shit, I misread your post and failed to see that you pretty much addressed that.

edited 9th Sep '12 9:19:56 PM by SnowyFoxes

The last battle's curtains will open on stage!
NekoLLX Writer: Tokusatsu 5YrWar from Soviet America
Writer: Tokusatsu 5YrWar
Sep 9th 2012 at 9:18:58 PM

cause "bad character all along" and "bad character through experience" don't roll off the tongue nearly as well even if they are more descriptive, (sorta like English Prime)

7 friends, a robot, and a spirit, will find a way to protect us...if it kills them.
QQQQQ from Canada
Sep 9th 2012 at 9:29:04 PM

I feel this is redolent of silliness and needless hysteria over the term - and that "to declare war, my comrades!" over it would fall into a similar semantic trap of those aforementioned writers' defining themselves around Not-Having-Mary-Sues(TM), if not the same. The mental image which comes to my mind is someone, cast as the embattled Mary Sue rebel, grim-visaged the way Gary Cooper used to be, doing the long walk down main street to face the high noon of writing democracy.

A better and more elegant solution to Miss Mary Lou, I imagine may be - instead of petty fights over terms, to open your hearts to genuine characterisation from what you see and read, and take it into yourselves that what you create may eventually evoke just as much in your audience, Gary Stu or not, ja. grin

edited 10th Sep '12 11:58:44 AM by QQQQQ

JHM Thunder, Perfect Mind from Neither Here Nor There Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
Sep 9th 2012 at 9:51:27 PM

"I am a Forum Herald and I approve this message."

[up] I really don't know what you mean. If you mean to say that a crusade against the term is silly, I think that's part of the original poster's point: Participation encourages the meme. And that's totally ignoring how tongue-in-cheek it all is. If it be something else... well, why not explain?

I'll hide your name inside a word, and paint your eyes with false perception.
SnowyFoxes Drummer Boy from Club Room Relationship Status: I know
Drummer Boy
Sep 9th 2012 at 9:57:01 PM

Yeah, I'm pretty sure the militarism isn't completely serious.

The last battle's curtains will open on stage!
Sonzai from Singularity Station
Sep 9th 2012 at 9:58:41 PM

But the power of language is in defining things in such a way that they can be communicated to others clearly and succinctly.

If not Mary Sue, then what will we call all our plot-warping badly-written protagonists?

Also, it's obvious that we should have all these Mary Sue threads, because clearly Mary Sue threads are the best, and we should always talk about Mary Sue in Writer's Block. tongue

Danger: Intense gravimetric distortions nearby. Please reverse the polarity on your deflectors now.
JHM Thunder, Perfect Mind from Neither Here Nor There Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
Sep 9th 2012 at 10:17:11 PM

Well, Sonzai, there's always "badly-written, plot-warping protagonist." Or "accidental douchebag," as the case may be.

I'll hide your name inside a word, and paint your eyes with false perception.
nrjxll Relationship Status: Not war
Sep 9th 2012 at 10:24:59 PM

If not Mary Sue, then what will we call all our plot-warping badly-written protagonists?

I don't know - it doesn't really matter so long as it's not "Mary Sue".

Honestly, this isn't really that tongue-in-cheek - the militarist rhetoric and tone are, but the underlying message is deadly serious. Mary Sue has become - and may have always been - an utterly meaningless term, and I'm through with it. And I really, seriously, am advocating that the rest of you do the same.

No more litmus tests. No more "Mary Sue police". No more obsessing over whether your characters fit into some arbitrarily-determined category at the expense of thinking about them in any meaningful way.

The "crusade" I'm calling for isn't one of actively going around declaring how bad the term is. It's one of non-participation. Just let the damn thing die already (or, perhaps, let it rest in peace - it's been dead for a while).

But the power of language is in defining things in such a way that they can be communicated to others clearly and succinctly.

Which is part of the reason why Mary Sue needs to die. It's about as clear these days as a blizzard.

edited 9th Sep '12 10:27:07 PM by nrjxll

Sep 10th 2012 at 2:09:03 AM

To be fair, in almost every thread I've ever seen on writer's block, a troper would bring up a rather specific definition of a Mary Sue (bends the plot to their advantage, makes people act against their characterisation etc.) and everybody would agree with them.

But yeah, just describing the character traits instead of having to define Mary Sue every time you bring it up is easier, so why not.

KylerThatch literary masochist
literary masochist
Sep 10th 2012 at 2:38:41 AM

Which is part of the reason why Mary Sue needs to die. It's about as clear these days as a blizzard.
Naw, you can still see a bright light a couple paces ahead of you. I'd say it's about as clear as three feet of solid lead.

This "faculty lot" you speak of sounds like a place of great power...
Wheezy (That Guy You Met Once) from South Philly
(That Guy You Met Once)
Sep 10th 2012 at 3:05:25 AM

All I have to say is that I'm down for this. I'm tired of hearing that name mentioned in a new thread every day, anyway.

I have a webcomic. Why not read it sometime?
CrystalGlacia from Cedarpointland
Sep 10th 2012 at 4:25:49 AM

I do feel sad whenever I see a new person make a thread freaking out about Mary Sues.

-approves-

"Whenever I feel like I know how computers work, I go to class and leave feeling like I'm wearing my pants on my head, eating paste."
Vyctorian ◥▶◀◤ from Domhain Sceal
◥▶◀◤
Sep 10th 2012 at 6:15:36 AM

I have to agree, I couldn't find anything wrong with this.

Rarely active, try DA/Tumblr Avatar by pippanaffie.deviantart.com
Night The future of warfare in UC. from Jaburo Relationship Status: Drift compatible
The future of warfare in UC.
Sep 10th 2012 at 7:10:23 AM

I fail to see anything here that's can't be solved by simply being specific in objections or typing, much like the wiki is.

And I can't help but think some people are jumping on the bandwagon because they didn't read the last full paragraph and are instead moving for the abolition of anyone being able to call anything Sueish behavior.

Edit: Or in other words, you are complaining about the inability to offer proper description. Not only is attacking the blanket description the wrong way to go about this (might as well attack everyone who says "it's a plane" and looks up, without saying what kind of plane), you're really complaining about the unwillingness to offer detailed commentary, and taking it out on the blanket description rather than the people who aren't willing.

edited 10th Sep '12 7:38:42 AM by Night

Nous restons ici.
Morven Nemesis from Seattle, WA, USA
Nemesis
Sep 10th 2012 at 10:28:44 AM

I agree with this. The term has become so abused as to be functionally meaningless. Better to describe explicitly what sucks.

A brighter future for a darker age.
nrjxll Relationship Status: Not war
Sep 10th 2012 at 11:40:43 AM

Or in other words, you are complaining about the inability to offer proper description. Not only is attacking the blanket description the wrong way to go about this (might as well attack everyone who says "it's a plane" and looks up, without saying what kind of plane), you're really complaining about the unwillingness to offer detailed commentary, and taking it out on the blanket description rather than the people who aren't willing.

Thing is, everyone uses Mary Sue, not just this kind of "lazy critic"; it's just that no one agrees on what it means. Dealan is correct in that most people here who discuss the term are willing to state their definition - but if that's the case, then what becomes the point of the Mary Sue term itself?

Night The future of warfare in UC. from Jaburo Relationship Status: Drift compatible
The future of warfare in UC.
Sep 10th 2012 at 12:07:24 PM

Welcome to dealing with human beings? Connotation and denotation are not fixed from person to person because of our personal experience with terms; how we see others use them, how they are explained to us by others, the circumstances in which we use them.

You could make this argument about a large number of descriptors, many of which actually do own multiple meanings (there's plane again).

Nous restons ici.
JHM Thunder, Perfect Mind from Neither Here Nor There Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
Sep 10th 2012 at 2:22:12 PM

You know, one can criticise badly-written, unbelievable, self-insertionist characters without explicitly using the term.

Look, I can understand why you take issue with the fact that some people decry the expression to avoid criticism of their own writing. I actually agree with the sentiment. But at the same time, "Mary Sue" is such an abused term that even justified accusations ring hollow. Instead, simply stating the problem is better.

I'll hide your name inside a word, and paint your eyes with false perception.
Wolf1066 Typin' strangely from New Zealand Relationship Status: In my bunk
Typin' strangely
Sep 10th 2012 at 3:43:02 PM

IJBM: the number of "What sort of flaws do I need to stop [latest character] becoming/being a Mary Sue" (or similarly themed) threads.

As if magically adding a few flaws or avoiding a few markers is going to stop a reality/universe warper from sucking or, conversely, being an Author Avatar or beautiful/talented/sought-after automatically makes a well-written non-plot-warping character a "Mary Sue".

People become obsessed with the idea of avoiding a Sue/Anti-Sue and focus on entirely the wrong things (I've been guilty of that a number of times myself) due to the conflicting and rather subjective views on what constitutes a "Mary Sue" in the eyes of different people.

Compounded by the fact that responses to such threads usually include "by merely making the character ugly/clumsy/undesireable you could be making an Anti-Sue."

Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
Sep 10th 2012 at 4:28:20 PM

Nrjxll, you just amused me and made my day. If we ever meet in meatspace, I owe you a drink.

On criticism: I don't have anything to add. I'd just like to repeat what others have said: I struggle to imagine how a critic could call a character a Mary Sue without coming off an attacking the author, unless the critic is a friend who is permitted by dint of mutual trust and shared experience to speak such blunt judgments. But, as many have already said, one can diagnose all the symptoms that make such a character in a neutral manner, and in doing so provide more useful and specific information. The term thus contains no added value, unless one seeks to amuse an audience. (And even then, it's a simple and amateurish blow.)

On writing goals: the distinction between "how do I avoid a Mary Sue?" and "how do I create a complex and interesting character?" is not a merely academic one. Seeking to avoid failure is not the same thing as seeking success. At best, a writer who gets into the mental frame of "I don't want to make a Mary Sue" instead of "I want to make an interesting character" risks being satisfied with characters who are merely So Okay, It's Average and do not inspire ire... or any other emotion for that matter. At worst, they will be unable to risk giving their characters any traits associated with the Mary Sue, no matter how justifiable, benign, or even potentially interesting, and in doing so cripple themselves unnecessarily.

(Note: I feel contractually obliged to point out this discussion runs the risk of becoming a self-congratulatory echo chamber.)


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