Friday, August 17, 2018

Why People Hate Mary Sues


She's perfect. She always says the right things at the right times, people can't stop gushing over her, and she never does anything wrong. She makes everybody look bad, but she feels plastic, fake. You're sure her life is secretly a mess, but she'll never show it. To her, everything seems easy, effortless. She never has to work for any of the good things thrown her way.

This kind of person would drive anyone insane. But it's especially aggravating when we see this character in entertainment. This is how I define a Mary Sue.

Some people cry “Mary Sue” as soon as a character shows up that they don't like. Usually the cry of “Mary Sue” can be enough to transform any character into a pariah. But “Mary Sue” has been used to describe anything from a character who's mildly annoying to one that every other character adores to one that's obscenely overpowered compared to everyone else.

So what exactly is a Mary Sue, and why is this type of character so loathed?

TV Tropes has done excellent work cataloging the origins and various definitions of a Mary Sue, though they do warn that the specific definition differs from person to person.

Originally written as a parody... [t]he prototypical Mary Sue is... idealized... mainly for the purpose of wish fulfillment. She's exotically beautiful... She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her 'flaws' are obviously meant to be endearing... 
The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their true companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting... [T]he canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series...”1

TV Tropes may not be willing to pin down a definition for a Mary Sue, but most people agree that a Mary Sue is not something you want a character to be. It is a character who is inexplicably perfect to the point of ripping away the audience's suspension of disbelief. A Mary Sue makes other characters look like idiots compared to how incredibly perfect they are, and everyone pays them uneven amounts of attention.

Now, having some of these traits doesn’t necessarily make a bad character. Hey Arnold's Helga, a bully who struggles to confess her true feelings, is contrasted with her absolutely perfect sister Olga, the perfect daughter who's always doing good deeds and getting straight A's, but Olga doesn't break the suspension of disbelief. Saitama from One Punch Man was created to be over-powered, able to defeat any opponent in a single punch, yet he remains likable. Most protagonists gain tons of attention throughout their series; they seem to be the center of attention. But none of these situations garner as much hate as characters labeled a “Mary Sue.” Why not? What makes the difference?

I think what truly separates a Mary Sue from other exceptionally-talented, strong, powerful, or well-liked characters is the fact that accepted characters are meant to be played for laughs while Sues are meant to be taken seriously, and Mary Sues did not earn their status.

Can you think of anything more frustrating than someone who has everything when they haven't done anything to earn it? Think of the irritation with the “One Percenters” in today's society, or how frustrating it is when you've worked your butt off for a promotion only to see someone who doesn't work as hard or as long as you get it instead. This is the sentiment that Mary Sues bring. Little wonder so many people use “Mary Sue” as a derogatory term.

Mary Sues haven't worked for or earned their power, talents, and “beloved by all” statuses. So when Mary Sues hog the spotlight, it rubs salt in the wound. Not only do we have a character who hasn't earned the amazing traits she possesses, but every other character in the universe seems oblivious to that fact.

In addition, Mary Sues have no flaws or weaknesses whatsoever, or if they do, it's ones that don't matter to the story. They can't cook, but who cares? They’re adorably clumsy, but they never trip or fall at an inconvenient time so it works against them.2 And because a Mary Sue has no flaws, she's unrealistic to the point of unbelievability. We can't take a character who is literally good at everything seriously, because no one is like that in real life.

But how do you explain characters like Captain America? Steve Rogers is regularly shown as a very good man. He doesn't seem to have any real flaws; he is literally made into an unstoppable super soldier. He's a good guy with good morals. He doesn't have any particular weaknesses to speak of. Yet nobody complains about him being a Mary Sue. Now compare him to Rey, who's criticized in dozens of videos on YouTube.

Hard work makes for a good character!
Once again, it's because Rey's power has not been earned, especially in the context of her universe. What few struggles she has are not enough to justify the level of power and the attention she receives from most other characters in the film.

In the first Captain America movie, Steve Rogers struggles to achieve his dream, which seemed so out of reach. We rooted for him because we saw he was a man of character, even before he enlisted in the army and became Captain America. And even after becoming Captain America, not everything came easily for him. He fails to save his friend Bucky—twice. He fails to keep Hydra bases from exploding. But he keeps fighting to overcome those failures.

Compare that to Rey, who is immediately able to use Force abilities we've only seen trained Jedi Knights perform, who can wield a lightsaber like an expert despite never turning one on before using it to defeat a trained combatant. Rey didn't work for these abilities, whereas Steve Rogers had to undergo boot camp and struggle with titanic villains.

And unlike Steve Rogers’s Super Soldier program, Rey has no program to justify why she is so powerful in the Force—even moreso than Luke Skywalker, apparently, who had the same start point as Rey and yet had to undergo months if not years of training to be able to do what Rey can do without anyone instructing her.

Mary Sues are not loathed because they're more powerful than anyone else. They're not hated because they garner attention or because they lack meaningful flaws. They're despised because they have all these things, and absolutely none of them are earned through training, failure, and hard work. And anything worth having in life is worth fighting for.

---
Notes and References:
  1. “Mary Sue,” TV Tropes. October 3, 2017, accessed August 10, 2018.
  2. Ibid.
Photo by Oscar Söderlund on Unsplash.

Star Wars and all related names and terms property of LucasFilm and Walt Disney Studios. Captain America and all related names and terms property of Marvel Entertainment, LLC (and also Walt Disney Studios). And I am not affiliated with any of them.

From Him, To Him

11 comments:

  1. There's a part of me expecting an article like this at some point in this blog! Hahaha!

    I'm glad you brought up the point that Mary Sues can have insignificant "flaws" like clumsiness. They never hamper the character and they are just features disguised as flaws.

    Even though I'm not a Captain America fan, I never really thought of him as a Marty Stu. He's certainly out-of-time and old-fashioned and at least he did work to be a soldier regardless of the serum or not.

    Some characters bug the crap out of me as invincible characters really turn me off. One such example is Ryoma from The Prince of Tennis. He always wins his matches and is a total jerk about it to the point where I wanted his opponents to beat him. Yugi from Yu-Gi-Oh gets called a Marty Stu and even the Abridged series mentions it. Sure, he got bullied, but he always wins his matches, has Yami (the taller version) do all the dueling (isn't that cheating?), and he never loses unless someone cheats or loses "on purpose" to prove a point about something. Say what you will about Hikaru no Go, but at least no one is invincible in that anime/manga series.

    I could also name several Disney characters that could count as Mary Sues, but I'm sure you can guess which ones they are. Hahaha! Another thing that bothers me is that Mary Sues are also tantamount to do protagonist centered morality, but because the rest of the cast is so gaga about them, they get a free pass.

    I make sure all my heroes have at least one flaw in them and have it affect their character.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's awesome, Curtis! I think learning from Sues is the best thing we can do with them. I guess that's the line between constructive criticism/discussion and arguing for argument's sake: what's your goal in saying this character is a Mary Sue? Is it to prove your own point, or is it to become a better writer?

      Those are some great examples, both good and bad. It's not as interesting to watch a character who wins all the time, and that's not even getting into the complications of protagonist-centered morality!

      Delete
    2. Thanks! That's true that people need to learn why a character is a Sue. While Sues do annoy me, I'm also annoyed by when people throw that term around for no reason. There have been times where people have Parody Sues like one episode of Recess with that transfer student who outshines the main cast. Sure, he was too perfect to be likable, but that was part of the joke.

      I'm glad I was able to use those examples. I'm a believer that a villain should be a legit obstacle to the hero. When a hero is winning all the time, he/she doesn't just conquer the obstacle, they BECOME the obstacle. Yeah, PCM can really hurt a character, too.

      Delete
    3. It is frustrating when someone calls a character you like a "Mary Sue" without actually having proof to back it up (usually I think this happens because they either want to troll or they don't really put thought into what the term means). Fortunately, I think a growing group of people are becoming about what makes a Mary Sue (or, perhaps more accurately, we're starting to form a more cohesive definition of what defines a Mary Sue as a whole).

      Parody Sues are definitely an exception to the rule, as they're great for laughs. They definitely highlight what makes Mary Sues so unlikable!

      I just find Mary Sues to be so uninteresting because they overcome any would-be obstacles! As you said, villains should be legitimate problems for the hero. There's no tension if you know your hero is just going to solve the problem easily.

      Of course, there are exceptions to this--we all know Saitama from One-Punch Man is going to defeat the villains in one punch, but what will happen to the rest of the cast before he gets there?

      Sure, we know Danny Ocean is going to successfully pull off the casino heist, but HOW is he going to do it?

      In both these cases, these stories KNOW they have an "overpowered" protagonist and find other ways to make the story interesting. Mary Sue writers do not implement these kinds of clever writing strategies, leading to boring encounters. It's a tragedy, because I always WANT to care about a hero, but if there's no tension ("What's going to happen next?") in the story, I just won't be invested. :(

      Delete
    4. Definitely. I can see people just trolling, not knowing what they're talking about and/or finding a character who's their personal Ron the Death Eater (heroic contrast to Draco in Leather Pants).

      I agree with Parody Sues. They can be funny when used well.

      Of course. It's so boring when the heroes win all the time. There are some villains that I don't find to be threatening to the heroes at all. Some villains can be unintentional sympathetic to me if they always lose and aren't that evil or have legit reasons to go after the hero, and I shouldn't be feeling this way.

      It's really tough for me to appreciate the exceptions. Sure, I get that heroes typically in in the end, but I have a hard time if I know they're going to doing everything effortlessly.

      To be fair, Mary Sue writers don't have that kind of nuance. Maybe it's because I maybe stricter on invincible characters, but I'm not sure.

      Delete
    5. I'd love to hear your response to a show like One-Punch Man! If you ever check it out, let me know how you felt the writer handled his overpowered abilities!

      Delete
    6. Gotcha. If I do watch it, I don't think I'll review it on Iridium Eye though given the concept of the blog. I wonder how I could best describe thy thoughts without resorting to that blog.

      Delete
    7. Hm... Would it fit on your fiction blog perhaps? I guess you prefer to keep your own original content on that one though...

      Delete
    8. Maybe, but my emphasis is on my own original works. Maybe the Ospreyshire page since I've been doing posts not about my music like some news or personal opinion pieces.

      Delete
    9. I think it would definitely have enough of your opinions on it to qualify, if that's the case. :)

      Delete