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On Writing – The Dreaded Mary Sue

Spoilers in this post will include the movies of Divergent and Godzilla 2014. If you haven’t seen or read these things, you might want to skip the rest of this post. I’m going to be going into character development which will, of course, expose spoilers for plot, character, and even the endings of the movies.

A few months ago, a group of friends were visiting from Germany. We’re all big fangirls of various shows and movies and it’s always a blast when they come. While they were here, we decided to take a break from the crazy fan schedule and see Divergent, which had just come out. I’d actually already seen it, but was definitely fine with seeing it a second time. Oddly, after the movie we ended up having a debate about Tris being a Mary Sue. We were pretty evenly split about it, though I think I was loud enough to convince the others that she wasn’t… and of course I had logic on my side, too. ;o)

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, urbandictionary.com defines a Mary Sue as: “A female fanfiction character who is so perfect as to be annoying. The male equivlalent is the Marty-Stu. Often abbreviated to “Sue”.” All you really need to remember is Mary Poppins who was, by her own words, “practically perfect in every way.” This is the essence of being a Mary/Marty Sue and it occurs in every media there is, not just fanfiction.

Getting back to Tris. The question about her Mary Sue-ness stemmed from the fact that she was able to do everything she set her mind to doing. My counter to this argument was that a) she had to work damn hard to do so, b) didn’t really know what the hell she was doing most of the time, and c) being a Divergent in and of itself granted her special ‘powers.’ Also, no one was calling Four a Marty-Sue, even though he was amazing at everything and also a Divergent.

Heroes vs. The Mary Sue

So what’s the difference between a (super)hero who has all these amazing powers/gifts/intelligence and a Mary Sue? The line is pretty damn thin, in my opinion.

Consider the most recent Godzilla. I loved this movie and did a review on it last month. I’ll probably even get the dvd. The only problem I had with this movie – and it was a small one – was how much of a Marty Sue the main character was. I liked the actor and the part, but the fact is that without any superpower(s) whatsoever, somehow, the guy manages to survive falling off a bridge, being handcuffed in a secured vehicle flung around by Godzilla, not getting flattened by Godilla (twice, I think) and managing to persuade every single serviceman he met – of rank or not – to let him in on all the action so he could get home to his family. That is one lucky sonuvabitch, right? Or… could be a Marty Sue. I think the saving grace for this character was that he didn’t just get up and walk away from his injuries, he was left limping, and he didn’t always win, even though he survived. Plus his emotional scars were pretty deep and he didn’t get over those even after his father died.

I think all writers do their version of a Mary Sue at some time or another during their career. It’s easy. It’s basically the deus ex machina of characters and solves a lot of problems in one fell swoop. It’s especially hard not to fall into this trap when you’re writing any kind of fantasy, be it urban fantasy, classic fantasy, superhero, or what have you. Since magic/superpowers/other species exist, giving them unchecked access to those powers is practically a gift wrapped problem solver. I had to deal with this with my current steampunk fantasy novel since one of the characters is a very powerful mage. How did I counteract this? Well, he’s sexist (as the Victorian times call for), unnecessarily overprotective of his love who doesn’t have magic, and more than a little vain. So while his magic allows him to defeat other mages with relative ease, he’s not perfect. Plus, he’s got a good heart.

And that’s the balance that writers have to find. Even if there’s logic to the character being able to mow down every single bad guy and overcome all terrible circumstances due to his/her (super)powers, you have to make them human and relatable to your readers in some fashion. Superman and Batman have major abandonment issues. Wonder Woman’s kind of a snob about us regular humans, even if she’s nice about it. Luke Skywalker was pretty much a naive whiner to start with. Xena was unbeatable in battle, but emotionally crippled. Sure, they all have superpowers (eventually, in some cases), but they’ve also got something good and often too human inside to balance it out.

I think that Mary Sues get something of a bad rap, too. They do serve a purpose. A lot of times, writers who are just starting out need a familiar stereotype and/or archetype to build from. The good ones – or maybe just the determined ones – will learn how to develop the characters beyond the obvious and go deeper. Everyone needs to start somewhere and archetypes exist because of themes and ideals central to the human condition.

But that’s a topic for another post.


About Nancy M. Griffis

Author and screenwriter who loves scifi/action/adventure/urban fantasy genres. I have two published novels, Mind Games and Eternal Investigations, as well as a short story published for charity called "Home Fires Burning." All are available through amazon.com and barnesandnobles.com.


2 thoughts on “On Writing – The Dreaded Mary Sue

  1. I was thinking about Xena at the beginning and then you mentioned her! Yes, perfect and flawed at once. Callisto and Caesar were able to bring that out in her, that’s for sure.

    Posted by Rachel | June 14, 2014, 8:32 pm

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Nancy at the Tim Burton exhibit in L.A.

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