Why? You ask, why with the feminism posts?
Well, because things like this tend to really take the piss and make me ashamed of my fellow women. And maybe because it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Also probably because I’m a woman who giggles to herself at her androgynous pseudonym. Also, maybe, because probably I want too and this is really my blog so I can talk about whatever I please. And really, because it might be about the fact that I’m a writer and an artist and women are oh so much fun to draw and write about.
If you’ve been paying attention, or if you’re new to the blog, you’ll have noticed that the last three or so posts have been about feminism and how it works better if it’s understated. I used Downton Abbey as the platform, but there are other shows who do it just as well.
This go around, we’re going to do a 180 and talk about the other side of feminism and writing. The dark side. The bad side. The one side that doesn’t have the good cookies no matter how much they sign about it.
Except that maybe the Mary Sue isn’t really the dark side of writing. Maybe we kinda might be needing a few Mary Sues of our own.
WAIT! Before you pitchfork me, hear me out. Mary Sues do not, necessarily, have to be a bad thing! As defined, a Mary Sue is the ‘perfect’ character, someone the reader can project his/herself into and live the book through as though they were that character.
A Mary Sue is also that character that fan fiction writers use to put themselves into their favourite (insert popular book/movie/television show here) so they can get in on the action and usually make the lead male fall in love with their character, because obviously their character is better crafted than something the show’s writers could ever think of in their wildest imaginings.
I know, because I’ve been there.
Make no mistake, the Mary Sue is not relegated to the fan fiction world. Twilight, The Hunger Games, even Stephen King gets in on the Mary Sue action with Doctor Sleep. Sad, but there it is. The Mary Sue is not herself bad, she is a character trope that is used, much like the Deus Ex Machina, to get the hero out of the jam (if she is a subordinate character) or to keep the plot going (if she is the main character). It is her whole ‘perfection’ and even ‘imperfection’ that makes her an absolutely terrible writing trope.
How do you spot a Mary Sue, you ask? It’s not that difficult. In the fan fiction world, her name is a marriage between the show/book’s main character’s name or you’ll see a ‘happens to be’ somewhere in the character description. For example: she ‘happens to be’ the daughter of another powerful character, ‘happens to have’ mastery over this or that magical power, ‘happens to be’ the sister the main character didn’t know about, or ‘happens to be’ the other only person that could possibly have this power the main character of the book/television series has that no one else does (or so the writers thought) and that the whole book/series depends upon.
The published world is not that different from the fan fiction world. The Mary Sue criteria doesn’t change all that much. This Mary Sue is the thing the world hinges on. She has magical powers that come out of nowhere and she is the missing link between two worlds. She is also pretty and has one trait that is supposed to make her relate-able to a wide audience. Many times she is a ditz. Because, you know, every woman can relate to being an airhead. Apparently. In extreme cases of Mary Sue-ness, she is supposed to be the social outcast, but isn’t. Everyone likes her without her even needing to try. Sure she comes from a ‘broken’ home, but socially, she is perfectly acceptable.
The thing that binds the Mary Sue in these two worlds is her ultimate perfect-ness. Sure things ‘happen’ to her, but they don’t. Not really. Where fully realised characters go through a significant change in the course of a single book or more; Mary Sues are already perfect, they don’t need to change, they just need to get the guy at the end of the story. Because, seriously, that’s the only reason people read the book.
The Mary Sue is in the story simply to propel the story forward. The plot happens around her. She reacts, but does not grow, and by virtue of being the main character (and unlike Raiders of the Lost Ark), the story cannot happen without her.
Is it bad writing? Oh God, yes. Mary Sues should never take the place of main characters who are people with hopes, dreams, and who start out one way and end up fundamentally changed. Do we have to like them? No, but we should be rooting for them.
But they can start out a story. They can be part of the first draft, and probably should be. Because when a main character doesn’t do anything but exist, we can see how the plot plays out in the background of the characters. It’s like painting. There are layers underneath the final bits that we don’t, and probably will never see. Those layers are the bits that the artist played with, where they fiddled with their pallet to get the mixtures just right, where they said ‘fuck this’ and started all over again, where they painted and painted until Jesus HG Wells tap dancing Christ am I an artist or am I a pig?! and then finally, they got it right.
A Mary Sue is exactly that, a perfect idealisation of what we want our characters to be. The girl gets the guy before he’s brutally murdered, or she solves the case before the killer turns out to really be her partner, and she likes who she is before she looks in the painting and realises that, in that moment, she was more beautiful on canvas before her eyes melted out of her head just like the gypsy woman promised.
Is there a purpose to the Mary Sue? Bet your ass there is. She is that thing writers should use to cut their chops. She is a character sounding board, that thing which writers everywhere should endeavour to raise up and then un-create with every subsequent re-write and draft.
Do we need a Mary Sue? Yes we do. We need the Mary Sue characters to remind us of what we don’t want to write. As popular as Twilight and The Hunger Games are, what many readers bemoan is the wanting to like Katniss and being unable to, and how she never changes. For Twilight many readers gripe about the stupidity of whats her name and how she never changes except from going from the living to the un-dead with all of her other sparkly vampire buddies. Doctor Sleep sees the god-like little girl with amazing powers who really wasn’t necessary to the story other than as a plot device. Same thing with Thor’s latest Hollywood endeavour.
Bottom line: we need the Mary Sue , we need them as a lesson in what not to do as writers and as women. The Mary Sue serves her purpose as a lesson to be learned.
Read the Mary Sue books and take the lesson to heart:
Don’t publish perfection. No one likes perfection. Keep your Mary Sues where they belong:
on the cutting board.