As the doctor prescribes: THE TAXMAN MUST DIE!!!
This month’s blog, (at the less-than-gentle nudging of Z-man and Njalm, might I say) is going to be a bit more relevant to BFF, or RPing in general, because today I’m going to talk about one of the major archetypes that permeates fanfiction, anime, novels, and what-have-you. I guess you could even call this a guide, albeit a “how to NOT do this” guide. Anyway...
That archetype would be none other than the Mary Sue.
First things first, what is a Mary Sue?
Surprisingly, although most people can tell you what a Mary Sue is, a precise definition of the term has eluded fanfiction aficionados and writers in general since the 70’s, where the term was first invented. (For a Star Trek fanfiction parody of... Star Trek fanfiction, to be precise). Since then the word has come to mean many different things, (including a resurrection spell, allegedly) but we’re not here to debate that terminology. Everyone has their own opinion on what constitutes a Mary Sue, and I’m going to give you my own in a bit here. But first things first:
Mary Sue, Encyclopedic Definition
A Mary Sue is a particular type of character that is usually associated with author-insertion or “wish-fulfillment” on the part of the writer, meaning these types of characters are judged as being poorly developed, too perfect and/or lacking in depth or realism.
In other words, they are boring.
Traditionally, these traits most often manifested in the form of the character’s perceived in-story importance, their over-powered or out-of-series skill set, and a shallow or over-idealized nature that tended to side-line the plot. This is a problem as old or older than Shakespeare: while writing Romeo and Juliet it was rumored that he found the character of Mercutio was taking too much attention away from the main plot and so... well, we all know how that ended up. Perhaps a better example would be Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist: the angelic orphan whose over-copied stereotype often causes readers to beg “please sir, might I have no more?”
While Mercutio and Oliver may not be the exact Mary Sue archetypes, there are more than a handful of examples in canonical series, although they typically run under the surface, lurking amongst the shadows of poor writing and “blank” author and/or reader-insertion characters. (*cough* Bella Swan *cough cough*).
In fanfiction, Mary Sues are a much more pervasive species, usually bearing some close relationship to canon characters, demanding awe from the entire cast due to their extraordinary and inexplicable talent, and (if we are lucky) often die a “graceful, beautiful, and glorious” death at the end in order to further impact the dumb-struck cast. (Yeah, like, literally dumbstruck, as in, “Who gave that guy a brain transplant?”) Obviously, the worst part about these classic Mary Sues is the complete disregard for the themes and characters already established in the series. The entire world warps and bends in order to accommodate Miss Not-So Congeniality, and we the readers are brutalized as a result.
As Edgar Allen Poe wisely said: “Don’t abuse your readers.”
And Now, For Some Examples...
Example A: Nozomi Kujō (Bleach)
Nozomi is possibly one of the most-hated characters in all of Bleach, which is interesting considering the many, many candidates extent in the series, especially in the filler. However, there was something particularly awful about Nozomi that is perhaps only matched on a level of Mary Sue-ness by Senna from the first Bleach movie. The difference is that Senna had many more redeeming qualities: her Mary Sue-ness had a semi-valid cause, and she was contained to, well, a movie. As opposed to an entire arc. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?
Nozomi was an alien element to the series of Bleach. Before this arc we only had Kon as the sole existing Modsoul, which was a relief considering how annoying HE was. Then in wades this green-haired creature from another realm (is she an actual alien? (yes) and suddenly the plot takes a swift and sudden turn in order to accommodate her presence, derailing several characters or canonical elements in the process. Worst part is that, besides the obligatory tragic back-story, virtually nothing was explained about why she was the way she was, why she wielded the powers she did, and most importantly, why everyone cared so much about her and were willing to make sacrifices in order to save her, considering we as viewers gave a hair on a rat’s ass for what happened to her or her screw-ball fantastic abilities.
So, what went wrong?
Possibly the number one problem was the fact that she was given so much attention during the course of the arc. There were other elements we probably would have preferred to see more of (the Captain vs. Captain battles, for instance, or the regression of Ichigo’s powers and possibly sanity), but for whatever reason the CLIMAX of the plot had to do with her and her brother, with one particularly grating scene where Kon tries to “reason” with her right before the battle. (No Kon, don’t do it! STAHP SNAKE!). Her development as a character was hashed, she was one-dimensional, and even though her brother was way more OP than she was, at least his motivations were more interesting.
Scratch that. At least he HAD motivations. My guess is that’s because he was the villain, as opposed to this saintly green-haired goddess that comes to imbed herself within the hearts of the main cast. It’s like bad fanfiction, but one that actually made it as filler, and Nozomi seems to be serving as a vessel of... an unknown TV writer perhaps? Did a fanfic author pay off the studio to include his/her character? Maybe one of the writers was actually a sabotager for BONES? What is going on here?
Speaking of green hair...
Feast your eyes! Just think. Wouldn’t this arc have been SO much better if HE was the Main Character? Oh so many delicious possibilities. Ah well, one can dream...
But back on topic. The reason why it was a problem that Nozomi got so much focus, (meaning abject adoration from the other characters) is because her personality and actions did not justify such strong reactions from the canon cast. They were essentially used as props to demonstrate Nozomi’s inherent awesomeness. Think about it. She basically treated them like shit, rejected all their offers for help and was pretty much an all-around hard-headed and caustic individual. AND YET she’s made out to be this endearing, important character to Ichigo and Co., when she really is, uh, not. It’s like a bad re-hash of the “save Rukia” arc, only in this case Rukia is a flawless, constantly PMSing recluse that the universe appears to revolve around.
But now, enough of the rant, here’s some actual examples of her actions in the series that serve to back-up what I’m saying here:
- Tsundere: At the beginning of the arc Nozomi is portrayed as being rather cold towards most of the main cast, possibly to avoid the view of her being a flat or static character (which is ironic since it doesn’t work). The result? She gets an unusual level of concern from those that she openly dislikes. I suppose it was supposed to be seen as “sugar and spice” but it really just ended up nauseating everyone by the sudden and unexplained turn for the sweeter.
- Schizophrenic: Despite her rather tragic back-story and pressing circumstances, she puts on a face of stoic indifference. Rather than being a genuine aspect of her personality, it seems to be used as an excuse to switch between one personality to another altogether. The kicker is that the “why” was never given, and she comes off as being dimensionless and flat as a result.
- Another example: Nozomi harshly criticizes Rukia’s artwork but instead of reacting to her like Rukia would have done with Ichigo, Rukia turns and berates Kon and Ichigo who were just chuckling at the comment. It’s like Nozomi has an impenetrable force-field against negative reactions, or something. One that also forces canon characters to do things they would not normally do. Maybe it works like the Matrix? Who knows...
- Inherent Specialness: Her importance to the plot cannot be understated, although it should be. She steals the limelight from the characters who actually need it (such as the Captains or a devolving Ichigo, as I said earlier). Not only that, but she’s the “first ever super-uber original Modsoul,” with purple eyes and green hair to emphasize how different or special she is.
- Kon Debunked!: Kon has been shown as an equal-opportunity pervert where big-breasted girls (asides from Rukia) are concerned... and then comes Nozomi. He becomes uncharacteristically mild and contrite, his perverted nature almost disappearing when around her. Her “damsel in distress” situations provoke him to ignore (or treat with too much levity) the cowardly aspect of his nature in order to rescue her personally. He is loyal and compassionate towards her considering her background— which served to partially rewrite his own. He’s her constant cheerleader squad, even though he’s never done this for anyone else in the series, and in the end actually ends up saving the day. (Not perhaps that major of a deal, but then, this is Bleach we’re talking about, with certain series expectations). The reasoning behind all this? He fell in love with Nozomi. Go figure. Like, literally, try and figure that one out. “He was a plush toy, she had green hair...”
- Sympathy: It’s attracted to Nozomi like maggots to a corpse. “Oh you poor thing, you don’t know where you came from/can’t use your Zanpakutō/are being hunted by the Reigai/have an evil brother” etc. etc. etc. Not to mention that her “I need to prove myself I need to get stronger moments” seem to have two main purposes: the first is to show-off her skill, the second is to garner sympathy from the cast, mainly Kon, with an extra serving of audience gags, please.
- Who are we? OP! I won’t say much about her OPness, but it is definitely there. But remember how she can finish off opponents without breaking a sweat? Or master Zanpakutō in one day? Or defeat THREE Captain Reigai like it was nothing? Or absorb everyone’s energy like the parasite she is? Suffice it is to say that she put Mugetsu Ichigo to shame.
Hopefully by now you have gotten a sense for why Nozomi is a Mary Sue and why this is a bad thing. At the very least, know that it led to her becoming the most-hated Bleach filler character of all time, even beating out the Bount-sensing Mod Souls and that princess thing, and in the end she takes the cake for being a “Creator’s Pet,” in my opinion, even more-so than Aizen.
Verdict: “Kujō” and “Kuso” are similar for a reason, I dare say.
Example B: Tohru Honda (Fruits Basket)
Let me be frank: I’m not a fan of shoujo. At all. The only one I watched completely was Fruits Basket, mostly due to being younger and naïver, but the story was okay and the comedy made it tolerable. Anyway, for those of you who (most likely all of you) haven’t seen Fruits Basket, the main protagonist is a 16-year-old high school girl named Tohru Honda who lives in a tent at the beginning of the story because both her parents are dead. (Keep that one in mind). As she was camping on the clan ground of a family cursed to turn into zodiac animals whenever hugged by a member of the opposite sex, obviously she eventually falls in with them (literally, she’s a complete klutz) and the plot goes from there. Now, I’ve seen a bunch of stuff on the net where people try to negate the accusation of Tohru being a Mary Sue. “It’s shoujo!” they say, “she’s liked by almost every viewer/reader!” they cry. Let me be very clear here: A character can be likeable and still be a Mary Sue, although it’s rare, and secondly, genre is not a valid exemption for Mary Sue-ness.
Let’s look at the facts shall we?
Does Tohru have her flaws? Sure she does. What are they then? She’s not very bright and more than a little naïve, she’s clumsy, and she’s very dependant on others. Apparently she has been called “selfish” by some because according to them “saving her friends” is counted as being selfish... but I think we can safely throw that one out. She also blames herself for her mother’s death, but since this has very little to do with anything in the story or her character as a whole I say we can get rid of that one too. Okay, so... three or four flaws. Extensive list isn’t it?
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter how many flaws are lumped on Tohru, or any Mary Sue character for that matter, because they’re all superficial. They have no bearing whatsoever on her progression as a character, nor do they affect the plot in any major way. Well, that’s not entirely true. Her innocent nature and dependency are made out to be highly desirable, (which I’m not here to say that those traits aren’t for some people but, eh, let’s avoid those cans of worms) and her clumsiness is seen as “cute” rather than inhibiting or dangerous. In other words: her flaws aren’t really flaws.
There are three main ways in which Tohru is a Mary Sue:
1. Her Perfection: Tohru is grateful for everything and everyone, is extremely kind and loving and optimistic and self-sacrificing and considerate and forgiving and responsible and serving and selfless and generous and compassionate and...
Need I go on?
Tohru is the perfect housewife. Her idealism is exaggerated to almost obscene lengths. Her hobbies include cooking and cleaning, she is pretty but not “too beautiful”, polite to a fault, and is stupid enough so that she makes all the male characters around her seem all that more intelligent. Taken from this angle, I suppose she could be called a Reverse Sue: she does very little on her own and serves to make the other characters look better.
But that is not the case:
She is loving no matter how horrible you are to her, and in the end of the manga her life is perfect and will be perfect and she will be reincarnated as the saint of all saintliness and beauty and perfection and...
I need to stop before I tear my jugular out here.
2. She’s the so-called “main-character.” Is this supposed to be a problem? Not really... that is, not if that main character actually does something or changes during the course of the story. Tohru does a few minor things here and there in the plot, to be sure, but it’s nothing to write home about. (Biggest conflict I think was her confronting the main antagonist, followed shortly by her choosing one of the members of the love triangle to, well, be in love with). More importantly is that everyone in the main cast has extremely strong feelings towards her, even if they just met her or barely know her. Most of them either hate her or love her, and at the end of the series I don’t know if any or those haters are left. Tohru serves as a somewhat positive catalyst, I’ll admit to that. By her very static character she forces everyone around her to change and... become more like her.
3. Traumatic Back-story wasn’t that traumatic. Tohru’s parents were disowned by their respective families and she was born into relative hardship. Her poor father (marked by the law of Mary Sue fate) died from an inexplicable disease and her mother died in a car accident, which Tohru blamed herself for because that day she over-slept and didn’t say “please be safe” like she always did before her mom left for work. Enter inner turmoil and angst and such. Supposedly, this event resulted in her hallmark self-sacrificing and ingratiating personality, as she allegedly believes that if she doesn’t make herself perfect to please everyone, that she'll be abandoned again. Only one problem with that: her personality was like that BEFORE her mom’s death. So sure it’s explained… only not really. In other words: she was always perfect. People say that it’s because of the worries that she has over her parent’s deaths that make her so attractive as a character, because then she is relatable and imperfect. But in my mind, this just makes her rather implausible as a character. It could happen, sure, but… damn, if her back-story was treated realistically and if she was actually flawed, that series would have been 10 times better.
But as it is, Tohru must be doing something right, because Fruits Basket has been a consistent best-seller.
Verdict: (I blame her success on cat-lovers).
So, Why All the Fuss?
I’ll state it plainly:
- 1. Mary Sues are annoying and forgettable (ie, no one cares)
- 2. The author may find themselves stuck, trapped in a cycle of self-insertion and unable to improve as a writer.
- 3. Mary Sues can severely hinder or harm the work as a whole, destroying potential and detracting from what could have been an original story.
So, how does one avoid Marysueitis?
First you’ve got to learn how to identify what a Mary Sue is. As I stated at the beginning of this blog, there are many, many, many different definitions for the term, and for an exhaustive list I’d recommend thoroughly reading the TV Tropes article on the subject.
For me, I first came across the term when reading a “how to write a book” book years ago when I was first starting to but creative ink to paper, and so I’d say I have a rather more “become a published author” take on it, but whatever. Here’s what I think a Mary Sue is:
"An insufficiently flawed or over-powered individual who receives unwarranted attention (positive or negative) while remaining a static (unchanging) character throughout the duration of the plot."
Some may say that my definition is over-simplified, and while doing so may endanger non-Sues of name calling, well, I’d say it’s pretty accurate, at least for my own intents and purposes.
Mary Sues, I should point out, are typically seen as author-insertions, meaning they are hollow vessels (not those Hollows) without much development or personality of their own because their only purpose is for the writer to vicariously live out a story, whether that be in fanfiction or of their own making. Here is a non-extensive list of other common traits that are usually associated with Mary Sues:
- 1. Wish Fulfillment: This is tied to author-insertion, but basically just means the character is supposed to be seen as cooler or more exotic or powerful than the author or any of the other characters. Could be an odd name, exceptional talent in ridiculously diverse areas, “special” or out-of-universe abilities, or whatever. Basically anything that is seen as exciting is tacked on for the thrill factor which, well, isn’t that thrilling and is more random and/or annoying than anything.
- 2. Over-Powered: Not all OP characters are Mary Sues, but in my opinion, the vast majority of them are (see my definition of the term above) as the writer will tend to paint their character as being “the most awesome, even more awesome than your awesome” and will subsequently try to de-protagonize every other character, whether those be the characters of fellow RPers or an entire canon cast, but more on this later.
- 3. Perfection: There is a lack of significant flaws: and by significant I mean stuff that could alter the plot in a negative fashion. For example, if the Sue in question is an alcoholic, you can bet your buttered carbuncles that that won’t have any serious repercussions during the course of the story. And on that note…
- 4. No Consequences: The character can do anything they want and treat everyone however they please without any realistic side-effects. Think serial killers and rapists and such. They are the opposite of perfect, but in the end it doesn’t matter since they never suffer the consequences for their actions, or are only marginally punished.
- 5. Trauma: Beware of tragic back-stories that have nothing to do with who the character is in the present. A bright, cheerful and sunny young girl who was abused since age five and watched her mother die at the hands of a hockey masked freak? Give me a break. Essentially these are the characters who eat suffering and misery for breakfast. A fuzzy Rambo bunny on steroids.
- 6. Canon Copies: This one is pretty obvious. All I’ll say here is that there is a reason why Kurosaki/Uchiha/any-major-canon-family characters are so prevalent in fanfiction. Especially Uchiha. They are fortunately easy to distinguish as Sues. Especially Uchiha. Did I mention the Uchiha?
- 7. Comatose: They don’t do anything important, yet still have an important role in the story, and are typically still loved by the surrounding cast. This one may be a bit trickier to identify, as it can be confused with an author who allows the plot to determine the course of their characters’ actions; but a tell-tale sign is when a character, the Sue or another, acts out of character in a way that makes the other character appear “cooler” without said character actually doing anything. Beware the sleepers.
At this point you may be wondering what happens if you’ve identified one of your own characters as a Mary Sue. Or perhaps you’d like some advice for how to avoid creating them in the future. This may be easier said than done, especially if the character in question is likeable or well-developed or mostly realistic. My suggestion in that case would be to get the opinion of a trusted friend for that. In the meantime, here is a brief guide (yes finally) for how to avoid creating a Mary Sue.
Step One: Give the character flaws, particularly ones that are not easily dealt with. They also need to be flaws that actually have an impact on both the character AND the plot, in other words, consequences. Depending on the story these can be under-played or severe, but I’d say the general rule of thumb is: the more powerful they are, the harder they should fall.
Step Two: Give the character challenges. This may be the hard part, especially if the character is OP. You may have to scale back their abilities section in order for threats to pose actual, well, threats to the character. Otherwise what will happen is what happened with canon Bleach: An arms race where the level kept being pushed higher and higher until reaching DBZ proportions. Well, maybe not THAT far but you get my analogy I hope. Give them weaknesses asides from their actual character flaws: it makes them much much more believable and interesting. If they are perfect in everything that could be a sure-sign that you are heading steadily towards Sue-territory.
Step Three: Have them make decisions that neither you nor the readers would normally make. If they have precisely calculated every angle and weighed every option and figured out the best route to take… there is no suspense. Have them struggle. Have them make the WRONG choices. It is the actions they take when faced with a challenge that distinguishes them as a character. Make them different, but not “special.” Decisions should be difficult, and (as I’ve hopefully over-emphasized at this point) should have consequences. Exploring morally-gray areas is also a good way to do this. Put them in between a rock and a hard place (meaning no easy escapes) and see what happens.
Step Four: Remember that every character, no matter how minor, is the protagonist of their own story. To use another example from Shakespeare, there is a story about the actor who played the gravedigger in Hamlet who was reported to have described the play as "a story about a gravedigger who meets a prince." If every character in your story is obsessing over the suspected Sue, whether through negative or positive emotions, you may have a problem on your hands. It’s the common thread between the Nozomi and Tohru examples I gave earlier: both received undue attention from everyone else and failed as characters as a result. Also try to remember this principle in reverse: your character should be interacting with real characters with real emotions and real motivations of their own, not just card-board pinups that pass for background scenery or do nothing more than make the Sue “more BA.” If you do this, you will bring a vividness to your characters and stories that you may have struggled with earlier. Beware though: minor characters may turn out to be more interesting than the Sue-suspect, just as Mercutio was. On that note, don’t be afraid to “kill your babies.” That was one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given about writing. More often than not, the biggest problem with Mary Sue characters comes from over-attachment on the part of the author. Remember that every character, no matter how minor, is the protagonist of their own story.
Remember that every character, no matter how minor, is the protagonist of their own story.