1. Kess (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Ahh, the Mary Sue / Gary Stu phenomenon. How we roll our eyes at it.

    I first came across the concept when I was doing free-form text-based roleplay. However, it crops up in a lot of places (like in those stories mentioned in this thread). It's most obvious in realms where a character is inserted into someone else's world (like RP or fanfic), but it does show itself in original fiction, too.

    Anywhere it comes up, it's bad characterisation. Overly-perfect characters with no real weaknesses, with reality-warping gravity (love that metaphor, Wildbow) and a magical touch, usually heavily influenced by an author's need to self-insert into the story. It's a sign of amateur drivel wherever it appears; I don't think we need to make a distinction between fan and original fiction. As far as I'm concerned, writing is writing, whatever world you're doing it in. It might be more of a 'norm' in fanfiction, but that doesn't make it good writing or good characterisation. ;)

  2. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Clearly everyone thinks bad characterization is a bad idea -- but to get back to Wildbow's original question, does anyone consider it when they're writing? Do you worry about it, subvert it, ignore it?

  3. Kess (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Yes and no. Do I worry about writing Mary Sue/Gary Stu? No, not specifically. Do I worry about making believable and well-developed characters? Yes.

    I always strive to make my characters as balanced and 'realistic' as possible. I also really loved deeply flawed people, because I find their journey so much more interesting in light of those flaws. I like to crack open their heads and see where their demons are, even if I don't get around to using them. Over-perfect characters tend to bore me.

    I write mostly character-driven stories, so having strong, well-rounded characters is essential. If I don't know how they're going to react to X, then I'm doing something wrong and I have to go back and work out more about how to make a character work.

    It's also a good rule of thumb that if the character is annoying me, I should probably change something. And I usually have a character running around who'll punch a Mary Sue in the face, given the chance, so there are lots of ways I might spot myself slipping into that hole. ;) And then, hell yes, I'll fix it.

  4. Amy Kim Kibuishi (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I think when writing that first draft, it should be as worry-free as possible to allow for happy accidents. Getting the character down, for me, comes in the second, third, and fifteenth drafts.

  5. MrOsterman (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    I absolutely consider it.

    When I think about my characters I always consider where they're going to have natural stumbling points (figuratively). Regan (Mind the Thorns) is socially awkward and more of a numbers girl then a people person. Allison (Fantasticon) is more of a Bob Newhart then she is any real go-getter but she doen't really excell at anything. Marie (Bastion) is a Marine first, woman second and that's going to create tensions. Al (Bastion) cannot live without rules.

    Do I worry about having a character called Mary Sue? Yes. And it's a the same kind of worry that goes with "Did I get all my commas in the right places?" and "Did I use the same word too many times on this page?" Writing interesting characters should be a concern because for me writing is character driven.

    I also think it's dismissive to call Mary Sue a bogey man. Sure there are cases in literature that have had characters who are unflawed, perfect, and always prevail. Quite often we hold these works up to say "look at this very weak character that can do no wrong and always come out ahead". And if you, as a writer, are called out for it, deal with it. Saying "Oh a MS is a bogey man, you just don't like my writing" misses the chance to look at what you're writing crirticially. Perhaps you are not writing an MS and the critic is wrong. Or, perhaps, you are providing a very flat, uninteresting character.

    One of my take aways reading this thread so far is the idea that if you're accused of having a MS in your story it's nothing to worry about because it's just a sign that someone thinks your main character is too "something". I don't think that's the best response. I think it should be an invitation to look deeper at the character and ask yourself how Real they are, as well as how Real everyone's reactions to them are. Rather than seeing the critique as a personal attack, see it as an opportunity to reflect and then use, or reject, depending on what that reflection shows.

    Mind the Thorns a Reader Directed Urban Fantasy
    Bastion: The Last Hope a web novel of the end of days
  6. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    @ the Bogeyman comment:

    I think the Mary Sue thing is a bogeyman for many writers because it's a very powerful accusation that goes to one of the core pillars of a work (characterization) and it's very hard to define (look at how many people are saying it's fanon only vs. any work, or author self-insertion vs. something else, in just this two page thread).

    It becomes something that lurks at the very periphery of one's attention whenever they're putting a character together, always there, watching. Saying that it's such is definitely not dismissing it, given the damage that one can do either by ignoring the phenomenon completely (and treading into that territory) or by obsessing over it (and, as you say, allowing characters to become flat).

  7. MrOsterman (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Ahhhh I see. Like even just the application of the term "Mary Sue" it all comes down to how you define it. I read the "it's just a bogey man" as "it's a scary thing that we're all panicked by but we shouldn't worry about because it's of no real concern".

    Related too is that Flat character. When I finished Fantasticon part of me was a little worried at how "simple" Allison was. Yeah she did make some choices, but she was kind of a Jane Every-woman, where her friends Jo and Tory were much more developed personalities (Jo as hyperactive and hyper-nerd, Tory as hyper-sexualized). It was like Allison was the common grounding for everyone around her, which I also think is what made her work ~in that context~.

    I do think that "oh god your main character is such a Mary Sue" is probably overused in critiques and I only use it as a reference to deeper commentary, rather than sole. On the other hand, it is a nice trope to point at when doing critique just like I like to engage students (I teach math not creative writing so it's side conversation) in the idea of the Unreliable Narrator (coughBellacough)

    Mind the Thorns a Reader Directed Urban Fantasy
    Bastion: The Last Hope a web novel of the end of days
  8. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    In Picard's case, the change is in large part because he see's Wes as the son he COULD have had, had he told Beverly his feelings for her way back before she married his father.

    And, I have to defend Wesley. I was 7 when TNG came out, and Wes was... the big brother I wish I had had, because I lived his life. I often solved problems the grownups couldn't, by walking in and doing what needed doing, and was always yelled at for it. I liked seeing a kid like me, who was right, and wasn't treated as much like being an asshole for being right. Wes has always been, and will always be, my favorite character. (And Wil Wheaton being not far away from me at comicon made me weak in the knees, whereas knowing shatner and nimoy being over that a way made me think, Cool. )

  9. DaringNovelist (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Well, instead of calling it a bogeyman, call it a red herring. It leads both the critic and the writer astray from the solution to the very problem it draw attention to. It doesn't actually tell the writer what the problem is, and furthermore, very often the only problem is that the writer is just writing a character the critic doesn't relate to.

    If you can't identify with the character, then that is what you say. If you can't believe in the character's motivations, then say that. If you identify with the character and believe in him but you just get tired of him winning all the time, then say that. If you feel his perfection takes all the tension out of the story (whether you identify with him or not) say THAT.

    The reason we should stop obsessing about Mary Sue and Gary Stu is because they, in and of themselves, are not writing problems, they're _attitude_ problems. They're just like the way I really really really really really HATE characters who whine or screech, and I especially hate spineless protagonists who put up with them -- but chick lit and teen fiction are FULL of such characters and their audience appears to love it. Some people feel the same way about unredeemed crook anti-heroes, or characters who are rude.

    If I am asked to critique such books, I let the writer know my individual response to those individual characters and why. I don't try to cloak my reaction in terminology that makes it sound like there is some rule or bigger authority that agrees with me.

    As for reviews (rather than critiques) I don't review books with characters I can't stand, because I stop reading them the instant that character enters.


  10. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Catching up on this thread...

    I don't spend much time thinking about the Mary Sue/Gary Stu issue while writing for the same reason that I try avoid thinking about anything but the writing itself--it makes writing harder. I find that editing while writing slows me down quite a bit. Also, pre-editing my work on the basis of the idea of criticism that it might get makes things more complicated than I want.

    Plus, in your effort to avoid having your character be a Mary Sue, you might easily go from a character that's easy to explain and relate to to a character that that's too warped from responses to possible criticism for you to get a handle on.

    It's a little like programming. If you put in a solution to a problem with speed that you might have instead of the more obvious simple solution, you've made a program more complicated than it needs to be, increased your likelihood of making mistakes, and made it harder for the next person to figure out and maintain.

    Plus, you might have made the program slower under normal circumstances.

  11. MrOsterman (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Hmm... I think that if any critic were to say "Characer0032 was such a Mary Sue, I just couldn't relate to them" I'd have a hard time taking that critic seriously.

    I also don't think it has to be all encompassing to avoid. If you're not asking yourself "Is this character interesting?" then you're not really doing a very good job building the character. If you don't see that your character is not just the protagonist but really unchallenged by the story elements (ie can do anything anytime with no difficulty, their existance is the solution) then that's just weak story telling isn't it?

    Even Superman is hard to write because he IS such a Gary Stu and they're forced to come up with challenges that cannot simply be solved by him flying in and punching Hitler in the face. He was easy when that was considered acceptable but palates have evolved....

    Mind the Thorns a Reader Directed Urban Fantasy
    Bastion: The Last Hope a web novel of the end of days
  12. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Superman is a great example - a character who kept gainin new powers to solve writers' problems, and affects the gravity and rules of stories. If a writer is lazy, it is really easy to tell a bad Superman story because you know he's going to win, and there's no danger or tension.

    The best Superman stories I have read in recent years usually avoid Superman's ease with conflicts by making his omnipotence part of the conflict. Kingdom Come and Red Son are good examples. He can't overcome the situation with power, so it becomes about character development. Good stories rely on character arc for solutions more than new powers oe deus ex machina - and Mary Sues are the deus' favoured character.

  13. DaringNovelist (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    Okay, so Superman brings up another topic: how do you handle a great "mary sue" character? That is, not what we should tell other people about characters we think are a Mary Sue, but things to think about when we have a character whose appeal is that he or she is perfect and undefeatable.

    How do you highlight the appeal of a Mary Sue? I see a lot of well handled Mary Sues in the mystery field.

    Make Somebody Else the Protagonist: This is what you see in the mystery field with brilliant detectives, from Sherlock Holmes to Miss Marple to Perry Mason. Or with Jeeves. (Jeeves is a Gary Stu to end all Gary Stus.) We don't get emotionally involved in the struggle of this perfect hero, so we have someone else to be emotionally involved with. And also, if the protag is enough of a doofus, he will get into such a mess that we don't know how the perfect character will ever get him out of it.

    (A related technique is to keep him off stage until needed.)

    Match him with an equally perfect villain -- someone we can cheer to have defeated. (Columbo)

    Rumple or disguise him: Columbo, Miss Marple, and Clark Kent. The savior/hero seems really ordinary or even weak -- but the reader is in on the secret so the interest is in watching others dismiss and misjudge, and it's satisfying when the secret is revealed.

    Make other characters hate her for her perfection. (That Nancy Drew movie they made a few years ago.) This works best if the hater is not a villain, but someone the reader can identify with and otherwise respect. It gives shape to the reader's negative feelings, and is also something that doesn't go right for the Mary Sue.

    And, of course, there are all the usual full-bodied characterization techniques you use with any character. I think Captain America (especially current movie version) is a great example of an excessively perfect character who really earned his spurs. He had it rough in the past. And because he is a moral character, he has deep concerns about the ethical use of power.


  14. MrOsterman (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    But even Whedon!CaptainAmerica still has some dark corners. He still disobeys orders, he's still able to be manipulated by someone more clever than he is and he's still reliant on other people smarter then him, stronger than him, and faster than him. While he is better then most men in most ways in a world of superheroes, the Whedon!Captain is still a fairly weak character relative to those around him. He can't figure things out like Stark, smash like Hulk and he's got too many scruples to do what Widow does.

    And I think that's what makes Whedon!Avengers work well in that with friggin Super Heroes, the writing still (despite the wholes) manages to give each character a weak spot, a place to look at and say "yeah, some time someone's gonna totally exploit that", from Stark's narrasicism (plus his need for the suit) to Widow's past.

    I do agree that the "Make someone else the protagonist" is a great key to keep the Mary Sue from being too much of the focus but even then it needs some kind of limitation otherwise every challenge turns into the same formula of Get the Problem, Futz with the Problem, Wait for Best Friend to Fix the Problem. I always got the sense that Jeeves might ~Not~ help out Wooster this one time or that just because of some other limitation to Jeeve's abilities, coupled with a few times that Wooster actually had to do something himself to save the day, or Jeeve's had to admit that despite his vast power it is still, somewhat, limited.

    Mind the Thorns a Reader Directed Urban Fantasy
    Bastion: The Last Hope a web novel of the end of days
  15. DaringNovelist (Member)

    Posted 6 years ago

    The thing is, the whole dynamic of the Jeeves story is that Jeeves WILL always come through. That's the appeal. It's just that you don't know how or when. (Because, of course, Bertie doesn't know how. But we have no doubt whatever that Jeeves will come through, and without ever breaking a sweat, even if a couple hairs on his eyebrow might lift ever so slightly in extreme cases.)

    Just like Columbo will always out-fox the villain. Once or twice, for variation, they threw in some fake-outs, where it seems like Columbo made a mistake, but mostly, the audience knows he didn't -- only the villain is fooled.

    I think a really good example of how Mary Sues work well because of their very perfection is in one of the lesser Miss Marple stories. It's one where she hardly appears at all. In The Moving Finger, bad things are going on, the protagonists are puzzled and helpless. The police are puzzled an helpless. Even the expert brought in from Scotland Yard is puzzled and helpless. And then, halfway through the story, the Vicar's wife declares: "I know, we need to call in an expert!" And the protagonist says "But Scotland Yard sent us an expert." "Not that kind of expert," declares the Vicar's wife, "We need an expert in EVIL!" And she runs off without further explanation.

    And fans of the series know exactly who she is calling in: the infallible goddess Nemesis -- Miss Marple.

    It's a delightful moment; one that you can only have with a Mary Sue. Or perhaps a better word is a Paragon. Things may be dire, but you're in good hands. The best moment is when The Saint appears. When someone in trouble decides to call in that lawyer fellow -- Perry Mason.

    The source of anticipation in a series like that is because they _aren't_ flawed. The tension comes from the flaws of others. Perry's client never listens to his most critical advice, the heroine never trusts The Saint, and who would believe a little old lady could bring down a vicious killer? And of course, Bertie's inability to think at all makes it a complete mystery how Jeeves will ever get him out of this jam -- so he keeps digging himself in deeper.

    But the audience knows without a doubt that these paragons will pull things out without breaking a sweat. Seeing the paragon struggle in that kind of series only works when it happens rarely or it's a trick. It's okay as a variation, but we don't watch Columbo to see him sweat. That's no fun at all. We watch Columbo to see him toy with the killer.

    If your premise is based on a paragon, then challenging the perfection too much always drives away the audience. (It's why I don't watch Burn Notice any more -- it jumped the shark two seasons ago when it started emphasizing the weakness of the characters rather than the miraculous skills.)


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