Tuesday, May 11, 2010

In Offense of Sues

Other potential titles for this post could include "Defining my Terms, Bitch" or more aggressively, "Why I Hate Mary Sue." The first, however, is either mildly offensive or an in-joke, depending on how long you've known me in real life ("substantiate your data, bitch!") and the second really is too aggressive. I'm going to use Miss Haitch's post as a jumping-off point, but I really have nothing against her (him? zhe? dog? hooray for the internet!) and actually find a lot of the post's points interesting and compelling.

In said post, Miss Haitch comes to the defense of the oft-hated Mary Sue. Her argument is that the very idea of a Mary Sue is misogynistic. The title is less frequently applied to male characters than to female (true) and can imply that outrageously awesome women are an unrealistic rarity (also true). She also talks about how a culture of bullying and shaming surrounds the idea of Mary Sue, something I - who have almost never written fanfiction - know nothing about; I have to admit, though, that it sounds plausible. She closes with a description of the awesome characters in her real life and how they could be summarized and dismissed as "Sues."

And oddly, that's where she loses me.

What I think Miss Haitch is missing is that there is a literary dimension to Mary Sue being a bad thing. You can't just something bad and redefine it as something good, however problematic the bad thing might be. Mary Sues aren't just misunderstood but awesome, female characters. They are characters who are so awesome as to be flat, whose overwrought greatness deforms the world around them, whose bright light conceals the fact that they are as complex and nuanced as a lightbulb... and about as hollow.

Rather than heap on the hate, I'm going to go ahead and actually define my term (bitch). In the land of the Burning Zeppelin, what is a Mary Sue?

For me, a Sue is a character who is perfect and special to the point that it hurts my ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy the story. Such characters are distinguished by their flawlessness, a degree of style-violating absurdity, and the moral flatness of their surroundings.

A Mary Sue Has No Flaws

Flaws make a character interesting. Mistakes are generally more fascinating than mishaps. Mary Sues have neither. Either they always make the right decision, or their mistakes always turn out
to be good decisions in disguise. He never leaves his cell phone on when sneaking into the alien sky city. She never forgets to lock her car door. He can't remember the last time he misplaced something important. She's never let a friend down in her life. When he developes an irrational dislike for someone, it's always for bad guys (more on that later).

What this really comes down to is that Mary Sues are emotionally and narratively flat, and therefore, meaningless. They don't have inner struggles. Their passions don't overwhelm their good sense - except when it makes them romantic and striking, and then, it always turns out for the best. Mary Sues don't make moral choices, they just exist.

A Mary Sue Breaks His Universe

This point is a little roundabout, so bear with me (rar!)

In roleplaying, we have a term that is related to "Mary Sue": Unique and Beautiful Snowflake (UBS for short). UBSs are distinguished by being special, unique, and entirely one-of-a-kind, and violating the rules of their setting to do so. The first magic user after a thousand years of mundanity, the only man to do magic in a world of wizard-chicks, the orc who wants to civilize his people and bring them into a brighter future, the woman who does that special kind of magic no one else can do, the vampire with a conscience and a soul (ok, maybe that last isn't a UBS any more - there's enough of that dude to start a baseball league). Almost all Mary Sues are Unique and Beautiful Snowflakes, but not all Unique and Beautiful Snowflakes are Mary Sues. The juncture of the two - the place where a UBS can be awesome and a Sue never is - is where this concept lives.

Those Unique and Beautiful concepts I listed above? They're all awesome. They may break the rules of their settings, but if they do so in a way that is in line with their setting's general themes, they do so in a way that produces an excellent story. The first good orc, the last male mage, the only X-mancer... in the right world, these people could be awesome. In fact, several of the blurbs above are inspired by highly successful novels that I've loved. The key phrase above, however is "if they do so in a way that is in line with their setting's general themes." If they don't, they're not just UBSs, they're Sues.

Mary Sues have cinematic good luck and don't make mistakes in worlds of grit and sorrow. Mary Sues have special epic talents in worlds with unbreakable rules. Mary Sues have fluttering capes and hair in worlds without wind. They don't stand out because they're awesome... they stand out because they don't fit.

A Mary Sue is Morally Flat

This concept is related to the two above, but surpasses them. To explain it, I'm going to quote myself:

"In these books, everyone who opposes Yelena and her interests turns out to be an utterly despicable person with a taste for rape, domination, torture, rape, murder, and rape (note the repetition of 'rape'). With one exception, everyone who takes a disliking for Yelena turns out to be in league with the villains."

Real people have erring moral senses. We like people who turn out to be bad for us and we fail to hit it off with people who turn out to be great, decent, wonderful folks. We have characters from our complicated pasts and things we hate about ourselves that we project onto people around us, making them players in our own private psychodramas. It's not bad, it's just human.

Not so with Sues. When a Sue dislikes someone, it's because she's a bad, bad, bad woman. When someone dislikes a Sue, it's because he's a bad, bad, bad man.

The phenomenon goes deeper, however.

Mary Sues live in a world devoid of moral complexity. For a Sue, the choices are always easy - in fact, they aren't choices at all - and the Sue is always right. A Sue's opponents are always bad, his allies are always good, and you can always tell the difference between them.

Usually because of how they react to the Sue.

In conclusion, a Mary Sue is a character of singular moral flatness who violates the stylistic underpinnings of his world. He's always right, he never makes choices, and compared to the rest of his world, he just doesn't make sense.

For me, a Sue is always indicative of lazy or immature writing. It's easy to slap a bunch of good qualities together with some nominal flaws, give it a name, and cut it loose. It's much harder - and much more rewarding - to make someone who is real, flawed, interesting, and sympathetic. It's much harder - and much more interesting - to write your main character making terrible mistakes and maintain the audience's sympathy. In general, it's a good idea to reject everything that makes a Sue a Sue and write something good and interesting.

And Haitch? I don't think your friend, your sister, or your girlfriend are Sues. They sound like good people to me; they certainly don't violate the stylistic underpinnings of the world I live in. So nothing personal, ok?

* * *

I'm not going to follow this up with provocative questions because I think I've probably been provocative enough. I'm just going to close with this: I LIKE COMMENTS. If you're out there reading this, I promise I'll even respond.

[bear image courtesy of Peter Macdonald; like my blog, it's all Creative Commons and stuff]

1 comment:

Scattercat said...

While accusations of Suedom can surely come from a place of misogyny or be applied unfairly or inappropriately, I think the post you cite makes a fairly basic logic error: Overgeneralization. That is, while Sues are often female and also negative, the negativity does not come their femininity. All negative attitudes towards female characters or character types is not necessarily negative towards women.

Now, it's quite correct to point out that many successful novels have main characters who, in a vacuum, would qualify as Mary Sues, just like there are people in real life who have, through luck and determination, because crazy-successful and apparently can do no wrong. The quality that makes a character a Mary Sue is, as you pointed out, the hollowness and the poor writing.

(It's worth noting that Mary Sue was originally specifically a wish-fulfillment author insertion. The super-specialness and general thinness of characterization stemmed from that narcissistic focus. Mary Sue is also a female name because of Mary Sue Kirk, the original template for the meme. As well claim that people who call someone "the next Hitler" are racist against Germans. The claim can and often is made facetiously, erroneously, or unfairly, but it doesn't stem from any sort of broad disdain for Germany or Aryans.)