Monday, November 8, 2021

Writing 101: What the H is a Mary Sue?

The dues ex machina. Foreshadowing. Using an allegory. The Roman a clef. Some literary terms sound so cool, you want to figure out what they are just to use them. And then...there's the Mary Sue. Who is this character and how is this a literary thing?



Mary, Mary Quite Contrary


Mary Sue is a name that many critics will use, often with a bit of a sneering tone. But she sounds kind of sweet and innocent, so what's so bad about her that critics always seem to dismiss this as a literary device altogether?

The Mary Sue is a specific character trope, meaning it's a frequent and somewhat static characterization that appears in fiction of all kinds, be it on stage, on screen or on the page. And despite the name, a Mary Sue character can be of either gender, both genders or have no gender at all.

So what makes a Mary Sue a Mary Sue? For starters, they are ridiculously lucky. And unlike most of us mere mortals, they emerge from the worst of situations generally unscathed. They are often very positive in nature, though this is not a requirement, and often characterized as somewhat clueless, though this isn't necessary either.

Mary Sue's big claim to fame is saving the day. When all hope is lost and the other, and generally more competent, characters are facing certain doom, Mary Sue saves the day...and always by sheer luck. Mary Sue does not succeed by being smart or solving a problem, but through some happy accident or some wild twist of fate. This victory feels unearned and this makes the payoff of the victory fall flat. This is why the Mary Sue character so annoys the critics.

A character who lucks into a solution does not typically garner a lot of admiration from those of us observing the story, because they have done nothing to earn the victory they achieve. They just got lucky. And for many, this rings false. Critics may dismiss the character entirely as lazy storytelling and they kind of have a point.

However, when done well, the Mary Sue can be a highly likable character who does serve to drive the plot forward. Mary Sues have appeared successfully in many stories. The Mary Sue trope itself comes from “Star Trek” fan fiction and Mary Sue types still frequently appear in “Trek” stories of all types. Many lead characters in stories display Mary Sue qualities.

Tropes are tropes because they do work. And sometimes, people can become a Mary Sue even in life. Pure dumb luck does happen in reality and so, it must also happen in stories.

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