Mary Sues and various ramblings

I submitted the first page of my story at DA about five weeks ago, and yesterday it went live.

This was perhaps not my most well thought out idea, since this is still pretty much a rough draft. Granted, it’s the third version of the story, but since my eyes were the only ones that went over it before I submitted it — I should probably have waited to get someone else to look it so it would have been more promo and water-testing than rightly deserved crit-fest.


So, I was talking with Thene about the experience:

(6:24:24 PM) kyrias: I like how people are tired of kick-ass heroines though :P

(6:25:10 PM) thene: no one ever says they’re tired of kick-ass heroes

(6:28:16 PM) kyrias: oh, there’s a debate discussion about sues!

Disclaimer: The logic jump was pure ADD and not my intent to imply that the comments were made from the same mind-set that spawns Sue-hate.

So I’ve been sitting on my thumbs for the past few days because I’ve thought that pretty much everything that could or should be said about Sues has probably been comprehensively covered by better bloggers than I.

But! Since the topic all but fell in my lap:

Zoe Marriott:

1) A character who is based, at least partly, on the author
2) A character whom has no significant flaws (except possibly ones the other characters find cute)
3) A character to whom everyone within the story reacts as if they were beautiful and wonderful except characters who are clearly evil and/or motivated by jealousy
4) A character with whom, during the course of the story, every available character of the opposite (and occasionally the same) sex will fall in love given any contact whatsoever
5) A character who undergoes no significant growth, change or development throughout the story.

Or also, a wish fulfillment fantasy, like Bella Swan of Twilight fame.

Zoe Marriott also thinks that most of the time Mary Sue is simply a handy term for “female character you didn’t like”, perhaps because the female character is too, um, female.

Holly Black:

So when a book is about a girl who is the best at something and about the boys (and/or girls) that love her and how she defeats the bad guy, well, that’s because she’s the protagonist. It is good and right that she be at the center of the story.

For example, I have seen complaints that the protagonist always wins the love of the main male character. What’s problematic about that is, well, of course she does, because if she’s the protagonist then whoever she loves becomes the main male character by virtue of his connection to the protagonist.

Hence, applying the term Mary Sue to original characters in an original story requires a great deal of care, because some of the hallmarks of the Sue only make sense in the context of her being inserted into a world where she’s not the protagonist. The Mary Sue warps the story; the female protagonist is the story.

Holly Black also points out that we can’t hold female characters or authors to different standards and that we shouldn’t criticize them primarily for being female.

Marie Brennan:

… I don’t like the unspoken message it seems to carry. What’s the baseline problem with an archetypical Mary Sue? She’s unrealistic. So when I see the word being flung at female characters I think are kind of cool, what it says to me is, cool women aren’t believable. Skill isn’t plausible, even if she worked for it. Admiration isn’t allowed. If a woman has these things, she must pay the price with a broken psyche, a ruinous personal life; that’s the only realistic outcome.

Marie Brennan pointed out that one person’s Sue may be another’s wish fulfillment and that real life sales figures will take care of the Sues. Let the chaff lie where they may, so to speak.

I’d call that a fair point, except *cough* Bella Swan *cough*. Clearly, although Bella is about as Sue as they come, Brennan’s point about Sues not living well outside a hothouse environment is not universally correct.

Also. What about Bond? James Bond, to be precise. Someone try to tell me he isn’t a Stu. Just try. I dare you.

I think part of the problem is that we as a society have been told over and over again that women/girls can’t ________ or are not as good as males in ____________.

Barbie said “Math class is tough!”.

Girls are socialized from a very young age away from what is traditionally considered more masculine and if we think that the boys aren’t also internalizing the concepts that “computers are hard for girls” and “girls suck at math” and “boys are naturally better at sports” and other such rot — we aren’t paying attention.

There is a line, I feel, between a character who is clearly there for authorial wish fulfillment and a character who is simply too good to be true.

Because clearly, women aren’t witty, or sassy, or that courageous in real life ™.

Because it’s plain to see that women don’t go in for the kick-ass, cool, traditionally male jobs that involve politics or violence or god forbid, both.

Well, yes.

Maybe there aren’t currently real life examples of women who are presidents, who lead armies into war, who do amazing work for science or art or theatre.

That doesn’t need to stay true. In fact, it shouldn’t stay true.

People. We’re running a lovely little vicious self-fulfilling loop here.

If we keep telling ourselves that we can’t, then we won’t be able to. If we refuse to be able to identify with a female who can kick ass with the best of them, still be a human being capable of loving and other finer emotions, and who might even, gasp, be able to cook or clean — then we’re passing that message onto ourselves, our daughters, our nieces, and all the males around us.

There’s nothing wrong with wish fulfillment.

Nothing at all, especially when the author’s wish fulfillment is tapping into the wants and needs of readers everywhere.

I wonder — if we didn’t know, for a fact, that Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Indira Gandhi, Queen Elizabeth, Joan d’Arc, and Wu Ze Tian existed — would we be calling stories of them stories about Mary Sues as well?


That, more than anything, chills me to the bone.

So ladies, gentlemen — please, could we try seeing female characters in a more generous light than we have been?

7 Responses to “Mary Sues and various ramblings”

  1. Thene

    I think there’s about 15 or so countries that currently have elected female presidents or PMs (off the top of my head; Australia, Argentina, Iceland, India-sort-of, Germany, Liberia, Bangladesh, Ireland. I know I have forgotten a good many more.) I think that given that most Sue criticism is US in origin, it is worth remembering just how sexist US political culture is compared to many others.

    It is also a solid gold fact that the most badass person alive on this planet right now is a woman; Aung San Suu Kyi.

    I think you were right to mention James Bond – there is a lot of room in popular culture for male Sues (and no, I don’t like to give them a male-gendered name – they’re still Sues to me) because people are very comfortable with using white male icons to act out sexy-violent fantasies of limitless power, and these characters are rarely criticised en masse the way female Sues are. (I went to see the Captain America movie and spent most of it yelling ‘WHY DIDN’T THEY GIVE THE SERUM TO PEGGY?’) I sometimes feel like there are dumbasses who think that anything other than white-maleness would hamper their power fantasy – like, it’s intrinsic to the character type. Fuck that.
    Thene recently is typing on BBM:My ComLuv Profile

  2. kyrias

    My bad! I knew that certain other countries are more advanced, but, I was talking to a predominantly USian audience. So I should probably correct that to “easily accessible” notions of female role models.

  3. Saronai

    I’m trying to figure out who down-rated this. I’m leaning toward someone who meant to click thumbs up instead. I knew there were female presidents and the like elsewhere, but everything else I agreed with, particularly when the focus is on my own country.

    I tweeted this, I hope that’s okay. When Sue accusations start getting flung around I want to pull my hair out. If it weren’t for the fun The Mary Sue website I’d completely hate the word by now.

    I’ve only been called a Sue twice in my life, but the term drove me nuts way before I ever found out about either.

    Particularly when it comes to the point about women doing cool and important things and the difference between being the heroine of the story, the main character, and by default the center. That’s part of what makes me want to shred every comment I see about so-and-so being a sue. I don’t even care anymore if they have inserted themselves as the most important character in a different story never intended for them.

    As for people tired of kick ass females, well…blegh to you. I’m not and I don’t think I ever will be. I grew up starved for kick butt girls as a kid, I can count on one hand the number of times I got it (She-ra………um…some short story about a girl that disguised herself as a boy so she could play football, that’s it).

    Physical size and lack of bulk have little to do with it either. For those that think it’s just not probably that a girl could physically kick a stronger, bigger man’s butt, I invite you to take a good look at Bruce Lee. Now that you’ve looked in this context, you might dismiss it as television, but in some other conversation, you probably wouldn’t have any trouble envisioning Bruce Lee kicking some bigger dude’s butt.

    So you don’t want strong, kick butt females in your stories. I do! Go read something else and leave the stuff I like alone!
    Saronai recently posted..Blessed BondsMy ComLuv Profile

  4. kyrias

    I hope whoever did down rate it did it by accident because if they just down rated it without giving an explanation — well, that’s kind of cowardly, isn’t it?

    Of course it’s ok if you tweeted it. If I was afraid of people reading it, I wouldn’t post it on a public blog. :)

  5. Saronai

    I did tweet this post, I had two people following me retweet it :D

    So at least 2 more people agree even if they didn’t thumbs up it.
    Saronai recently posted..Blessed BondsMy ComLuv Profile

  6. Mircelle

    Great post when I see the word being flung at female characters I think are kind of cool, what it says to me is, cool women aren’t believable. Skill isn’t plausible, even if she worked for it. Admiration isn’t allowed, Thank you for this info.

  7. pengirl22

    Yes, this is a predominantly world of male but wait! women now a days are fast emerging in any field. Step aside men, we are coming!

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