When the ninth Star Wars movie came out, Rise of Skywalker, a particular term from writing communities online started to become ubiquitous. Horribly, it made its way around the internet's Manosphere, as particularly oafish chuds keen for low-hanging fruit reached for this easy prize. More happily, a backlash to the liberal and overused weaponised term became circulated, and we've now hit the saturation point of the wave where the term "Mary Sue" has fallen out of the limelight.
When you hear the term "Mary Sue," which originated in Star Trek fan zines to call out a particular type of wish-fulfillment writing, you might have a variety of ideas. Some of them might be vague assocations - "isn't that a thing from that movie?" - or, if you're an Extremely Online person like myself, you might break out in compulsive shuddering and hives at the mere utterance of the phrase.
But now that people have broken down the inherent sexism in the concept of the Mary Sue, to the extent that its creators have renounced its creation, we may have hit a point where we can just consider the Sue in isolation - and not only offer ways to accept and write around the wish-fulfillment character, but appreciate her for what she is: an often goofy fantasy that may help people process their powerlessness in real life and real trauma, offer escape from the weight of reality, or both.
Who is Mary Sue?
For an overview of this long-spanning trend and a glimpse of this essay's inspiration, this video is absolutely mandatory. For those who don't like Youtube, or just don't want to stop reading, the Sue is a personification of a criticism of a couple of writing problems. They're often conflated together, but they should actually be teased apart - despite how often they co-occur. A Sue is,
noun noun: Mary Sue; plural noun: Mary Sues
(originally in fan fiction) a type of female character who is depicted as unrealistically lacking in flaws or weaknesses. "she was not a ‘strong woman’ so much as an insufferable Mary Sue"
Even the Oxford Dictionary's definition showcases the inherent special-case pleading and sexism applied to Sues. The original argument against Sues went thusly: 1) Sues are badly written (inherently) because they 2) Warp the plot, setting, and characters' actions around themselves; 3) Have an unrealistic number of positive traits, 4) A corresponding deficit of actual negative traits (with the exception of tropey or common flaws that may or may not be actual flaws, such as "being too beloved") 5) Get too much focus and attention in the story, 6) Don't have to pay the price for their successes, And 7), which often goes unspoken, "have wish fulfillment girl cooties all over them in some indefinably repulsive way." Now, I went through my own "anti-Sue" phase as a teenager and young adult; I used the Mary Sue Litmus to "make sure characters were balanced and well-written" as much as anyone. But now that I'm old, tired, and much more experienced as a writer, my perspective on this has changed drastically. And part of the reason for that is simply that I watched a show with an honest-to-god Mary Sue character, and it was great fun. The Chilling Adventures of Mary Sue Netflix's Riverdale and Sabrina have both had their moments, but despite being an avid fan of Sabrina, the Teenage Witch back in its Melissa Joan Hart era (when Disney Adventure Magazine advised copying her look by wearing an "earthy choker", a phrase that confuses me to this day) I had held off on watching either series. For one thing, the Archie comics series' lack of character development in its original form struck me as a type of perpetual purgatory worthy of The Good Place' s original demon pits. (As always, I'm late to the party, but Russian Doll and The Good Place are every bit as good as people have been saying they were. Give them a watch, or a rewatch, for some delectable afterlife paperwork tropes, fascinating philosophy, and heartfelt existentialism.) Being sick with COVID, as I mentioned in my last post, made this an ideal opportunity to catch up on some TV. I was in for quite a surprise with Sabrina. The magically-talented girlboss skips and bounces over third and fourth-wave feminist issues while literally and figuratively battling the patriarchy, showcasing phenomenal cosmic powers, being an absolute Chosen One to whom others are attracted or obsessed over, and is generally compassionate, friendly, serious, clever, and a great leader. She's also small, conventionally attractive, and the focus on attention for universe-bending powers. And here's the thing - she's great fun, and the show is great fun. Who's afraid of Mary Sue? Because the show takes itself just seriously enough and has just enough campy fun in the mix, it works like a Long Island Iced Tea - an easy-drinking alchemical mix of delight. Seeing the way the show worked perfectly fine, however, got me thinking about the ways in which Sabrina was a Sue - and it was perfectly fine. In turn, I reflected on my own D&D campaigns and writing, and considered how my players had made their own super cool wish fulfillment characters not only bearable, but actually fun to play with. Now, the rules for writing with others and writing solo are a bit different, but there is some overlap. Because the term is so stigmatized, it may be more comfortable for readers to hear about the negative instances first, before we ease into how Sues can be worked with and even weaponized for good in the plot. Bad Sues Of course, everyone online or who plays tabletop games has some kind of a story about that one bad player whose self-insert character absolutely destroyed the game, or a DM/GM (Dungeon or Game Master) whose NPC (Non-Player Character) was just the most obnoxious piece of crap ever to grace the wet-erase maps. These people are real, and they exist in many spaces - but the problem with them is generally not what they're creating, but how they interact with others. We tend to project that negativity from the experience onto their writing, but the real sin was just being selfish and a bad sport. In two different roleplay groups, I had players who wanted to portray similar roles - the stone-cold, stoic badass who takes epic kill shots and gets to be at the centre of the plot arc. One of these players was bad with consent and paying attention to fellow players, and ultimately ended up getting the boot from that group. The other player, however, remains a good friend to this day, and actually did get the kill shot on the Big Bad Evil Guy of that adventure because she a) was and is always well-mannered to other players, b) put the work in to make her badass character get better, and c) went with the fun twists that the DM threw at her, rather than resisting them or bickering. Fixing Mary Sue Let's get this one out of the way - the problem with Mary Sues is not actually their existence, but their contextual existence with others. Balance is a bit of a myth when protagonists are involved - and something that, as many other writers have noted, never becomes a concern or comes into play when male characters are protagonists - but when working with an ensemble cast, making sure that existing characters either a) get their moment or b) have a really good reason for not getting their moment, is vitally important. There's a wonderful Star Trek: TNG episode called "Disaster" in which Deanna Troi gets to be leader for a day, while Captain Picard is stuck in an elevator with a cadre of children. It's surprisingly heartwarming and adorable - partly because for once, Troi is taken seriously and permitted to be useful and competent. However, the way Picard is removed is absolutely excellent, and very much recommendable if one wanted ways to neutralize other main characters: a common ailment + their greatest weakness = an existing MC out of commission. In a roleplay game, making sure that every player character gets some kind of moment during the game, whether it be an acting or emotional beat, a cool fight move, a clever problem-solving section, or even just a great assist for another friend, is a great way to create a sense of symmetry. Symmetry is better than balance, because all too often, "balance" becomes a reason to throw a wet blanket on fun, exciting, over-the-top moments - when the real solution is not a wet blanket, but consequences. Does Mary Sue have every type of elemental bending power without being an Avatar? Cool; make her a fugitive, and send horrible politicians and scientists after her, trying to weaponize her strengths. Is she an orphan? Have a situation come up where her family connections backfire on her or the lack thereof creates some kind of disadvantage. This turns the sometimes overstuffed backpack of traits and tropes that Sues tend to lug around into a handy-dandy kit of tools for storytellers to use. As long as there are consequences for characters' actions or advantages, the audience will feel the illusion of balance, and a sense of symmetry will be created. Embrace the Sue Ultimately, Mary Sue is the daughter of Joy and Enthusiasm, and the problem isn't her rainbow Converse or fairy wings or super duper magic powers - it's cases of bad manners. And while some might consider it unmannerly to be tacky, which the Sue often arguably is, I would counterpoint that part of writing and creative activities is inherently about fantasy. The smallness of someone's imagination should not be the boundary of other people's creations. Watching a bunch of one's friends get to play out the ideal versions of their best selves isn't a buzzkill - it's actually fantastic and delightful. Ultimately, that's what a Mary Sue can be and can offer: a chance to glimpse our ideal selves and our fantasies, and sometimes, to pursue that in our real lives.