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Author Topic: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues  (Read 8571 times)

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TakaComics

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Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« on: January 26, 2010, 11:33:09 PM »
Let's face it, we all had to start somewhere with our writing. It's not surprising that a few of our characters are not up to par. The dreaded "Mary Sue" that was mentioned in Ran's post about "Killing Your Baby" is considered one of the worst offenders of bad writing. But is it all bad? Let's dive in.

Tone it down:

   The standard definition of a "Mary Sue" is someone who dominates the spotlight in the story and are almost perfect. He might face a problem, but breeze through it without fault, or she might always be the object of affection of every member of your story. These are common mistakes, and easy to fix. The issue with "Mary Sues" comes from a writer loving his or her character too much. We want our characters to succeed, especially when their success is a key to the climax. However, if they have succeeded at everything up to that point, there's no exciting climax. That being said, we can certainly fall into the opposite, where our characters fail constantly, but succeed at the right moment. I call this the "stroke of brilliance" character, where it seems they have received the information out of nowhere.

   I reference Power Rangers (and other Sentai shows), not for it's plot, but for it's episodic climaxes. There are three in every episode, and they are all the same.
   
1.The episode monster shows up, after a battle with Putties, causing the Rangers to morph.
2.The monster grows, causing the Rangers to summon the Megazord.
3.The monster gets a leg up on the Rangers, causing them to use the Sword.

   Final Fantasy Unlimited had the summon bullet from Kaze's Magun, and Samurai Pizza Cats had Speedy's "magical Ginzu Sword." How does this apply? Well let's say your character is in a bit of a pickle. She's approaching some problem, and is doing well, however, something goes wrong, and she has to overcome that problem as it arises, causing her to grow as a character. This is a speed bump for your character, and while simple, brings the character back from "She can do anything" to "She's talented, but not perfect."

Send them packing on a Guilt-trip:

   Some Mary-Sues feel no remorse or guilt for their actions. What they are doing is right, and their cause is just. These are those characters who are blessed or "chosen," and they are called upon by a higher power, human or otherwise. Some of you may recall this being brilliantly parodied in "Blues Brothers," where Jake and Elwood are, in fact, on a "mission from God." They cause car pile-ups, crash through a mall, cause millions in property damage, but don't seem to be at all affected by it. To counter this, make sure that your character has a point in which his or her mission is proven to him, and why he is on the right (or wrong) path. Maybe it's after he questions his mission, like Cecil from Final Fantasy IV, or perhaps it's a final discovery after seeing a colleague's view, like Magneto.

Give them a fair disadvantage:

   What I mean is, make them succeed, not surpass. Magic powers, Superior Intellect, and Weaponry may give your character an advantage over their enemy, but much like the first part, make them use every aspect of their character to eventually surpass the enemy. I'm a martial artist, and I've always been taught that a weapon in the right hands is deadly. However, the weapon by itself is harmless. Spikes on the ceiling are great decor in Mortal Kombat, but they turn into a weapon only when a character exploits them. This is the key to many "hand waves" in video games. The characters automatically know how to use all their weapons and powers, even if they have never picked one up. A case can be made for leveling up, and now they do more damage at level 2 than level 1, etc. But you can change the weapon and not suffer a penalty. I play in a weekly Dungeons and Dragons campaign, and the character system to it is very robust and useful for making fantasy characters. Proficiency is a key element, and if your character is not proficient with a weapon, they will suffer a penalty. Sure anyone can swing a stick, but that won't help unless the person knows the ins and outs of using that stick. More realistically, anyone can shoot a gun, but if they don't know to shoot a gun properly, they may end up injuring themselves with the recoil, and most likely missing.

   This is the case for Magic as well. Taking the famed "Magic Missile," which never misses, out of the picture, let's explore where magic can go wrong:

1.They have no effect on the enemy, and the character doesn't realize this.
2.The magic can be harmful to the user. (Fire is hot, yo.)
3.The magic can be harmful to the user's colleagues. (Blast radius in D&D can take down other party members)
4.The magic can be harmful to the user's surroundings (i.e. Wheeler from Captain Planet getting yelled at for saying "Fire" when they are in a plane.)
5.The magic can fail due to inexperience or stress. (Chuck from Chuck cannot "flash" on something when he is panicking.)

   If one of these things happens, how will they use their power in a different way to still win the battle?

   Then there's intellect. Characters with superior intellect seem to "just know." Mary-Sues with superior intellect seem to "just know everything." If your character knows something very well, perhaps they can be thrown into a situation where they might not know exactly how things work, but can adapt it to what they are good at. I will call this the "Scotty Approach." In Star Trek, when one character, usually Spock, throws out a bunch of techno babble, and Scotty, being the one person who can take the jargon and translate it into real words, comes up with a simple metaphor. Let your character do that for himself, or have another character do it. This way, you take your him from being unrealistically intelligent, to being a problem solver, which is believable even with superpowers.

Finally:

   A Mary-Sue character doesn't mean that it is badly written. The key is in the writing. Sometimes, a Mary-Sue can be anything but cliche. However, if you do find yourself falling into the same traps with writing a character. Keep in mind their goals, their beliefs, and how you can use those parts of your characters, and not just the characters themselves, to build interest in both them and the story.

Offline Alectric

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #1 on: January 27, 2010, 01:55:37 AM »
Great article, but it would be nice if you gave some specific examples of Mary Sues, both ones done poorly and ones done well, and also explained why they were in their respective category.

Offline Pete

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #2 on: January 27, 2010, 09:00:00 AM »
Bad Mary Sues - Eragon from Eragon, Bella from Twilight, Langston from The Da Vinci Code.

I'd be interested to hear who makes the list of a good Mary Sue, if anyone.

Don't forget that Mary Sues are almost always wish-fulfillment characters.  They are the characters that the authors wish to be within the context of the story, which is why they tend to be the perfect characters.

Offline TTallan

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #3 on: January 27, 2010, 09:21:09 AM »
Would you say Superman is a Mary Sue? Or Batman, or your choice of superhero?

Also, I would point out that all those bad Mary Sues you've listed-- and I'm not arguing they're bad!--- have all been wildly successful. Apparently, among the average population, Mary Sues make for compelling reading.  :-\

Offline Pete

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #4 on: January 27, 2010, 09:35:01 AM »
Oh trust me, I realize the success of those books, and it makes me want to puke (yes, I know, tell you how I really feel, right?).  And those are the books that have rabid fans; if you try to point out the Mary Sueisms (or any other flaws in the books for that matter), they jump down your throat.

And yes, Superman (at least oldschool Superman) was a Mary Sue in the worst way.  He was always my least favorite superhero ever.  Batman not so much, but I'd be willing to hear an argument for the position (I'm not as well-read on comic books as some).

Offline GaborBoth

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #5 on: January 27, 2010, 10:03:36 AM »
Superman is a Mary Sue even today. The old Batman (First comics, live-action series, old cartoons) is Mary Sue (All his bad side is being too nice with evil sometimes - Which is not the case now, quite the opposite)  The newer, darker versions of Batman are fine. The new Batman feels anger, feels pain, guilt, bad at handling people, etc. (See Batman Hush books) This is mostly since DC officially merged the universes (Justice League) and Batman is used as a counterpart for all those Superman-like heroes, and since nearly all superhero comics have blood and death in them nowadays as they are aimed at an older audience now.
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Offline Funderbunk

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #6 on: January 27, 2010, 10:26:29 AM »
Wesley Crusher from Star Trek The Next Generation, until they broke him in.

Harry Potter, though this one's debatable.
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TakaComics

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #7 on: January 27, 2010, 11:53:30 AM »
I'll take on a few of these:

Superman can be considered a Mary Sue on the surface, but on further inspection, you can see why he isn't. He does have a weakness, and while it's pretty avoidable for the most part, the true weakness comes with Lex Luthor's intelligence and ability to exploit that weakness. Also, just because he is a superhero who is nigh invincible, doesn't mean there are others who are the same. General Zod, for instance, is Superman's equal, because he is powerful for the same reasons, he is Kryptonian. Superman was originally a Mary Sue Character, but for the right reasons. This wasn't a ploy to make a character that was invincible just to love on Superman, it was a metaphor for all immigrants coming to America. You could do anything here. On his home planet, Kal-El is just a normal man, but coming to Earth, he is a super man. That being said, it doesn't apply much anymore. Which is why, Pete, you may have looked at it being a Mary Sue in a bad way. Writers have had to create problems for a character without them. Some have been good, most haven't.

Batman is one that is a little more Mary Sue. His entire reason for becoming a superhero is the death of his parents. While that makes him fallible and human, it also is his driving motivation for doing anything, which can be a problem. Writers have been avoiding that, since everyone who reads comics knows. This opens them to making Batman a good character. He's rich, can get a lot of weapons and tech, but in the end, he's still human, and can suffer the same problems as being human, like Iron Man in a way. Iron Man's origin story somewhat mirrors Batman. A tragedy that gives him a weakness, but that weakness can become his greatest strength. However, just because it has become his strength doesn't mean that it can't be exploited.

Wesley Crusher is the go-to character for Mary Sue critics. His origin is a good start to a character: He was fully engaged in the world of the Enterprise, and his mother was a top ranking professional on the ship. If you were interested in the ship itself, and pushed yourself to apply to Starfleet Academy, you would be knowledgeable in the different aspects of the most powerful ship in the fleet. The problem that pushes Wesley towards being a Mary Sue is that he was too young to have problems that the other characters might face in their life. The idea behind Wesley was great, have a character that can look at ship problems from a different point of view. The execution, however, is all on the writer of each episode. Those that used him as a part of each episode didn't know how to write for him. It wasn't until "Final Mission", where Wesley was used in a way that made him interesting. Then he dropped off the face of the earth, to go to Starfleet Academy. When they return to him (ok ignore the episode "The Game") he is accused of practicing a banned maneuver and injuring a classmate. It gives him a problem he has to face, and one he actually suffers for. However, they screw it all up by finishing his character in the dumbest, most Mary Sue way ever. Wesley is the perfect example of a good character gone wrong.

Pete: Your picks are good. I have not read the books, nor do I want to, but I've heard enough about them to know. But I'll twist it for you. Every single one of those characters, in the hands of a good writer, could have been a great character. If your character seems perfect, then downplay that perfection. I was in Dave Kellett's uStream a couple days ago, and he made a statement about cartooning style, and his line quality. He stated that, "the lines you don't draw are filled in by the mind of the reader." This is applied well to writing. The aspects of the character you don't see, if you give just enough to show the gap, will be filled in. Some may cry foul, but many will fill in those parts with a character's problems and faults. Having your character seem perfect and Mary Sue like can be a great starting point as well. Over the course of your story, slowly show off the faults. Let them come to the surface and possibly break down the character. This is a case for what Jerzy Drozd calls "The Descent Character". Where the character makes the wrong choice and it eventually destroys him.

Offline Pete

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #8 on: January 27, 2010, 12:11:09 PM »
I'm not going to argue the Sueness of the comic characters because, as I stated, I'm not well-read enough to debate it.  However, I picked up on something that I hope I'm mistaken on.  A character's weaknesses should not have to come from an outside source (i.e. Lex Luthor's intelligence).  A well-written character will have created those weaknesses him- or herself.

Also, on an unrelated note, flaws and weaknesses that make a character more endearing are just as much Mary Sue-ish as making the character perfect.

EDIT:  Clicked the submit button before I was done.  I wanted to say that I'm still waiting to hear what a "good Mary Sue" is.
« Last Edit: January 27, 2010, 12:13:14 PM by Pete »

Offline Nuke

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #9 on: January 27, 2010, 12:46:12 PM »
EDIT:  Clicked the submit button before I was done.  I wanted to say that I'm still waiting to hear what a "good Mary Sue" is.

Perhaps the word that should be used is successful mary sue. The dumbest characters and the worst plot will sell very well if they're gratifying and advertised enough. You could sell people the plague if you bottled it up pretty and made sure that people saw ads for it everywhere they went.

But maybe I'm being cynical. I watch/read/listen to some of the dumbest crap, and I do it because it's fun and satisfying and a break from thinking.

On the other hand, I wouldn't defend those things as being anything other than good mindless entertainment, either.

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TakaComics

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #10 on: January 27, 2010, 01:45:14 PM »
The good part of a Mary Sue (yes, one exists) is that it's easy for someone to see themselves in the character. Which is why I consider superheroes to be (mostly) good examples of Mary Sues. We want to succeed, so we want to see a character who we would like to be succeed. We don't want to point out our own flaws, and if a character's flaws are pointed out, then it feels like ours are being spotlighted as well. There's something to be said for a Mary Sue where the world around them is the problem (Batman) or the enemy is highlighting the classic "good vs. evil" plot (Superman). These are worlds that are written well, and to see ourselves in the story is very important sometimes. Barclay from Star Trek: TNG is who we are when we enjoy Mary Sue characters. That's why the fans of sub-par books that feature those characters are rabid fans. They needed to see themselves in the character's spot. Many of those fans are people who are otherwise anti-social or reserved. That doesn't mean that the books are ZOMG AMAZING!!!111 but it serves it's purpose, and the good ones earn respect even from people who hate Mary Sues; Harry Potter, various superheroes, etc.

Offline Rob

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #11 on: January 27, 2010, 01:54:48 PM »
Truman, from The Truman Show started out in Mary Sue-ville. By the end of the flick he was threatening his wife, being hunted by his neighbors and fighting what he thought at the time was Mother Nature, for his life. His Mary Sue-ness was used as a device to give his character a starting point in context with his surroundings.

I know from author friends that Eragon is generally reviled for ripping off every Fantasy stereotype there is and dressing it up in Mary Sue clothing.

Offline Pete

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #12 on: January 27, 2010, 04:48:55 PM »
I'm going to cement my status as the Board Curmudgeon with this one, I just know it.

I refuse to accept that anyone should EVER write a Mary Sue character into their comic or their novel.  I understand "mindless entertainment", but the proliferation of bad characters only helps to dumb down society even further.  If you can't write a character who your readers can identify with, then you need to try harder, not make them a Mary Sue.  And when I say "identify", I don't mean "put themselves into the character's shoes", I mean that they can understand who the character is, flaws and all.

And don't even get me started on Eragon.  I was a contributor and forum mod for one of the biggest anti-Eragon sites (now dead because us founding members had lives to get back to).

Offline Rob

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #13 on: January 27, 2010, 06:23:57 PM »
I'm going to cement my status as the Board Curmudgeon with this one, I just know it.

You do seem determined on that point.

While I support your call for quality in theory if I could make the kind of money that Eragon or Twilight have made I'd intentionally rot the brains of every reader I could get my hands on. If I were selling actual poison then I would fell terribly guilty. If I'm writing crap no one really has to read it and if they want to pay me to write crap I will merrily do so and not lose a wink of sleep.

Offline TheCow

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Re: Making the Most Out of Your Mary Sues
« Reply #14 on: January 27, 2010, 10:55:39 PM »
I find the best definition of a Mary Sue is simply this: An author's wish fulfillment at the cost of a good story.

You can take a character with all the earmarks of a "Mary Sue," (new character, really good at what they do, outshines previous characters, potentially romantically involved with other characters,) and with good writing, they turn into excellent characters.

Greg Rucka created a character when writing one of the Batman books. Her name was Sasha Bordeaux. She was a bodyguard brought in to protect Bruce Wayne, but she soon figured out that he was really Batman. She was so skilled at hand to hand combat and investigating, Bruce started training her as a pseudo-sidekick. There were even hints of romance. All the earmarks of a Mary Sue, right? Well, she continued to develop as a character, being put to the test when Bruce was framed for murder, then even further as she was recruited by the DC Universe black ops team of "Checkmate." Oh, and then turned into a cyborg. Starting out as supporting cast of a Batman book, she ended up heading up the Checkmate book and is her own, fully developed character.  (See also "Jessica Jones" by Brian Michael Bendis, and others, but those are the two that hopped into my head immediately.)

I would put forth that while there are many similarities to a "Mary Sue" here, it's more of an example of "New Author Adding New Stuff to Old Books." (I'm sure there's a better name for it, but I don't have the seven hours to spend on TVTropes searching for it . . . )

What better way to introduce a new character than by making an impact on an already pre-existing book? The problem lies in bad writing. You want to introduce a developed character, not some supposed "badass" that's just a flash-in-the-pan. (In short, you want Serenity, not Avatar. Yeah, I went there.  ;) ) I think that Mary Sues are just poorly written "NAANStOB" characters, at least when dealing with pre-existing universes.

There's a similar concept to "NAANStOB" that is often mistaken for being "Mary Sues" too. It's "reinventing old characters."

My favorite comic book right now is "Secret Six." One of the stars is Catman. And yes, he gets grief for being a ripoff of Catwoman, who is a spinoff of sorts from Batman. And that's one reason he's not a Mary Sue. Obviously, he's a character the author has a thing for. He was kind of a lame character back in the 50's (bored rich guy turns to a life of crime for fun,) revamped in the 70's and 80's to being competent, then utterly destroyed in the 90's by becoming a morbidly obese failure. And currently, he's the absolutely ripped anti-hero that fangirls all over the internet drool over. So why isn't he a Mary Sue? Because instead of just handwaving all previous versions away, Catman realized he was pathetic and dedicated himself to overcoming it. Sure, he brutally beats the living hell out of people, but he thinks about it later, wondering if he should change his ways or fully embrace them. He is one of the most interesting, entertaining and well-written characters being written today because the writer cares about making him a good character. It's not about beating up Batman (which he kinda did,) or surviving getting hit by a car (which he kinda did,) or getting hit on by TONS of the hottest supergals and villainesses in the DCU (which he kinda does,) it's about being well written if and when that stuff happens. (See also Brian Michael Bendis' Luke Cage, or J.M. Demattis\Keith Giffen with the JLI.)

I probably have more to say, but I'm rambling and don't want to go way off track. I mean, it's only my first post, I've got plenty of time to make an idiot out of myself.

(Oh, and I want to point out that "Mary Sue" and "Author Insert" are also often thought to be the same thing. They're not. I can elaborate if anyone cares.)


tl; dr: I dont' think a well written "author's character" shouldn't be considered the same as a "Mary Sue."