Mary Sue Should Die

marysuedieI mentioned that I would discuss poorly written stories in order to discover what makes stories good or bad. One of these is the Mary Sue. There are a number of definitions of Mary Sue (and Gary Stu). A Mary Sue may refer to a self-insert character, an overly idealistic character, an author avatar or many other options. For the purpose of this discussion, I stipulate that Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) are limited to characters that are problematic in some way by definition. I will also stipulate that Mary Sues will include all characters under the common usage of that term that happen to be negative – whether by definition or otherwise. (This includes characters that are male in addition to those that are female.) Mary Sues are those characters that have traits (whether accidentally or essentially) that are too good for the genre and those traits draw the readers attention to the character.

There are some definitions of Mary Sues that are not always negative. A self-insert character is not necessarily negative. It is at least theoretically possible for a self-insert character to be a realistic character in a story, avoid breaking the suspension of disbelief and be as essentially unproblematic as any other character. Author avatars can also be realistic characters, for much the same reasons as self-insert characters. Original characters (in a work of fan fiction) can also be done well, even as a protagonist. There are even some definitions of Mary Sue that are even less negative: a protagonist that you do not like, a cliche character or a character that is alien to the original setting in some way.

A Mary Sue could be an overly idealistic character. It is important to note that an overly idealistic character in one work may not be so in another. For example, the genre of the work may change whether or not the character is overly idealistic. In a work of superhero fiction, a super genius is simply someone with a superpower. In a work of detective fiction, a super genius to too smart to be realistic. So such a thing will count when considering whether or not a character is a Mary Sue in detective fiction but not in superhero fiction. Nonetheless, there are characters who are completely realistic, but because of sheer power, knowledge or friends distort the plot around themselves. Such characters count as a power fantasy or center of attention Sues. Therefore, simply being overly idealistic is too narrow to be a Mary Sue.

There are a number of plausible traits that could be involved in some way in the definition of a Mary Sue. One of these is characters that break the suspension of disbelief by being too good. Another is characters who overcome problems too easily – because of too much power, a lack of flaws, an implausible amount of knowledge or simply an unrealistic amount of luck. Finally, a trait sometimes seen by Mary Sues is distorting the plot by gaining too much attention, or by changing events too easily.

This should be enough to mention two commonalities present in all Mary Sues. All Mary Sues have at least one trait that is too good to be realistic given the genre. It might be accidental to the character (they happen to be too lucky) or it might be essential to the character (they are super intelligent). Second, this trait draws the attention of the reader to the character.

These two traits are sufficient to define the term Mary Sue given the stipulations I have mentioned. Mary Sues are characters who have at least one trait that is too good to be realistic given the genre and the traits draws the attention of the average reader to that character. This means that merely having a trait that is too good to be realistic is not sufficient for a character to be a Mary Sue if that trait is hidden well enough from the reader. It also means that drawing too much attention to the positive  yet realistic qualities of a character is not enough on its own for a character to be a Mary Sue.

Stories & Philosophy

storyStories are fun to read, a part of everyone’s life and something that is interesting to discuss. Any philosophical analysis begins with a definition and a discussion of the existence of the topic, so I will start there.

Stories are a connected series of event(s) involving at least one character. Anything that fits this definition is a story. Some of these stories will be good and many will be bad. First, all stories must have characters. These characters do not have to be people. They could be animals, angels or even inanimate objects. But in order to be stories, characters must have a perspective of some kind – even if that perspective is merely implied in the story. Second, stories must have event(s). A single event is enough for a brief story. Two or more events must be connected somehow in order to belong to the same story. Events and characters are the essence of stories: all stories have them, even bad ones.

There are many kinds of stories. Stories exist across many mediums. Some stories are told by radio, others are told in print and still others appear in televisions and movies. Stories have existed for a long time. In fact, stories are so old that we do not know when the first story was told or what form it took. This diversity also includes development. The idea of fictional stories is quite new in history, appearing in the 1700’s if I remember correctly. Most stories throughout history were written as true stories of the past or as mythological stories that other people falsely believe are true.

In the modern day, there are a number of reasons to listen to stories. Sometimes, it is for pleasure. This reason includes both simple pleasures as well as complex ones. We can even include the pleasure of destroyed hated characters (revenge stories) as a type of this. Sometimes we read stories in order to learn. This may include moral lessons, science lessons, or even history lessons. Stories can function as a kind of communication. Sometimes an idea is not clear enough to be written philosophically, but is clear enough for an author to write about it. Perhaps the author wishes to teach others something. Perhaps the author simply wishes to share some experience with another person. There are many things that may be communicated though fiction. Someone may wish to escape this reality and enter another one. Finally, one may wish to create something – to reflect some element of reality in a story. As a reader we may wish to see an element of reality explored in a story. All of these reasons are reasons for someone who genuinely wants to read the story. Hopefully, I have covered all of the reasons anyone would have for genuinely wanting to read something (or write it).

There are a number of philosophical problems related to stories. First, there is the problem of value. This is the question of what makes stories good. Is the value subjective or objective? What are the characteristics of good stories? What makes stories bad? Second, there is the problem of reference. When we speak of Superman, what are we talking about? Is that a reference to the stories in which Superman appears? Is it a reference to a possible world? Perhaps it is something else. Furthermore, is that reference one or many? There are many Superman stories, and some of them have contradictory attributes. So how many Supermen are there? Third, there is the question of truth. Are stories true in any sense? If so, then what sense? If not, then why not? Also, is it true that “Superman is Clark Kent”? If so, why? If not, then why do we act as if it is true? Finally, there is the question of morality. Are some stories morally good or morally bad? If so, then why? If not, then are slanderous stories impossible to write? What about free speech? Can’t stories promote opinions?

I will try to be innovative and examine the value of stories by looking at what makes stories bad. (This could be fun.)