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"Mary Sue" Might Now be Meaningless

Hello, my name is Mary Sue. This is my nametag.
And this nametag is peeling off!
Three weeks ago, a fellow writer at the TV Trope's writer's forum made a bold statement: Mary Sue is meaningless.

This was after about three discussions on Mary Sues, populated by people concerned about writing them, popped up in the forum. The fear about writing a Mary Sue is a recurring topic, since it's one of the best known literary concepts on the Internet. You know, litmus tests?

nrjxll, one writer, got fed up with these topics.

So he created a thread called "Mary Sue Must Die: a call to arms".


The Argument

I'll let nrjxll's words do the talking, since paraphrasing what he said won't do his words justice, especially when it comes to the list he writes:

Most people who have bothered to think twice about it are aware that exactly what a Mary Sue is supposed to be has become... disputed. To quote a relevant post from one of those other threads:
  1. Some people say marysue is only a fanfic term others think it includes canon.
  2. Some people think it's a female only trope others think it is for all genders.
  3. Some people think Mary Sue is "bad thing/bad writting" others thing it can be "charming and good", others that a sue can be written well.
  4. Some people think just being perfect makes a sue, others think having few flaws make you a sue, others think that even flawed characters can be sues.
  5. Some people think every Author Avatar is a sue, others don't.
  6. Some think it's all about how the other character's react to her, others think a sue is on itself a sue regardless of the plot and character interaction.
  7. Some think it is an inmature isult and others a valid description and a form of good criticism.
  8. Some think we must use the "original" concept, others that the concept has "evolved".
  9. Some people believe that you can measure how much "sue" a character is. Others that a character is either a Sue or not.
  10. What's the main trait of a sue?, being disliked?, being too perfect? bending the plot?
  11. Some people think it exists. Others don't.
In the past, I've been of the opinion that what this represented was the decay of the term - that there was a core concept underneath all of the use for "bad character" and ludicrously-flawed "litmus tests" and arguments that really did mean something. But slowly - I didn't fully become convinced of it, in fact, until just before writing this post - that opinion has changed.
The term Mary Sue is not decayed. It's not disputed. It is meaningless.

Bold statement, right? Yet, all of those meanings have been associated with Mary Sue, and there're many arguments about what exactly the term means.

In fact, the thread got derailed at one point when a few people decided to argue about whatever Spider-man and Superman were Mary Sues.

People were not happy about those turn of events.

The Term is Invalid Criticism

But the point is: Mary Sue has gotten to a point where almost any other piece of criticism would be more useful. 

It's quite possible that it only serves as an empty insult.

Theoretical scenario: You write a story, and a critic calls your main character a Mary Sue. And only that. What are you supposed to get out of that? What are you supposed to do to fix your hero if you don't know what definition of "Mary Sue" to use?

On the other hand, what if the same critic says "your MC lacks moral flaws" or "he doesn't face enough conflict and the stakes are low" or "the plot warps around her too much"?

That's valid criticism. Criticism that is more specific, and objectively better, than "Mary Sue".

Is the Term Harmful?

There's still a danger about using the term "Mary Sue" even if you define what meaning you're using.

The fear of the Mary Sue is one quite irrational at times. Many inexperienced writers, upon hearing it, fixate over the issue. In some cases, they might harm their protagonist, draining them of virtues, for the sake of avoiding this bad archetype.

But so many characters trend Mary Sue territory--and get away with it.

For example, many superheroes, as I mentioned earlier. Spider-man is an escapist character. He was created as a means to connecting with the teenaged reader. He has superpowers, and uses it to defy reality for the sake of entertainment, and do stuff no teenager would ever do for a long, long time.

Yet, he isn't a Mary Sue.

He has his problems. His angst.

Yet, what do you think would happen if a careless writer, afraid of Mary-Sueism, drains Spider-man of what makes him among the best of the best?

What's important is creating a good character, not avoiding writing a Mary Sue.

(There are arguments that using the term as short-hand (like on Twitter discussions with authors) is harmless, and the idea of a Mary Sue still works, but that's not the viewpoint I'm supporting.)

How You Can Help

This is for the critiquers.

The next time you're reviewing a story with a character that can be consider a Mary Sue, try being more specific. Identify the problem.

If you have been using "Mary Sue" as a critiquing term, maybe trying something else will help your fellow writers more.

What do you think?

YOUR TURN: Do you think the term "Mary Sue" should be abolished? Why or why not? Do you think any other terms would do?

Answer in the comments, or answer on your own blog! Just link to it in the comments and you'll be linked in this blog.

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