I have long held that ‘show don’t tell’ is the single most useless and damaging advice one can give to a burgeoning writer. Just recently, I discovered the origins of this ancient writers’ chestnut and as it turns out, it actually started out as good advice…
As a bit of history, you have to understand that in the olden days, a lot of stage plays didn’t have a hell of a lot in the way of props and sets and so employed a narrator character (as in their role is merely ‘narrator’, they have no actual role in the story) to set the stage in their stead. And while they were at it, writers used that same character to set the mood and often explain the plot.
That last part both is and isn’t as bad as you think: back in the day, the mere ability to read and write at all placed a person in the position of the intellectual elite while plays were often for the ‘common’ (read: uneducated because otherwise they would realize feudalism and or representative democracy sucked for them) folk. They felt that they had to and in many cases did have to talk down to the audience in order to make sure everyone enjoyed the play.
Over time, narrators started to fall out of favor. They had a lot of downsides, not the least of which being that the actual story had to stop in order for them to deliver their many, many soliloquies. Plus, plays were starting to catch on with the wealthy and powerful who did not appreciate being talked down to.
So it happened that the common advice for playwrights was to write the play in such a way that information was conveyed as part of the action by the characters—no matter how unnatural it might seem for two people who know a set of information to remind each other of it for no reason other than ‘let me get this straight’.
Boiled down, this advice became ‘show, don’t tell’ and then it was applied to a medium where the narrator is impossible to get rid of and information can be conveyed as part of the narrative flow rather than awkwardly delivered by characters.
And now you know the rest of the story.
What does this have to do with Mary Sues, you ask? Well just like ‘show, don’t tell’ has grown to become harmful and toxic mimetic sludge that everyone spews at new writers but no one thinks about or explains, so too has the concept of Mary Sue become a mangled morass of faulty definitions, the avoidance of which has ruined more characters than Frank Miller and Mark Millar put together.
And from now on, whenever a piece of common advice and critique gets too big for its britches and needs a good old fashioned ass-whuppin’, we take a visit to…
Bad Criticism Theater
Today’s topic was inspired by a Batman v Superman review I refuse to link because the writer is a misogynist piece of trash who elsewhere on their site advocates revoking women’s suffrage and thinks My Little Pony is filling girls’ head with anti-family ideas. I read his review of Batman v Superman because I was deeply enjoying the critical bloodbath this thing is suffering, but whooo boy, this guy is scum and he will not get an links or ad revenue from this site.
Needless to say though, he hated Wonder Woman. Not just Gal Gadot’s character in the film (though unsurprisingly, he hates her not only for being an uppity woman, but for being a hero in a movie where he was applauding Batman’s ‘no nonsense’ (his words) stance on crime and also Superman stopping crime. For the crime of being selfless and heroic, he dubbed the Spirit of Truth a Mary Sue because (again, his words) ‘she’s unrealistically good without flaws or depth’.
First of all, and this will become a theme, he’s actually looking for the term ‘Pollyanna‘, which also doesn’t fit unless you’re coming from a place where refraining from killing people is the highest possible virtue.
He goes on to ‘explain’ how Wonder Woman has always been a Mary Sue and it’s at this point, I have to demand we define our terms. And the begins with a bit of history.
Back in the day before even the existence of the internet, there was still fanfiction. Like fan comics in Japan, there early fics were distributed at conventions on photocopied pages by eager fans wanting to ply their own creativity within the universe and with the characters of their favorite works.
And, as could be expected from a pool of writers that included many people who were writing more for themselves tan any potential artists, certain predictable and flawed trends emerged when it came to both renditions of canon characters and original creations alike: TVTropes would later call these: Boring Invincible Hero, Wish Fulfillment Characters, and Special Snowflake Syndrome. For those who don’t want to follow the links, these are characters who are flawlessly good at everything they try, exist purely for the satisfaction of some desire or fantasy the author wishes they could embark upon, and obnoxiously ‘unique’ characters who pile on odd traits to make them stand out respectively.
And then there were the products of truly self-indulgent writing who were all three. But not just all three, they were also inherently in the moral and factual right no matter what they do to the point that the universe will bend over backward to make it so. Everyone like them except for bonafide villains or people who are stupid and will come around eventually. These characters were dubbed Mary Sue and for those who can’t bear to apply a term with a feminine name to male characters: Gary Stu and they soon became the iconic sign of bad writing to the point that people who try and discredit fanfiction as a legitimate artistic endeavor will often cite their apparent rampancy in the community was a reason.
And it’s time for that term to be put out to pasture.
Why? I mean, it does pretty handily describe a certain type of character that is inherently detrimental to a work right? Right?
Haha. Go Google ‘Marry Sue Test’ and then plug in answers for literally any protagonist ever. I’ll wait.
Back? Then you saw what happened, right? The definition has been so broadened these days that any major character in a work can register to at least someone. At this point, it essentially means ‘character I do not like who has some area of competency’. Or, depressingly often like in the case of our He-Man Woman Hater friend who thinks Wonder Woman is a Sue for not being evil in a Zach Snyder movie, it means ‘female character I do not like’.
You can go check the internet again on this one search for any female lead character and you will find a forum thread or tweet calling her a Mary Sue for not sucking and failing at the thing she’s supposed to do. Take for example, RWBY, a show I have meant to talk about for sometime thanks to it’s unique standing as a show that swiftly built up artistic credibility (a concept I want to discuss later) with me before lighting the whole pile of it on fire over the course of four episodes. The show manages to juggle eight main characters. Six are female. Four FOUR of them are constantly accused of being Mary Sues by various fans because they’re really good at combat… in a show set in an elite combat school. The other two get past this for being, well a bitch and quiet. Yeah, think about that.
And I’m not going to soapbox too hard on the inequality this trope presents to females, but one of the male characters , while given significantly less screen time, is portrayed as some kind of Perfect Master of the local equivalent of The Force and no one calls him a Sue despite the fact that he’s designed to look like and was literally voiced by the late creator of the series.
Truth be told, it’s not misogyny that makes this trope the worst, it’s the fact that it is constantly applied to characters whose entire point is to be good at their thing. Case in point: my beloved Leverage can be and has been described by its creator as ‘competence porn’. Sometimes you just want to see cool people do cool things.
Yet somehow you can go on the internet and find accusations that resident Impossible Thief, Parker, is a Mary Sue because she’s good at being a thief in a show about people being good at being a thief. Which boggles my mind because one of the major aspects of a Mary Sue is having no flaws and—aside from thief skills—Parker is all flaw. She’s described pre-character development as hardly being able to pass as human. She doesn’t even understand he beauty of the art and gems she steals, she only sees them as things to steal. She is a deeply broken creature… but nope, she’s good at something—into the Sue bin you go!
Right there is where we enter the ‘toxic to the art of writing’ territory. Just like ‘show, don’t tell’ the problem with little soundbites of advice like this is a lack of context and guidance. Instead of ‘show, don’t tell’ you need to be saying, ‘make exposition and pipe flow with the narrative and easily digestible’.
Here, instead of ‘don’t write Mary Sues’, you need someone to explain what makes a well-rounded protagonist, how to write an environment that react appropriately to the protagonist, and how to properly employ character flaws.
Nope. We get the Mary Sue Tests that turn all that into handy-dandy checkpoints at a) amount to making characters dull because the author is afraid of Special Snowflake Syndrome and b) have useless, informed flaws to shave a few points off an actual Mary Sue in order to call them acceptable.
See, everyone focuses on Sue traits, but in reality, it’s how the story treats that character that makes a Sue.
Diana of Themyscara, AKA Wonder Woman was literally brought to life from clay and granted beauty, strength, intellect and a warm heart by the gods and got to live her life on an island where she would never age or die. She put her immortality aside to enter the ‘world of men’ as an ambassador of peace and fought against true evil (read: Nazis) for the betterment of the world. She has won, she has lost, people have come and gone from her life and at once point, she was working at a taco stand (I shit you not). Without going into her entire publication history, Wondy is plenty special, but the universe doesn’t just pick her side. She’s been wrong and called out for it plenty of times and faced the consequences. She’s been tricked and some people don’t like her in-universe for whatever reason.
Not a Sue.
Now let’s look at an actual Sue, possibly the most famous in our time:
Bella Swan is an unpleasant, dim-witted high school girl that the story takes for unique and strong-willed. People are nice to her without provocation and she insulted them for it, resulting in… them still liking her and trying harder to be nice to her. The person who seems to hate her most is actually totally in love with her and has superpowers (with zero drawbacks). She hurls herself into danger both out of boundless stupidity (which again the narrative does not that as stupid) and willful manipulation of others and is rewarded with a relationship upgrade. When people warn her off marrying a vampire, she does it anyway and gets awesome sex as a reward. Then she goes against literally everyone in the world’s advice and carries a dhampir baby to term and despite being ripped to shreds by the little monster, ends up becoming a vampire (again with none of the traditional drawbacks) out of the deal, plus her baby is born with a loyal true love who can never not love her? I don’t…
The moral of the story is that Bella is right and every other being in the universe can suck it.
That is a Sue. It doesn’t matter if she was good at anything or not. That’s just a symptom of the disease. Sue’s are geniuses, expert martial artists and Best At Sex because they are Sues, not the other way around. It doesn’t even matter if you like that. Most renditions of Sherlock Holmes, even my favorite, the Robert Downey Jr version? Right about everything? Check. Right about even the things they couldn’t know or understand? Check.
Now the original Holmes was an addict who sometimes had to be dragged back into focus by Watson. But most modern versions? Sues the lot of them—and they are still fun and awesome.
Just like Batman.
Well, some Batmen. Granted, most modern portrayals of Batman are at least a little psychologically compromised, but the more ‘fun’ Batmen such as Batman ’66, and Batman Brave and the Bold are right in the Sherlock Holmes mold of being right because they’re the protagonist and they make it fun. So even among Sues, there’s nothing inherently wrong with them, they just need proper context and deployment.
Sadly, fledgling writers are often all too scared to tick too many boxes rather than actually think about what their end product is. So what you often get is a character who has a few superficial alterations to the character without ever addressing their role in the story or even if the character would honestly be a problem without those tweaks.
How many stories have you experienced recently where one character (usually female because of course) is described as ‘clumsy’ or ‘ditzy’ or shows symptoms of some variety of autism spectrum disorder… but only when or to the extent that it’s a quirk, plot enabling occurrence, or similar non-hindering ‘flaw’?
We’ve all seen it a hundred times: the klutz only trips or drops things when it advances the plot, often falling directly into their soon-to-be-love interest, the genius with terrible social skills (and no other autism symptoms) still manages to get all the information/funding/best as sex they need, the ditzy stumbles into the all-important clue for the ninth time?
Writers are so scared of writing a competent character and having them labels a Mary Sue that they are no writing inexplicable competent incompetence to try and ‘cheat’ around it.
It has to stop. It’s gotten to the point that when a character is actually clumsy and it becomes a real issue for them, they come off as a colossal failure because of the thousands of miracle klutzes who turn that into gold in every other story. And when one does come across these flawless flawed characters… well you have no choice but to call them what they are: Mary Sues that have been expertly filed down just enough to slip by The Test. And often they wouldn’t have been a Sue at all if the narrative didn’t keep rewarding their flaws!
Like so many issues I bring up in this space, the root of this is laziness, but not on the fault of the writers this time.
We now live in an age where the phrase ‘everybody’s a critic’ is literally true. You can get reviews from everybody, their mother and their dog. Any chimp with a Youtube or WordPress account can tell you what they think about anything.
That’s great. Hell, some of my favorite programming these days are old Channel Awesome offerings and SFDebris. I can’t argue that it’s nice to see new voices alongside the elite airing their thoughts.
Not everyone is good at conveying their thoughts. Not everyone is cut out to be a writer even if it’s to say their opinion because they will express it with the wrong words, the wrong terms… or while saying women shouldn’t vote. A lot of those people just parrot what they’ve heard other people say about other things without really knowing why that was said.
So they hear about someone’s Sailor Moon fiction where Sailor Mindy saved the day by killing all the bad guys and then Tuxedo Mask dumped Serena for her and they had thirty babies and here her called Mary Sue and they think it’s because the other person doesn’t like Sailor Mindy for being awesome at things.
And so they go out and they call Buffy Summers, or Parker, or Wonder Woman, or Miss Martian a Mary Sue for those reasons instead of the real reasons, and someone else has a slightly different understanding but a similar dislike compares them to another character using the same term and it goes on and on until the term has no real meaning other than another swear to launch at things we don’t like while keeping better, more interesting characters under wraps for fear they will be seen as ‘too good’.
There was a day and age, a time and place for Mary Sue, but now it is a Jurassic Park dinosaur: artificial, only vaguely resembling the real thing, and doling out brutal destruction to everything in its path just to add a bit of spectacle. It’s time to take this term, take it out back—and fire a rocket launcher into its midsection like Muldoon did in the book.
Just as you should think before you write, you need to think before you critique. Your usefulness to the art is in the balance.