I already had words about this asinine Mary Sue bullshit yesterday. Charlie Jean Anders wrote a good piece about it at io9 today and mentioned something that was on my mind as I went to bed last night: wish fulfillment.
The “Mary Sue” is a very specific wish-fulfillment fantasy, in other words. It’s about getting to hang out with Harry, Ron and Hermione, and having them admire you. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of fantasy—we’ve all had it, when we get especially invested in a particular universe—but the term acquired a pejorative meaning because people felt it made for bad stories.
I think the thing that made Mary Sue (and Gary Stu, because yes Virginia they do exist) characters so mortally offensive in fandom that they needed their own name was because it was wish fulfillment run completely amok.
These books and shows, practically anything that doesn’t combine classic everyperson-struggles-with-the-greatest-enemy-which-is-themselves drama with scifi and fantasy, are all about wish fulfillment. It’s wish fulfillment that legions of us can participate in by identifying with the hero. And in fact, there are plenty of successful and decent works of fanfiction out there in which original characters aren’t Mary Sues and manage to continue that delightful line of wish fulfillment by welcoming the reading audience in. Original characters in fanfiction are not automatically Mary Sues. This is a battle I had many times in the fanfiction trenches, and I’ll stand by it.
I’d argue that actually, the two problems with the Mary Sue characters (beyond generally shitty writing) that make them so basically offensive are:
- The wish being fulfilled is so specific to the writer that no one else is welcomed in.
- The needs of the fantasy being played out by the wish fulfillment character act without regard for the canon that fans hold in common and in fact warps the canon in the service of the Mary Sue.
These two factors combine into a reading experience that is nothing short of infuriating, because you’re seeing a canon that you love get twisted out of shape to serve a character with whom no one but the writer can identify.
This is, by the way, why I deny the existence of canon Sues/Stus. You might not like what the writer of the property is doing with the canon, but you’re not the authority on it. They are. Sorry, suck it up and deal. If it pisses you off that much, stop reading or watching. But you don’t get to decide that, say, what JK Rowling wrote isn’t canon because it’s a ship you don’t like. That’s not how it works, cupcake.
So obviously, I’m in the camp that says Rey is a canon character, she cannot possibly even be a Mary Sue, so we don’t even need to discuss this further. Kindly weep into this tea cup so I can drink your tears. But that’s not the point of this post. This is about why so many people are attempting to cover their chapped little asses with a banner that read “But she’s a Mary Sue!”
Rey is a character that does not fulfill their wishes. They don’t identify with her. They don’t understand her. They don’t want to be her. They believe their beloved canon has been twisted in order to serve her character. And they assume that their experience is or should be universal. I imagine this is the feeling behind a lot of female main characters who don’t shit the bed in the third act getting smeared with the dreaded “Mary Sue” label. And to a certain extent, I sympathize, because I’ve sure watched a lot of movies where I thought the male wish fulfillment character was quite terrible.
But this is the thing:
Just because you do not like a character does not mean she is a bad character.
There are more wishes to be fulfilled in the world than yours.
Get the fuck over it.
Batman. Certain Batman stories are my go to examples of writers, readers, and corporate accountants so loving a character that it breaks the suspension of disbelief. Because Batman is everyone’s favorite character he always has a plan and out thinks everyone. Like repeated uses of Batman’s plan/equipment to take out the whole Justice League in comics and animated versions.
Since he is a cannon original character, even though he is now being written by the successors of the successors of the successors of the original writers, he is not a Gary Stu/Mary Sue. Fair enough. He does have a unreasonably heavy suit of Plot Armor and gets away with things like punching characters, like Darkseid, that can win against Superman.
It is useful to have a shorthanded way of saying, “Hey, this character is being put in situations where he/she should lose given how the character is defined, but wins anyway, what is up with that?” Or, “Hey, the plot contortions to make this character win are more twisted than snake designed by MC Escher.”
He may not be a Gary Stu, but he certainly is a Canon Sue or Author’s Pet at times.
Badly written sometimes, definitely. Unrealistic within the bounds of his own universe, yep. But I’m really not on board with the “Canon Sue” thing for reasons already outlined.
I hate James Bond. I see him as the worst sort of male wish fulfillment. That doesn’t make him a Stu. It just means it’s not my cup of tea. You don’t have to like every main character ever written.
There are some elements of fandom I am happy I am very unfamiliar with, like this “Mary Sue” business.
The more they redact their old canon (see: all of old extended universe), the less respect I will have for the replacement canon. Sorry, studio, you can’t have it both ways forever.
I have pretty much zero problem with them setting aside most of the EU. I did a bit of reading into that universe, but at this point it’s such a hot mess that I can’t blame the creative team for not wanting to have to reconcile everything with it. (Though there will always be part of me that’s sad we didn’t get Timothy Zahn’s novels as the sequels, but the time for filming those has long since passed what with actors aging and all.)