May 18, 2022

Mary Sue to the rescue

The eponymous character, originally named Lieutenant Mary Sue, was created by Paula Smith in her short 1973 parody of Star Trek fan fiction. Editing a Star Trek fanzine, Smith had noticed the predominance of stories that featured

the adventures of the youngest and smartest person ever to graduate from Star Fleet Academy and ever get a commission. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm wrestling, this character can be found burrowing her way into the good graces of Kirk, Spock, or McCoy, if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.

The Mary Sue can be simply summed up as a character who is too good to be true, having acquired more skills and talents and positive personality traits than our most generous expectations suggest is realistically possible.

Put the Mary Sue shortcut down to the rush of wish fulfillment or to impatient writers who want to fast forward to the "interesting" scenes. Or who think they are giving the audience what it wants to see. You know, because practicing to get good at something is for chumps.

Meeting all these criteria, a recent Mary Sue par excellence is Rey in The Force Awakens.

Yoda himself can't keep Luke Skywalker from getting badly beaten by Darth Vader in the second movie. Forget about crossing swords with anybody in the first. But Rey is an expert the first time she touches a lightsaber. She's as good a pilot as Han Solo the first time she sits in the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon.

Now, Luke does have a Mary Sue moment at the end of A New Hope, when he pilots an X-wing starfighter to victory. No, logging a couple hundred hours in a Cessna 172 does not mean you can hop into an F-35 Lightning and out-fly the Top Guns who've been at it for years.

We give Luke a pass here thanks to the narrative trick of making the audience a participant in the trials, travails, and eventual triumphs of the protagonist. As the help wanted ads put it, having proved his mettle, we'll let the good guy skate by on "equivalent experience" in lieu of a resume.

The problem with Rey is that's she's perfect from the moment she appears on the screen. We never see her resume. We never see her burning the midnight oil. Making it all the more annoying, as I outlined in my review, is that it would not have been difficult to give her one.

The big irony of the Mary Sue and its Star Trek origins is that The Next Generation wrote one right into the cast. Pandering to the fan base, I suppose. But perhaps any trope worth being singled out and savagely critiqued is one that connects at a deep level with a significant portion of the audience.

In that light, it deserves a defense. And so now I rise not to bury Mary Sue but to praise her.

To be sure, I cannot bring myself to defend Wesley Crusher. He is exactly the kind of annoying Mary Sue that Paula Smith snarked about back in 1973. Any reasonable appeal to verisimilitude could not tolerate his presence on the bridge of the Enterprise.

But a Mary Sue story can be done right. Komichi Akebi in Akebi's Sailor Uniform is a more recent and perfectly adorable example. But Snow White with the Red Hair really sets the standard.

Based on the manga by Sorata Akizuki, the anime ran two cours (the manga is still being serialized). As befitting the title, the story takes place in a spick and span medieval Disneyland (the setting itself qualifies as a Mary Sue).

When we first meet her, Shirayuki (白雪), whose name translates as "Snow White," is a conscientious herbalist who owns a small pharmacy. That is, until the lecherous Prince Raj, entranced by her brilliant red hair, decides to make Shirayuki his mistress. And won't take no for an answer.

Figuring that caution is the better part of valor, Shirayuki's answer is to pack up and scamper across the border, where she promptly runs into Prince Zen of Clarines and his retainers. It's "like" at first sight.

No mooning around. No one gets serenaded beneath a window. Shirayuki and Zen are preternaturally practical and competent people. Shirayuki has principles and no hesitation in standing up for them. And one of those principles is to own only what she's earned.

Although ostensibly a "European" kingdom, Clarines appears to be run by a ranked bureaucracy of mandarins appointed through an imperial examination system. Determined to stay close to Zen but refusing any handouts, Shirayuki applies for a job as an assistant court herbalist. And passes the tests.

But, again, the backstory has established that she works hard and is good at it, and shows us (doesn't just tell us) that she is deserving of the position. Zen as well works for a living. Being a prince in Clarines comes with a portfolio. Besides going on inspection tours, he has to sit at a desk and push paper around.

These jobs not only make them more interesting but also generate compelling plot material.

(Seriously, what do Disney's Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty actually do? Well, Cinderella is good at housekeeping. What does Elsa do? Anna at least has the important job of keeping Elsa from going nuts and destroying the kingdom.)

There's no need to pretend Shirayuki and Zen aren't Mary Sues. They are too good to be true. Here we have a pair of protagonists who couldn't be any nicer without getting saccharin. Even Prince Raj can't resist becoming a better person when he's around them (a character arc that pays off well in the second cour).

Yet they both possess a depth of character that makes their stories compelling. Yes, nice people can be interesting and do interesting things. I would describe the resulting genre as a "cozy" romance, the equivalent of the "cozy" mystery.

Dispensed with are the angst, the sturm und drang, the love triangles, the miscommunication, all the melodramatic conventions of the genre. Another way of describing this romance sub-genre might be "You and me (and our friends) against the world."

In fact, the only real hint of romantic tension arises among their friends, principally Mitsuhide, Kiki, and Obi, who are Zen's retainers, though Zen assigns Obi to Shirayuki. Later in the series, Mitsuhide seems to have a thing for Kiki, and Obi definitely has unrequited affection for Shirayuki.

But being loyal to Zen and having earned his trust, Obi never does anything stupid or inappropriate. Aside from Mitsuhide getting goofy in one episode in which he goes looking for Shirayuki in the pharmacy and accidentally ingests an elixir, nobody embarrasses, betrays, or compromises anybody.

Even for the day or so that Mitsuhide is under the effect of the elixir, he acts like a stereotypical gallant knight and drives everybody batty. It's a clever way of stating what the show is not about.

In the second cour, more high adventure comes their way, what with pirates and outlaws and damsels in distress and long lost family members showing up in unexpected places. But Shirayuki keeps her head on her shoulders (literally and figuratively) and the relationship never falters. Neither does her career.

In the end, nobody rides off into the sunset. There are no impending nuptials. We don't need to be told that Shirayuki and Zen will live "happily ever after." They only need to live their lives as best they can. From what we have learned about them, that will suffice. Real life is tough enough already.

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# posted by Blogger Matthew
3/29/2019 6:57 AM   
One of the most popular Mary Sue (or rather Marty Stu or Gary Stu) characters today is Lee Child's Jack Reacher. Reacher is among other things big and muscular without having to work out, was from an elite (and fictional) military unit, is a great sniper, a West Point graduate, and can do advance mathematics in his head (which Child gets wrong.) A lot of people love this character and I don't see why. Even accepting he is a wish fulfillment character the books are pretty mediocre.

Batman and Doc Savage borderline it, but they have an excuse of being trained from childhood to be great at everything. They are also shown, unlike Reacher, to work out.
# posted by Anonymous Anonymous
4/18/2019 11:55 PM   
Wow, I am surprised you gave Akagami a go, Eugene! It's my top pick and favourite of the shoujo genre because of the lack of unnecessary drama and subtropes that are present in every other manga of its kind. If you liked the anime, I would suggest you try reading the serialisation!
# posted by Blogger Lehst
7/03/2019 2:42 AM   
It's nice seeing that a character being a "mary su" isn't immediately an insult. It seems generally people use mary sue as a synonym for trash.

It definitely does break the story when a character is too amazing. At the same time though, I want to read about amazing characters. It can get dull seeing the same formula though, without something new in the mix (plot or setting, etc.)

I think what's more amazing than being a skilled herbalist, fighter, linguist, or whatever, is having good moral character. I liked Akagami no Shirayuki because we got to hang out with a group of people that weren't a bunch of assholes to each other.