A few months back when the Force Awakens opened I saw a spike in interest about Mary Sues a lot of it in some really poorly constructed arguments defending the character Rey. Ideas like you’re a sexist if you don’t like this character, you’re a misogynist if you haven’t seen and loved the movie, you’re a terrible person if you think the concept even exists/ means anything. First off it’s disingenuous to claim the idea is based on gender since while the name is feminine the traits appear thickly in many male characters, and remains just as toxic for good storytelling. Secondly overly idealized Author Avatar characters are indeed common and do damage plenty of potentially good stories. It appeals to the narcissism of writers to put in that character and have all the audience love it and even if we know the problems to think our craft is so good that it will not matter. This is a bit like virginal-whore construction, appealing on some level yet utterly ridiculous to anyone with their faculties turned on.
Thinking that disbelief grants immunity is a child’s idea of the world, covering your eyes and declaring “You can’t see me because I am hiding” only weakens your ability to react. It’s also a lot like the wave of ‘science is only a social construct’ pseudo-intellectualism. This is one of the reasons I quickly soured on most Anime since even before I saw more details on Mary Sues I could recognize overly idealized characters, and many of the characters people loved for their amazing talents came off to me as poorly fleshed out personalities who killed the tension of the stories since everything would always come down to them and they would never truly fail.
Several years ago while writing some stories I had a character who I knew was my avatar, but I kept him a supporting character who would play a pivotal role only late in the story; however as part of writing I looked up specific traits of Mary Sues and noticed he had far far too many of them like getting to hurt characters based on people from my own life I hated and so on. Seeing the problems allowed me to vastly reduce those traits and made him a more rounded out character while also allowing me to play around with the trope on other characters. Something I loved from the early years of Buffy was how the writers would play with tropes like cats tormenting mice: knowing tropes does not just tell a storyteller what to watch out for but can actually provide new tools to employ.
Too much wish fulfillment kills tension and immersion since the patterns calls attention to itself. The tropes of bad fan-fiction came around separately in many stories resulting from poor to mediocre writers who had digested the same conventions in superior works, and the recurrence which made these such set tropes helps give fan-fiction a bad name. The internet has a sizable number of Mary Sue litmus tests, and a counterpoint I agree with is that too many traits get listed so that most characters have at least a couple; however that’s where using a point total comes in handy since the problem is less about having any traits but the convergence of many of them at a high level (though some really should only happen as a story point). A side piece I really like are the Mary Sue race tests to see if a fiction group are portrayed as too perfect. The progenitors of those I consider to be Tolkien’s elves, but he had the foresight to have them only ever play supporting roles in his stories.
While fan-fiction gets loathed it has actually entered the mainstream since Hollywood remains desperate for ideas and anything with an established following helps reduce risks. Fifty Shades of Grey and the Mortal Instruments both came from the realm of fan-fiction, and many looser adaptations/ inspired-by-works can count under a broader definition going at least as far back as ancient Greece, showing the genre as not exactly a ghetto. However these remain primitive when compared to some of the homage/satires which know the tropes of what they emulate: Galaxy Quest, Black Dynamite, and Futurama’s Where No Fan Has Gone Before which brilliantly play with and subvert tropes or pieces which either stand on their own or contribute enough to become embraced as canon. Most fans of the Star Wars Expanded Universe only count a few pieces like the Thrawn Heir to the Empire trilogy as truly canonical, and even if they like other parts they won’t expect others to automatically count them. I for one insist on counting Guardians of the Galaxy as canonical Star Wars 😉
I’d rather avoid beating up on the Force Awakens too much (even though I have no plans on seeing it), but I found it interesting that J.J Abrams was public about being told by Disney to just give the fans what they want, and even though people don’t like most fan-fiction the result has most of the traits of one (and it hugely pleased most fans even as some called it an uninspired retread).
For some details on what constitutes a Mary Sue TV Tropes is an excellent resource: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MarySue
So for argument’s sake here area list of fan-fiction tropes which help identify a Mary Sue type character:
- Is the story basically a retread of a canon plot? (bonus if nothing truly new is added in terms of setting)
- Does the character get to use signature items from major canon characters? (bonus points if said canon characters get amazed at the skill)
- Does the character pick up skills with amazing speed? (huge bonus points if skills are mastered intuitively and require basically no training). The same applies to languages.
- Do canon characters all take an instant liking to the character? (bonus points if they show more concern for the new character they just met over existing characters they’ve known for years)
- Did he/she grow up in extreme poverty/slavery?
- If/when she proves herself does she make everyone else look like complete morons in the process?
- Does he/she ape the style of a canon character?
- Does he/she become the student/apprentice of a canon character?
- Does she have a special gift/power similar to a canon character’s? (bonus if it’s significantly stronger)
- Does the character cause a disaster which could have killed other characters with their zany curiosity/clumsiness (which makes no sense given the preposterous degree of competence generally shown) and suffer no consequences from it?
The lists read like a summary of the Force Awakens, and from the known traits I estimated Rey as having a minimum score of 78 on a test which only gave Edward Cullen from Twilight a 72 which was almost unprecedented. It’s less about a character’s immunity to ever making any kind of mistake, it’s about an immunity to any kind of consequences (why should someone who’s already perfect ever learn from anything?) while inversely suffering through a series of unfair persecutions. After Star Wars came out some people noticed how closely it followed the mono-myth from Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, and a few years later George Lucas admitted to directly using the Campbell’s cycle as the framework for his story. It was openly stated that when going into making the new Star Wars films that Disney said to give the fans what they want, so maybe these tropes were intentionally co-opted the way George Lucas previously used the mono-myth; unfortunately fanfics remain disposable and forgettable for a reason and entertainment products elevate themselves to art by bringing new things to the table even if as South Park so brilliantly put it “The Simpsons already did it.”
Following purely crowd pleasing tropes makes stories banal and predictable, it’s like how with music the modern trend jams hooks into songs every few seconds, but older music used bridges and melodies as well, and classics do not get created by following a simplistic formula which remains attractive for the business of mass producing entertainment. Expect to see a lot more conventions of fan-fiction pop up in the mainstream.