Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Mary Sue vs MCS

For ease of reference, assume anything about Mary Sue applies to Marty Stu.

The term Mary Sue dates back to a 1974 Star Trek fanfic that was written as a parody of various self-insert fanfictions that were coming out at the time.  There is some controversy as to just what constitutes a Mary Sue or Marty Stu but it is considered one of the worst insults you can lay on any particular character.  On the other hand, there is what I call "Main Character Syndrome" which probably exists under some other name but is my catch all term for situations that tend to develop simply because a character is the central character of a story.  These two situations can appear very close to each other, but one is generally overlooked while the other is lambasted.  So what's the difference?

First, let's discuss Mary Sue.

There are several interpretations of a Mary Sue as listed on the link above, but in order to hopefully spare you the hours of lost time going to THAT place will cost, I'll do some summarizing here.  The original meaning of Mary Sue was a character that was also an author avatar, however, the use of the term has spread past that.  Now that the term is an automatic insult, it mostly isn't used that way.  Mary Sue can also imply any original character inserted into a pre-existing franchise's universe, though that meaning is strictly used for fanfiction.  Related to that you can have Mary Sue's defined as characters that change the pre-existing dynamic of the story, for example Scrappy Doo, or characters that steal the center of attention from the characters that are "supposed to" be the center of attention.  A lot of the time, idealized characters that are too good, or even too bad for belief, can be considered Mary Sues as well.  Characters who do everything right and never lose as well as characters that seem to represent an author's power fantasy are also given this label.  However, the most common uses of Mary Sue are used to describe characters that are either poorly written or else whom the reviewer simply doesn't like.

Some common traits of a Mary Sue are as follows:

Limited personality even when the main character.

New powers and skills as needed and then forgotten.

Everything is designed to make them look awesome.

Flaws that don't cause any real problems or are even actually strengths.

They have nothing but flaws and are barely competent at basic life skills.

Desire to be normal.

Expansive over flamboyant names.

Immense amounts of symbolism.

Other characters don't react to their personality so much as their role in the story.  Good people always like the Sue regardless of whether that character should or would.

Often the Chosen One or half-human (sometimes somehow having multiple halves each of a different species).  Exotic colorations.

Either so beautiful its a curse or else stated as ugly while everyone else treats them as beautiful and desirable.

Strangely impressive persuasive skills, as in the reader has no idea why what the person says is so persuasive but all the characters in the story find them the greatest speaker ever.

There are numerous other such common traits but they generally boil down to "this is my character, they are awesome and get to have sex with everybody and everybody loves them except big fat poopy heads."  The world not only revolves around the character, but they know it and remind you of it every chance they get.  So do all the other characters and the author.

Now, on to Main Character Syndrome.

When a character is The Main Character, they share some of the traits commonly associated with the Sue above.  The world does revolve around the main character since it is their story and what goes on elsewhere in the world would only distract from the central plot and simplicity thus requires focusing around the character's actions and the like.

Main characters are often "the Chosen One" and they often have won their world's version of the Superpower Lottery (reference James Bond, who has like every spy trade skill ever instead of being a specialist in one area of talent).  They are often attractive and involve some level of wish fulfillment or power fantasy.  They often have dark and troubled pasts or else are friendly to everyone or both.

They have many many characteristics that would get some characters labeled as Mary Sues, but somehow they avoid being a Mary Sue.

So what does make the difference between a Sue and someone who simply is feeling the effects of being the De Facto Main Character?

Well, for one thing, the other characters in the story react to the character in question's personality rather than behaving like some sort of pod person that loves everything about the main character.

Their skills are plausible, believable and consistent.  They don't just develop new powers out of nowhere. When they do have powers come out of nowhere, there is a consistent and plausible mechanic explaining them and said powers do not simply get forgotten.

The world of the story does revolve around them, but the world of the other characters might not.  Even if they are a "Chosen One" other people have their own lives and might not necessarily think much about the character save as the character comes into their lives.  As such, you will have characters that do not either like or dislike the main character and might even barely acknowledge them.

They have both flaws and strengths.

They are neither infallible nor completely incompetent.  Actually, even in that case, a character might be infallible or incompetent and still an acceptable main character.

The world, most importantly, does not bend to the whims of the character.  Knowingly or otherwise.  Unless it deliberately does so, in which case the author might be parodying a Sue.

A good example of a character with Sue characteristics who is not a Sue is Billie "Tennyo" Wilson. from the online Whateley Academy universe.

Let's take a look at Tennyo's Sue-like characteristics.

Spoilers ahoy for those interested in the Whateley-Verse stories.

Also, I should note, that I apparently love Tennyo when she's NOT being written by her creator.  Some of the most recent stuff put out by Starwolf is rather....irritating.  I love her as written by the other authors though, and the point still stands.




She looks like Ryoko from Tenchi Muyo!  This is part of her origin story.  Thus evoking a lot of that character's popularity and trying to tie to her.  Also its a very exceptional appearance that attracts attention while also being obviously non-human.  The chemical that triggered her awakening power came with a hypnotic suggestion from her little brother that she should "be Ryoko if you like her so much."

She was born a boy and her powers made her a girl.

She is nigh-unkillable.  She survived a nuclear blast in a contained environment.

She has immense power and has the potential to overpower pretty much any other living being once she figures out her powers.

She develops new powers, or new applications of her powers, sometimes at the drop of a hat.

There's anti-matter in her blood.  Which she sells to the Academy.

Simulations and precognitive powers have indicated that killing her could possibly result in a 300 mile radius of destruction and nuclear winter.

She is connected to some sort of eldritch abomination that has been known to destroy star systems.

She is often be-moaning her powers and wishing she was somewhat more normal.

She is practically immune to psychic assault.

One of the other MAIN characters is slavishly loyal to her.

Her mutation was awakened when her brother dosed her with a lost for 60 plus years super-chemical that either kills mutants or makes them superpowerful and the younger they are the more likely to survive.  All past knowledge of said chemical implies that people her age should have died from exposure.

She is an exceedingly nice person.

You can't kill demons.  You can only banish them.....or feed them to Tennyo.  She finds them tasty.

Due to the anti-matter in her blood and the risk of situations up to an including ELE, the school has designated her "Section 33" which means that her powers are considered to have so much destructive potential that if she fights without provocation she's automatically expelled and if anybody else forces her into a fight, they are expelled.  If someone mind controlled them into doing it, the pawn and the mind controller are both expelled.  Criminal charges are also filed.  This has made her reputation as an insane living doomsday device worse.  The fact that only the "insane" part of that is wrong doesn't help.


Tennyo is a very good candidate for Sue-dom except for some of the following points.

More spoilage.


Most of the main characters started off the other gender and Tennyo has major, realistic issues over how much of a girl she is and whether she is even human enough to count as any gender despite her appearance as a girl.

Despite being a very nice person, outside the main characters who spend lots of time around her, most people on campus see her as a dangerous loose cannon who is boderline insane.  This perception extends to otherwise reasonable people.  People who would be her friend if they talked to her for more than five or ten minutes avoid her like the plague and spread rumors.  Not maliciously, but because they think the rumors are true.  Phrases implying her lack of sanity and self-control are common amongst even some of the nicest people in school.  Even people who are in the same cottage as her and know some of the facts tend to assume she's a troublemaker.

The Section 33 thing has kept her from being able to help out her friends in some situations.  She can't go running to the rescue because everybody involved might get expelled that way.

Tennyo has to wear a radiation moderator because the more full out she goes, the more likely she is to irradiate the area around her beyond healthy living.  So Tennyo can only go full power in very limited places or else she kills anybody she might consider a friend or innocent.  She has legitimate psychological issues over this fact.  This even bothers her in the simulated holographic practice field.

Tennyo talks about how great and fun her powers are as often as she complains about them.

Tennyo sometimes goes for long stretches without talking about her superpowers at all.

She frequently has problems figuring out whether she is Billie Wilson transformed, or whether Billie died and she's just some sort of construct that's been sent here to infiltrate humanity for some reason or even if she IS the Star Stalker and has just forgotten.  This gets to depressive levels depending on what's going on, but in realistic fashion.

The truth of the Star Stalkers long list of murders lies heavily on her shoulders.  Realistically so.

She is nigh unkillable and has overwhelming force, but she does lose fights.  In someways this is only because she doesn't want to use her full power and irradiate everything.  Essentially, her full power is basically only used once Godzilla Threshold has been passed and without her full power she doesn't yet have the skill to win all the time, even if she does survive.

The fact that she gains new powers easily is explained by the fact that she is connected to an eldritch entity designed to eat things like Cthulhu and the new powers tend to wake up every time she gets pushed to emotional extremes.  Basically, her other half feeds her new tricks when Billie feels at risk.

She has a case of claustrophobia that has put her friends at risk at least once because she completely froze between desire to escape and desire to help her friend up until the opportunity to escape was gone.

The friend who is slavishly loyal to her is chaotic-neutral-loyal.  Meaning she's loyal by HER definition, not Tennyo's.  Tennyo is very uncomfortable with the attention and doesn't even ask for it.  Said friend drives her crazy even with how much they like each other and has recently displayed a possessive streak toward her "big sister"/"mistress".

Tennyo's love life ranges from non-existent to self-defeating.  Partially due to her reputation.  Her first sort-of boyfriend ended up dating someone she introduced him too.  She's still friends with the guy and despite having no displayed signs of hostility to the girl, they have not talked since and the girl in question hates the fact that Tennyo doesn't talk to her.  Most recently she failed to prevent herself from getting worked up over a date that was partially a mutual prank.  She usually ends a brush with romance by deciding that she's not ready for it and shutting herself down for it.

Tennyo is practically immune to PSYCHIC attacks but she's incredibly vulnerable to basic, non-powered PSYCHOLOGICAL attacks.  She's been incapacitated for days over psychological attacks.


Above all, Tennyo is a sympathetic character who, despite her immense level of power, makes you want to protect her.  She is an excellent example of the difference between a Sue and a Main Character.

Essentially, her abilities, personality and background are mostly full-fleshed.  They're consistent for the most part.   The parts that are NOT consistent are consistent in their inconsistency.  Her story revolves around her without giving the impression that everyone sees the world as revolving around her.  She has as many problems as benefits, and can actually be said to have more problems without being so flaw-afric that she's an Anti-sue.  She has psychological issues without devolving into wangst.

She's a character and she's enjoyable to read.  The tropes she uses work as a cohesive whole rather than as simply a collection of stuff that the author thought would be "cool."

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