This was originally posted by Steven Savage on his blog, but has allowed me to republish it here as I think it’s useful for roleplayers! This is part of Steven’s Way With Worlds series of articles. -David
NOTE: I am addressing Mary Sues in this column, which often involves questions of definition. As Mary Sues (and the male counterpart Gary Stu) are often a continuum, I wanted to clarify my defintion. My definition is of an “author’s pet” – a character who gets vastly preferential treatment by the author in a way that distorts the story. Thus I am discussing them entirely in the negative.
A Dark Mary Sue? Most people would say that Mary Sues often darken things as it is. They may make works into pandering creations that are hard to enjoy. An author or game creator may be worried that, after so many Mary Sues, a new character idea will be seen as an ego-fulfillment vehicle. Wether they annoy us in literature or gaming or make us worry how others view our works, they’re there, worrying us.
In the worlds we build, we may even be cautious about how we design heroes, heroines, and supporting characters. We take that extra effort to make sure they’re not Mary Sues, or even that they’re not perceived as such. For all people may enjoy a good wish-fulfillment story, there are times they can be quite harsh on other tales (namely ones not fulfilling their fantasies).
So we’re careful with our heroes and our heroines. Perhaps very careful.
But maybe they’re not the ones we should be keeping an eye on.
Through The Looking Glass Darkly
When you’re busy scrutinizing your cast you might miss where else Mary Sues pop up. These authors pet, Mary and Gary are tricky little devils, and maybe you should be looking at the other side of your cast.
Because sometimes they’re the villains. Not in the ruined-my-story-sense but in the fact that real Mary Sues and Gary Stus can be the bad guys. The Villains. The Antagonists. The characters raging at the meddling kids and their pet.
Sometimes they can be even more annoying than Mary Sue heroes. Watching a likable, interesting heroine deal with a well-armed overblown author’s favorite Dark Mary Sue is a great way to kill interest in the story. When the threat is so bad you can’t see anyone realistically coping with it, or so beautiful-powerful-great that you feel like you’re reading ad copy, there goes interest in your tale.
Needless to say if you’re a dedicated worldbuilder, they devastate your setting just as sure as any Mary Sue can. Mary Sues, authors pets, distort the world and make it unbelievable as the author’s blatant biases are more important than an understandable setting. Your suspension of disbelieve flies out the window pretty quick when a Mary Sue makes his/her appearance.
Of course this may be an odd statement – a Dark Mary Sue? Aren’t Mary and Gary supposed to be beautiful, perfect, wonderful, loves, etc.? How do you do that to the character everyone is supposed to root against? How do you Mary Sue-ify them?
Theres something peculiar to many of us writers and worldbuilders, perhaps all of us, in that one time or another we create an author’s pet. Maybe it’s a wish-fulfillment, maybe it’s identification, maybe its a power trip. Mary Sues are powerful, lucky, have it all, and are something we, sadly, get attached to.
But none of these qualities say that Mary Sue or Gary Stu have to be good guys. You’ve probably seen a few of their ilk that were so annoying you wondered why the hell they were the heroes and heroines.
In my experience, a Dark Mary Sue or Gary Stu make it even easier to make their stories a power trip and use of authorial fiat. Consider:
- The villain has to be a threat. It might get awful tempting to step into their shoes or make them an author’s pet.
- The villain has power. If you’re on a power trip, then it’s going to be awful easy to fall into the trap of Mary Sue-ing them.
- Villains are great for angsty backstory and redemption tales, which can be awful tempting to play with a wee bit much.
- Villains get a lot of attention, and it’s fun to have attention – and thus one may Mary Sue the villain.
- Villains are bad guys and lack moral restraints (in some cases). It can be fun to write a character without inhibitions or to fulfill one’s fantasies.
- Marketing. It seems everyone loves a bad guy/girl/woman/robot.
If this starts reminding you of some characters here or there, then you understand what I mean. Ever see a particularly foul character be strangely popular with some people? You get the idea – far more dangerous you may make your own.
Dark Mary Sue’s actually irritate me more than regular Mary Sues – they seem to lean more towards wish fulfillment, provoke even more excuses, and drag the story down – especially if the hero is just someone for the villain to push around.
Things To Watch Out For
So here’s a few signs you have a Dark Mary Sue on your hands:
- The hero/heroine are constantly outsmarted by the villain and are basically a punching bag.
- The villain is so charming, suave, debonair, and likable they don’t need an Army of Evil – they should just be able to make a good case of why they should rule everyone.
- The villain has inexhaustible resources, yet there’s no reason in your world to have said resources.
- The villain is so lucky, you figure they should just try and win the world in a game of Poker.
- People dislike the villain as they’re too perfect. THe perfection is more annoying than their actual crimes.
- The villain is giving voice to things the author thinks a wee bit too much.
See these traits in your villain? Get out the Mary Sue detector and give them a careful examination. YOu may have a Dark Mary Sue on your hands.
A Dark Mary Sue is a real kick in the worldbuilding, as well as just a poor thing to create as an author. It’s also a bit easy to miss if you’re not looking for it.
Have I see these? Oh, yes I have, and they’ve always crawled up my nose. There’s something partially sad to see an author make a bad guy the author’s pet and have it affect their work or misdirect their talent. Also there’s only so often you can hear “He/she is just misunderstood” before you want to say “no, this character is a psychopathic a-hole.”
I also think that Dark Mary Sues can eclipse good villains or morally ambiguous heroes – the areas of really good writing and worldbuilding. I can think of a few characters like that I’m quite fond of, and I’d rather not see their bad names besmirched, if you know what I mean.
– Steven Savage
Steven Savage is a Geek 2.0 writer, speaker, blogger, and job coach. He blogs on careers and community at www.musehack.com, publishes books on career and culture at www.informotron.com, and does a site of creative tools at www.seventhsanctum.com. He can be reached at www.stevensavage.com.
If you’re interested in the other definitions of Mary Sue, there’s a good list of the many types of Mary Sue here.