Monday, 27 June 2011

Strong female characters, and the Mary Sue

In the UK we have this thing called "The One Show" - it's an early evening show with a variety of features on a varied selection of subjects, and it runs every day of the week monday - friday. Each day there is a special guest, and one day a while back they had Jackie Collins on. Interested in what a famous and successful writer has to say, I decided to watch a bit of it. It's important, I reckon, to listen to what writers outside of your chosen genre have to say about writing. Gives you a sense of perspective of your habits and trends. Collins' words of wisdom? "I love strong female characters".

And, sure enough, there is a very good argument that fiction needs more of such characters. We've still got a very patriarchal society, with the bias of misogyny still going strong. Good, strong female protagonists help counteract the tendency of storytellers to cast women as the prize to be won or damsel to be rescued.

Whilst this is still very true for Hollywood, personally I’d argue that its not such a problem in the novel medium. Women writers have always been better represented than in other mediums - to this day only one film directed by a woman has won an Oscar, but many women have won a Nobel Prize in Literature. The NYTimes fiction charts show that the top three bestselling paperback fictions are by women, and two out of five in the hardback fiction list, although this week the mass market paperbacks appear all to be men. Women are, on the whole, better represented.

But I knew the type of character that Collins was talking about and winced. There has been a trend in female written literature to characterise their female leads in rather a too positive manner, over compensatory even. Whenever I venture into female fronted stories with female authors, you can almost feel the world warping around them. This, I am afraid, is what you call a Mary Sue.

At this point I should mention I’m not saying all female writers do this. It’s most likely that I have just been unlucky with my novel choices, and I can name a few that are very good at not doing this. Hell, J.K. Rowling doesn’t fall into this trap.

It’s important to clarify what a Mary Sue is. Mostly, it is used to criticise a character without flaws and sometimes even just used to criticise boring characters. As I see it, for a character to actually be a Mary Sue, there needs to be more than these. For a character to be a Mary Sue, the world has to be wrapped around her finger. Everyone loves her, and anyone who doesn’t is evil beyond rehabilitation. The character doesn’t necessarily need to be all that skilled at anything, but they’ll never fail. It’s nothing innate to the character that confers Sue-dom, but rather the way narrative treats them. It was this type of character, a character unashamedly worshipped by the text, Collins was referring to.

The best example that springs to mind is Wolverine in the first three X-Men movie. He is almost the quintessential Mary Sue, and you can almost hear the writers orgasming every time he walks onto the screen. A big part of this comes from the way he is counter pointed. The leader of the X-Men and boyfriend of the romantic interest is Cyclops, thus a rivalry is set-up. And then the movie goes onto demonise Cyclops so incredibly thoroughly that he becomes something of an anti-Sue. He is arrogant and rude and stupid and boring and, frankly, a bit shit at fighting. He’s so incredibly dislikeable that Wolverine appears to be so much fantastic. On this point alone I’d happily class Wolverine a Sue, although the movie certainly has more than enough other material to back up this claim.

I’m not opposed to strong women. Hell, my favourite fictional character not written by Terry Pratchett may just be the Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley. I am, however, opposed to this trend that seems to want to embrace womanhood - a strange, post-feminist thing - to the point in which a women is basically portrayed as the centre of the universe. Men do this too, don’t get me wrong. Hell, my example was of a male character.

If you want to avoid  Sues, just giving your characters flaws isn’t enough. Look at how they are represented in the narrative. Do other characters make them look like Sue in comparison? Do they fail? Are they shown to not be good enough? Separating a character from the story their in is not an easy thing, so if you want to make sure your character more interesting, look at the story.


  1. Hahah, the Cyclops bit is so true. Such a boring and unlikable character, which probably does spring from the bias/love for Wolverine, I must admit.

    Your definition of Sue is interesting. Making them flawed in both their personality and the way they interact with the world makes sense, although I think the former should naturally lead to the latter most of the time. (Unless the writer is pushing some sort of agenda or is biased and 'protecting' them from the plot, which is silly.)

    In regard to female characters, I don't like the idea of people overcompensating and making them can feel just as bad as the usual style of making them unimportant or a damsel in distress, etc. The key is just focusing on making them human above all else.

  2. I think the real problem is the way that people draw a line between characters and plot.Plot development can, and should, also be characterisation on the whole.

    Really, the problem can be crystallised when J.K. Rowling attempts to subvert her stories and have the supporting cast point out that Harry has a "saving people thing". This fails at being a subversion, however, and ends up just being hanging a lampshade when Harry's "flaws" turn out totally justified and he saved the day. The fault isn't the characterisation, but the narrative. I don't think HP is a Sue though.