Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Structure of the Mary Sue

When I explained a Mary Sue to my daughter the other day, my explanation got me thinking. I said that a Mary Sue was a character that short-circuited the story. On thinking about it further, I looked at what other people said about Mary Sues, only to discover a fascination with the character type and not at any concern with story's structure. That's like leaving the crust off the pot pie.

So, let's talk story structure. In this theory, the Mary Sue isn't the cause of a story's problem, but the symptom of a problem. In a "proper" Mary Sue story, you have a number of structural similarities:
  • The story is structured as a power fantasy.
  • The story arcs lack a meaningful middle.
  • The story is written to entertain the writer.
  • The story revolves around the lead character despite the narrative.
  • The lead character is a personification of the writer.
Much of the arguing about a Mary Sue traces its roots to the basic structure above. Eliminate any of them, and you get something Mary Sue-ish with out actually being a Mary Sue.

The points follow.

The Story Is Structured as a Power Fantasy. By itself, there's nothing wrong with a power fantasy. The entire male-oriented fantasy genre is predicated on this very notion. Power fantasies are part of growing, part of living in a world where you aren't powerful. By itself, this does not make the Mary Sue bad. Change the story structure, and you wind up with a Mary Sue that works as a character despite having Mary Sue traits. For example, in comedies, there is often an episode where a perfect person shows up, prodding the lead characters into a fit of jealousy. As the comedy is also written to entertain the reader, this usually winds up successful.

The Story Arcs Lacks a Meaningful Middle. This is what people mean when a Mary Sue comes along, instantly solving all the problems. Proper plot arcs have a beginning, middle, and end. If you take out the middle, the arc feels empty. The beginning acts to introduce the story, while the end exists to wrap up the story. The middle part is the meat of the story.  None of the story means anything if the middle isn't there.

The Story Is Written to Entertain the Writer. This is the most damning aspect of the Mary Sue story. The tales themselves just aren't interesting because the writer does not bring the reader along with them. The writer leaves the reader behind, which is among the surest ways to get a story labeled as bad writing. Character development doesn't just mean seeing a character grow and change, it means taking the time to make sure that the reader understands the character's personality and motivation. Without this information, much of the story doesn't make sense. The lead character appears to act without reason, more of a menace than a hero.

The Story Revolves Around the Lead Character Despite the Narrative. That may sound odd, as a story usually revolves around the main character, yet this is the case. While not as apparent in original fiction, in fan fiction, where an existing set of characters have an existing set of relationships, bypassing those relationships simply because the main character changes pulls the heart out of those relationship. This central narrative role is the epitome of privilege. Everything revolves around the lead character because that's the lead character's privilege. The leadership is not earned, it's a given. The universe really is built around the lead. Compare this to the basic story structure of man vs. anything, where the worlds is at odds with your lead character, and you can see that an important element of the story simply doesn't exist. In a well structured story, central characters continually earn their place and you understand why they are central.

The Lead Character Is a Personification of the Writer. This bit has been written about extensively, mostly derisively. Yet, this element isn't necessarily bad. How many peudo-memoirs contain personifications of the authors? Pretty much all of them. One of the most famous pieces of American literature, To Kill A Mockingbird, is a pseudo-memoir. The personification of the author doesn't make a story bad. What makes the personification bad is that the reader can't connect with the character due to all the other structural issues.

Am I right in these observations? Do I get to stand up and say, "HA!" and wave my flag of righteousness? That I could be so brilliant. But I do think that I'm on the right track. By focusing on the story rather than on the particular behaviors of any character, we no longer need subcategories or variations of the Mary Sue. Ideally, this idea takes us from a symptom based analysis of the archetype to an evidence based analysis.

Now that we have a structure, we have a question: why this structure? What unites all these people writing all these stories in this particular structure?


I contend that the basis of the Mary Sue story is play behavior. If you aren't familiar with children's play, you won't realize just how competitive play behavior is. This stuff is pure playground level PVP, especially among girls. If you hear how kids play let's pretend, you will see most of these structural elements in play.

"Sabrina gets a new magic power, solves you problem, and now you can come to my dance party."

We see all the structural elements in play. Play is about YOU. It is your power fantasy. Being a power fantasy, the characters leap to their solutions because the middle is frustrating. This is all "can do" behavior rather than "can't do." The story is created for the child at play and no one else. This is not a performance piece. The story revolves around the lead character because that's what childhood stories do. The hero is utterly privileged because the hero is the personification of the child.

As kids get older, such play behavior slowly goes extinct as the behavior develops into more elaborate social skills, but not for everyone at the same rate. In order to tell an adult style story, new skills must be developed as the old skills fade. But, judging by how self-centered many adults are, I'm not sure that anybody grows out of that competitive storytelling at all.