Mr. Klett gave my book Valandra: The Winds of Time Cycle a one-star review because he felt my main character was the very essence of a Mary Sue. And that's fine. It's his opinion. But, technically speaking, he's wrong.
Not only because he contradicts himself in the same sentence by making the exception that she keeps forgetting she's all powerful, but he also contradicts himself in the one following it, claiming she's emotionally immature (yes, I know, that's how I wrote her). So, clearly, not a Mary Sue.
And that's what I want to talk about today. Not the one-star review, but rather, the fact that I frequently see the term Mary Sue get thrown around as a pejorative for any book or story containing a strong female lead, woman heroine. And that's a trend that does bother me.
A Mary Sue by definition is all perfect, so my character, Arianna, wouldn't be forgetting so much if she were the essence of a Mary Sue. She'd be emotionally stable. And that'd be the end of it. But I deliberately wrote flaws into my character because they bring an emotional depth and realism to what is essentially a fantasy character in a fantasy novel.
I know, I know, I'm biased, seeing as I'm the author. But I don't think you can't say I wrote a Mary Sue when I deliberately wrote Arianna in my Valandra series as a hesitant, insecure, warrioress who is at the end of her twelve year training.
She's skilled yes. She has powers yes. But she lacks confidence. She also happens to drink too much because she doesn't want to face her fears and insecurities.
It's not that she's forgetful, it's that she's insecure about committing to decisions that will impact countless lives. As the story progresses, however, she grows more confident with her choices. Over the course of all three books she stops hesitating as much and begins to act as the hero she was destined to be. Right up until the end when she must face off with a Fire Demon released by an ancient sorceress hellbent on destroying her world.
The question becomes, is she a true representation of a Mary Sue? No. I don't think anyone who has read all of Valandra would claim that Arianna is a genuine Mary Sue.
She's a kick-ass heroine though, and this seems to confuse many readers.
Just a refresher for what a Mary Sue actually looks like, here's a good example using Star Wars. Both Rey and Luke are the protagonists of their own Star Wars films, but they are very different characters. It could be argued Rey is an actual Mary Sue. But Luke is, clearly, flawed. So Luke isn't a Mary Sue, or rather "Gary Stu" which is the male equivalent of a Mary Sue.
But I want to address another thing that Klett raises in his damning one-star review.
It seems he's disgusted by my book because he feels it stars a Mary Sue type character. This brings up the interesting question, is a book any less enjoyable because it stars a Mary Sue?
I suppose it depends on what else is going on in the story. As with Star Wars, I find both Rey and Luke's stories entertaining, fun, and both characters are enjoyable. Rey and Kylo Ren's dynamic was the best part of The Last Jedi, and even if she is a Mary Sue character, she's a fun one that is immensely likeable, partly due to the fact that Daisy Ridley is so dang charismatic.
In my latest novel, The Chronicles of Jegra: Gladiatrix of the Galaxy, it could be argued that Jegra is a Mary Sue character. She's strong. Confident. Wins all her fights.
But this is deliberate, because her back story is anything but.
We actually come into Jegra's story at the height of her power. That is, the story is in media res, several years into an already ongoing epic.
And this raises another interesting aspect of Mary Sue characters. Does it count if the character wasn't always a Mary Sue but then develops into one later?
In terms of storytelling, I'd argue no. If the character has evolved, that's a a clear evolution of a character. Do you, as the viewer or reader, absolutely need to see this evolution? No. But that's what makes the label Mary Sue such a bad one. It's not always entirely accurate and is only explaining the perception of the reader / viewer, not the actual elements that go into developing a character. As such, it's a limited term with a limited scope.
If a character wasn't always perfect, then they weren't always a Mary Sue. That's basic common sense.
So judging them as a Mary Sue character simply means you're ignoring that characters past just to throw out a pejorative for a character or story you didn't like.
That, in my opinion, says more about the reader's tastes than the actual content of the book.
Recently, I was in a reader's group discussion where the point was raised that if a strong female lead rivals strong male leads in terms of prowess, power, smarts, etc., that male reviewers tend to label her a Mary Sue.
It's actually so common that it appears to be a form of masked sexism.
Herein lies the true danger of the term Mary Sue.
In the forum people listed example after example of a male reader not liking a strong female character, but then turned around and raved about a strong male character. The funny thing was when the two characters were compared side-by-side they were virtually the same with respect to their abilities and accomplishments in the stories.
Naturally, I feel this is why we must be careful when casually tossing around the term Mary Sue. Not because any given story may or may not contain such a character, but because the term is often used as a pejorative against women in stories about women or by women.
As an author who writes predominantly strong, heroic women, it saddens me when a reviewer automatically lobs the accusation that she's a Mary Sue.
I mean, have you ever seen a Tom Cruise movie? His Ethan Hunt character is a Gary Stu if there ever was one. What about Jason Bourne? People absolutely love these movies. Because, hey, such characters are fun and captivating. But turn it into a woman, and bam, the complaints come rolling in. Just look at how the new all-female Ghost Busters movie was panned. Or the new Oceans 11 starring women is getting early complaints without people actually having seen it. Or, even the petty outrage that followed after the new Doctor Who became a woman.
This is a double standard that needs to go.
Even women Mary Sues can be fun and captivating. Especially for young girls who don't always necessarily respond to hyper-realistic, uber flawed, portraits of women figures. Wonder Woman conquered the box-office summer in her debut film because audiences were thirsty for a strong, heroine, equal to that of all the male hero archetypes. There's nothing wrong with that.
And that's why I have a problem with people crying, "She's a Mary Sue!"
Until people complain as vigorously that all the Mission Impossible movies are tripe, and that Sherlock Holmes isn't worth reading, and that Conan the Barbarian is brain-numbingly bad simply because they star Gary Stu type characters, then I don't want to hear about your Mary Sue objections. They simply are irrelevant given what we know about popular genres and their love of perfect, charismatic, heroes.
Of course, this is just my opinion. As an author. Who has penned over 12 novels. Both with a traditional publisher and as an Indy author.
Understand, my intent isn't to say those who label something a Mary Sue shouldn't decry bad writing or bad character development. If the Mary Sue is so undeniably obvious as to ruin the story, then, yes. Feel free to complain. Because that's a badly written character. But if the character isn't actually hurting the story, then there's no reason to label every powerful heroine you come across a Mary Sue.
Just my two cents.
If you want to read my fantasy series Valandra, you can find it here:
Valandra: The Winds of Time Cycle (Book 1)
By day I am an educator and a cultural ambassador. By night I entertain notions of being a literary master. In reality I am just a family man and ordinary guy who works hard and loves writing just about as much as I love my family. Just about.