On Mary Sues and spoony bards

(From The Order of the Stick. Click for full-sized make-out session.)

The concept of the Mary Sue used to be so simple.

Way back in the days of yore known as “the 1980s”, when the Web was but a gleam in the eye of a few idealists and, as far as those few people who had even heard of the Internet were concerned, it was Usenet and nothing else, the term “Mary Sue” arose in those fledgling fanfic communities that were springing up even then to describe a certain type of character endemic to such stories, one instantly recognizable the instant you saw it, so long as you weren’t the one who wrote it. She was the flawless, brilliantly unique, perfect character who hijacked the story, turned all the other characters into drooling fanboys, and generally acted out the author’s every fantasy.

Then someone decided to start looking for Mary Sues in actual fiction, not based on any other franchise. After all, why shouldn’t the same idea apply to any kind of fiction? It’s not like being in a fanfic is a requirement of being a Mary Sue, is it?

Wellllll, it didn’t work out that way. For one thing, it turns out that a good part of what makes a Mary Sue a Mary Sue is related to being in a fanfic. It’s in how the character completely takes over the story, which implies that there is a story to take over, and it’s in how the character hijacks the other characters into fawning admiration for her. If the situation is that way from the start, is there really any “hijacking” going on?

Take that out of the equation, and you really do rob the Mary Sue of a lot of its identity, and you need to create surrogate criteria for characters that have a similar effect. You also run into another problem: until the advent of webcomics, most original fiction had to go through some sort of barrier to entry, meaning that most writers of such tend to be better than writers of fanfic. In fact, the mere fact that they do create a universe of original characters rather than take a set of characters that’s given to them almost automatically puts them a step ahead of most fanfic writers. I’d argue that there are really only two excuses for writing a fanfic: if you’re saying something about the characters and setting themselves, or, much less defensibly, if creating original characters would only lead to a charge of being a rip-off. Even if such writers do create what might be called Mary Sues, they tend to be a bit better at hiding them.

And then you have characters like Ethan of Ctrl+Alt+Del, so commonly accused of Sue-dom, but why? It seems to be mostly because Lucas and Lilah stick with him through thick and thin, which seems to me a pretty weak justification for a charge as serious as Mary Sue-dom. I could see it if Ethan were presented as consistently in the right, or if his “flaws” were, to use TV Tropes’ phrasing, presented as “endearing”, but pre-miscarriage Ethan’s antics seem to be to often be presented as being in the wrong, and that Ethan isn’t always supposed to be presented as the sympathetic character (and those times when he is implausibly successful often aren’t intended to be taken as seriously as the haters do). That Lucas and Lilah continue to stick with him may say more about them than about Ethan. But, of course, what does it say about them, and about how the whole strip is written?

Suddenly you start having a lot of arguments over what does and doesn’t count as a Mary Sue. Does it just have to be a representative of the author, or does it even need to be that?  How much of it needs to be in the flawlessness, or would a flawless character who has a lot of bad s**t happen to him regardless count? How much of it needs to be in being uber-powerful, or would the planet-juggling Silver Age Superman count? How much of it needs to be in how much goes implausibly right for them, or would MacGyver count – or for that matter, a suite of characters who routinely beat the odds but not any one character? How much of it needs to be in hogging the spotlight, or would Harry Potter count?

Or perhaps the definition is just in being a model of perfection? But that opens a whole ‘nother can of worms, because there are a gazillion models of perfection, and in some instances you’re not going to be able to incorporate all of them into a single character, and besides that clearly isn’t why Ethan elicits the accusation. There seems to be a sense that all of the above play some part in defining what a Mary Sue is, but how much and in what proportion is seemingly impossible to pin down.

And then there’s the question of gender, whether to use terms like “Marty Stu” to describe male Mary Sues, or if the term “Mary Sue” really does imply a gender bias that one is unlikely to admit to. Four years ago Robert A. “Tangents” Howard charged the accusation of Mary Sue-dom of sexism, that many accused characters wouldn’t have been called Sues if they were male (to the extent that he felt “Mary Sue” really meant “halfway competent female protagonist”). I intended to write a response, but no sooner did I start my webcomic reviews than Tangents started the long, slow transition to its current state, and by the time it had reached the point that I would have had anything to link to, I was already transitioning away from webcomics posts.

I get the sense that what Howard had hit on was the fact that we hold men and women to different standards of perfection, and specifically, often seem to hold women as inherently more perfect than men. The image of perfection for women is sweet, all-caring, beautiful, all ponies and sparkles – a lot like the fanfic characters that gave rise to the term. A female character who lives up to those ideals is unrealistically perfect; a male one, too girly (and thus inherently flawed, ergo, not a Mary Sue). On the other hand, the image of male perfection is of a badass who mows down anyone who gets in his way. We don’t call characters who live up to those ideals Mary Sues, we make lists of Chuck Norris Facts about them (and even if they started as parody, I sometimes wonder how serious they’ve become).

It does seem like there is a standard by which a male might be called a Mary Sue (or Marty Stu, or Gary Stu) that might not necessarily apply to a woman, just as the reverse might be true. Besides Ethan (whose unsympathetic portrayals might be better noticed on a woman), the example I would cite would be Rayne Summers of Least I Could Do. Perhaps Rayne’s most defining characteristic is his status as an utter Casanova who sleeps with women like they’re going out of style. If we were to reverse this situation, with a woman sleeping with men left and right, we wouldn’t call her a Mary Sue, we’d call her a slut, maybe even a whore. Which brings me to Elan of Order of the Stick.

Well, actually, I need to talk briefly about the main OOTS cast’s other nominee for Mary Sue-dom, Belkar, he who, before O-Chul’s display of badassery, was OOTS‘ resident Chuck Norris. Despite being an utter sociopath, Belkar doesn’t show much of any other shortcomings in battle (no pun intended), and besides being a complete badass when not Mark of Justice’d, tends to get all the best lines and one-liners, to the extent of being much of the fandom’s favorite character despite his ostensible role in the comic. He might be the model I would point to for what a truly Sue-ish Ethan would be like. Still, it’s quite clear no one is willing to put up with him except insofar as he can be controlled, and his uneasy truce with the rest of the OOTS seems to form a key plot thread and source of development for the comic. Elan, on the other hand…

Look, I’ve run into at least two people who are utterly sick of Elan’s stupid antics and think they monopolize the strip’s humor quotient and take away from the plot. I’m not talking about that, though it is relevant. I wouldn’t say those antics are the funniest things I’ve ever read, but I wasn’t driven into a rage begging Rich to stop with the stupid-Elan jokes either; I even get a kick out of Elan being even more genre-savvy than the rest of the group. In fact, if Elan had more of those antics I might be more forgiving of him as a character.

What’s gotten to me about Elan is that, in the past, he’s gotten not one, not two, but three women swooning over him, despite (ostensibly) having the IQ of a brick. Now obviously, the stick-figure format doesn’t get across features that might change my opinion, and I’m obviously not the best judge anyway, but taking away the goatee from Nale’s “realistic” police sketch doesn’t leave me with an image I’d call “ruggedly handsome”. But near as I can tell, that’s not really his appeal to the ladies (well, aside from Therkla) anyway, judging by how Haley defends him to her father: “Elan is the best man I’ve ever met. Sure, he’s a little dumb sometimes…But he’s… I don’t know. Pure. Honest. Better than I am, that’s for sure. He makes me a better person just by being around, and I like feeling that way.”

As sickening as it might be to hear Elan described like he’s Tim friggin’ Tebow, Haley isn’t alone; the general consensus among forumites is that Elan is the one genuinely good character in the OOTS, if not the whole cast. Think about that for a minute. Like many writers, Rich Burlew tends towards flawed, morally ambiguous characters; rather than simply go for simplistic fantasy archetypes, Rich tends to give his characters complex, contradictory personalities that make them more interesting as characters. But Elan seems to have avoided this stick (no pun intended), instead becoming a paragon for everything good and sweet (though not being above “seduc[ing] female bad guys“). Is this starting to sound a lot like the fanfic characters that gave rise to the term Mary Sue? What if I told you that, aside from his romantic liasons, while Elan gets on Roy’s nerves, literally every other member of the OOTS leapt to his defense when he was kidnapped?

Elan’s saving graces, the traits that save him from being an overly perfect figure, are supposedly his utter uselessness in combat and the aforementioned stupid antics – at least one of which falls under the “endearing” exception. But the former hasn’t been all that relevant since Elan picked up his level in Dashing Swordsman. As for the latter, they’ve become decidedly inconsistent, ever since Rich saw fit to give Elan more “character development” in the fourth book that amounted to removing one of the last things that kept him flawed. Elan spent the fourth book thrust into the position of leading half the team, with V going crazy and Durkon more prone to defer, and went through his own plot arc with his involvement with Therkla that may have put him through the wringer in the short term, but led him to “mature” coming out of it, giving him some experience of the “real” world that dragged him a little ways out of stupidity, only that was one of the few things keeping him interesting. (While I’m on the subject, one of my issues with the fourth book is the way, with the main plot stalled, Elan so stole the spotlight of his half of the OOTS with a plot that ultimately went nowhere that he completely overshadowed the real plot development of that half, V’s descent into madness.) Elan has returned to acting the goof in this book, sometimes, but I wonder if that’s Rich realizing his mistake on some level and trying too hard to overcompensate, to the extent that it now seems out of his present character.

But with all that, what really drove me to write this post is the present update (and my thankfulness that Rich’s recent slow update schedule allows me to write this post on it). I’ll admit, this is one of the more entertaining strips of the book and certainly one of the most entertaining strips of the Linear Guild confrontation thus far, but damn if it doesn’t also underscore how Elan’s being written these days. Because this strip hints that Elan may have just seduced Sabine. Let me repeat that. Elan just seduced a friggin’ succubus. One whose present love interest is his own evil twin who’s out to kill him. I mean, I’m running out of things to say about all of this. What’s next, is Elan going to wrap up the entire plot of the strip all by himself?

I will say that this sort of mapping of traits from an archetype to a particular character is certainly an inexact science – as I indicated above, the whole point is how uncertain the concept of a Mary Sue has gotten – and none of the above has taken away too much from my enjoyment of the strip, or even, at times, Elan’s antics. But it has definitely gotten on my nerves and stuck in my craw for some time. This marks three straight books with a subplot centered on Elan (and the second book is the only one that really lacks it), and this one is going on for nearly a hundred strips and over a year real-time, despite apparently being of tangential relevance to the hunt for the Gates and despite numerous other plot hooks that I would ordinarily think would be resolved in this book. Elan hasn’t gotten to the point of overshadowing Roy as the main character of the OOTS… but this book is making me wonder.

3 Comments

  1. Posted June 15, 2011 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    I’d not say that Elan seduced Sabine. I’d say that he took advantage of Sabine’s weakness: she enjoys kissing the boys. And when you consider he didn’t confront his brother again but fled… well, perhaps part of it is that I am not an Elan hater (I find him annoying at times, but no more than Belkar).

    As for the character returning to old ways… so did Belkar, which is something I find most annoying. Of course, it seems Belkar is being set up for another fall, what with his cat being hurt while he lay about being lazy, so we’ll see.

    Rob H.

  2. Morgan Wick
    Posted June 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    I find Belkar’s character development to be a useful counterpoint to Elan’s. Belkar never really left his “old ways” (unless you’re referring to something different from what I’m thinking) so much as he pretended to. If anything, recent developments seem to suggest he IS in fact starting to reform a little bit, though for not well explained reasons (if we do get anything resembling a real explanation I’ll probably devote a post to it). I don’t see his overconfidence at facing the Linear Guild as anything other than that.

  3. M
    Posted September 7, 2013 at 5:36 am | Permalink

    Order of the Stick is THE most overrated comic on the web anyway.

    Is it terrible? Eh, nah… But does it have several MASSIVE flaws? Yeah… and there’s two big ones.

    One is that nearly all female characters are not so much characters but dudebro stereotypes of women. Burlew can’t write a realistic female character to save his life.

    The second is the entire fucking Elan family. Elan is DEFINITLY sue-ish, tastes like diabetes and takes away attention from his far more interesting teammates. And then there’s his father Tarquin, a villain sue of the most obnoxious type. Nale is actually the most tolerable of them, and he’s annoying as well.

    Honestly V should have cast familicide on ELAN. That’d have made the comic better.

    I mean sure, it has plus sides as well (I do really like Xykon and V (Who’s male by the way, because he’s not written as a dudebro female stereotype. That’s how you can easily tell.), but OOTS is WAY overrated even so.

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