A way with worlds: 46 – Dark Mary Sue by Steven Savage of Seventh Sanctum

NOTE: This column is about Mary Sues. Yes, in some cases people have varied definitions. The one I use is, simply, an “author’s pet” who does not necessarily have to be a self-insertion, but does get preferential treatment that strains or breaks continuity. Thus for this column I use it entirely in a negative context.

Dark Mary Sue? Most people would feel Mary Sues are quite dark enough as it is. Many an author or game-master is afraid to create a new character in fear of it been seen, or worse, actually being, some ego-fulfillment vehicle. If you create original worlds and settings people will give you a break – but only sometimes.

So, often in this fear, many of us are careful with our new heroes, heroines, and supporting characters. We don’t want scare off people who may think we’re living vicariously. We don’t want our work to become a way to compensate for inadequacies perceived and real. Even people who don’t care about their writing at least don’t want to be humiliated.

So we’re careful with our heroes, and our heroines, and our supporting characters. Every originally created one is careful scrutinized.

Yes . . . we’re very careful.

About some characters.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS:
Of course this caution ignores the fact that only some of a cast is scrutinized for Mary Sue-ism. Mary Sue and her male counterpart (I’ve heard him called Marty Sue, Marty Stu, and Gary Stu) are tricky devils, and you’d be amazed where they pop up.

And often in both completely original worlds, and in original characters in fanfiction or role-playing games, they can pop up as villains. The bad guys. The antagonists. Ironically, this can be even worse than when they’re heroes – there’s nothing like watching a hero go up against a well-armed, author-favored Dark Mary Sue to completely kill interest in the tale.

At first, this may seem odd – after all, aren’t Mary and Gary supposed to be beautiful, perfect, wonderful, loved, etc.? I mean, how do you do that with a villain?

There’s something peculiar in some writers and worldbuilders, perhaps all of us at one time or another, to create some species of perfect character, an authors pet. Maybe it’s a self-insertion desire, perhaps its identification without self-insertion, maybe it’s the enjoyment of seeing someone or something tromp around and destroy all opposition. They key factors are that Mary Sues are often powerful, lucky, and something the author is quite attached to.

Note that none of these qualities says that that Mary or Gary have to be the good guys. n fact, you can probably point to many a Mary Sue you’ve seen and asked “why the heck are they the good guys? They’re jerks!”

In my experience, in fact, a Dark Mary Sue or Evil Gary Stu makes it easier to invoke the qualities of power, luck, and authorial fiat. After all, the villains are supposed to be the challenge to the hero – so they can be powerful, right? And the villain has to be lucky so they can keep coming back, right? And the villain needs that big castle with its scantily clad male (or female) slave boys (or girls), and the giant laser cannon . . .

Sound familiar?

BEYOND THE NORMAL MARY SUE:
In my experience most Mary Sues are author’s pets – characters given special treatment for various reasons. But, beyond the fact it may be easy to map Mary Sues onto the villains, would it happen – and be noticed less? I myself have seen more Dark Mary Sues get past people’s authorial radar than regular ones.

Why? Because, beyond the usual ways Mary Sue sneaks into stories, people often handle their villains poorly.

We can miss creating Dark Mary Sues for the simple reason that we treat the villains, the antagonists, as plot devices. They’re like the Big Bosses in videogames – hulking images with a high (whatever) count. This need to make the villain something almost outside of your setting, to contrive a villain, is a gateway for Mary and Gary to happily prance into your story world.

In short, if your villain filled out a resume, and his last job would be listed as “villain”, then you have a Mary Sue Gateway waiting to happen.

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:
Having seen some Dark Mary Sues, I can advise you to be on the lookout for:

Is the hero constantly outsmarted by the villain? Does he succeed only by luck – and you aren’t writing a comedy? Is the hero basically a punching bag?
Is the villain so charming, suave, debonair, and likable that you wonder why they need an Army of Evil to take over the world when most people probably like them better than whoever is in charge?
Does the villain have inexhaustible resources? Can their bank account be mixed up with the GNP of major world powers, yet they have no reason to have such wealth?
Does the villain have a tragic story that grips everyone and makes them really sympathetic despite the fact they commit genocide daily to keep in practice?
Does the villain’s luck run so much in his or her favor you figure they could just WIN the world in a game of Poker and be done with it.?
Do you hate the villain, but only because he or she is too perfect – is their perfection more annoying than the fact that they use Nuclear Death Rays to decimate cities?
If you see any of these traits, put on your Mary Sue detector and aim it at your villain.

SUMMARY:
Villains can be Mary Sues, and are often more difficult to diagnose as such. Writing realistic antagonists and keeping the signs of Mary Sue-ism in mind can help.

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Copyright© 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002 Steven Savage, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.

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