Essayist’s note: Before this essay begins, I would just like to apologise for the extremely long delay in writing it. I’ve been so busy with my job, my discord server, my novel… essentially, this fell low in a set of priorities. My apologies to all the new followers who were confused about my lack of activity. Without further ado, here is the essay.
Banner credit: Ensign Sue Must Die, Interrobang Studios.
The Checklist Effect – How the Mary Sue label killed creativity
I regularly browse a website known as StackExchange. No doubt many aspiring writers have heard of it; it has sub-sites for both writing technique and worldbuilding, and at times offers insightful answers to questions many writers struggle with. However, a recurring trend that disturbs me is not with the answers, but rather, the questions newer writers are asking.
Sometimes, they’re asking basic questions that show a lack of confidence in their artistic freedom, such as ‘Is it appropriate to make my character swear if he’s a sailor’, other times, they seem to struggle with the most bare-boned of fundamentals, such as ‘How can I avoid head-hopping in a closed first-person POV’?
The answers to those questions are simple: ‘Yes, of course you can, you’re the author so if it makes sense in your universe for sailors to swear, let them swear’, and ‘Don’t reveal any information or thoughts other than those available to your POV character’ respectively. Yet modern authors are so hung up on minutia, on the little things, that they seem to have forgotten the purpose of story-writing; that is, to write a story.
Instead, they view every aspect of a story as an unintuitive set of checkboxes; is each trope included, averted, subverted, inverted, is their heroic team going to be a Freudian Trio, a Four-Temperament Ensemble, or a Five-Man Band, and should their story contain a twist or not (hint: If your story hasn’t built up in its entirety to the twist, don’t include the twist).
There is nothing natural about how these terrified starting authors write; they never allow themselves to flow, they simply fret over whether to lampshade the latest set of unfortunate implications in their story. This phenomenon I call ‘The Checklist Effect’, and I believe it first came into proper usage with the advent of the ‘Mary Sue’ trope, a regular bane that StackExchange writers ask for help avoiding.
While many authors know of this trope, it is still worth defining it. ‘Mary Sue’, as a term, arose in 1973 due to a parody of Star Trek fanfiction that Paula Smith wrote for her fanzine. The title of her work was ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’ and satirised a common trend in Star Trek fanfiction; that an unrealistically competent new member of the Enterprise crew would bedazzle the established characters with her competence, seduce or otherwise enamour one of the main three characters and then die tragically at the end, to the devastation of the crew.
Her character, Mary Sue, was a hyperbolic representation of this trend; lieutenant at fifteen-and-a-half years old, indulgently described in excruciating, pace-killing detail, seduced Captain Kirk, McCoy, and even Spock with her mere existence, but refused them all due to ‘not being that kind of girl’ (apparently ignoring the fact she’s fifteen in the process). She excelled at every task put before her, and tragically died at the end, as expected.
Despite this scathing condemnation of such characters as transparent attempts for poor authors to stroke their fragile egos as early as 1973, it would appear they’re still common as ever, especially in the fanfiction community. With the advent of TV Tropes, no less than twenty variants on the Mary Sue have been classified (in TV Tropes’ own checklist-like fashion) and their presence in works run the gamut from ancient tales to the modern day.
So, what is the cause of a Mary Sue? How people answer this is how an author begins to enter the ‘Checklist Mindset’, in my opinion. Many ‘sage’ critics (still freshly-weaned from fanfiction and able to tell you all the reasons Ready Player One is excellent for being a list of pop-culture references) will tell you that it’s a lack of flaws.
‘Your character doesn’t have any drawbacks,’ they’ll say. ‘Your character is a surgeon, but she’s competent at surgery? And her relationship with her family is unremarkable? Does she have at least one crippling insecurity? I’ll tell you what your problem is, you need to include at least a phobia. She’s afraid of snakes, there you go, that’s one flaw to balance out all the things she’s got off easy with. Now come up with five more.’
To the Checklist Critic, it doesn’t matter if the main character ever comes across snakes in the story, or if the main character’s flaws are even relevant to the tale. All that matters is an invisible ‘karma meter’ of sorts. Let’s say the hypothetical character alluded to, Sue, we’ll call her, is a surgeon. She has a positive relationship with her parents, she’s good at her job, and her workmates get on well with her.
It’s easy to see why people would be confused about her status as a protagonist. Hearing all this alone makes it seem like there couldn’t be any conflict. However, the Checklist Critic believes the remedy to this is ‘balancing out’ the character with flaws, because they forget one matter to do with storytelling: The story.
The story may not be about Sue overcoming her flaws. It could be her losing her loving parents and trying to deal with their loss. It could be her loneliness from her job’s long hours steadily getting to her. It could be her getting caught up in a bank heist and all those positive traits are simply irrelevant to the story, there for flavour alone.
But the Checklist Critic, and by extension, the Checklist Writer, doesn’t think like this. The story isn’t a set of cogs and levers moving together as one synchronous system; to them, it’s a set of discrete parts that all function independently of one another and each have their own ‘karma meter’. So Sue is, at least as far as her ‘Sueness’ is concerned, completely unrelated to the story she’s in.
The Checklist Critic will then tell the ever-terrified Checklist Writer: Sue is good at too many things and has caught too many breaks. You need to make her parents abusive. You need to make her bad at surgery. You need to make her hate her boss. Then you’ll have a well-rounded character.
As you may have already guessed, I believe this is a poor approach. However, the Checklist Critic may be right; Sue may be a poorly-rounded character, just not for the reasons they think. Say the story is about Sue the Surgeon going to work, being the best surgeon ever, meeting a handsome new doctor, Greg, who loves her skill on the job. He offers her a date, which she gladly accepts, then she goes home to tell her loving parents everything that happened. They celebrate her success, she goes on the date, and she likes him so much that they get married. Sue and Greg have wonderful children and they live happily ever after.
Checklist Critic suddenly looks validated, don’t they? ‘See, I told you,’ they’d say, ‘Sue didn’t have enough flaws, and now you have this conflict-free piece of trash’. This is where I’d respectfully disagree; the amount of flaws has nothing to do with this. Sue is, strange as this is, not a failed character. Her story is a failed story. The problem here is not Sue, it’s not a lack of artificially-inserted flaws.
Authorial intent bleeds through a lot more than advocators of ‘Death of the Author’ would like to admit. While it is true that there is a beauty to tales that open many avenues of interpretation, ultimately an author will have a certain aim, and through the style of writing, the plot arcs, the frustrations and conflicts they choose to highlight, something from their heart will be expressed. It is the essence of storytelling; Herman Melville wanted to tell a tale of the futility of obsession and nature’s ambivalence to man, Charles Dickens wanted to tell tales of the marked class divide in Victorian England, Stephanie Meyer wanted to tell tales of herself being craved by white and delightsome Mormon demigods.
It is the latter example which contains the essence of where Mary Sue tales go wrong; it’s not the number of flaws or competencies they have, it’s the banality of what they want to explore. They’re not pursuing a noble goal of exploring some of humanity’s deepest struggles, nor even the still-legitimate goal of entertaining an audience like any Marvel film would. They’re writing for one reason: To stroke their ego.
This poor reasoning poisons their entire story. An egotistical person wants everything they desire to fall onto their lap with little to no effort. This leads to a story devoid of conflict, and everything that the author inserts to attempt to introduce conflict falls flat, because we ultimately know from their story’s tone, precedents, and structure that it’s all obligation. When James kidnaps Bella at the end of Twilight, did any critical reader think it was anything other than some tacked-on conflict at the end to make the final scene of Bella going to the prom with Edward feel more earned?
Ironically, even as I use Bella Swan as an example of a Mary Sue, it’s odd; if Checklist Critics were to apply their own standard of characterisation to Bella, she’s anything but a Mary Sue. She has exactly one redeeming feature; she’s hot, and everyone wants to have sex with her or suck her blood. Her flaws, however, are myriad; she’s pretentious, spiteful, manipulative, has a terrifying case of self-loathing, she’s spoiled, entitled, materialistic… the list goes on, and many such Checklist Critics have brought these up.
She’s so flawed that in theory, she has ‘good karma’ for the story. Yet Twilight still fails as a story. And when you see Checklist Critics who go on about Mary Suedom, you’ll often find that their criticisms for one of the easiest books in the world to criticise, Twilight, are pitifully surface-level.
‘Every boy wants to have sex with Bella, and that’s stupid’. Why yes, it is, but do you have anything better to say? ‘Edward watches Bella sleep, and that’s creepy’. Why yes, well done, you get a sticker for being against stalking. ‘VAMPIRES DON’T SPARKLE’. Am I the only one who doesn’t really care about that? If anything, Meyer was being a touch refreshing with her vampire lore; not every elf has to adhere to elf tropes, so why must vampires?
No, the reason why Twilight fails runs much deeper than this; it was a story fleshed out from one of Stephanie Meyer’s wet dreams, where the meadow scene in the middle was written first and the rest of the story was hastily flung together around it. The tone never exceeded that of a thirty-something woman who desired to be a bitchy, snarky high school girl again, one that everyone wanted to bang so, of course, she’d get to choose the best man there and have the last laugh against the blondes she lost out to in reality.
Her vampire lore, despite my defence of sparkling earlier, is flawed, but it’s not for a surface-level reason. It’s that it invalidates a primary driver of conflict Meyer desperately tried to shoehorn in. She has stated time and time again that Bella and Edward’s relationship was supposed to be torrid, forbidden, because Edward doesn’t want Bella to ‘suffer’ as a vampire.
Except vampires are, for all intents and purposes, superhuman, with no downsides to counterbalance this. ‘Aha!’ the Checklist Critic says, ‘Here, you’re saying that something doesn’t have enough flaws! You’re just as bad as me!’
Yes, I’m saying that Meyer’s vampires don’t have enough flaws, but why? Because in this case, a pivotal conflict of the story (Bella’s desire to be with Edward versus the retention of her humanity) is completely invalidated. Meyer’s vampires have ways to live without killing humans, they aren’t weak to the sun, they have superhuman reflexes, durability, interesting powers, and the best sex ever. There is no impetus for Bella to retain her humanity, nor Edward insisting upon it. It is not the vampire’s lack of flaws that is an inherent problem; it’s how it affects the story.
‘All right then,’ the Checklist Critic says, ‘Name me one example where characters lacking flaws hasn’t poorly affected the story’. Well, this requires knowledge of the different kinds of conflict a story can have.
A common modern tale will usually have ‘Man versus Himself’ as the primary conflict; in this case, character flaws are unavoidable. The tale is about a man overcoming his own demons and working to become a better person to achieve a goal. Here, flaws are a necessity, as they’re the very thing the man needs to overcome. Without them, there is no story.
However, what about ‘Man versus Man’? In this case, the man must overcome another man, a physical antagonist who acts as the obstacle. Here, there’s no strict need for a flawed protagonist. Their main obstacle isn’t their flaws; it’s the villain, so too much dwelling on internal flaws could indeed detract from the main conflict. Examples of this include the classical Doylist Sherlock Holmes; he’s a brilliant detective with infallible deduction, always five steps ahead of our hapless narrator, Watson, and his primary goal is to foil a criminal, the antagonist that needs to be stopped. His stories work because the reader is not interested in how he’s going to overcome his terrible opium addiction; they’re interested in how he’s going to defeat the antagonist.
Then there’s ‘Man versus Nature’. Like ‘Man versus Man’, is there a strict need for a flawed protagonist? No; the conflict here is not about the man’s overcoming of his flaws. Here, the only concern is whether or not the character will survive. Are flaws a nice addition that could offer ways to add frustrations to the conflict? Certainly. However, a man’s conflict with nature does not need his flaws adding to the mix; the world is already out to kill him, and the story is asking how he’ll survive.
The Checklist Writer, alas, will often believe that adding flaws liberally still ‘couldn’t hurt’. After all, they’re not like those terrible suethors, they’re better than them. They read TV Tropes for five hours yesterday, and that means they’re prepared for every pitfall possible. So they take Sue the Surgeon, they make her hate her boss, they make her bad at her job, they make her parents abusive and terrible.
There; sure-fire silencing of the Checklist Critics. Their story is infallible.
Except for a discerning reader wondering why Sue hasn’t been fired yet. And wondering why Greg is still falling in love with her, and reassuring Sue that she’s still special to him. And though the parents are still abusive, they ultimately come through and support Sue at her wedding in a bout of character derailment, because Sue tolerated so much to get to where she has.
In other words, the Checklist Writer was in denial. They wanted a story that fed their ego, and the Checklist Critic stopped them in their tracks. They told them how to ‘fix’ their story and get rid of their dreaded Mary Sue, and they followed blindly. With their compensatory Anti-Sue in hand, no-one could ever accuse them of being self-indulgent or egotistical.
Yet somehow, their ego bled through anyway.
So, how should an author prevent their main characters becoming Mary Sues, then? It seems, almost, that the Checklist Writer’s poor writing was inevitable. That is because, with a poor attitude to story-crafting, the inevitable result is a poor story. If a writer approaches a story as a discrete set of karma meters, they’re both demeaning the art form of storytelling and making it all about them.
It’s not about the story to them, it’s about making the world believe they’re not a bad author. Much like a narcissistic mother, they never cared about their child. They just cared about what the neighbours thought, and whether they were deemed a ‘good mother’. And with the advent of sites like fanfiction.net, fictionpress, wattpad, and myriad self-publishing services and vanity presses, these egotistical authors, with their desire for instant gratification, will not go away any time soon. No number of tacked-on flaws will save their stories, and their worldview disables them from comprehending criticism beyond the surface-level Checklist Critic’s.
The first step to avoiding the dreaded Mary Sue trope, then, is to write for the right reasons. Don’t tack on flaws for their own sake, especially if the story’s conflict doesn’t explore them, don’t write to feed your own ego. Write to tell a story, to tell the world something that will make them laugh, make them think, make them cry. Whatever it is, make it about the experience you’re providing the reader. Not what boxes you’ve checked off.