Fisk (fiskblack) wrote,

Jean Valjean is Victor Hugo's Mary Sue

Obviously, I don't believe the title of this post is a legitimate criticism, but I thought it would be a good example of the overuse of this criticism. In the novel, Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is a reformed thief who devotes his life to charity and piety, and is the central character used by Victor Hugo to make his case for social reforms.

The people who level "criticism" toward my own work and characters, and often refer to the character Fisk as a Mary Sue, are using this loose and sloppy definition. I'm well aware that, were I to share their views and life philosophy, and express it through my work, they wouldn't level this criticism. But that their issue is primarily with me, personally, because of a view I hold, or something I bluntly stated in the past, they're clinging to an emotional distaste. To them, emotions are irreducible, unanalyzed realities, and therefor anything that causes them to have a bad emotional reaction will be catalogued as "inherently bad" by reflex. This will include the work produced by someone they dislike for unrelated reasons. I'm confident they would never level accusations of Mary Sue on characters that held their beliefs, or conversely, the accusation of "straw men" being used in stories with messages they agreed with.

The accusation of a "Mary Sue" character is especially sloppy, because when you stretch the definition to include any protagonist who embodies part of an author's ideals, you can level it at almost everything. To avoid this criticism, authors may be induced, by fear, to present their protagonists as broken, flawed, and emotionally crippled people, so they can be "relatable" to the worst readers out there. Try to imagine the kind of person who feels more comfortable around characters because of their flaws, instead of one who celebrates their strengths. Imagine the psychology of someone who demands "realism" in the form of character inadequacies and bad habits, instead of their achievements and merits. Who'd want to cater to people like that? I can almost hear them in their daily lives, giggling and gossiping about everything that's wrong with people, and downplaying everything that's good.

It is somewhat ironic to me that no one levels the accusation of "Mary Sue" toward my character, Red. She shares more of my recent personal attitudes about relationships and sex, than does Fisk (albeit for unrelated reasons). But I suppose because I'm male, my Mary Sue can't be a female character. I guess no matter how many strong, independent female characters I have, once I have a strong male character, he has to be called a Mary Sue.

The author aiming to avoid every possible criticism for creating a "Mary Sue" character, will conclude they are not allowed to have a character that represents any aspect of their views. Satire would be almost impossible. Everything a strong protagonist was good at would have to be counterbalanced by deep flaws or irrelevant embarrassments, to cater to the most puerile among us. Every protagonist would have to express views contrary to the author's, or otherwise have purely frivolous interests.

The original definition of a Mary Sue came from old Star Trek fan-fiction, where an author would introduce a very self-serving character as the projection of their fantasies, into the canon universe. The effort was obvious and clumsy, and the character exhibited an impossible array of competencies, and was admired by everyone. This ensconced the term as an insult to a writer. This was before it was expanded to include every character that may be a projection of an author's ideals, which shouldn't warrant an automatic insult, and as the title of his journal suggests, doesn't automatically mean a piece of literature is bad or irrelevant. In fact, it's a perfectly legitimate literary phenomenon in everything from dramatic fiction, to satire. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a brilliant satire that would be impossible without a main character that could be called a "Mary Sue".

The Wikipedia article on Mary Sue is very telling (, as the largest portion of it is dedicated to criticism of its use as a criticism. While the section is about its use against female characters, it reveals how easily this criticism can be applied with thoughtless ease:

In chapter four of her book Enterprising Women,[8] Camille Bacon-Smith includes a subsection on the "Mary Sue" concept. While not denying that such characters exist (and offering psychological observations as to why "Mary Sues" exist), she observes that fear of creating a "Mary Sue" may be restricting and even silencing some writers.

Smith quotes an issue of the Star Trek fanzine Archives[9] as identifying "Mary Sue" paranoia as one of the sources for the lack of "believable, competent, and identifiable-with female characters."... At Clippercon 1987 (a Star Trek fan convention held yearly in Baltimore, Maryland), Smith interviewed a panel of female authors who say they do not include female characters in their stories at all. She quoted one as saying "Every time I've tried to put a woman in any story I've ever written, everyone immediately says, this is a Mary Sue." Smith also pointed out that "Participants in a panel discussion in January 1990 noted with growing dismay that any female character created within the community is damned with the term Mary Sue."[11]

Humans like to sound smart. This is what drives many of them to become self-styled critics, even if for just a moment, where they can toss out a pre-packaged criticism without putting any genuine, original thought behind it. And it is a lot easier to sound smart while you're putting something down, than it is while explaining why you like something, or while actually trying to create something yourself. Remember, emotions are unanalyzed, irreducible realities to these people, and if they like something, they can't quite tell you why on any deeper level. But, they can cling to prepackaged genuine criticisms, so they can have them chambered and ready whenever they find something that, for whatever legitimate or illegitimate reason, they just don't like.

Seriously, if you disagree with my philosophies and views, that's perfectly fine. I don't expect my readers to completely agree with me. My views have changed dramatically over time as I've grown as a person. If you don't like me for them, be honest and just say so. Don't try to package it as a high-brow astute critique. I know my stuff isn't perfect, and I try to work on my weaknesses, bit by bit, but I also know bullshit criticism when it's offered by thoughtless goons.
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