Something that caught my attention recently was the recent debate over whether a character in the new Star Wars movie happened to be a Mary Sue (of the Canon Sue variant, to be precise). Now, I’m not here to discuss that, because that’s not quite the topic of interest that sparked the train of thought that eventually led to this post. Rather, I’m here to discuss something that was brought up during debates over the issue, namely the idea that certain characters are themselves Mary Sues/Marty Stus, and how I not only disagree with that argument, but also argue in turn that it is possible to write Sue/Stu characters well.
First off is the very argument that sparked this post: the argument that James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Superman are all Marty Stus. I argue that such a descriptor is an inaccurate one for the first two, and that the label has probably failed to properly fit the last of the three in more recent decades, at least in the hands of competent writers. I offer instead an alternate title which is far more fitting: escapist character. The premises of James Bond and Indiana Jones stories is less about the hero’s journey and the development of the characters than it is an opportunity to see badass characters go on adventures, have good times with sexy ladies, and save the day by the end without looking anything less than the epitome of cool. These aren’t the characters you identify with, but rather the ones you want to see do their thing because of how damn cool they are and how much their tales differ from the comparative dullness of your own life. Such is the very premise of the stories they are a part of, and because of that, they fail to come off as overly perfect characters. Instead, they are ideal for the kinds of stories they are a part of.
As for Superman, he is an interesting case. In his earliest iterations, he was rather Stuish, but could have also been argued as an attempt at an escapist character. To be quite honest, I’m not nearly a big enough fan of the character to go into detail on the character’s development over time, although like many others I was initially put off by such an overpowered being. However, based on some of the relatively few stories I’ve come across since then (and I’ve been fortunate to come across some rather good ones), I know well enough that the charm of Superman lies not only in his external conflicts, but also his internal ones. Even the somewhat maligned Superman Returns had what I thought was a nice moment when Superman discloses to Lois just what it feels like to be the guy who can hear every bad thing going on while knowing full well that even he’s not “super” enough to fix all the world’s problems. In the end, even Superman is but one person. I’ve also learned to appreciate over the years the idea that Superman keeps trying to be a humble hero despite being almost a physical god in comparison to the humans around him. He tries to set an example and be the paragon that inspires and uplifts rather than a mere emergency rescue system. To him, every life is important and he thinks nothing of stopping along his route to offer help to those who need it. He’s a “super” man not just because of his power, but also because of what he represents. He could easily be a Marty Stu, but because of these issues, because of the inner conflicts he is given, he instead comes off as a much richer character than some would realize if they’d simply take a closer look at him and what he represents.
It’s also possible to take a step back from the likes of Superman and other larger than life characters to travel back in time to the grand adventures of old. In fact, one such tale, The Epic of Gilgamesh, takes what could have easily been just another escapist character/Marty Stu and takes the entire thing apart. What makes this all the more notable is that said epic is one of the earliest known stories, and yet here it is taking apart those tropes so familiar to us all these millennia later. Gilgamesh, who is two-thirds god, in many respects shows what happens when the special hero of the story knows they’re special. He’s not the greatest ruler and even goes as far as to demand the right to sleep with young brides on their wedding nights. Rather than starting at the bottom physically, Gilgamesh starts at the bottom morally. What follows are a series of adventures and important lessons that eventually result in him learning to appreciate the finite nature of mortal life and perhaps even become a better, wiser king to his people. In cases like that of Gilgamesh, it is possible to create an overpowered character by creating shortcomings in other areas so that they may grow in ways other than the physical.
Now, can a character that does actually fit the mold of a Sue/Stu without being the escapist character whom the audience follows work? Yes. In fact, there’s a rather famous example of such a character that is even described by the very story as being “practically perfect in every way.” I refer of course to that nanny among nannies, Mary Poppins.
The character works for a variety of reasons. First of all, she is not the viewpoint character to her escapades; we leave that to other characters. Second of all, the setting into which she enters is somewhat mundane, and rather than sticking out like a sore thumb and ruining the story as it is told, her sticking out instead is part of the very premise of the series. Furthermore, because she is such an inexplicably fantastic being within a world that had until that point been something approaching normal, or at least not completely ridiculous, and because the nature of the character is never actually explained, she maintains a certain mystique and charm that makes her a memorable character in her own right rather than a mere plot device. She’s not an escapist character due to part of the audience’s interest being less about her than in how what she gets mixed up in effects everyone and everything around her. Mary Poppins is instead what could otherwise be a Mary Sue done right.
As with any other thing, a Mary Sue/Marty Stu is rightfully derided when improperly placed into a story, but even so, is easily confused with the escapist character as well as those characters that at first glance seem to be too powerful to be held back by any sort of external conflict. Furthermore, even this sort of character, when done right, can be rather memorable in its own right. Having said all that then, perhaps when discussing the nature of a character, we all might have a better idea of just what they are so long as we know the context of their being, and thus know whether or not said character is a Sue or a Stu, and whether that is necessarily a bad thing.