The term “Mary Sue” is kind of like the terms “Politically Correct” and “Fascist”; it has been used so often and for so many different things that it has basically become useless. If someone refers to a character as a “Mary Sue”, the only thing you can safely infer is that the speaker doesn’t like them — which isn’t really helpful.
Even the folks at TV Tropes — a community dedicated to cataloguing and understanding popular culture — seem to have given up on finding a single agreed-upon definition:
Mary Sue is a derogatory term primarily used in Fan Fic circles to describe a particular type of character. This much everyone can agree on. What that character type is, exactly, differs wildly from circle to circle, and often from person to person…TV Tropes doesn’t get to set what the term means; the best we can do is capture the way it is used.
At this point, I’m not sure whether the term can be rehabilitated, but Tommy Oliver makes a valiant effort in his fantastic vid “Understanding Mary Sue“. You should watch it. Seriously, you should watch it:
Let’s consider Tommy’s definition of “Mary Sue”:
A character so perfect they are never challenged by the events of the narrative.
This is a great way to think about the issue, and it leads us to some really insightful conclusions. TO explores many of these in his vid, but I’d like to pick up where he leaves off and expand a bit.
First of all, note that there are two parts to that definition; we have the character, and then we have “the events of the narrative”. This means that “Mary Sue” is not really a statement about a character; it’s a statement about how the character interacts with the world. The character is only half the equation.
That leads us to an intriguing conclusion, and a point on which I think Tom is incorrect; he says that it’s not possible to become a Mary Sue. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Because by his definition (which I agree with), a non-Sue character could become a Mary Sue — but not necessarily by changing anything about the character. Instead, a character could hypothetically become a Mary Sue just by changing the way the world and the narrative treat them.
Wait, did I say “hypothetically”?
Whatever can be said about the first Equestria Girls, Twilight isn’t particularly more powerful, smart, or moral than she is in FiM. In fact, most complaints about her depiction assert that she behaves uncharacteristically stupidly.
And yet the world is a lot more accommodating of her than it usually is. I made this same point in my review:
The simple fact is, there just isn’t enough conflict in Equestria Girls for an interesting story. Rather than one large narrative with with several setbacks, struggles, and obstacles overcome, we have three bite-sized plot arcs, each with less conflict and striving than most 22-minute episodes of FiM.
Apart from her difficulties in adjusting to being a human, Twilight never fails or really even struggles at any point during the story, the way she does in the series. Things just go too well in this story for it to really be engaging.
I also made the following statement:
It’s tempting to see this and shout “Mary Sue!”, but I actually don’t think that’s accurate. Twilight herself is pretty much as well-written as she is in the series. The problem isn’t really with her, but rather with the way the world reacts to her. There was nothing she did that really made me go “that’s out-of-character for Twilight”, or “Twilight was badly-written there”, but the world only ever puts up a token resistance to anything she tries to do. She’s a well-written character in a poorly-written story.
But I realize now that I was mistaken; it’s true that Twilight is written (roughly) as she is in the series, but that doesn’t save her from Sue-ness. Because in Equestria Girls, the events of the narrative don’t challenge her.
Contrast this with the very next episode of FiM she appears in; “Princess Twilight Sparkle”. Twilight isn’t particularly different here than in Equestria Girls. She still knows how to work with other ponies, she still has a cadre of friends willing to support her, and she’s still remarkably magically talented. But unlike in Equestria Girls, she’s tackling challenges that are suited to her level of ability. She actually struggles — both to find the source of the vines and free Celestia and Luna, and to understand how to handle her newfound status. Same character, different settings; one is a Sue, and one isn’t.
To see the other side of that coin, let’s look at the the first episode of the pilot — where Twilight really can’t seem to catch a break. She spends the whole episode getting progressively more frustrated.
But if you look closely at Twilight’s situation in the pilot, you’ll notice something very bizarre; it’s almost identical to her situation in Equestria Girls.
Seriously — in both cases, she’s in a new and unfamiliar place, trying to stop a major magical threat, and she finds five other characters who are falling over themselves to be her friends. And yet the pilot works way better than the first Equestria Girls. Why?
Because while the setting and challenge might be similar, the character is different. The Twilight from Equestria Girls is not the Twilight from the pilot. This is the Twilight who’s had three seasons’ worth of character-development. EqG Twilight, unlike her past self, appreciates others and understands how to work with them. Rather than seeing the others as obstacles, she now understands them as assets. The same characters and situations that were sources of conflict during the pilot are sources of conflict-resolution during Equestria Girls. As a result, she hardly struggles at any point during the narrative. Same setting, different characters — again, one is a Sue, and one isn’t.
It’s important to note that Twilight’s talents aren’t absent or covered up in the pilot. She’s extremely magically talented, and she’s the star pupil of the ruler of the land (as we learn in the first 5 minutes). But this doesn’t spoil the narrative.
And that’s because the episode isn’t primarily concerned with what Twilight can do — it’s concerned with what she can’t do (yet). The narrative basically says to us: “This is Twilight Sparkle. She’s a prodigy, she’s one of the most magically gifted unicorns in the kingdom, and she’s the star pupil of the monarch of the land. When it comes to magic, she’s pretty much fantastic in every conceivable way.
But holy shit, she is bad at dealing with other ponies. Let’s talk about that last fact, and the problems it causes.”
Even when the series does focus on Twilight’s magical talent, it’s still in the context of what she can’t do — or at least, what she can’t do easily. Even in the S4 Finale, where she’s given the combined powers of 4 alicorns and then goes full-on Goku with them, it’s still all in the context of what she can’t do — she can’t beat Tirek.
Equestria Girls, by contrast, focuses on what Twilight can do, and (this is the real problem) what she can do easily. And ultimately, that’s what makes it less compelling than FiM. Pixar’s first rule of storytelling is relevant here:
You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
And that, in a nutshell, is the real problem with Mary Sues — it’s not that they’re “too good”, and it’s not that they succeed, it’s that they succeed without trying.
An important point, though, is that a story doesn’t necessarily have to focus on a character’s weaknesses to be compelling (though most will, to some extent). You can focus on the characters’ weaknesses, or you can focus on their strengths, but you have to focus on their struggle. That can be a struggle to overcome their flaws, or a struggle to push their talents to new heights, but there has to be a struggle. If you don’t have conflict, you don’t have a story.
In a roundabout way, that brings us back to the question; “what is a Mary Sue?”. If we accept the definition of “Mary Sue” as “a character who is never challenged by the events of the narrative,” then we see that the phrase “this character is a Mary Sue” really just means “this story doesn’t have enough conflict.”
So in that sense, the way we talk about Mary Sues is frequently misleading. Because we often treat the problem as though it’s with the character, rather than the way the character interacts with the world. It’s like saying “this is a horrible wrench, it doesn’t fit the bolt.” Well no, it might not fit this bolt, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad wrench, it means it’s being used incorrectly.
By the same token, if a character isn’t challenged by the events of a story, that doesn’t mean the character is inherently bad (though they might be). It doesn’t mean the setting is inherently bad (though again, it might be). It means that the character is not challenged by the setting they’re in.
Now, I just got to see Rainbow Rocks last night, and naturally I was wondering; would it suffer from the same lack of conflict as the original?
I’ll keep things spoiler-free for this post, but Rainbow Rocks is a huge improvement over the original EqG in most respects, and that includes its narrative structure. Twilight, Sunset, and all the rest of the cast strive, fail, succeed, falter, and triumph at various points throughout the movie — and it’s funny, touching, sad, cathartic, and just freakin’ cool. In short, it feels like a 75-minute episode of Friendship is Magic. I’m now honestly looking forward to the next installment (whatever form it takes).
But back to the main point:
If we’re concerned that a character might be a Mary Sue, we shouldn’t ask if they’re too good, or too successful, or whether they’re the scion of a noble line, or what color their eyes turn when they’re mad. All those questions miss the point.
Instead, we should ask; “does this character struggle to achieve their goals?”. Or more generally, “does this character’s story have enough conflict?”
If the answer is “yes”, then we’re probably okay.