Writing Means Everything: The Mary Sue
I was watching the Tin-Tin movie this afternoon, and while watching it, I came upon a sudden realization. It was a shocking realization, yet one that had been staring me in the face for the entire hour I’d been partaking in the film. That realization was this: TinTin, beloved journalist and classic figure of comics and French animation, was kind of a Mary Sue. Actually, a lot more than kind of: he was REALLY a Mary Sue.
But that led me to the next realization: despite him being a Mary Sue, I still LIKED TinTin. A LOT of people like Tin-Tin. But its hard to avoid the fact that within the first 50 minutes of the Spielberg movie, TinTin displays adept fighting skills, a sharp enough pinpoint to shoot down a plane with a single bullet from a HANDGUN, and then proceeds to fly a plane with no prior knowledge of such other than that he had ‘interviewed a pilot once’. These aren’t really traits we expected from a journalist. These are all signature traits of a Sue, or I suppose in TinTin’s case, a Gary Stu.
“A Mary Sue is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through unrealistic abilities, sometimes with the intent to inspire young or marginalized people and show them that even they can have as great of a potential as leading characters.”
But like I said: I LIKE TinTin. It’s rare for me not to enjoy a story of the youthful reporter and his fabulous exploits across the world of the 20s-odd era. But we’re not supposed to like Mary Sues, right? Well, that’s where the difficulty comes in: there is, in reality, a line between a Likeable Mary Sue and a Detestable Mary Sue. There is a Sue we can devotedly adore and a Sue we can flat out hate.
Let’s look to everyone’s favorite punching bag, Sword Art Online and its infamous protagonist Kirito.
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, Kirito and TinTin have a lot in common when it comes to their bases. Both are young men with great talent and informed mastery of whatever skill may be relevant to the story. We are never truly SHOWN where this mastery originated from, just that over their years of life they have mastered many exceptional talents. Many of their skills and the acquisition of said skills are wholly informed–TinTin can fly a plane because he interviewed a pilot, and Kirito is the GodBabyJesus of SAO because he spent a lot of time grinding in the game as a beta tester. None of this is really shown in detail or focused on in either case but the informed ability is there.
So why do we like TinTin, but hate Kirito?
In essence I believe it comes down to personality and presentation. To put it lightly, Kirito has very little personality outside of being the GodBabyJesus of SAO. He’s just cool and we’re supposed to think he’s cool because he can do all the cool things and all the hot girls like him. There’s not necessarily any effort to make him likeable outside of the cool factor that’s attributed to many Mary Sues and their exceptional talents. So let’s call Kirito a Barebones Sue–reliant more on the concept that the audience will attach to him based on the fact that he’s cool, in order to ignore the Sue-isms.
Now let’s look at TinTin. Like Kirito, he has a lot of informed abilities. He’s a brilliant writer, an exceptional fighter, cool headed in dire situations, and a sharpshooter like none other. And that’s just covering the bases of it all–he can certainly do more than that. But there’s an active effort to make him likeable outside of that. TinTin has something of a enthusiastic but dry personality, not wholly unexpected in a character of European origins, that connects with the audience because we see him actively developing the character rather than focusing on the skills that he has. He’s not just a set of skills–he’s a person with a set of skills. Let’s call TinTin an Indiana Jones Sue–reliant more on the concept that the audience will attach to his personality and uses his many skills to further the story more than to make himself look entirely cool. Even his design is not necessarily what one would call ‘cool’, even in the era the comic originally published in.
Even in the Spielberg movies, he still looks decidedly dorky.
So yes, I believe its arguable that both characters are Mary Sues–but I believe its also arguable that Mary Sues can be likable characters. Let’s face it, we all liked Indiana Jones because he was cool. The guy’s one informed fault was a fear of snakes and that was about it. But there has to be a certain modicum of effort put into making a clear Mary Sue into a likable character. It can’t focus on the cool factor to keep it going. More than anything it needs to distract from that, make those things seem less exaggerated and godlike than shows like SAO do. There needs to be an actual character outside of all those skills and the insanely unrealistic set of abilities. And no, the character having a personality outside of those skills doesn’t make them less of a Sue, but it does make them a character we treasure more. There’s a lot of stigma against Mary Sues but that doesn’t mean we as readers can’t enjoy them once in a while.
After all, did we not end up liking Mary Sue in the end?
EDIT: Apologies to @mcknighty9, I did fail to mention the IRL acquisition of sword skills for Kirito. I haven’t seen SAO in many years so some of the finer details tend to slip my mind and I apologize for the oversight. Still, as you said, it still doesn’t make him any less of a Sue and his god-level in SAO is attributed to both that and the fact that he grinded heavily prior to the game (thus his acquisition of his special skills received at higher levels). Still, it was a combination of both, and it was erroneous to fail to mention it. Thank you for the correction.