The term Mary Sue is a derogative term for any character that’s ‘too perfect’. It’s an insult, a sign of bad writing, of bad character design. There’s no one true definition, but there are a few common signs. TVtropes has a more comprehensive page on it.
A quick summary of common traits are as follows;
They’re often the best at what they do, to an absurd degree.
Other characters in the setting that should be better than them at their thing simply aren’t.
Everyone knows and respects them.The people who don’t are just jealous.
They don’t suffer consequences for their actions or mistakes.
They have no flaws that impede them.
Their negative characteristics are usually external to the character; Dead parents, orphaned, rough childhood, bullied because of of a non-disfiguring trait (cat ears, mismatched eyes, being ‘too good’ at stuff), usually black and red and ‘very cool’…
By most every metric you really care to mention, the goddamn Batman is a goddamn Mary Sue. He checks all the boxes, every time, up and down and backwards and forwards.
His enemies and allies both respect him. He never fails or messes anything up. All the ladies love him, and all the men want to be him. After being orphaned as a child when his parents were shot in front of him, he took all his money to a Tibetan monastery and practiced the art of the Whispering Fist until he came back home to avenge his parents deaths. He’s a ninja with a tank and a fighter jet and a butler and he does kung fu and he has so many gadgets and he’s just so intense and cool and no matter how hard you knock him down he gets back up and he’s an amazing detective too because he’s also a super genius like he’s better than Sherlock Holmes and he doesn’t use guns because he’s super against killing that’s very important and one time he punched God.
I mean, it’s the DC universe, so I’d have to be more specific than just ‘God’, but whoever you’re thinking of Batman probably punched them.
The thing is, though, Batman is a fantastic character. He’s the DC character that gets the best animated series, the best movies and the best comics.
So how do we reconcile these two things? If a Mary Sue is a bad character, and Batman is a Mary Sue, shouldn’t that mean Batman’s a bad character?
So here’s where we get to two equally important but divergent points:
1) Why is Batman good, in spite of breaking this obvious rule
2) What does this say about learning writing from set rules?
My ideal for good characters is this; a character should read as a philosophical statement on why being that person is desirable, or at least immediately understandable. It’s a wanker’s way to put it, but really all it means is that every character acts in a way that they believe benefits them, or demonstrates their core values. Values that need to be intuitive to an audience. It’s the difference between a character with strings, and a character that move themselves through the story.
Batman is a goddamn masterclass on stoic ideals.
He has a strong core morality. He does good things for good reasons. He’s a badass. He has money but it’s more a means to an end; Batman isn’t defined by his wealth, or the want of it. He can go from living in a mansion to doing push-ups in a wet cave, and probably feel happier in the cave.
He tunes his body. He pushes his limits. He sharpens his mind. He takes satisfaction from doing the right thing, and doing it well. He builds things, he works with his hands. He’s determined. He tries to have a quiet dignity in all things.
You look at Batman, and you see the kind of person you wish you could be. Someone who constantly works to improve themselves so they can best help others. Someone who’s a fucking badass doing it.
So what makes Batman a good character, despite checking every box on the Mary Sue list? He works hard for everything he has, and he sacrifices a great deal of things that are very important to him to stick to his ideals.
Mary Sues usually just get things. They resolve the plot by staring at it hard and letting the world bend around them to serve it to them. Things are convenient. Their beliefs last only until it’s dramatically relevant for them to break them.
Mary Sues often rage against an unfair world. A character like Batman struggles and overcomes it.
Batman, well-written Batman at least, is always defined by how hard he has to work, how much he has to struggle, to accomplish anything. In a world of Gods and Demons, he is the mortal man keeping up through sheer force of will, and his wits.
That struggle makes the end result seem satisfying, rather than frustrating. The key idea here is we see Batman earn everything he has, and that makes him an aspirational figure: We can see how we could be him, too, if we were willing to work that hard.
Most of us aren’t willing to be Batman. But we want to believe someone could be.
So what about the rules of writing? Well, Neil Gaiman has a quote I like, so I’m going to borrow it real quick. He can have it back when I’m done with it.
Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what’s wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
A lot of the time you’re going to hear criticism from people who know something’s wrong, but they’ll phrase it in exacts: “It’s a Mary Sue, and that’s definitely bad” is a good example here. Superman, Batman… they’re Mary Sues, if you check the boxes, so you can’t like them anymore.
I’m sorry, I’m over here reading Red Son and All Star Superman and they’re fantastic, absolutely fantastic. I’m perfectly capable of liking these characters.
Here’s a thing that gets thrown around a lot, but if you haven’t seen it, it comes with a useful graph;
That sharp point to the left is affectionately known as “Mount Stupid”. It’s not unique to writing, but there’s a fun way to identify it; When people speak with utter confidence about something they’ve read, but have no experience practicing the underlying concepts.
It’s that peak where you know about the subject matter, but haven’t learned yet how much you don’t know about it.
When you’re first given the tools to analyze writing, the knowledge of tropes and labels like Mary Sue, it seems incredibly useful. It’s tempting to apply it to things you previously liked. You’re so much wiser and more educated now, and you’re finally able to read critically. It can make it feel like you were wrong to like things before.
Suddenly, you think maybe Batman’s a bad character, and you just weren’t smart enough to see it.
The problem is that when you understand a lot of the summations, but not the underlying reasons or concepts that led to them, you can come to conclusions for the wrong reasons.
So yeah, Batman is a Mary Sue if you tick the boxes that identify him as such. However, he’s still a good character, because he is also isolated from the reasons why those boxes are typically seen as negative; Not something you’d know you don’t know.
It would behoove new writers, then, to question these assertions more than it would for them to try to apply them upon learning them. These concepts are important to pick up, but it’s only be applying them and breaking them down that you truly understand why they’re said, or the reasons behind them.