Mary Sue Ideology

We all know about Mary Sues: perfect, idealized stand-ins for the author who can do no wrong (and make for boring stories).

But what about Mary Sue ideology?

That is: the author’s dogma of choice being presented as the only one, true, and right way to live.

I touched on this briefly in the comments to my post on utopian fiction. Recently, Chris Lansdown published a post that got me thinking about this, discussing, in part, how miserable people write what they know:

But unfortunately TV writers—who are mostly miserable wretches, from what I gather—can’t really write happy characters. The effort at pretending to be healthy is too much for them, I suppose.

This lead to a thought-provoking exchange in the comments:

Chris makes a fantastic point about authorial voice and personal opinion here–when American culture was largely homogenous, it arguably wasn’t as much of an issue.

But here’s the thing: even now, it seems naive to expect there to be no influence of the author’s personal beliefs in a story.

It’s like expecting a politician to keep their personal and religious convictions out of the way they vote and govern.

I have come around slightly on my initial “No politics!” stance. I still think topical politics should be avoided. I mean, it’s all message fiction, really. But there’s no problem with big ideas. In fact, big ideas are universal.

As long as you’re creating good art, much message can be forgiven. Even if you disagree with Oliver Stone’s premise and politics, for example, JFK is a good movie. Marvel and DC comics have lately been shoving their personal politics into stories, and have been producing garbage.

It’s a tale as old as time. Just like creator’s personalities coming to the fore.

But what’s a Mary Sue ideology?

It’s something like Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: Big Business is an unequivocal good and all else is shown to be evil, run by evil people, and that will lead to evil.

Ayn Rand: Proof that even when you mostly agree with a writer, you don’t necessarily like their work.

Now, I personally agree with Rand’s view of big government run amok (socialism doesn’t work, people!) because it is based on objective fact. But big business and unfettered free markets haven’t led to Rand’s promised land.

I can hear the cries of “Real free markets have never been tried!” I know what that sounds like . . .

I also know that open borders, the free movement of labor, off-shoring manufacturing, and lowering trade barriers–all things free marketeers love–have not helped the American worker, and have actually made them worse off.

Unless you consider cheaper consumer electronics the be-all-end-all of progress. But that’s a discussion for another day. My point is reality.

A story about the tension between unfettered capitalism and a limited form of regulations? The antagonistic balance between business and government? He dangers of cronyism and corporatism masquerading as a free market? Now that could be interesting, and isn’t a Mary Sue ideology. It’s also what some would argue we have now.

Religion provides another good example of this. Think about how many movies or books or stories where the Christian is a nasty, agastic hypocrite. Or the church itself is the big bad. Or where only by embracing blasphemy and atheism can the oppressed character be truly free.

That’s a Mary Sue ideology: no nuance!

This series started out strong, but got really shrill and really boring really fast.

You could argue that pro-religious fiction is guilty of the same thing. I’d agree. But I think one could make it interesting by providing big questions.

Religion is a unique bag because it’s all based on faith and revelation of a world we cannot perceive with our human senses. It is an attempt to know the unknowable, and we all think our faith is right–we wouldn’t believe it otherwise.

. . . but shouldn’t this make for fascinating stories, written in a way that doesn’t club the reader or viewer over the head like a political screed?

And again, we can use history and objective reality as a guide. If one religion or one political or economic system really was the be-all, end-all, we have evidence.

Ye shall know them by their fruits.”

Of course, if you do want to persuade as opposed to just telling a story, make sure it’s good first.


  1. John C. Wright has an interesting blog post about what makes a Mary Sue:

    The key insight is that the defining characteristic of a Mary Sue is not that she is super-awesome. It’s that she’s super-awesome but we’re supposed to treat her as a young, innocent ingenue.

    I think that’s right. A 35 year old queen who is beautiful, intelligent, a skilled warrior and a crafty statesman wouldn’t be a Mary Sue if she’s presented as someone with a past who’s used her 35 years to good effect. Someone who’s already been on the hero’s journey and come out of it having learned some lessons. The real problem comes in when she’s 16 and all of those things—and just starting on the hero’s journey.

    I think I’m going to write this up as a blog post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, by the way, I think it’s important to distinguish between pro-religious fiction and religious fiction. The latter takes the religion for granted and is about the human drama which happens inside the world as described by the religion. This tends to make for really good stories because it’s only within the context of religions that anything real is ever at stake. People can be saved; people can be damned. If you keep things purely secular you’re just telling the story of how they rearranged the deck chairs on the titanic before it went down. And no matter how much atheists will shout that they are deeply fascinated by exactly how the deck chairs on the titanic were arranged before they went into the frigid waters of the north Atlantic because *they choose to care*, no one *really* cares.

    That’s why the only modern movies which do well have beautiful special effects or (almost) naked women in them. The question of whether the protagonist is going to be a rat bastard or merely a bastard in events no one is going to remember is… uninspiring in itself.

    Liked by 1 person

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