Understanding The World Has Helped Me Be Happier
First, some background. I've started planning another project (big shock, right), and of course I want to make it good. What exactly "good" means is hard to define, but many people in society seem to have an idea what it means. Not wanting to ignore advice, I started thinking about the story's central character and what makes them who they are, in light of what other people have said makes them a good character. Specifically, I wanted to avoid the "Mary Sue" phenomenon (if you're not familiar with this term, I will get to that shortly). I was taking this into consideration while also comparing my character ideas with Spider-Man, a character who serves a similar role to my intended character (hint hint). At some point, for whatever reason, I started wondering whether Spider-Man is what people call a "Mary Sue" or not.
As I often do, I asked the question to my close friends via Facebook Messenger group chat. As can be expected, there was a long discussion that went off of a few rabbit trails. Sticking with answering the question, though, the answer I came to was that Spider-Man is not a "Mary Sue", but that wouldn't matter anyway.
"Mary Sue" is a term used to describe characters that seem too perfect. What exactly that means depends on who is using the term and where they draw the line of "too perfect", but a classic example is the originator of the term, the protagonist of a Star Trek fanfiction who was practically perfect in every way. She was accomplished with many skills, having perfect social abilities, and being given opportunities nobody else likely would have within the fictional universe. She was clearly also a self-insert for the author, and thus served as a mechanism for the author to fantasize about themselves in the scenarios Mary Sue found herself in.
Using this template, however, I can see that most people who use the term "Mary Sue" are applying it far more liberally than the template actually specifies. Many people on the Internet accuse characters of being too perfect, and use not the character's unbelievable effectiveness and social perfection, but merely a noble character combined with competence, to declare Mary Sue-dom. This is the definition that troubled me when I was designing my character - they're noble in general, and competent in how they approach situations. Doesn't that make them a Mary Sue?
The group chat, predictably, went straight for the throat of Rey from the recent Star Wars trilogy, a commonly-accepted "Mary Sue" who is also both noble and competent. Standard advice for avoiding making a character a "Mary Sue" is to give them some kind of "weakness" so they stay "balanced" with the other characters (if this sounds like video game meta terminology, you're not wrong, and I'll get to that as well). Rey doesn't really have crippling "weaknesses", and is thus seen as a "Mary Sue" by many. I'll spare you the details for another time, but the short version is that I maintained that the arguments raised against Rey's "perfection" are in the context of current Star Wars canon, which is far too vague to make any kind of real argument about what's "appropriate" or "normal". I'm pretty sure some of the chat members disagreed, but that's my two cents.
This does, however, lead into a question of what exactly people mean when they say a character is a "Mary Sue". Within a rounding error, nobody levels this accusation at Spider-Man, and yet both he and Rey are highly noble and highly competent. There's no real gaping flaws with either character, at least from a "how good are they morally and how good are they effectually?" perspective. And clearly, neither of them is a self-insert character who's just a vessel for someone's fantasy.
Except that they are.
They are self-insert characters, not for the writers, but for the audience. That's the key. They're both noble and competent, two things most people would like to be. As such, they make great role models for people who can relate to them. The issue is that people need to make a connection with the character before this effect can take place.
This is where we get into understanding the world. Rey and Spider-Man are separated by 50 years of culture, technology, and media. Spider-Man was born into a world with no Internet (none that mattered to the average person, anyway), no corporate media conglomerates, and a fair bit of naivete about stories like his. Rey, on the other hand, was born into a world with a fully-fledged Internet subculture, has that one conglomerate that owns 40% of Western media (you know the one), and has 50 years more hindsight about hero-driven stories.
Part of this Internet subculture is media reviews and criticism. I love that we live in a world where sharing and discussing opinions of media while we analyze it is so easy. The downside of the democratization of this is that many people who do not really understand what makes fiction enjoyable, but think that they do, will take a platform and say what they say based on, most likely, a passionate, yet limited appreciation, one born of a Bachelor-level education on the subject and a pessimistic attitude. The fact that this form of entertainment can be profitable, while amazing, also means that there is incentive to tailor one's discussion of media toward what gets people to listen, not what is honest and accurate.
The people who listen are often people who also share a limited appreciation and pessimistic attitude, but whose actual exposure is filtered through the entertainer and their position, not exposure and original thought. The listeners then turn and use this state of mind as they propagate these ideas to the world around them. As such, the culture becomes one of limited understanding, pessimistic attitudes, and lack of ability to tolerate perceived flaws.
Separately, the fact that this is an Internet subculture means that it overlaps with the competitive video game subculture. I hopefully don't need to tell you that, while much of it is fun and games as intended, it's also a breeding ground for animalistic social posturing and power fantasies from people who think competitively and aggressively about life in general. This subculture breeds pessimism, as well as discontent, mistrust, and unhealthily high standards of perceived quality. These also leak into other corners of the Internet, because these mindsets are gratifying to the basal "Alpha male" instincts of many.
When these pessimistic and overly stringent mentalities intersect with criticism of fiction, the result is an expectation that for something to be worth anyone's time, it must meet a standard of near-perfection. The worldbuilding must be airtight (like the controls of a competitive video game), the characters must be balanced as evenly as possible (like the roster of playable characters), and any media A that meets these requirements, but not as well as some other media B, then A is objectively lower-tier than A and should not be given the time of day when B exists.
This is where we get back to Spider-Man and Rey. As I said before, their overall character design is nearly identical when it comes to the "Mary Sue" considerations, and yet Rey is treated as being in a much lower "tier" than Spider-Man. Before, I asked the question of, not what "Mary Sue" means, but what people mean when they label a character as such. By the hyper-critical chimera of Internet subcultures I described above, these characters are not seen as being in the same tier, when they should be.
This is not because they're both secretly really "well balanced". This is because Spider-Man got a pass Rey never did.
As soon as Rey appeared on the scene, the Internet started analyzing, discussing, and criticizing. The world of the 2010s has an entire section of its culture dedicated to finding every problem with every fictional thing. Of course Rey has design flaws. But so does Spider-Man. Spider-Man, however, was invented in the 1960s when this mentality did not exist. Had he been invented now, I'm sure he would have been picked apart and analyzed and criticized just as much as Rey (though perhaps not as hotly, due to today's assumption of strong female characters in fiction being a political statement).
The phenomenon I alluded to before, of a character connecting with the audience, happened with Spider-Man because, at least to the average person, he was not subject to the same exhaustive dissection Rey has received in today's media. Since any criticism of Spider-Man was largely invisible, at least to people partaking in his media, they were free to see him as a role model and form that connection as intended. He got a pass, despite his "imbalance". However, regarding Rey, at least for many people who are involved in the media criticism side of the Internet, that connection never got to happen. Once Rey is seen as a character invented by a corporation to sell merch (which she is), she cannot easily be seen as a role model to aspire toward.
As they say, the magic is gone.
What's with all the quotation marks? I'm using them because I don't think people who use the terms they enclose really understand entertainment. As I said before, much of this talk of "Mary Sues" and "balance" and "weaknesses" comes from a mentality not borne out of appreciation and enjoyment, but out of pessimism and trying to find flaws. This subculture has trained many of us that we need to find every flaw in anything, because that's what we hear other people doing. They never stop to consider what else beyond perceived "perfection" they may be able to enjoy, or even how much this "perfection" is worth, if anything at all. The arguments might be valid, the flaws might exist, and the problems may be real. That doesn't mean that said argument, flaws, or problems necessarily matter, at least from a personal perspective.
This isn't about Internet review celebrities. This is about understanding the effect these factors have had on the world the rest of us live in. It's a systemic issue, not wholly the fault of the celebrities. I love many Internet reviewers and find their work to be valuable to me for both entertainment and education. However, understanding where the social world I live in has given me new perspective on it. People make claims of "Mary Sues" and "imbalance" because it's what they're trained to do by our current context, not because those things are by any means necessarily objective or significant. Those complaints lose their value when put into context with their vapid ultimate origins.
As they say, the magic is gone.
With that, I am free from them. Since they only matter to people because people have been trained by an unhealthy social system to care about them, they don't need to matter to me. I don't need to care. I can write my heroic figure to be the role model I want them to be, without any kind of concern about an objective "Mary Sue" complaint arising, such a thing is impossible. With this freedom, I am comforted, and with this comfort, I am happier.
When I was younger, I believed that learning more about the world would only ever give me more reason to be miserable. Today I have experienced a resounding counterexample. Yes, the structure of subcultures I described above is unsightly and undesirable, but in understanding how it came to be, I better understand the response it deserves.
I think part of this mentality came from a simplistic view of the world's problems, one motivated by a simplistic view of Scripture. "People are scum and they cause harm. The end." or so it goes. While this is not untrue, it not only fails to mention that, not only is our job on Earth to love those scummy people and care about them, but also the complexity of problems and situations, and which of those situations should be treated as deserving of greater concern than others, and how to know the difference. My mother would tell me to choose joy, and my internal response was always that "I can't, because I have to understand, and understanding necessarily causes sorrow." Just like how many people view Spider-Man or Rey, my perspective on life was simple, and I never questioned it. There were no flaws, no problems, no imperfections. Just simple, almost magically simple, truth and clarity.
As they say, the magic is gone.
In its place is a better understanding, and a happier way to live.