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Wish Fulfillment

I already had words about this asinine Mary Sue bullshit yesterday. Charlie Jean Anders wrote a good piece about it at io9 today and mentioned something that was on my mind as I went to bed last night: wish fulfillment.

The “Mary Sue” is a very specific wish-fulfillment fantasy, in other words. It’s about getting to hang out with Harry, Ron and Hermione, and having them admire you. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of fantasy—we’ve all had it, when we get especially invested in a particular universe—but the term acquired a pejorative meaning because people felt it made for bad stories.

I think the thing that made Mary Sue (and Gary Stu, because yes Virginia they do exist) characters so mortally offensive in fandom that they needed their own name was because it was wish fulfillment run completely amok.

These books and shows, practically anything that doesn’t combine classic everyperson-struggles-with-the-greatest-enemy-which-is-themselves drama with scifi and fantasy, are all about wish fulfillment. It’s wish fulfillment that legions of us can participate in by identifying with the hero. And in fact, there are plenty of successful and decent works of fanfiction out there in which original characters aren’t Mary Sues and manage to continue that delightful line of wish fulfillment by welcoming the reading audience in. Original characters in fanfiction are not automatically Mary Sues. This is a battle I had many times in the fanfiction trenches, and I’ll stand by it.

I’d argue that actually, the two problems with the Mary Sue characters (beyond generally shitty writing) that make them so basically offensive are:

  1. The wish being fulfilled is so specific to the writer that no one else is welcomed in.
  2. The needs of the fantasy being played out by the wish fulfillment character act without regard for the canon that fans hold in common and in fact warps the canon in the service of the Mary Sue.

These two factors combine into a reading experience that is nothing short of infuriating, because you’re seeing a canon that you love get twisted out of shape to serve a character with whom no one but the writer can identify.

This is, by the way, why I deny the existence of canon Sues/Stus. You might not like what the writer of the property is doing with the canon, but you’re not the authority on it. They are. Sorry, suck it up and deal. If it pisses you off that much, stop reading or watching. But you don’t get to decide that, say, what JK Rowling wrote isn’t canon because it’s a ship you don’t like. That’s not how it works, cupcake.

So obviously, I’m in the camp that says Rey is a canon character, she cannot possibly even be a Mary Sue, so we don’t even need to discuss this further. Kindly weep into this tea cup so I can drink your tears. But that’s not the point of this post. This is about why so many people are attempting to cover their chapped little asses with a banner that read “But she’s a Mary Sue!”

Rey is a character that does not fulfill their wishes. They don’t identify with her. They don’t understand her. They don’t want to be her. They believe their beloved canon has been twisted in order to serve her character. And they assume that their experience is or should be universal. I imagine this is the feeling behind a lot of female main characters who don’t shit the bed in the third act getting smeared with the dreaded “Mary Sue” label. And to a certain extent, I sympathize, because I’ve sure watched a lot of movies where I thought the male wish fulfillment character was quite terrible.

But this is the thing:

Just because you do not like a character does not mean she is a bad character.

There are more wishes to be fulfilled in the world than yours.

Get the fuck over it.

Originally published at Rachael Acks: Sound and Nerdery. You can comment here or there.

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