Super Mary Sues . . . or Why Consequence Matters
Barry Allen is doing his thang when he hears a police report of two hackneyed supervillains, Captain Cold and Heatwave, causing chaos by attacking innocent civilians far across the city while attempting to rob DC’s version of a Brinks truck for its tasty monetary content. So our boy Barry spins ablur into his red-with-golden-bolt superhero suit and the Flash streaks at over 700 mph from one end of the ginormous city to the other in seconds, arriving on the scene lickety-split.
Where he stops moving fast and fights the rampaging villains (who are nothing more than two normal men armed with a heat and freeze gun) with normal punches and normal kicks. He even gets grazed by a few shots while dodging at normal speed before finally dispatching the bad guys despite it being previously established that the Flash can move so fast he can basically make time stand still for everyone but himself.
So what’s wrong with this scenario?
And it’s the reason why I stopped watching The Flash television show years ago: disgust.
Who the f#$& would arrive on scene in a streaking blur then for no reason other than to establish fake tension stop moving fast and start moving at normal speed?
That’s just stupid.
And it’s bad, lazy writing.
Let alone if one can move so fast then they can think that much faster thus making them the most intelligent being on the planet able to consider a million options during the second it takes the villain to attempt punching them once.
I have the same problem with Superman or Wonder Woman, both of whom can move almost as fast as the Flash whenever they want and yet they almost never do. Because they are overpowered to the point of boring.
Superman is only a superhero when fighting someone who possesses his only weakness: kryptonite. Remove the kryptonite and you remove the consequences. Remove the consequences and I stop caring.
(Yeah yeah, Superman is weak against magic now too, though DC only added this flaw to his character after decades of wearing thin the whole kryptonite spiel, but you get my point.)
There’s nothing worse than overpowering your protagonist only to realize halfway through your story how overpowered they really are because you’re trying to live vicariously through your Super Mary Sue and so you’re forced to de-power them through stupid, illogical situations.
That special power you blessed your protagonist with which separates them from the rest of the normal herd must have an equal if not predominant consequence for its use. Otherwise why don’t they just go around using it constantly?
I love fantasy (so much I write it!) but I also hate it. Because the fantasy genre is one of the most abused genres in all of fiction existence.
Ignorant hacks who’ve read a few Harry Potter books and nothing but think: ‘Hey! I’ll make my protagonist an insecure adolescent outcast with a big heart who goes to wizard school where he meets other wizard friends who also don’t fit in with the cool kids but they’ll eventually fight an evil wizard to save the day and become the bestest wizards evar!’
These are the same uncreative writers who upon watching the Twilight series of movies immediately sat down to pen their next great novel revolving round their own version of a human/vampire/werewolf love triangle because originality is too much like real work.
Same imbeciles who’ve watched (because god forbid they actually read the novels) the Lord of the Rings movies also think: ‘I want to write a fantasy novel so first I’ll start with elves and dwarfs and hobbits and orcs and dragons and wizards, all apparently taking place in medieval England where swords never dull and socks never get wet and rabbits abound that feed every belly while containing all necessary nutrients because rabbit starvation doesn’t exist or anything!’
My biggest gripe about fantasy is the wizard character who shoots wizard’s fire or conjures other such spells and their only consequence for it is they get tired.
That’s the f#$&ing best you can come up with?
Whenever I peruse my local used book store, I’ll begin by hunting through my favorite writers for an hour, and then I’ll make a point of spending another hour with random selection of authors I’ve never read or heard of before. I slip a book from the shelf, I glance at the cover, then I flip it over and read the back blurb.
If I read anything about elves and dwarfs and wizards and hobbits and orcs and dragons and a Big Evil brooding inside Castle Doom high atop Scary Mountain, I immediately return the book to shelf while making a mental note to never read anything by that author.
Because they’ve just proven to me they are: 1. completely unoriginal, 2. a talentless Tolkien thief, and 3. they assume me an idiot entertained by overused stereotypes.
If you care so little about your fantasy world and characters that the only effort you put into it is stealing from other writers, then I care even less about reading it.
When I first conceived the protagonist of my fantasy Soothsayer Series, way many years back when before I even considered writing it down because I instead preferred my active imagination, the thought popped into my head about the whole concept of how smoking one cigarette supposedly takes six minutes off your life as told us by my 7th grade health teacher Mrs. Sprunger.
No big deal, right?
Until you add up twenty years of habitual smoking and realize you’ve knocked off ten years from the rest of your shorter life.
Also a sure consequence for instant gratification.
Enjoy it now, pay for it later.
Smoke up, Johnny!
My imaginary protagonist (not yet named Banzu) could slow time around him while he continues moving at ‘normal’ pace, though to an outside observer he appears sped up. As consequence, because he’s accelerated, he ages slightly faster in trade than everyone else while using his ‘power’. Not a big deal in the short run, but in the long run it slices off a big chunk of his lifespan. Use it for short bursts every day for ten years and he’s aged an extra five or so in cruel exchange. Just like the whole cigarette concept only applied to character.
I did this because every time Banzu even considers using his power his next thought will always be: is this really worth me dying sooner?
Ergo: conflict wrought from consequence.
And that’s my point.
Affording your protagonist a power with no consequence for using it parallels handing them a gun that fires an infinite amount of bullets. Sure it’s fun in video games, but in novels the tension comes when our MC Sureshot runs low on or out of ammo and there’s still bad guys aplenty armed to the teeth.
Isaac Newton declared, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And when it comes to fantasy protagonist superability I declare, for every power there must be an equal if not predominant consequence for using it.
Is your protagonist psychic? Then hit them with a crippling headache for hours after they glean someone’s thoughts, or have them so scatterbrained thereafter because of the confusing jumble of memories they hardly remember their own name until the other’s memories fade hours later.
Is your protagonist superstrong? Collapse them into a one-day coma after they spend ten minutes throwing garbage trucks at the bad guys, or render them weak as a mewling newborn kitten between their short bursts of superstrength.
Can your protagonist fly without wings or plane? Then power their supernatural ability with the sun though with the caveat that during nighttime their ‘internal gravity’ becomes twice times their normal, making them sluggish with leaden bones, or heck even paralyzed until the sun rises again.
Or determine the strength of their power by the cycle of the moon so it waxes and wanes with beautiful Luna ala werewolves.
You catch my drift.
There’s a plethora of options afforded you when it comes to administering interesting consequences to protagonist powers.
Breathe underwater? Give them debilitating asthma outside of it.
Turn invisible? Only while naked and staying completely still.
Perfect night vision? Blind them during the day.
Immune to poison? Make their sweat toxic to everyone they touch.
Terrible nearsight to counterbalance super farsight, or vice versa.
Or determine your protagonist’s power by a rare element ingested (Brandon Sanderson framed his Mistborn series around this concept).
If your Super Mary Sue possesses an awesome power but with no consequence for using it then our immediate question is always: why aren’t they constantly using it?
But if you pair their power with an equal or greater consequence then we know why and don’t question it because the rarity of its use is logical.
Protagonist power should always come at a considerable cost to its wielder because this heightens the risk to reward ratio for its use.
One of my favorites is an alcoholic character I wrote who can ‘shoot wizard’s fire’ though only after ingesting strong amounts of alcohol to fuel it, so he must be drunk, and when he burns up the alcohol so too his fire dies out, leaving him powerless and with a grumpy hangover.
Then there’s Banzu who ages minutes over the course of seconds to everyone else while using his acceleration ability, not only shaving time off his total lifespan but putting into question his every relationship because he knows he’ll die much sooner than those he cares about.
So the next time you think up an awesome power for a cool fantasy superhero protagonist, your immediate question should be: how bad can I punish them whenever they use it?
Marvel’s Stan Lee is famous for the line, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
But I suggest when crafting your characters you change it to, “With great power comes great responsibility and even greater consequence.”