Machiavellianism & Mary Sue — A-to-Z Blog Challenge, Literary Terms

MFinally in the middle…of both the month and the alphabet. Today will be a fun one as this was the letter I was most looking forward to since I started this. It has been an uphill battle to get here, but I am proud of my commitment.

Today is Machiavellianism and Mary Sue. Two key terms, and both related to the written word.

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Machiavellianism

Machiavellianism. Try to get that in scrabble (worth 25 points, 34 on Words with Friends). The word refers to sneaky, ruthless, and deceitful behavior, but tends to favor power hungry rulers who try to hide it with a façade of honor and trustworthy behavior to accomplish their goals. Not someone you want to play poker with.

This term derives from Niccoló Machiavelli, 16th century political adviser who wrote The Prince. He stressed that an effective ruler must engage in evil or immoral acts to ensure stability of their power. He cited history that rulers remain powerful not because of their benevolence, generosity, or fairness, but because they were willing to do anything to maintain or increase their personal power.

Niccolo_Machiavelli_1_u

Essentially this embraces the ‘ends justify the means’, or as he said, “one must think of the final result”. Now many villains try to rule by fear, as it is easier to accomplish, though ruling by love does insure deeper loyalty. Machiavelli pointed out that one should rule with both love and fear (should being the operative word, as most choose the latter). But you should choose fear over love if you can’t have both. However, one must avoid being hated, as people will endure suffering in order to oppose you. Also use respect to command obedience.

However, the more someone tries to increase their power, the less loving they can be. Paranoia sets in and all they can think about is who will betray them and decide that it is better to rule by fear, and generally this leads to their own downfall.

A good example of this type of character and the obvious flaw of ruling by fear is found in Star Wars. Grand Moff Tarkin felt that many systems would fall in line with the presence of the Death Star. He said in the Tarkin Doctrine: Rule through the fear of force rather than through force itself.

Grand_Moff_Tarkin

Leia countered this theme with her line: The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

Of course, in the movie, Alderaan got destroyed by the Death Star. This actually worked against the Empire, as many neutral worlds went to the side of the Rebel Alliance. This even started up rebellions on established Empire worlds. That this atrocity gave people a reason to rebel against the Empire.

Iron Man actually touched on the example of Machiavellianism. Tony Stark asks is it better to be feared or respected to which he answers, “I say, what’s wrong with both?” However, when he learns that Stark weapons are sold to America’s enemies, he choose the path of respect.

Robert-Downey-Jr.-in-Iron-Man

Our villain should be complex. While a grab at power is normal for a Villain, there should be a reason why he wants power, some background reason why he wants it. Not simply to have it. This is actually where Star Wars fails as a movie (one of many reasons). In all 6 movies, it is never fully revealed why Palpatine worked so hard to gain power. In the original trilogy, it was never explained why Vader wanted Luke to join him to take over the known worlds. In the prequels, that was expanded upon. To this effect, Vader becomes a more relatable character compared to Palpatine. I can hear a fanboy saying, “You have to read the novels.”

Compare Palpatine to Magnet from the X-Men films. He himself was a holocaust survivor, and lived in a world that hated mutants. He felt strongly that it is either them or us. And he wanted mutants on top. Most viewers didn’t want him to win, but we understood why he did what he did. Which is what made him such a great villain.

Now a reason can be a justification of their actual purpose. A Villain may tell themselves that it is for a greater good but instead just a grab at power. That is perfectly acceptable. Especially if they put on their loving face to tell others why their needs are good for the great whole.

Something I do want you to remember, is that while Machiavellian was used to describe dirty and corrupt politics, the man Machiavelli was a pretty good guy. He wrote on what he saw and turned it into a story, just like any writer who writes something bad.

Mary Sue

The infamous Mary Sue. Now this is a term more used with fan fiction, but still applies to literature. Now interesting, the term originates from Star Trek fan fiction.

http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/316311-mary-sue

Paula Smith in 1973 created a character named Mary Sue, who was the youngest Lieutenant in Starfleet at the age of 15 1/2. Of course, Paula Smith wasn’t the only person writing such stories, as there were many others, and they tend to be female. I’ll let the editors of the Star Trek magazine explain their dislike:

Mary Sue stories—the adventures of the youngest and smartest ever person to graduate from the academy and ever get a commission at such a tender age. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm-wrestling. This character can also be found burrowing her way into the good graces/heart/mind of one of the Big Three [Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.

Doesn’t seem like a big deal, but this had an unfortunate effect on female characters in Star Trek fanfiction, that any time a female character was more than a stock character, was labelled a Mary Sue. Though many female writers have cited that technically James T Kirk is a Mary Sue.

insp_captkirk_5_

Over time, the trope has grown to characterize all characters that seem a bit too perfect. However, there is the male equivalent known as Marty Stu. Other examples are Gary Stu, Larry Stu, Mary Joe, and Marty Sam. There are many other types.

I myself use the term Mary Sue for both male and female characters. I find other fan ficfic authors use it for that purpose as well. Despite a female name, it can be used to describe any character. Though to be fair, most people don’t know the origin of the term.

Let us go a bit further into the meaning. Now clearly a female writer making a character age 15 1/2 is an expression of using an Avatar for the Author (wait, wasn’t Uhura in Avatar?).

avatar_neytiri_zoe_saldana_still_2009Zoe-Saldana-Didn-t-Want-to-Be-in-Star-Trek-2enhanced-buzz-29730-1388526549-2

During the time this was published, female writers tend to write characters that would engage the main characters in a relationship, turn out to have a family relationship to a crew member, and die a heroic death.

However, the Mary Sue changed by making a character that was a little too perfect, with no flaws and could solve any problems. More than that, she was exotically beautiful, possessing skills in many implausible areas.

Over time, especially thanks to the internet, the term went from Star Trek fanfics to other fanfics and started to lose its initial meaning.

When I played Star Wars: The Old Republic, I encountered this a lot. At first I was in charge of the RP for the guild, and later became the Guild Leader. People would submit their backstories to the site, and many of them were good, but I would still get the occasional bad ones. I referred to them as Mary Sue characters, and also called the Anakin Clones.

Master Griseus

Basically the characters had a traumatic past: loss of parents, death in the family, death of a master. They also possessed some sort of lineage: Descendant of Jolee Bindo, some Sith Lord, great Jedi master of old. Because of this, were very powerful force users. Some even showcasing their abilities as children, proving to be more strong with the Force than any Master. Some joined secret Jedi Orders that were not cannon, or would disrupt cannon to make themselves awesome. More than that, would be a Jedi Master by the age of 21.

OMG, so fucking boring. At least Anakin had some characterization; little, but it was there. Everyone wanted to be the next Anakin (though the game takes place 3000 years before Anakin), and couldn’t understand the concept of giving their characters flaws.

Now it is possible to write a Mary Sue and not realize it. So how do you avoid a Mary Sue? First off, know your material. If this is a fanfic, know the details of the universe. If it is your own creation, really design the universe to know how your characters fit in.

Give your characters some realistic flaws. Being cute when you sneeze is not a flaw. Addicted to pain killers is a flaw. Also make tasks hard for the character. Don’t leave it as simple as gaining the ‘Sword of Insta-Kill’, and the character just has to pick it up. Don’t leave the resolution of the conflict to one character; you can, but it is a bit unrealistic. Allow other characters to contribute.

Lastly, don’t do Author Avatar. Don’t use yourself as the character. You can take elements from yourself and put them into the character, but you and the character should be two different people. It might someone you can hang out with and have a relationship with, but an exact clone…no.

Note that a well resourceful powerful character does has its place within a narrative. But without flaws, it makes it hard to relate to a character. You also need to spend extra narrative to explain why they are there and how they fit into your universe.

To a degree, Thor was a Mary Sue. Until he was stripped of his power and thrown by the way side, and grew into a real character. As powerful as he was with his powers back, he still was a flawed character, someone that the audience could relate to.

thor_trainer

Curious if your character is a Mary Sue? Check this out.

Machiavellianism & Mary Sue

The connection here is over the top characterization. In many ways we are describing the Ultimate Villain (Machiavellian) and the Ultimate Hero (Mary Sue). More than that, these characters tend to be written pretty flat, with no discernible value to them. A writer who includes both may feel they have complex characters, when in reality they have stock characters.

This is why I favor the Anti-Hero or even the Anti-Villain, as either are riddled with flaws, that make them easily relatable. A good villain should be relatable to some degree, that on some level we can understand why they are doing what they are doing, and not doing it simply because they want power.

As mentioned before, the ultimate hero is a boring concept. Almost like Superman. Superman is fully capable of doing anything, accomplishing any goal, and cannot be hurt (except under extreme situations). His flaw seems to be his alter ego, in that he is clumsy and socially awkward. Some say this is an act. If it is, then he’s a Mary Sue, and if not, then he may not be a Mary Sue.

In creating a Machiavellian vs Mary Sue story (Palpatine vs Kirk), we already know how the story ends. No matter how bad a Machiavellian character is, the Mary Sue will win in the end, and how they win is usually in the most perfect way possible. Good triumphs over evil.

So in general, we don’t want to go to these extremes when creating our characters. We want them to be more human in design. Flawed and capable of making mistakes. The ability to grow and change within the story.

Help Keep This Site Running

This site is a great achievement for me, but due to being unable to work, I may not be able to keep this site running. With your help, I might be able to.

I need $125 by October 30th, 2017. Anything you can give will help.

https://www.gofundme.com/help-madness-worldbuilding-continue

  • Been really enjoying reading along this month! Thanks for some wonderful posts.

  • Thank you, I am really enjoying your posts as well.

  • I love that Kirk meme. And I like your note about Machiavelli being a good guy, because that was my impression of him as well. Given that his name has been turned into a synonym for evil, more or less, the man himself seemed like just a regular guy.

    Very nice post, and good points about characterization, which is something I know I need to work on. 🙂

  • Pingback: Literary Terms – Walkervellianism | Madness of a Modern Writer()

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