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"Mary Sue" is a Meaningless Term

Pahrak Model ZX


Now that the English dub of Dragon Ball Super is getting into the Tournament of Power arc I can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before people renew their complaints about new characters Caulifla and Kale. These two are new Saiyans introduced to serve as opponents in said tournament, and are the first female Super Saiyans shown in the series main canon. (Prior there were a handful of games that offered female Saiyan player avatars who could achieve the form, but that’s it.) They quickly became somewhat divisive additions, and of course, many of those who despise them go around calling them Mary Sues. This is something that annoys me.


Dragon Ball has never and will never be a literary masterpiece—there’s plenty of bad writing and I won’t try to tell you otherwise. And though I like these characters, I can see (and in some cases maybe even agree with) some of the issues people have with them. Criticism is healthy. But calling a character a Mary Sue isn’t criticism, it’s just dismissive, and always inconsistent. What one person considers a Mary Sue is different from what the next person considers a Mary Sue, and more than that, the same person can point out a “Mary Sue trait” in one character and totally ignore its presence in another. People rattling off reasons why Caulifla’s a Sue don’t seem to realize she actually has a lot in common with the main character, Goku, and saying that Kale is only ever written poorly when she has one of the most realistic character arcs in the franchise (unlike her predecessor Broly, who is now infamous for his stupidly petty motivations) just isn’t true. But okay, if we’re going to use reasons x, y, and z to define a character as a Mary Sue, do you know what Dragon Ball character fits the ever-changing mold surprisingly well?


Future Trunks.


Easily one of the most popular characters in the franchise, yes, but let’s review:

-Showed up literally out of nowhere after the Frieza Saga

-Immediately and effortlessly transforms into a Super Saiyan, mere chapters after the form had been introduced, and that was after immense build-up, thinking there could only be one (and that it was main character Goku), and seeing Goku go through a lot of anguish to achieve it

-Kills Frieza, the biggest, baddest villain in the series at that point, who main character Goku took forever to beat, by either one-shotting him (in the manga) or toying with him in a curb-stomp battle (in the anime)

-Then proceeds to effortlessly kill Frieza’s father, who was stated to be somewhere near Frieza’s level

-Gets to spar with main character Goku for a bit

-Reveals he is the son of Vegeta, another exceptionally popular character, and Bulma, a long-time staple who at this point has little interaction with and no visible interest in Vegeta

-He came from the future, because only time travel makes that parentage work

-In the future he was trained by the son of main character Goku

-Said future is basically an apocalyptic wasteland

-Later on he gets a unique transformation that makes him exceptionally more powerful (even if it does turn out to be functionally useless)

-Gets temporarily killed in the final battle with Cell to spark very sudden character development in popular character Vegeta, and then is immediately revived

-Gets an entire episode at the end of the Cell Saga dedicated to going back to the future and effortlessly defeating his timeline’s incarnation of the saga’s three major villains

-Also he carries a sword he rarely uses in a series that typically doesn’t use weapons (swords are cool)


Now if you were reading a fanfic and saw a character like that, what would you think? And that’s all just in Z: Trunks is made a main character in GT and Future Trunks is brought back in Super solely because of this character’s popularity, and that’s not even scratching the surface of how central he is to dedicated fanservice games like Xenoverse and Heroes. He’s so popular he can be shoehorned into anything and people rarely complain. He ticks so many boxes common on Mary Sue trait lists, and…nobody notices? How weird is that?


And just to be a complete hypocrite: I also like Future Trunks. It’s almost like even a character with tons of “Mary Sue traits” can still be entertaining depending on how they’re handled, and that calling a character a Mary Sue means nothing other than “I don’t like this character and choose to blame the writer and insult anyone who thinks differently.” Imagine that.


I still can’t really figure out why people are perfectly fine with Future Trunks but have such huge problems with Caulifla and Kale. Huh, though now that I think about, out of those three Trunks is the only one that’s a guy…nah, that couldn’t possibly be it, right?


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It's not meaningless if used the way it originally was (along with Gary Stu): to describe a poorly written character in a fanfiction that is often an author-insert. Being an author insert is the relevant part, not that the character is overpowered and/or poorly written, because those are a dime a dozen in fanfiction.


Applying the term to professional productions is really silly though - and doubly so in the case of a property like DragonbalZ, which is the series about characters with powers levels OVER 9000!!!!

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I think the problem is that “poorly-written” is such a nebulous thing.  Mary Sue is used to succinctly point out a grab-bag of traits, but exactly what those traits are varies from person to person.  Even if we say being a self-insert is required to be in that bag, a self-insert character could still be well-written, so there has to be something else that makes them a Sue and what that is doesn’t seem to be unanimously agreed upon.  People need to put more effort into defining the rest of the bag, and somewhere along the way, a lot of them seem to latch onto one or more of those as the ultimate symbol of Sueness and bad writing, yet still only apply them to certain characters and not others.


Regardless, I do think that keeping the term restricted to discussion of fanfiction would make it much less of a problem.  Something like Ensign Mary Sue herself is very specific and easy to agree on.  Even then, though, it's still more a way of shutting someone down than constructively critiquing them, so I don't know.

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:kaukau: If I'm to define my understanding of a Mary Sue:


  • They clash with the story
  • They are considered charming, but it's purely informed.  The actual writing/acting for the character doesn't draw you in.  They are considered likable in-story, when in reality such a person would be far from likable.
  • There character is taken seriously, and the story asks the reader to take him/her seriously
  • They outshine established main characters without thematic justification
  • The character breaks established canon with no plotwise or thematic justification.
  • The character's role in the story is contrived
  • The character benefits from deus ex machina



My understanding from family that has read the books, is that there's one guy in a Percy Jackson spinoff series who's a Mary Sue.  My sisters also considered Thomas from those Maze Runner movies to be a Mary Sue.  And then there's Bella Swan   Which aren't necessarily fan fictions.


I dunno.  I don't really use the term Mary Sue too often.  It's true that "poorly written" is a pretty nebulous term, but at the same time.  When I do use the term Mary Sue, it's often while reviewing the stories of unpublished authors.  There's usually the impression of, "Isn't this guy so cool?" and then I have to break it to the writer that there's nothing to justify my sense that the character is cool, and that it comes out of nowhere.


So anyway, I don't necessarily have a solid definition so much as a litmus test.  Deus ex machina, contrived, out-of-place, plot convenience, wishful thinking, informed charm, and a few other things.  In my experience, when talking with other writers who want to make sure that their characters are good, there's something consistent about "not wanting my character to be a Mary Sue."  And I've had that criticism as well when building characters, and it's so far been a pretty healthy way of encouraging me to move in a more positive direction.  It seems to me that there's just enough consensus that it works, at least between authors who are in the development stages of a story.


I honestly can't speak for the Dragon Ball Z universe.  As it happens, everyone in that franchise is ridiculous.  I enjoyed the series for about two months when I was a kid, and then got myself some sense.  From what you're describing to me, though, it sounds like these two main characters would fit right in.

- They outshine established main characters without thematic justification

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