Greetings fellow geeks, nerds, and Star Wars fans! My name is Matthew Kadish — author, evil genius, and flawless specimen of toxic masculinity, here today to bring you yet another essay designed to deconstruct and analyze different forms of entertainment from a storytelling perspective.
My Storycraft series is meant to look at movies, TV shows, and novels from the perspective of a storyteller in an attempt to figure out how and why audiences react the way they do to these forms of entertainment. In this installment, we’ll once again be focusing on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but we’ll also be taking a look at Star Wars: The Force Awakens, all in an attempt to analyze the new main character of the Star Wars saga, that of Rey, and the assertion made by many Star Wars fans that she is a “Mary Sue” character.
But before we get down to the analysis, I just want to make it clear what this essay is NOT about. Storycraft is NOT about:
- Hating on a particular movie, TV show, or book.
- Attacking the artist who produced that movie, TV show, or book.
- Attacking anyone who liked said movie, TV show, or book.
- Convincing anyone NOT to like a specific movie, TV show, or book.
My goal with Storycraft is simply to take an analytical look at a piece of entertainment and break it down based on established and proven theories about how to properly tell a story, for the purposes of educating those who wish to learn the art of storytelling. In essence, Storycraft is about the concepts behind telling stories effectively — nothing else. This is not meant to be a review, simply an in-depth narrative analysis based on professional standards of storytelling.
Of course, you’re free to disagree with my analysis. I don’t claim to be an authority on anything. But if you feel I’m wrong about something, feel free to debate me about it in the comments of this article or over on Twitter, so long as you remain respectful. I always welcome feedback!
Okay, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, let’s talk about Rey and the ongoing debate over whether or not her character is simply a “strong female” or one of those dreaded “Mary Sues” we keep hearing about…
What is a Mary Sue?
For those unfamiliar with what a “Mary Sue” character is, it is simply defined as: An idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character.
Due to the idealized nature of this character, from a storycraft perspective, a Mary Sue is often regarded as an “author insert” or “wish fulfillment” character. This is where the character is meant to be so generic as to allow audiences to project themselves into the character’s role in the narrative and to allow the audience to experience empowerment through character actions that the audience is unable to achieve in real life.
This boils down to Mary Sues being able to perform better at tasks than should be possible given their amount of training or experience, and usually are able through some means to upstage all other characters of the story through their flawless abilities and talent. So a “plain” or “ugly” girl (as many female audience members may see themselves) is able to attract the sexiest man alive. The clumsy wallflower is now able to fight with the skill of a Kung-Fu master. The “nerdy girl” is suddenly able to transform into the “popular princess” she really was all along. And so on, and so on. That is the basis of what a Mary Sue is.
The term “Mary Sue” stems from, of all places, Star Trek fan fiction. It comes from the name of a character created by Paula Smith in 1973 for her Star Trek parody story “A Trekkie’s Tale” published in the fanzine Menagerie. The story starred Lieutenant Mary Sue (“the youngest Lieutenant in all of Starfleet at only fifteen and a half years old!”) and satirized unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction. By 1976, Menagerie’s editors stated that they disliked characters like Mary Sue, describing them as:
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.
From its humble beginnings as a character parodying the ideal Star Trek officer, the term “Mary Sue” has evolved from its original meaning and now carries a generalized connotation of wish-fulfillment and is commonly associated with the concept of “self-insertion,” though the characterization of upstaging all other characters (in some cases even the story’s main protagonist) remains fundamental to a character being defined as one.
Many inexperienced writers often make “Mary Sues” representative of themselves and write the character as the author would like to believe him or herself to be. True self-insertion is a literal and generally undisguised representation of the author (such as how Bella Swan from the Twilight books was a self-insert of author Stephenie Meyer, down to the character’s and author’s physical description being almost identical). In this sense, most characters described as “Mary Sues” are often considered to be “proxies” for the author, and thus, the audience (also known as an “Audience Insert”).
Mary Sues are typically purposefully lacking in character development in order to remain as undefined and generalized as possible. The reason for this is so that large numbers of a story’s audience are able to “fill in” the characterization gaps by inserting their own personal character traits into the Mary Sue, thus fulfilling the “self-insertion” purpose of the character. And it is for this reason why Mary Sues can be so incredibly popular among audiences — because audiences feel as though they themselves are the flawless star of the story they are experiencing. (This can also be why some people are so vehement in their defense of a Mary Sue character, because they essentially feel as though they are defending themselves from criticism that is actually aimed just at the character and not them as an individual.)
The negative connotation that stems from this “wish-fulfillment” implication is that a Mary Sue becomes so perfect that the character becomes too lacking in realism or development to actually be interesting. Due to a Mary Sue’s extreme competence and masterful talents, she not only has no room to improve, but any obstacle that she encounters offers no challenge for her to overcome. Her lack of struggle, lack of transformation, lack of self-doubt, and lack of conflict robs the audience of any feeling of tension or drama because they inherently know that the Mary Sue will always prevail whether she deserves to or not.
But the real issue when it comes to Mary Sue characters — particularly in post-feminist cinema — is that they are often conflated with the concept of “Strong Female Characters.” In this instance, writers who wish to espouse a message of female empowerment conflate writing realistic and sympathetic characters with idealized characters in an attempt extol the virtues of being a woman, thus playing against the traditional female stereotypes found in older narratives. However, in making a female character a “Mary Sue,” they sacrifice creating a “strong female character” in exchange for an unrealistic “perfect female character.”
And no matter how noble the intention of a storyteller may be in making that character a Mary Sue, it ultimately creates a division within audiences that can alienate those who are unwilling to sacrifice realistic character development for idealized wish fulfillment. Proper storycraft dictates that while all audiences can accept realistic character development, not all audiences can accept the concept of a “perfect character.”
But this understanding of why audiences reject Mary Sue characters brings us to the biggest defense of them…
Is Disliking A Mary Sue Character Sexist?
A common defense against the “Mary Sue” accusation is that audiences cannot handle the notion of a strong, competent, independent female character. The basis of this defense is that the critics of a so-called “Mary Sue” are simply prejudiced against females and inherently reject characters based on a deeply ingrained bias against women. In essence, those who make this argument of sexism are dismissing any criticisms of a character based solely on that character’s gender.
Now, is it possible that some portion of a story’s audience will reject a character based solely on their inherent bias? Yes, of course. There will always be people among a storyteller’s audience who are not able to fully set aside their personal belief systems in order to enjoy a story. But proper storycraft dictates that narratives be geared toward the widest possible audience, and those who are unable to extricate their personal biases against women tend to exist on the fringes of most audience demographics. By and large, general audiences are actually accepting of female main characters.
However, this begs the question: Which is more sexist? Hating a character because of that character’s gender — or loving that character based entirely on that character’s gender?
Though many “Mary Sue” defenders can argue that sexism is why an audience may reject a female character, it is also the height of irony that the very reason they defend the character is based solely on the fact that they feel the character’s gender puts her above criticism. In both instances, the gender of the character evokes unnatural responses in the opposite extremes of the audience. Rather than seeing the character in question as simply a “character” that is meant to be analyzed and critiqued, people use the character’s gender to justify their inherent prejudice either for or against it.
But the accusation of being an idealized self-insertion character is not limited to females. Male characters can also fall into this trap, having their own term for it: Gary Stu.
Because the label of an idealized self-insert character can be applied to both male and female characters, the term Mary Sue itself cannot be sexist in nature, no more than any gender pronoun can be considered sexist. Instead, it’s a descriptive term associated with a type of gender orientation. To call “Mary Sue” a sexist term is tantamount to calling other female-descriptive terms, such as “heroine,” “mother,” “girlfriend,” “wife,” “Queen,” “Princess,” or “matron” sexist simply because they depict different female-centric representations. And because the term is not inherently sexist, its use is therefore not inherently sexist.
Beyond that, the negative connotation associated with the term of Mary Sue has nothing to do with the character’s gender. It’s actually meant to refer to the nature of the character, that being one that is “idealized” to the point of “perfection.” And because this description can be applied to both male and female characters who fit it, then using the term to criticize a character cannot be deemed sexist in nature.
Another argument is that since a Mary Sue could be considered a “role model” for female audience members, that she should not be criticized so as to not discourage women from being inspired by her. However, I think it’s important to note that role models that embody “perfection” are inherently unhealthy due to the fact that they represent a standard that is impossible to achieve by those who look up to them. Instead, it is far healthier to have a realistic and sympathetic character who is indeed flawed yet able to overcome those flaws to achieve greatness. Defending “Mary Sue” characters simply because one sees them as potential role models actually does a disservice to those seeking a strong female role model to embody.
The real issue defenders of the Mary Sue label have is conflating the criticism of a character’s flawless nature with that of a character’s gender. Any criticism of a female character can be seen as “sexist” if one only looks at the character’s sex as opposed to the character’s actual traits. Just because certain audience members wish to feel empowered by a character does not mean that character is a “strong character” by storycraft standards.
Is A Mary Sue A “Strong Female Character”?
One of the biggest mistakes a storyteller can make is confusing the concept of a “strong character” with that of a “perfect character.” Strong characters must struggle to overcome challenges and be transformed for the better by doing so. Perfect characters easily overcome any challenges and never have to transform any more than they already have.
A strong character is dynamic. A perfect character is static.
When evaluating a female character, a storyteller should try not to look at the character based on its gender, but rather try to determine if the character is “strong” regardless of their gender. Notice that we are not debating whether the character should be considered “good” or “bad” here. Quality is too open to subjective interpretation. Instead, it is better to look at character critiques in terms of a “Strong Character” vs. a “Weak Character.” These can simply be defined as:
- Strong Character = Well Written
- Weak Character = Poorly Written
Just because a character is deemed to be “weak” does not make that character “bad” necessarily. A character can be weak and poorly written, and still be likable. An example of a weak but likable character everyone can relate to is that of Boba Fett from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The character of Boba Fett is never properly developed or given any real distinctive character arcs in the films. But despite that, there is something about the character that resonated with audiences and made him a beloved member of the Star Wars universe.
Similarly, the character of Rey can also be defined as “weak,” but that does not make her unlikable. In order to understand why a portion of the Star Wars audience likes Rey, despite her being a poorly written character, and why a certain portion dislikes Rey for the same reasons, we need to look at storycraft elements that determine both “strength” and “likability.”
When it comes to developing a character, there are five aspects that can help define how strong that character will resonate with audiences. These aspects are:
- Character Arc
- Activity Level
Let’s go through each of these 5 aspects of a strong character and see how they apply to Rey.
The first question we must ask when it comes to evaluating the strength of a character is “Does the character have an arc?” What this essentially means is, does the character transform in some way between the beginning of the story and the end? How does the character change? This is an important factor because audiences become invested in characters by seeing them change over time.
Character arcs are essential to the creation of emotional intimacy between audiences and fictional characters. Emotional intimacy involves a perception of closeness to another that allows for the sharing of personal feelings, accompanied by expectations of understanding, affirmation, and demonstration of caring. Basically, this is a sociological concept that states “as people get to know each other, they become closer emotionally.” (This is often why people feel so connected to certain actors, because they become emotionally intimate with the characters these actors portray and associate those emotions with the actor.) When an audience witnesses a character’s transformation, a certain level of emotional intimacy is conveyed to that character, because the audience feels as though they can identify with said character due to “getting to know them” and seeing their struggles as they go through their transformation.
Characters who do not experience “arcs” are often distant from audiences, in the sense that the audience does not care about what ultimately happens to the character due to a lack of emotional intimacy with him or her. It can be argued that one of the reasons Star Wars fans love Luke Skywalker so much is because they were able to create a high level of emotional intimacy with his character as he overcame incredible obstacles and transformed over the course of three movies.
When it comes to the character of Rey, we must ask: What transformation did she go through? How was she different at the end of The Last Jedi than she was at the beginning of The Force Awakens?
One could argue that the big transformation is that by the end of The Last Jedi, Rey had actually become a Jedi. However, the counter-argument to that is Rey was always that Jedi she developed into by the end of that film. She was always self-assured, competent, and independent. She was always a good fighter. She was always an expert pilot. She was always an amazing engineer. She was always attractive and feminine. She always had a heart of gold. The only real change that could be argued is that Rey had a greater mastery over The Force, but this change was something she did not have to work to attain. Her abilities simply were given to her as the plot demanded and she never actually had to learn how to use them.
Therefore, it could be argued that no transformation ever took place with the character of Rey. Her “character arc” was more of a “character flatline.”
Next, we must ask the question: What is driving the character to do what he or she is doing? In other words, what is the “reason why” the character makes the decisions they do?
A character’s motivation is essential to understand not WHAT characters do, but rather, WHY they do it. It’s one thing for audiences to know a character wants to save the world, but to understand why the character wants to save the world gives audiences a deeper understanding (and therefore greater emotional investment) of the character due to the fact that the audience knows what is driving them.
Luke’s character motivation in Episodes 4–6 was fairly straight-forward. He wanted to become a Jedi like his father. Luke had an idealized version of who his father Anakin Skywalker was, and Luke wanted to embody that ideal his father had set for him. Every action Luke took and every decision Luke made was based on this motivation to become a great hero like his father, eventually culminating in Luke’s final confrontation with Emperor Palpatine where he states: “I’m a Jedi, like my father before me.”
Now ask the question: What is Rey’s motivation? Essentially, Rey has no real core motivation driving her decisions. Most of The Force Awakens is spent with Rey simply wanting to return to her life on Jakku but getting swept up in a greater adventure against her wishes. Her driving force in The Last Jedi is to get Luke Skywalker to help the Resistance, until about halfway through the film where that motivation is abandoned and it changes to saving Kylo Ren, and then changes once more to saving the Resistance.
The only real consistent source of motivation for the character of Rey was her desire to find her parents. However, this motivation was essentially destroyed in The Last Jedi by the revelation that Rey’s parents were “nobodies” and were not important. In fact, I would argue that Star Wars fans were so desperate to have anything they could latch onto in terms of Rey having an obstacle to struggle with, or a motivation for her character, that this revelation that her parentage was of no consequence erased the last lingering hope that Rey would have SOME type of conflict to deal with that could potentially break her out of the “Mary Sue” mold.
So as we can see, Rey has no real reason why she makes the decisions she does. She simply does them because that’s what the plot dictates she do.
Character Activity Level
The Activity Level of a character can be summed up by asking if the character’s actions drive the plot forward, or if the plot forces the character forward. In this sense, characters that are considered “active” make conscious choices to perform actions which advance the plot of the narrative. In contrast, “reactive” characters are presented situations in the plot where they have no choice but to act how the plot demands they act. “Active” characters are considered to be strong characters from a storycraft perspective. “Reactive” characters are considered to be weak. So let’s try and determine Rey’s activity level compared to that of the original trilogy’s protagonist, Luke.
Points Where Luke Is “Active”
- Luke decides to go out and look for R2D2 after he runs away.
- Luke decides to leave Tatooine after his aunt and uncle are killed.
- Luke decides to train in the ways of The Force.
- Luke convinces Han Solo and Chewbacca to help him free Princess Leia after discovering her presence on the Death Star.
- Luke leads the efforts to rescue Princess Leia.
- Luke attacks Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers after Obi-Wan’s death.
- Luke makes the decision to join the Rebellion.
- Luke volunteers to attack the Death Star with Red Squadron.
- Luke decides to use The Force to destroy the Death Star.
- Luke decides to join the battle on Hoth and attacks the AT-ATs.
- Luke decides to abandon the Rebellion and go to Degobah to find Yoda.
- Luke decides to train under Yoda.
- Luke decides to ignore Yoda’s warning and enter the Dark Side Cave.
- Luke decides to rush off to save his friends in Cloud City.
- Rather than surrender to Darth Vader, Luke throws himself off the Cloud City platform.
- After Luke is wounded, Luke uses the Force to reach out to Leia to save him.
Points Where Luke Is “Reactive”
- Luke’s showdown with Ponda Baba and Dr. Cornelius Evazan in the Mos Eisley Cantina.
- Luke hiding from the Imperial Stormtroopers after the Millennium Falcon is captured by the Death Star.
- Luke calls C3-PO for help after getting trapped in the garbage compactor.
- Luke fires at the attacking Tie Fighters in their escape from the Death Star.
- Luke escapes from the Wampa ice creature on Hoth.
- Luke is forced into a confrontation with Darth Vader in Cloud City.
Points Where Rey Is “Active”
- Saving BB-8 from the scavenger on Jakku.
- Taking the Millennium Falcon to find Luke Skywalker on Ahch-To.
- Leaving to face off with Kylo Ren on The Supremacy.
- Attacking the First Order on Crait.
- Rescuing the survivors of the Resistance on Crait.
Points Where Rey is “Reactive”
- Fighting off attackers who are trying to steal BB-8 on Jakku.
- Helping to protect Fynn when the First Order attacks on Jakku.
- Flying the Millennium Falcon to get away from the First Order on Jakku.
- Fixing the Millennium Falcon once it breaks down in space.
- Releasing the Rathar on the Eravana to save Han Solo
- Rescuing Fynn from the Rathar.
- Escaping the Eravana on the Millennium Falcon.
- Having a vision after touching Luke’s lightsaber.
- Running away in response to her vision into the forest of Takodana.
- Firing at Stormtroopers who chase her into the woods on Takodana.
- Fighting back against Kylo Ren’s interrogation.
- Escaping the First Order after being captured.
- Fighting Kylo Ren with a lightsaber on Starkiller Base.
- Staying around Luke on Ahch-To hoping he will train her.
- Interacting with Kylo Ren through Force visions.
- Giving into the temptation from the dark-side well and entering the Black Mirror Cave.
- Facing off with Snoak after being forced to confront him by Kylo Ren.
- Fighting the Praetorian Guards alongside Kylo Ren.
- Breaking Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber after Kylo Ren tries to claim it.
When we compare the activity level of these two main characters, it’s plain to see that Rey is far more “reactive” than Luke is, in the respect that things in the plot happen to her and she’s forced to react, as opposed to her decisions and actions being the thing that drive the plot forward. Though it is possible to make an entertaining movie with a reactive main character, it is proper storycraft to always ensure that the main thrust of a narrative’s plot stems from the actions of a main character as opposed to their reactions.
In this respect, Rey would be considered a “weak character” by storycraft standards due to the simple fact that most of her actions and decisions are made in response to a plot element rather than being the source of the plot element.
A very large aspect of a “strong character” is that character’s ability to overcome adversity. Audiences do not relate to characters for which everything comes easily. In order for characters to endear themselves to audiences, they must fight to earn their victories rather than have those victories simply handed to them.
One need look no further than the classic and beloved character of Indiana Jones to see this concept at work. What makes Indiana Jones such an endearing character to audiences is his ability to solve puzzles, fight villains, and overcome obstacles in his quest to achieve his goals. And Indiana Jones always WORKS for these victories. For Indy, they are never easy (except for that one time he shot that swordsman in the Egyptian market, but I digress). The fact that Indiana Jones is constantly encountering obstacles and working hard to overcome them makes him an objectively “strong” character.
Characters struggle with both internal and external obstacles. The external obstacles come in the forms of villains, thugs, nature, and a host of other physical threats. Internal obstacles come from negative character traits and philosophical/mental/emotional/moral conflicts. So let us ask ourselves: what conflicts must Rey actually struggle to overcome in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi?
External obstacles: It can be argued that the only real external obstacles Rey faces in both movies come in the form of Kylo Ren and First Order ships. No other antagonists really threaten her in either film. In both cases, each obstacle is easily overcome. Not only can Rey out-fly and shoot down any First Order TIE fighter that engages with her, but Kylo Ren seems unable to defeat her, as is evidenced by her rejecting his Force interrogation and besting him at lightsaber duels. And though Supreme Leader Snoak offers a formidable external obstacle, notice that Rey never actually overcomes him herself. Snoak is defeated by a different character without Rey’s assistance. Rey also faces an external obstacle when it comes to her fight with the Praetorian Guards, but again, she’s able to defeat multiple combatants with ease (and even save Kylo’s life while doing so).
Internal obstacles: The only real internal obstacle Rey seems to struggle with in the films is this notion of who her parents are. Rey desires to have a family to which she can belong. However, she never actually tries to resolve or overcome this internal obstacle. Instead, she’s content to “wait” on Jakku for her parents to return. Surrogate parents seem thrust upon her without her seeking them out and The Resistance becomes a type of surrogate family to her even though she’s spent almost zero time with them. And ultimately, she accepts that her parents don’t matter, as is made clear in The Last Jedi, thus having her only internal obstacle rendered moot and taken away from her by Kylo Ren rather than resolved via her own actions.
So we can see that Rey actually has very few obstacles she must deal with in her narrative, and the ones she does have are either not a challenge, or are resolved for her rather than having her overcome them on her own.
The final, and perhaps most important, character element to determine is whether or not a character is likable by an audience. After all, if audiences like a character, they will be willing to forgive other shortcomings in that character’s development. The best way I have found to determine a character’s likability from a storycraft perspective comes from author Michael Hauge.
Michael Hauge is a renowned story consultant and script doctor. He’s worked on many projects for Will Smith. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a Will Smith movie, chances are you’ve seen a story Michael Hauge has consulted on. He is also on the Board of Directors of the American Screenwriters Association and the Advisory Board for Scriptwriter Magazine in London. In his book “Writing Screenplays That Sell”, Hauge lays out four character elements that make audiences instantly like a character. These elements are:
- Make a character good at what he/she does.
- Make the character funny.
- Make the character the recipient of an undeserved misfortune.
- Give the character a strong moral code.
Using one or a combination of these character elements will quickly endear a character to audiences. So let’s look at these elements in regards to the character of Rey…
- Is Rey good at what she does? Answer: Yes, she’s good at EVERYTHING she does.
- Is Rey funny? Answer: Yes, her interactions with Finn, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker can be humorous at times.
- Is Rey the recipient of an undeserved misfortune? Answer: Yes, she lives a hard and lonely life on a desert planet after being abandoned by her parents.
- Does Rey have a strong moral code? Answer: Yes, she displays compassion and moral virtue by helping and protecting BB-8 and Finn, as well as fighting against evil in the form of The First Order and Kylo Ren.
So out of all five categories that determine a “strong character,” Rey only succeeds in fulfilling one. However, the one category she does pass with flying colors also happens to be the most important one, and that is of likability. Even Star Wars fans who may be critical of Rey’s “perfect” image are willing to admit they actually find her somewhat likable.
But being likable doesn’t make her “strong.” By failing 4 out of the 5 criteria, it is in fact safe to say that Rey is actually quite a weak character by storycraft standards.
Now that we’ve determined Rey is an objectively “weak” character from a storycrafting perspective, the question still remains whether or not she can be considered a Mary Sue. Remember that the character qualities that define a Mary Sue are idealization, perfection, and the upstaging of other characters. So let us tackle these notions and see if they can be attributed to Rey.
Idealized Characters: When Are Flaws Not Actually Flaws?
A common criticism of Mary Sues is that the characters never have any real “flaws” that their character has to overcome and are thus lacking in character development. The absence of character flaws means the character has effectively been idealized by the storyteller, and Mary Sues are always idealized. When it comes to the character of Rey, defenders of her are quick to point out all her “flaws” in an attempt to disprove the notion that she’s a Mary Sue. They will site things like:
- Rey is stubborn and hardheaded.
- Rey runs away from her destiny on Takodana.
- Rey is too hung up on her parents.
- Rey is “stuck in the past.”
- Rey has abandonment issues.
- Rey is emotionally immature.
- Rey is overconfident in her abilities.
And though these all can indeed be considered flaws, the key difference here is that they are not considered defining character traits. What do I mean by this?
A character trait is simply defined as: a notable feature of a person’s attitude, actions, or belief system.
All characters are defined by traits within a story’s narrative. Is the character brave? Is the character smart? Is she funny? Is she principled? These traits are usually illustrated by a character’s actions or their interactions with other characters. If we see a character rush into a burning building to save a child, then the audience can see that character’s defining trait is selflessness. If we see a character outsmart another formidable character, then we can see one of his character traits is intelligence.
Likewise, characters can have negative traits that also define them. These can be things like jealousy, envy, rudeness, alcoholism, drug addiction, self-doubt, depression, physical deformities, and a host of other things.
But simply possessing negative character traits (or flaws) is not enough to claim that a character actually HAS flaws. From a storycraft perspective, character development is about transformation. It’s about characters overcoming obstacles to their goals and growing as a person because of it. If a character possesses a flaw — or “negative character trait” — then that flaw is only a “defining trait” in so much as it becomes an obstacle to the character’s transformation or achievement of a goal. In essence, a trait that helps to solidly define a character in the audience’s eyes is a “defining character trait.”
An example of this comes from the movie The Princess Bride. At the end of the film, the main character Westley suffers from the flaw of his body being crippled from having been killed earlier in the movie and then later resurrected. This paralysis from the neck down can be considered a negative character trait, and it gives the character a huge obstacle to overcome in his final showdown with the movie’s antagonist, Prince Humperdink. However, Westley’s other defining character traits of bravery, strength, and willpower allow him to overcome his paralysis and intimidate his foe into submission, just before his strength waivers and he nearly collapses from the effort of his bluff.
In this example, Westly actually had a flaw that realistically stood in the way of him accomplishing his goal, which he then overcame. His paralysis was a defining character trait that could actually prevent him from defeating the film’s villain. It was not merely a surface-level flaw that never hindered him. By overcoming it, his positive character traits of bravery, strength, and willpower were clearly communicated to the audience and directly associated to his character.
If we look at all the “flaws” that are associated with Rey from above, we have to ask the question: Did any of these flaws present an obstacle in any way to her achieving any of her goals throughout The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi?
The answer here is a resounding NO. At no point did any of these “flaws” require Rey to overcome them to further develop her character. The Rey we see at the beginning of The Force Awakens is the exact same Rey we see at the end of The Last Jedi. None of these “flaws” impacted any of her decisions or were overcome in any type of transformation. The closest we got, it could be argued, is that her overconfidence in her abilities led her to the confrontation with Supreme Leader Snoak, but even in that scenario, it was Kylo Ren who saved her from Snoak. Rey’s overconfidence was not overcome in that scene, and it continues to persist after it.
Because none of Rey’s so-called “character flaws” are at all defining and do not present any obstacle to her development, they cannot truly be considered defining flaws from a storycraft perspective. This means that the character of Rey, it can be argued, is indeed perfect.
Competence vs. Perfection
Going back to The Princess Bride example, let’s make another comparison between the characters of Rey and Westley. Why is Rey considered to be a Mary Sue, but Westly is not considered to be a Gary Stu? After all, throughout his entire appearance in The Princess Bride, Westley embodies the concept of an idealized perfection. He can outfight any swordsman. He can overcome giants. He can outwit criminal masterminds. He can brave any obstacle, and he can also attract the most beautiful woman in all the land! So why is his character so overwhelmingly accepted by audiences, and Rey’s character is not?
Setting aside the gender of the characters, let’s simply look at their development. Though Westly is extremely capable and able to perform “inconceivable” feats of strength, skill, and intelligence, he actually takes the time to explain that these skills were acquired over years of relentless training and hard work, where he molded himself into the man he felt he had to become to deserve Princess Buttercup’s hand in marriage. Westley’s goal was to be able to marry his one true love by becoming a man worthy of her, and he was able to demonstrate this worthiness in overcoming every obstacle to rescuing her from certain death.
Now let’s compare this to Rey. She, too, is capable of performing incredible feats of skill and intelligence. She is competent enough to defend herself, smart enough to fix any machinery, capable enough to expertly pilot the Millennium Falcon, and able to wield both The Force and a lightsaber with the skill of a hardened Jedi Knight. The difference here, though, is that she did not earn these skills. Rey’s ability to fight, fix machinery, or pilot a spaceship were never set-up or explained. She just already knew how to do all that stuff without any explanation to the audience as to how she knew to do it (Heck, she even knows how to swim in The Last Jedi despite having spent her entire life on a desert planet with no water). And when it comes to using The Force, the audience never sees her receive any training at all before she’s able to use it like an expertly trained Jedi Knight would. This is made even more blatant by the audience having seen Luke Skywalker’s, Anakin Skywalker’s, and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s training in the Jedi ways in previous films, and how much they had to work to master these skills.
This is the difference between “competence” and “perfection.” The Westley character avoids the Gary Stu trap by explaining to the audience why he’s so competent in everything he does, and thus, the audience accepts him. Rey falls into the Mary Sue trap by never explaining to the audience why she’s so perfect at everything she does, and thus, the audience resents her.
Competence in abilities must be seen to be earned by a character in order for audiences to accept them — particularly when a character’s competence is in more than one field. If a character is an expert in one area, but a mess in another, the flaw of being bad in one thing counter-balances the expertise in another, thus saving them from the “Mary Sue/Gary Stu” label. Having an action hero who is incredibly skilled at fighting but is hopeless when it comes to his love life is a primary example of this. When it comes to Rey, there is nothing she is bad at or lacking in to counterbalance her extreme competence in all other disciplines.
Yet more proof that Rey’s character is idealized and perfect.
Instances Of Upstaging Characters
The final litmus test of a Mary Sue is her ability to upstage any and all other characters in the narrative. So what does it mean to “upstage” another character? Well, the term comes from theater performing where an actor who craved the spotlight would move upstage of another actor during a live performance, thus forcing that other actor to turn away from the audience and have the audience focus its attention on the actor that was upstage. It was considered to be a rather cheap trick in an effort to gain increased importance within the performance at the expense of another actor.
From a storycraft perspective, to “upstage” a character is to draw attention away from another character by being more attractive or interesting at the expense of treating another character with disdain or disrespect.
Since a Mary Sue is partially defined by her ability to upstage all other characters she shares a scene with, regardless of those characters previously established skills and abilities, let us look at how Rey does this to other characters in Star Wars:
- Rey beats up Finn upon first meeting him, despite Finn supposedly being a trained Stormtrooper.
- Rey is able to fly the Millennium Falcon better than Han Solo, who is considered one of the best pilots in the galaxy.
- Rey is able to fix the Millennium Falcon easier and quicker than either Han Solo or Chewbacca, who’ve flown the ship for decades.
- Rey is able to shoot a blaster more accurately than a trained Stormtrooper, despite never having fired a blaster before.
- Rey is able to resist Kylo Ren’s Force interrogation technique, and even turn it around on him to read his mind, despite Kylo being a trained Force user and Rey never having used the Force before.
- Rey is able to defeat Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel despite never fighting with a lightsaber before and Kylo Ren being a trained saber user.
- Rey receives condolences for Han’s death from Leia instead of Chewbacca receiving Leia’s condolences, considering Chewbacca had a far closer relationship with both Han and Leia and Leia never having met Rey before.
- Rey is chosen to go retrieve Luke Skywalker, despite the more sensible choice being that of Leia.
- Luke becomes frightened of Rey after seeing her “raw power” with the Force being equal to that of Kylo Ren.
- Rey defeats Luke Skywalker in one-on-one combat, despite Luke being a trained Jedi capable of defeating Darth Vader, arguably one of the most skilled Force combatants in history.
- Rey defeats numerous Praetorian Guards and helps to save Kylo Ren during the battle, despite having very little experience in fighting multiple opponents at once.
- Rey shows she has mastery over the Force on a level with Kylo Ren when struggling over possession of Luke’s lightsaber despite Kylo having years of training and Rey having weeks worth of training.
- Rey is able to get a “triple kill” by destroying three First Order TIE Fighters at the same time in the Battle of Crait, despite never firing the Millennium Falcon’s guns before.
- Rey is able to move a mountain of rocks from the Resistance base on Crait, despite never having trained for such a feat, and which no Jedi in the Star Wars films has ever before demonstrated. Thus, she upstages Luke in respect to being the one to actually save the survivors of the Resistance.
As is plain to see, there are numerous instances of Rey upstaging other characters in the narratives of both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. In some instances, proving she is more powerful/attractive/interesting by defeating or humiliating iconic characters who have been established and developed over the course of 30 years.
Though it is easy to dismiss claims from Star Wars fans that Rey is a “Mary Sue” by shrugging off the criticism as sexist or unfounded, I hope this analysis proves there is actually quite a bit of evidence to support the assertion that from a storytelling perspective, Rey most certainly fits the definition of a “perfect and idealized” character.
Indeed, Rey does appear to meet all the criteria of a Mary Sue. She is an idealized woman, a perfect character, and someone who upstages all other characters she is on screen with. She has no character arc, her development remains static due to her being perfect in all disciplines in which she partakes. She has no obstacles that need to be overcome to achieve her goals, and her powers/abilities are simply handed to her by the plot rather than her having to work to attain them. The narrative dictates that Rey be the protagonist of Episodes 7 and 8, rather than her actions being the catalyst for driving the narrative forward.
Despite all this, it can’t be argued that Rey is an “unlikable” character. Though objectively a “weak character,” Rey does showcase abilities that make it possible for large segments of an audience to like her and enjoy her exploits. But liking a character does not mean that character isn’t a Mary Sue. It just means it makes it easier to dismiss the weak aspects of the writing and development applied to that character.
Ultimately, whether audiences like or dislike Rey isn’t what’s important. What is important, at least from the perspective of proper storycraft, is that the character of Rey be developed in a realistic fashion that creates emotional investment in her from a wide audience and that she be capable of driving a plot forward as a protagonist. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case.
Rey is, indeed, a perfect example of a Mary Sue. But is that a bad thing? I suppose that decision shall have to be made by the Star Wars audience.
Check Out My Other Articles
If you liked this article, be sure to check out the other articles in my Storycraft series.