Or, I guess I should say was. One of the sticky categories a would-be writer can find himself fitting into is someone who’s doing his research, spending time gathering advice and examples to learn. This gets sticky because, if the writer is being properly studious, he runs across the Mary Sue warnings. And takes them to heart.
And at that point, some of these would-bes get bogged down in worrying if their characters fit into that mold. New Action / Adventure authors especially — or any who work in genres that involve strong active heroes doing strong active things — can easily get stuck in a cycle of doubt over whether their action protagonist has strayed into Mary Sue territory.
It’s a fair concern. And it represents an author who is trying to learn, to grow, to write well. The problem, and ensuing questions, come up not terribly infrequently in writer forums. Here’s a response I’ll just more or less can here.
Let’s have a look at the first Rambo movie, First Blood. Rambo is presented to us as an ex-Green Beret. To say he’s super competent is beyond an understatement. Rambo is an expert in weapons of all kinds; and not just guns. And not even knives. He knows how to make weapons, and is good with those too. He can survive off the land with nothing more than just that knife, and you’re strongly left with the impression that having the knife just makes what he does slightly easier for him. And he doesn’t just survive on a nice generic day; he does so in a cold and wet climate where he lacks proper winter clothing, where he’s been missing meals, and where he’s got no one but himself to turn to.
A lot of you are rolling your eyes at me. Sounds like a Mary Sue character, doesn’t it?
Yes . . . except what the screenwriters (of which Stallone was one) do with this massively over-capable character.
First, we aren’t info-dumped a huge list of the ways Rambo’s awesomeness extends until midway through the film, after we’ve already started figuring out he’s awesome. And the list that we’re exposited is used not as a way to sing Rambo’s praises, but set the stakes for the third act of the film just in case any of us in the audience hadn’t quite put all the pieces together yet.
Second — and most importantly — Rambo spends the entire movie doing everything in his power trying not to use any of his awesomeness. The sheriff, the antagonist, pushes and pushes and keeps pushing. Rambo spends the first two acts of the film trying as hard as he can to not flip the switch and go one-man-army on Sheriff Teasle’s department, and then the National Guard when the Sheriff calls in backup.
Every time Rambo has to use one of his ‘powers’, one of his highly developed action hero skills, it’s a failure. Stallone plays it very well, and it’s clear as you watch the movie. There is not satisfaction, no joy or contentment or relief, in him as he works to evade and trap and scare away his pursuers. He repeatedly warns — all but begs — them to leave him alone so he can just do what Teasle wanted in the first place; to move on. He doesn’t want to be in opposition to them. He doesn’t want to have to be forced to win or die, because he’s tired of both. Especially the dying part, because he’s learned even the ‘winning’ involves death. And because regardless of how awesome he is, some situations are no-win.
The Sheriff is having none of it. He just keeps pushing. And we get a third act where Rambo finally opens the can of whoop-ass, more or less levels the town, and then is talked down on the verge of ‘victory’ by Tautman.
I say ‘victory’ because it’s really a failure. The primary reason First Blood works as well as it does, that it’s still held in such high regard even thirty years on from its release, is that it uses the stereotypical action hero in reverse. Every time Rambo has to dig a bit deeper into his skillset, it’s a failure. He’s not trying to win, he’s trying to leave. They won’t let him. They keep putting him into the position of needing to hunt and defeat people, a situation he’s thoroughly sick of from his experiences in Vietnam.
You see experienced story creators make Rambo jokes, especially, because so much work went into creating Rambo as a very complex, layered, and interesting character. And the sequels promptly chucked all of that away to recast the character as a generic action hero caricature who acts exactly like every other cinema tough guy.
Rambo is used as a punchline for bad character building because, once upon a time, he was a great character who was turned bad by people (studio executives) who were too unskilled to realize what they had on their hands.
When you’re working on a character, even an action hero, his goals and motivations matter much more than his skillset when it comes to defining him. If the character can take out an entire Special Forces squad with his left pinky and not even break a sweat, and that’s the obstacle between him and achieving his goals, then you’ve pretty much got a trite and bad story on your hands.
But when you have an equally skilled character, who takes out that same group of tough guys in his sleep, and his goal is to figure out his heart so he can win that of the violence-hating girl of his dreams . . . there could be a story there. The trick, as always, is in being creative and interesting in how you stack tropes up. In how they’re manipulated and layered and established.
Tropes are useful tools. They give you a convenient short-hand vocabulary for evaluating the pieces of a story. Psychologists call this encapsulation of larger concepts into pithy labels ‘creating tokens’. If I say “go for gold”, most everyone knows I’m describing what is probably going to be a challenging process of winning in a tough competition. If I say “Mary Sue”, storycrafters know I’m talking about an overwhelming character that is unchallenged by the obstacles in his path.
Saying “Mary Sue” is much more conversational, is more convenient to the discourse, than stopping to lay out a full definition. I just say Mary Sue, and we all nod, and we move on with the discussion. A lot of ‘tokens’ when discussing storycraft take the form of tropes. Learn them, but don’t be afraid of them. Your point isn’t to avoid all tropes; it’s to avoid falling into the traps these tropes represent.
Rambo is a trope in storycraft. But, like all the other tropes, Rambo isn’t an inherently bad one. Like Eric Clapton has famously said, “It’s in the way that you use it.”