What’s a Mary Sue?

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How do you define a Mary Sue?

The term originated in fan fiction, and referred to lead females who represented an idealized version of the female author. They lacked flaws, depth and humanity – they were just perfect all the time. Over time, the term leaked into online discussions of professional novels, films and TV shows. But the definition is murky and subjective, so let’s talk about what it means to each of us.

To me, it’s a gender-loaded term I have some trouble with. On the one hand, I think it’s meant to describe characters who are acknowledged by the rest of the characters as having a monopoly on being right, competent, admirable and amazing. On the other hand… well, look at the genres where this is allowed. James Bond is a perfect little Mary Sue. So are the Avengers, in all their incarnations. So in spy romps that are over-the-top in every sense, it’s okay to have this sort of over-the-top Best at Everything! character. Also in romance novels: it’s okay if the lead female is so amazing it’ll be a miracle if we can find a man good enough for her. Like spy romps, it’s just for fun and fantasy.

But somehow, it’s all different when you put a woman in a role where she has the opportunity to be truly heroic. Suddenly, the critics who gave a pass to James Bond come out of the woodwork waving the “underdeveloped character” flag, and I can’t help but think: it would be okay if she were a romantic heroine, or she had a penis. But a female James Bond? A woman who can take out bad guys while mixing a martini? Oh, noes! It was trendy for a bit in England in the 60’s with the female Avengers, but no more!

But on the other other hand (yes, I’ll need to borrow one), the female Mary Sue is often the male writer’s shortcut to writing women characters. He thinks if he makes her really, really awesome, those impossible-to-please feminists won’t complain that he’s sidelined her, reduced her to one of the usual female stereotypes, etc. This is obviously the approach George Lucas applies nowadays to cover his expressed insecurity about writing women. The Stargate team, heavily influenced by Lucas via Robert C. Cooper’s emulations, actually had a character describe Carter with the following: “even her mistakes are perfect”. And he meant it. Regardless of whether Carter strikes you as a Mary Sue, she’s obviously that in the minds of the writing team: a woman who is perfect for no well-explored reasons.

So after this long-winded three-handed discourse, the bottom line is: when I use “Mary Sue”, I’m usually referring to lazy writers (usually male) thinking perfection is a shortcut to character development, but it makes me kind of nervous because I have seen a lot of people only use it to refer to female writers.

Comments

  1. Patrick says

    From what I’ve seen, there appear to be two types of Mary Sue (or Gary Stu): the authorial power fantasy insert, and the Character Who Is Great Because Everyone Tells Us How Great She Is. A Single character can be both.

    The first type can range from the blatan authorial insert (the original Mary Sue) to the author’s “cool new character” that completely usurps the narrative. This is obviously most common in fanfaction, but does occur in professionally published fiction as well. (Mara Jade comes to mind.)

    What makes a character the second type of “Mary Sue” is not whether the character is uber-competent, or always right, but how the character is presented. Particularly, if we as the audience are repeatedly told that the character is great, rather than seeing the character being great. If everything the character does is regarded by other characters are just and right and perfect, even if we the audience would be inclined to think it isn’t, or especially if other characters should think it isn’t right, but approve because it was Mary Sue what did it. As BetCandy noted, Sam Carter falls into this category pretty strongly.

  2. Gategrrl says

    I once read (okay, started to read) a fic called “The Ancient” on some little URL that I don’t remember the name of right now. It was a Stargate fic, in which the main character was an Ancient woman (of the Ancients) and she was young, attractive, had the requisite long tresses, and reduced Daniel Jackson down to tears in the briefing room when she told him she had to leave and do her job of being the Guardian of the Stargates, or some such.

    I had to stop reading because I was laughing so hard. It was a classic Mary Sue, in which the OFC sidelines the main characters, replaces them in the plot, etc etc etc. But it was when Daniel Jackson is reduced to sobs, and Jack O’Neill was reduced to a jealous wanker … LOL.

    It’s a sign of an inexperienced writer, whether it’s a fanfic writer, a television writer, etc.

    It’s strange when tv writers create and perpetuate Perfect female characters – or even male characters – because inevitably, unless they’re written with a sly wink to the audience, they don’t fly. They get hated. They don’t even turn into the character you love to hate, because those are usually the “bad” guys with that streak of lovability to them. You’re *meant* to have a love-hate relationship with those characters.

  3. Maartje says

    Have you read the original Mary Sue story? It’s a very short fanfic where Ensign Mary Sue comes aboard the starship Enterprise. She’s beautiful, everyone immediately loves her, she has a Tragic!Past, finds her true love (and all the others mourn), and then heroically saves the day when no one else could even giving her life.

    I hesitate to even call any character outside of fanfiction Mary Sue. The author inserts herself as either a new character or a new and improved form of an existing character. Example: Hermione grew up during the summer holiday. She was model-tall and had curves in all the right places. She started using make-up and did her hair with a spell every morning. Draco saw her and didn’t recognise her but immediatly fell in love. That was alright though because she turned out not to be a mudblood after all and got resorted into Slytherin.
    Because the majority of fanfiction writers are girls most Mary Sues are girls as well.

    I don’t think Sam Carter is a Mary Sue. She’s part of an ensemble where most of the attention has always been on Daniel and Jack.
    When you look at all the attributes Mary Sue has one thing becomes clear: All Mary Sue wants is attention and lots of it.
    Comepared to Carter, Daniel is as much, if not more of a Mary Sue.

    Outside of fanfiction I don’t really look for Mary Sues, mostly because these perfect charaters don’t come in and steal a beloved story, they ARE the story.

  4. scarlett says

    A Mary Sue to me – and this applies to men, as well, ie Sheppard from SGA – is someone who the audience is constantly being positioned to think h/she is awesome, despite all evidence to the contrary. Carter is a prime example because she can be hopelessly incompetant, disregard regulations which are there for a reason, suddenly develop new skills with no previous allusion to them, and the audience is supposed to buy that there’s a perfectly acceptable reason for her doing the most insane, selfish, irresponsible thing, as opposed to her being a deeply flawed individual.

    Meredith Grey annoys me for this reason. She gets involved with her boss, mopes after a married man, sleeps with a man hopelessly infatuated with her, breaking his heart in the process, and all the while, she’s being played as the brilliant young woman searching for her Twu Luv.

  5. S. A. Bonasi says

    A complete WORD to everything you wrote.

    I first encountered “mary-sue” in some rather female-heavey fanfic circles. It predominately applied to flawless, unrealistic, female characters written by female authors for this reason. And that’s what I would consider a “mary-sue”: a character that flaws and not three dimensional.

    But it’s context heavey. What is a “mary-sue” in one fictional universe may not be a “mary-sue” in another fictional universe. And when you leave the fanfic circles, I think that’s where you hit the utterly ridiculous double-standard, where a female character is a “mary-sue” for daring to be the hero – even if she is flawed and 3-D.

  6. scarlett says

    Well, my problem is that they try to play her as flawLESS. Kera/Starbuk from BsG is a perfect example of a great heroine, because she’s so deeply flawed – she screws up, and everyone, including herself and the audience, knows it. The writers don’t try to position the audience to overlook the fact that she has a murderous temper, uses sex and alchol to obliterate her problems, hurts people deeply. We all know she is very capable of doing rotten things because she’s human and flawed, just like the rest of us.

    The way Carter was played, it felt to me like they were trying to convince us that, despite her abilities being all over the place, despite the fact she always had an answer for everything, despite she left the heat of battle to cry in her boss’s arms, despite the fact she trusted the enemy with no good reason to, letting said enemy get away with crucial intel, the writers positioned the audience to think she was amazing. I just saw someone who had made copious (serious) mistakes and was never held accountable for them. Because that would mean she’s capable of screwing up something chronic, like the rest of us, and the whole thing with Mary Sues, IMHO, is that they have all these awesome abilities and no flaws.

    And that’s boring as well as insulting…

  7. Gategrrl says

    Maartje said, “I don’t think Sam Carter is a Mary Sue. She’s part of an ensemble where most of the attention has always been on Daniel and Jack.

    When you look at all the attributes Mary Sue has one thing becomes clear: All Mary Sue wants is attention and lots of it.
    Comepared to Carter, Daniel is as much, if not more of a Mary Sue.”

    I beg to differ, at least on the subject of Sam Carter. Brad Wright HIMSELF said on a DVD extra (in the fourth season, I think? I’m not sure) that he realized, after writing down all of Carter’s talents and expertises, and that she was beautiful and blond with big blue eyes, that Carter was too much of a Mary Sue. Now, when the creator of the character himself admits that he projected too much onto a character – male or female – and calls the spade a spade – then, yeah, Sam Carter was acknowledged from the beginning as being a Mary Sue.

    As for Daniel Jackson…he was originally a very flawed character, from the film. Was he a Mary Sue? I never saw any other character immediately accept his ideas, or admit right off that he was right, or was believed right off the bat – unlike Sam Carter, who was believed in everything even in subjects that had nothing to do with her scientific focus.

    Both characters are flawed, but Carter is flawed as Perfect, while Jackson is just flawed as a Guy. I don’t think the writers cared much for him, because he was TOO smart and they played that down. Whereas for Carter, they played her intelligence UP.

    So yeah. I think Television writers are just as capable of creating Mary Sues as an amateur writer.

  8. Maartje says

    I think Television writers are just as capable of creating Mary Sues as an amateur writer.

    Of course they are capable of that. Everyone is. I personally rarely use the term outside fanfiction because the way I interpret it is not as a perfect character but as a perfect version of the author inserted into the story. Wesley Crusher is a Mary Sue.

    The whole Sam Carter=Mary Sue discussion aside, it bothers me that when there’s a SG-1 mary Sue discussion it’s always Sam that gets the heat while the boys go free. The whole team has this heroic vibe going for them, they are all exceptional at what they do. They all have their ‘perfect’ moments.

    I never saw any other character immediately accept his ideas, or admit right off that he was right, or was believed right off the bat

    And unless they were also of the main cast, they were wrong. But of course Daniel never held it against them.

  9. Jennifer Kesler says

    No, I haven’t read the original fanfic. I’ll see if I can find it sometime.

    I think every viewer of SG-1 has the right to decide who, if anyone, THEY consider a Mary Sue. My point was that dialog like “even her mistakes are perfect” indicates to me that the writers KNOW they are portraying her as someone who screws up, yet can never screw up. And that’s the definition of what I would call a fanfic Mary Sue.

    Daniel does speak 6 billion languages, know how to do half of Sam’s job in addition to his own, is capable of commanding troops when Jack’s not there, and how much more tragic a past can you get than “orphan who’s been dead multiple times”? In that sense I can see calling him a Mary Sue. But his screw-ups are generally acknowledged in the script, and that’s a courtesy Sam has been denied by the writers.

  10. Maartje says

    Sam makes mistakes (plenty of them, as Scarlett pointed out) but her mistakes never get followed through, making for an underdeveloped character rather than a Mary Sue.
    The writers and producers are all men and this somehow excuses them from writing decent women. So at this point I don’t take anything they say very seriously. What the writer intended to be in the text and what actually shows up in the text don’t always coincide anyway. Their own inability to make a well-rounded character of Sam actually makes her LESS of a Mary Sue because she doesn’t get half the attention a person with all that talent would get in RL.
    Sam’s list of extraordinary achievements is as long as my arm, but they’re all in her professional life. Her social life for most of the series consists of an ill advised and juvenile crush on her CO.

    Meanwhile, Daniel is pretty much Super!Daniel at this point, complete with his own fangirl.

    Anyway, my intent is not to be hostile, or to hi-jack this thread. I just thought it was a little odd that on this site it was the only woman of SG-1 under attack and not the others.

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    Sam makes mistakes (plenty of them, as Scarlett pointed out) but her mistakes never get followed through, making for an underdeveloped character rather than a Mary Sue.

    But to me that IS a Mary Sue. That’s why I pointed out the definition is subjective.

    The writers and producers are all men and this somehow excuses them from writing decent women.

    I think you were being sarcastic here, right? It doesn’t excuse them for me. And while I don’t take them very seriously, I do pay serious attention to what they say so that I can analyze just what is so wrong in their approach to writing her.

    Her social life for most of the series consists of an ill advised and juvenile crush on her CO.

    …which we’re supposed to see as romantic and lovely, and those mean ugly rules she’s sworn her life to uphold are just getting in her way. Again, I think she’s Mary Sue to the writers, not necessarily the viewers: if you disagree or simply don’t care what the writers intend, that’s fine, but we’re somewhat talking at cross purposes. :)

    Meanwhile, Daniel is pretty much Super!Daniel at this point, complete with his own fangirl.

    I stopped watching in S9, so I don’t know what’s going on there. I’m sure you’re right – part of why I quit watching was that all of the characters were vacillating between remarkably dense and eerily smart, as the plot required. There was no consistency. At that point, I’d be hard pressed to use the term Mary Sue at all because there’s so much wrong I can hardly sort it out.

    When I talk about Carter being written as a Mary Sue, I’m thinking more seasons 4-6, and then those incidents in 7 and 8 where she screws up royally and gets condescending pats on the head from her superiors.

  12. Maartje says

    To be honest, I can’t for the life of me remember what happened in earlier seasons. I’ve probably seen them, but it’s all in one ear, out the other.

    And I do think we’re arguing at cross purposes because our definitions of Mary Sue don’t match. Which is interesting in itself but not really to the point.

  13. says

    I really have trouble applying the term Mary Sue to anything outside of fanfiction, because I think it’s something where context matters a lot. Especially in fantasy and scifi, protagonists almost have to be extraordinary in some way; if the story sells me on the character making sense — or is enjoyable enough that I’m not irritated by the character’s extraordinariness — then…it’s just a character, no matter how beautiful or how many super powers. The only time I can think of when I’ve really felt like the canon I was watching was genuinely Mary Sue-ish was in the few episodes of Dark Angel I saw, where Max had amazing powers and everyone loved her even though she was entirely unpleasant, and there didn’t seem to be a reason for it other than the writer’s finding it super neat. (I get a tinge of that same feeling in Supernatural; one where I don’t think the creator and writers really know what they’re doing with the story, so Sam in particular gets to be awesome and adored and there’s no real cause for it — but I also stopped watching it after a few episodes, so perhaps things evened out.)

    I don’t know enough about SG1 to really judge, but from the bits and pieces I’ve caught it’s always seemed like the show is about Jack and Daniel with Sam as the most important supporting character (who should be part of the ensemble, but nothing I saw actually used her very well). Which to me means that even if she has all the extraordinary abilities and everyone loves her and the writers clearly adore her, she probably isn’t a Mary Sue. If she was, it would be all about her. (But again, my sample size is very, very small, so all I’ve got to work with are impressions.)

  14. Ide Cyan says

    The defining characteristic of a Mary Sue is illegitimacy, and it’s a gendered issue because legitimacy flows from those in power, and that power is patriarchal. (It’s also a racial issue.)

  15. Jennifer Kesler says

    *perks*

    I’d like to hear more about “legitimacy” in this context. Do you mean her legitimacy as a character?

    Your statement interested me.

  16. Ide Cyan says

    It works on several levels. First, in fanfiction, the audience’s involvement is with the canon characters. Any character invented by the fanfic writer as an addition to the canon risks detracting from those the fandom has a shared interest in: self-insertions, too-good-to-be-true characters, *and* badly-written characters, those stand out even more. Because the audience’s loyalty is to the original canon, the original set of laws and principles surrounding the text, someone *else*’s self-insertion isn’t going to be interesting, badly written stories will likely disappoint, and flamboyant new characters will be seen as stealing the limelight away from the characters who *do* deserve it (because it’s their TV show, their movie, their book universe, etc.).

    Now, if you take the fact that culture is a product of a male-dominated (racist, heterosexist, etc.) society, then you’ll get a certain bias within that culture, and anyone who invests in that culture *will be forced to contend with that bias*. And the laws and principles of a patriarchal canon (in a wider sense) mean that even original works which do not correspond to the dominant bias will be *illegitimate*, and be rejected by those who value their investment in this culture over their interest in the deviant strains.

    So a male James Bond is fine, but a kick-ass female character is an anomaly. If she’s a kick-ass female character inside an explicitly derivative work (ie, fanfic) — then she’s a Mary Sue. Unless, perhaps, you like the author’s writing so much you feel its quality outweighs the intrusion, so you give her an exemption. (The free license of new writers who have a strong sense of self-interest and elementary writing skills mean that the cliché of a Mary Sue is a badly-written self-insertion.) And if she’s a kick-ass female character in an *original* work, what she then has to contend with is an audience who might reject her based on their expectations derived from the patriarchal culture *they live in to begin with*.

  17. Jennifer Kesler says

    Thanks for that elaboration. Very good points there. I’m definitely going to stop using the term and start spelling out what I mean.

    You’re exactly right. The character is “illegitimate” because she has no “right” to be there. In fanfiction, this seems sensible. There will still be various cultural double standards at play, but the idea that an “OC” (original character) in fanfiction must meet standards of decorum in respect to the canon characters makes sense.

    But taken out of that context and into, say, the professional writing realm, who’s to say what is legitimate and what’s not? The “male-dominated (racist, heterosexist, etc.)” will, as always, get the last word in most minds. If I use the term to refer to lazy patriarchal, racist, heterosexist male writers, I’m not helping to clear up the issue. Which is that there should be nothing MORE illegitimate about a female character who kicks ass or is Best at Everything than there is about a male character who does the same thing in the same genre.

  18. says

    I’ve always felt that Mary Sues are of a particular stripe – not just perfect or kick-ass characters, but characters that speciically represent idealized versions of themselves. The meaning of the term may have broadened, especially with your citing the SG-1 writer calling Carter a Mary Sue. But I still feel the original meaning is more true to my mental image. That doesn’t exclude Mary Sues from existing outside of fanfic. After all, Hermione is Rowling’s Mary Sue (sadly, she’s lots of other people’s as well). I personally feel like Jack of Lost and Scott Summers in most non-comic book media are HUGE Gary Stus for guys who don’t understand why women ‘don’t like nice guys’ and prefer dangerous/harmful men instead.

    I definitely think that the kind of thing you’re talking about here – with the crazily perfect characters – is worth exploring, but I don’t feel it really fits into Mary Sue Ness.

  19. scarlett says

    For me, it’s a lack of commiting mistakes, even when they’re glaringly obvious to the audience. I was thinking today about Sarah Conner from the Terminator movies; in the first one, she calls her nother and tells her where she is, against Kyle’s advice. Whoops, turns out her ‘mother’ is actually the T900 impersonating her mother, so she just gave the Terminator their wherabouts. Kyle doesn’t pat her on the head and say it’s an honest mistake and she’s trying; he’s pissed off that she disobeyed his order. She made a dumb mistake, and she pays for it by having to run again, when they might have been safe.
    Mary Sues never have their mistakes acknowledged, let alone have to pay a price for them. But Sarah Conner did, and Starbuck did, and that what makes them truly kick-ass heroines in my eyes.

  20. Maartje says

    There’s a vast array of characters between Kick-ass Hero and Mary Sue. I dug up an old link that has a pretty good explanation of Mary Suism with the added bonus of being funny.
    http://firefox.org/news/articles/6/1/Mary-Sue-Who-Are-You/Page1.html

    I survived being a lurker on GAFF for years until the site got sucky and boy that site was swamped with Mary Sues. I think I can state that the lack of being called on mistakes is not the defining characteristic of a Mary Sue. It is part of it, sure but not the most important one.

    @Reb: I totally agree with everything you just said! (no surprise there) Thank you for putting into words what I could not.

  21. Jennifer Kesler says

    I think Ide Cyan called it with her explanation of “illegitimacy” being the defining characteristic, because it’s what threads all the other characteristics together.

    There IS no single trait set for Mary Sue. In a fanfic, she could simply be an authorial insert who’s a love interest for the lead. Even if she’s pretty good, she might still irk people and win the MS label. Or she could be Miss Tragic!Past, or Miss Best!At!Everything… again, the definitions have morphed over the years.

    I think it’s just a lousy term to be using outside fanfiction, and I’m not going to use it anymore at all. This is why I hate labels – their meanings can change without you knowing it. Describing what you mean? Much harder to misinterpret.

    That’s why we stopped allowing the use of “bitch” or “whore” as character labels on this site. They don’t mean the same things to everyone.

  22. Gategrrl says

    A lousy term used outside of fanfiction…because “Mary Sue” or “Marty Stu” are plunked down into arenas that don’t belong to the writers?

    Then I’m at a loss, I guess, for what to call characters in television shows or movies that DO have all the characteristics of these projection avatars, yet are now, here, by definition NOT Mary Sues/Marty Stus.

    For example, (using another show completely) a recent article goes into HOUSE, and the character of house, and the writers’ use of rape as a plot point to find out more about the main character.

    I have watched three or so episodes of HOUSE, and I gotta tell you, House (the character) has ALL the ear marks of an authorial Mary Sue. EVERYONE thinks about him. He’s the main subject of all the other characters’ thoughts. The world revolves around him, for better or ill. To me, House is a complete Mary Sue for all the viewers who adore him, and to the writers who like to put him through the pain of communicating with other people. I suppose House should be called a Projection Avatar, then, since I can’t call him a Mary Sue. House makes mistakes, but it’s ALL ABOUT HIM. Wouldn’t everyone like to be at the center of everyone’s minds who works and lives around them? And, of course, the writers of that show play up to that fantasy.

  23. Gategrrl says

    I just finished that article, and the author of that article pointed out that yes, pro writers and television writers also employ Mary Sues.

    I don’t understand what the problem is with the term, other than there is some disagreement here about the meaning.

  24. Jennifer Kesler says

    The problem with ALL labels is that they can mean different things to different people, and you can have a 6 month discourse before you find out your audience thought you were talking about something else entirely.

    When you say House is a Mary Sue, I would agree – I was thinking that just recently, and for all the reasons you mention. But if you say that to someone else WITHOUT explaining or giving examples, they might think you’re trying to say he’s an authorial insert intended to be a love interest of the real main character, and be deeply confused because they think he IS the real main character.

    I’m not saying anyone else needs to stop using it. I just think it’s a troubled term because not everyone means the same thing by it.

  25. Ide Cyan says

    Re: calling House a Mary Sue…

    That’s attaching the stigma of Mary Sue’s illegitimacy to a legitimate character (it’s his show, it even bears his name) who commit actions and get away with things the audience feels he shouldn’t have.

    It’s easier to call him a Mary Sue, and link him to a type of character whos illegitimacy is rooted in different relations of production, than to attack the idea of making shows that revolve around male characters. Easier to call a character an upstart than to bring down an incumbent.

  26. Ide Cyan says

    To draw a parallel… you don’t undermine patriarchy if you call *men* bitches, because the reason it’s insulting to use that word in the first place is that it reflects the oppressed status of women/females/animals. You know?

  27. Gategrrl says

    Mary Sue is the only term I’ve seen that works equally for men: Marty Stu, Gary Stu, etc. It’s an equal opportunity term, because men are equally guilty in writing wish-fulfillment characters.

  28. Jennifer Kesler says

    To draw a parallel… you don’t undermine patriarchy if you call *men* bitches, because the reason it’s insulting to use that word in the first place is that it reflects the oppressed status of women/females/animals. You know?

    Yes, that’s something I’ve been figuring out since I started this site. I used to do that (call men bitches) to emphasize the point that they can exhibit the very same annoying traits that gain women that offensive label. But that’s really not helpful. Describing their behavior with negative but non-gendered terms, like “whiny”, makes the point in a better way.

    I think. I reserve the right to change my view if further enlightenment reveals it to be inaccurate. :)

  29. Anemone Cerridwen says

    I don’t think the concept of Mary Sue is really intended for anyone other than writers. We talked about it when I was in a writer’s group, and there are various checklists to see if your character is a Mary Sue or not.

    http://www.springhole.net/quizzes/marysue.htm
    http://www.katfeete.net/writing/marysue.html
    http://www.onlyfiction.net/marysue2.html

    One of them gives a score for Bono (a real life Mary Sue) and I outscored him. The characters I write tend to be more realistic than I am. (Seriously.)

    If you’re not a writer and you’re critiquing other people’s characters, I don’t really think you can call a character a Mary Sue unless it’s obvious the character is someone the writer wishes he/she were. So for female characters written by men, if their names aren’t similar in some way and they don’t dress like the men secretly wish to, they’re probably just poorly written characters.

    Who are, of course, fair game for critiques.

  30. Patrick says

    I’m really not a fan of Mary Sue checklists, because they usually fail to take genre conventions into account.

    For example, I had a character who was a nobleman who wielded his grandfather’s katana. He got a bunch of Sue points for that on every checklist I examined, despite being in a fantasy setting based on medieval Japan where that description applies to roughly half the major characters.

  31. Danica Bryant says

    There are multiple definitions of a “Mary Sue.” It just depends on who you’re talking to. Coming out of the fanfiction circles this term originated in, I’ve seen it branch out in different ways. For me, a Mary Sue has always been the perfect female character who sticks to the traditional gender role. She may have flaws, and a tragic past of some kind is usually standard. She gets the male character everyone adores and who normally would never look at a female because he simply isn’t the type for a relationship. She is, in some circles, an idealized version of the writer. However, this only works for females. There is actually a male version of the Mary Sue, but I forget what he’s called.

    I know someone who wrote an essay on the evils of the Mary Sue. I wish I could find it right now. She had a wonderful checklist of what is a Mary Sue and what isn’t.

  32. Alex says

    Here’s a topic I’m passionate about. Short version: Mary Sue is a loaded term that turns conversations sour, derails the topic away from the craft of writing into nasty flame wars over the language (similar to calling somebody a slur), and should be avoided in any kind of professional discourse. Long version:

    1) A character in the 1973 Star Trek parody fanfic A Trekkie’s Tale. She is introduced as the youngest ensign in Starfleet history, browbeats Captain Kirk for his womanizing, impresses Spock with her logic, reveals herself to be half-Vulcan, leads the Enterprise to great success and fortune when everybody else in the line of command gets sick, and dies a beautiful death that leaves everybody mourning. This is the only proper usage of those two words.

    2) The story above was a parody of the “my self-insert becomes a main character” genre of fanfiction at the time, so this name entered the fan lexicon for this stock character (similar to Ophelia, Pollyanna, Uncle Tom, and Goody Two-Shoes. all archetypes referring to actual characters). Note that the term wasn’t inherently gendered but by the incidental fact that most prolific fan writers were (and still are) female (although internalized misogyny is very much a problem in fandom), but the terms “Marty Stu” and “Gary Stu” were coined later for male characters. It wasn’t inherently negative but by association with a genre favored by bad writers, but over the decades, it broadened to include nearly every negative trait under the sun until it became nothing more than…

    3) A hostile buzzword used mostly for bullying, shaming, and trolling of less experienced, less sociable writers, typically used by canon purists. A million contradicting justifications for why such and such character is a Mary Sue exist, but the intent in most usages is to force the writer to cease writing in that style without offering much concrete advice on how to improve. This gets into a destructive feedback loop where the writer isn’t learning how to paint realistic, relatable characters, but instead learning that such and such trait is forbidden and must be avoided at all costs. As such, a character that started out as some beautiful, wind-in-her-literal-wings sorceress becomes an incompetent, mopey leper without ever seeming like a real person in the process. This continues until the writer gives up out of frustration.

    Another way to look at it: “Your character is a Mary Sue” is worthless non-advice that implies something deeply wrong with the writer, does not leave itself open to a very useful conversation, and makes the writer feel unwelcome. “Your character is too young to hold that military rank, would not be able to physically perform those feats, and does not act the way everybody describes her” is a concrete description of glaring flaws in the characterization that does not assume incompetence, allows a conversation for how to improve the character, and allows the writer to make friends and integrate into the community.

    4) According to “litmus tests” thrown around by above-mentioned fiction purists, some arbitrary list of tropes, cliches, and plot frameworks that reveal a lot more about the creator of the list than any character ever run through it. Most of these tests are so ridiculously inclusive and context-insensitive, only flat, boring characters could ever register in the negative.

    5) The most common thread in somewhat-reasonable Mary Sue “definitions” is a violation of show, don’t tell and the typical center of plot and characterization inconsistencies. She brings in elements in total defiance of canon (e.g. AK-47s to Middle Earth, the Necronomicon to the 00 branch of MI5, etc.), causes characters to defy their personality to fit some contrived plot (often for the purpose of characters shagging), and warps the story into something completely unlike what it used to be. Such characters are often described with glowing traits they fail to exhibit from the narrative voice and other characters. These characters take readers/viewers out of the story because most people start to see it not as a possible sequence of events given a number of conceits, but as a reflection of the personality and desires of the person writing it.

    (Incidentally, this is a similar effect to the “boardroom of producers” moments that crop up in movies and television shows. For example, in Star Trek 2009, every named character has some blunt, out of place dialogue establishing them as heterosexual. Red Letter Media called this “a case of the Not-Gays”, a term that fandom at large has adopted.)

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