Accused of Mary Sue

I was reading through some of my book reviews when I came upon the term Mary Sue.  I had a vague idea what it meant so I went to Wikipedia (yeah, I know, but don’t worry I did check other sites, too).

Here’s what Wikipedia had to say, “Mary Sue, sometimes shortened simply to Sue, is a pejorative term used to describe a fictional character, either male or female (male characters are often dubbed “Gary Stu”, “Marty Stu”, or similar names), that exhibits some or most of the clichés common to much fan fiction. Such characters were originally labeled “Mary Sues” because they were portrayed in overly idealized ways, lacked noteworthy or realistic flaws, and primarily functioned as wish-fullfillment fantasies for their authors…”

Now, I could use the rest of this blog to list all the flaws in my main character, and demonstrate how she works hard to change in an effort to dispute this accusation, but the term “wish-fullfillment,” caught my attention.  I’ve also read a Mary Sue is just the author “living vicariously” through the main character.

And to that, well…D’uh!  Living vicariously through my characters is why I write.  It’s why I read fantasy and science fiction. I wouldn’t want to read about a mother of two facing the growing pile of dirty dishes, the mountains of dirty laundry, and the sea of sh** er.. droppings left in the backyard by the family dog (and I certainly don’t want to write about it….oh..wait…I guess I just did – but I was really bored writing that sentence).  I want to read about a stubborn girl who manages to escape an almost impossible situation.  Or about a magician who saves the world. Or about a spaceship captain, leading her crew on dangerous missions.

I’m a proud armchair adventurer.  I have no desire to rocket into outer space, but I’ll “fly” along with Captain Picard and his crew.  I hate the cold, but I love reading about expeditions on Mt. Everest.

I also enjoy writing stories that I would like to read.  And I live vicarously through ALL my characters, not just the main protagonist.  I can’t take the time to pratice and become adept at the art of assassination – my family won’t allow me any more extra circular activities – but I can “be” an assassin through one of my characters. Writing allows me to enter into another’s mind and see the world through their eyes for a short while.

While I don’t think my main protagonist is perfect and “the chosen one,” I will admit to enjoying the “wish fulfillment” aspect.  Come on – where else can you write a character that is “loosely” based on the boss you hate and then have him die a horrible, painful death?? 

Accused of Mary Sue – well there are worst things in life – and I can imagine all those horrible things, and I can drop my protagonist right in the middle and watch her struggle and cope.  All from the comfort of my climate controlled office. 

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  1. 1. Eliza

    As someone familiar with the term, it really isn’t a good thing. The problem with Mary Sues (and what the article -doesn’t- seem to mention) is that the most obvious sign that you have one is that he/she is reacted to in unbelievable ways. It’s the character that everyone stops and stares at on the street, the character who has the answer to every situation that comes up and is met with nothing but admiration, begrudging or not.

  2. 2. Janice M. Eisen

    People tend to throw around the term “Mary Sue” far too loosely these days. The name came from a piece of Star Trek fanfiction — real or apocryphal — in which the main character, “Nurse Mary Sue,” nurses Cpt. Kirk back to health and he falls in love with her. Generally, a Mary Sue somehow enters the universe of her/his fanfic and triumphs/wins the heart of whichever character the author has a thing for. (All those slashes remind me that slash fiction generally does *not* feature Mary Sues.)

    To apply it to original fiction, I think the protagonist has to be a truly transparent surrogate for the author, idealized, in a very obvious wish-fulfillment scenario. I think it would not be unreasonable to class, say, Lazarus Long as a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu). It does not simply mean a protagonist who has some things in common with the author, or who has adventures the author enjoys living through.

    Not having read the book in question, I’m afraid (I have Poison Study but haven’t gotten to it yet), I can’t comment on whether the “accusation” is fair in your case. In general, though, I would take such a characterization with a grain of salt — unless it appeared with great frequency, or from a reviewer you respect. In which case, you can decide whether to care.

  3. 3. Karen Wester Newton

    I sometimes think people who insist on characters having major flaws are people who don’t know anyone nice.

    No one is perfect, but I don’t like rooting for the bad guys, either.

  4. 4. Arachne Jericho

    I think a Mary Sue has purple eyes. That’s usually the definite sign.

    According to some of the surveys out there, Dumbledore was a Mary Sue for J.K. Rowling. To which I say… no.

    Mary Sue/Marty Stu’s are all-good and all-invincible and–this is probably the most important difference–always right. In a “Universe has right and wrong clearly demarked” kind of way.

    Good writers usually don’t find that interesting, so it doesn’t happen for the large part.

  5. 5. Marie Brennan

    The watered-down definition of a Mary Sue is a character who (in the reader’s eyes) has gotten too Special. So, for example, when I was reading Elaine Cunningham’s dark elf Forgotten Realms trilogy for a paper on the drow, I rolled my eyes rather at how Special Liriel was: she could cast divine *and* arcane *and* rune magic, and throw knives really well, and use her Underdark powers on the surface, and oh yeah she had unusual-colored eyes — gold, in her case, but that’s probably because the other major good dark elf character in that world already has purple eyes. But what one reader finds excessive will be perfectly reasonable to another, so you get more disagreement about the application of the term.

    The full-blown Sue is usually a fanfic creation, since she’s the self-insert into an existing story, who is not only good at everything, but all the guys fall in love with her, and everything important gets done by her. Usually without trying. You can spot those a mile off, and if you’re smart, you’ll run the other direction.

  6. 6. Heather Rouillard

    If the aspersion was cast in Yelena’s direction, which I’m assuming it was, I can’t see how she’s been given her more powers than she needs in order to deal with the forces that are at work in her universe. Even with her abilities most of the time she escapes either by the skin of her teeth or with help from her friend(s).

    It’s not like Yelena has come by her skills easily either. It’s not as if a magic wand is waved and Yelena therefore has the ability to fight in hand-to-hand combat. She learns each of her abilities over time through hard work and is defeated often enough to keep her human. I enjoy those moments when she has obviously messed up and struggles to learn from her professional and personal mistakes.

    If the reviewer was speaking of MAGIC STUDY then I’m guessing he or she punched out at five o’clock for a party down at the pub. I was talking with a friend about Yelena after reading the novel and mentioned I had been initially frustrated with the character for not trusting her mentors, but that as the novel progressed I came to realize her stubborn independence was a natural offshoot of her time with the General and the Commander in POISON STUDY.

    Let’s be honest. If anyone had gone through what Yelena went through and hadn’t learned to trust herself above all others they never would have survived . Perhaps her most valiant struggle, and one which I believe she wins in the end, is to trust her family and Irys. It’s appropriate that she teaches them something about trusting her at the same time as well.

    Yelena is flawed yet strong. Hardheaded but redeemable. Is she a Mary Sue? No. She is a complex, beautifully drawn character who keeps us coming back for more.

  7. 7. Sanityinquestion

    There is nothing wrong with “living through a character” you’ve put in a fanfiction. There is, however, something wrong about living through a character with virtually no faults who overshadows everyone from the original cast of characters with the exception of her one true love, who is, of course, just as good-looking as she is. This ‘one true love’ usually is the most attractive person in the cast, who will treat her just like the paragon of perfection she is, even if he’s a cruel, self-centered jerk. While readers *don’t* want to hear about your normal, dreary life, we also don’t want to hear about your self-inserts perfect qualities. We want several things, one of them being plot.

Author Information

Maria V. Snyder

Maria V. Snyder has been writing fiction and nonfiction since 1995. She has published numerous freelance articles in magazines and newspapers. Her first published novel, Poison Study appeared on the shelves in 2005, and chronicles Yelena’s challenges in surviving her dangerous job as a food taster. Magic Study follows with Yelena’s efforts to learn about her magic while searching for a rogue magician turned serial killer. Fire Study chronicles Yelena's adventures with a Fire Warper and was released in March 2008. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Maria earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Meteorology at Penn State University. Much to Maria’s chagrin, forecasting the weather wasn’t one of her skills. Writing, however, proved to be more enjoyable and Maria earned a Master of Arts degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. As part of her research for her Study novels, Maria signed up for a glass blowing class to learn how to shape molten glass. The first thing she learned is it is considerably harder to sculpt glass than it looks. Maria now has an extensive collection of misshapened paperweights, tumblers, and bowls. When she’s not traveling, Maria lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son, daughter and yellow Lab. She is working on her next MIRA novel, Storm Glass, due out Spring 2009. Readers are welcome to contact Maria by e-mail at, or they can find more information on her Web site at Visit site.



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