Who Mary Sue Isn’t

“Yeah, I couldn’t get into that book.  The heroine was too much of a Mary Sue.”

You’ve probably heard that kind of criticism before. Mary Sue: Avoid At All Costs. But who is she, really? And why am I also talking about who she isn’t?

For a starting definition, let’s turn to the ever-awesome TV Tropes, which says:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her into their [group], even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

Outside of a fanfic context, the prototype remains mostly unchanged. If a heroine is brilliant at everything (usually without effort or training), never makes mistakes, is instantly beloved of everyone, solves all plot problems without much struggle and is all-around the most specialest snowflake ever, you’d be justified in calling her a Mary Sue. Double points if she has an exotic-for-the-setting eye or hair color; triple points if she has both.

[Brief gender aside: it's possible for a male author to write a Mary Sue. Instead of his Author Avatar, she's probably his over-idealized woman. A male character displaying these characteristics is frequently called either a Marty Stu or a Gary Stu.]

It’s fairly obvious why this is a Bad Idea. Any character who’s supremely awesome without any counterbalancing flaws is not terribly interesting. They can work; James Bond is a thorough-going Gary Stu, but that hasn’t stopped his popularity. Few people would say the complex characterization of Bond is their reason for liking the movies, though, especially the classic ones. And since it’s usually better to try and make your story strong on all fronts, don’t be surprised if your crit group suggests de-Sueing your main character.

If it were that simple, though, I wouldn’t be making this post. I quoted a definition from TV Tropes that seems pretty clear-cut — but if you follow the link, that quote comes in the midst of several paragraphs discussing how there’s no actual consensus on what a Mary Sue is. Everybody would agree that the archetype described above deserves the label, but who else is caught within the net?

A full answer to that would require losing yourself in the wilds of TV Tropes for the next hour or so. I want to give an abbreviated answer, which is to turn to the question of what Mary Sue isn’t, and why use of the term has started to bug me.

It has to do with focusing on certain Sue characteristics — skill, character flaws, wish-fulfillment — and interpreting them too broadly. If a heroine is especially good at anything, even if it’s just one thing and she’s spent years working on that skill, she may get called a Mary Sue. If she’s a relatively well-balanced individual without PTSD and a string of broken relationships and powerful enemies hunting her from the get-go, she may get called a Mary Sue. If there’s anything about her life that you would enjoy in your own, she may get called a Mary Sue.

In short, if she’s the protagonist of the story and there’s anything admirable about her, then to some readers, she’s a Mary Sue.

This bothers me is not just because I think it dilutes the term beyond all use; I don’t like the unspoken message it seems to carry. What’s the baseline problem with an archetypical Mary Sue? She’s unrealistic. So when I see the word being flung at female characters I think are kind of cool, what it says to me is, cool women aren’t believable. Skill isn’t plausible, even if she worked for it. Admiration isn’t allowed. If a woman has these things, she must pay the price with a broken psyche, a ruinous personal life; that’s the only realistic outcome.

Am I exaggerating? Maybe a little. I certainly don’t think most people actively mean this, when they label a character as a Mary Sue. But the more I see ordinary heroines being tarred with that dreaded brush — and the more I see equivalent male characters skating by without a murmur — the more I wonder if there isn’t a thread of prejudice running through it all. (See the comment thread at the bottom of that link.) Fanfic writers reacted to male-dominated stories by writing their own wish-fulfillment ideals into the text, where female characters got to be awesome and do awesome things; the backlash against their excesses threatens to strike at the notion of female awesomeness in general.

Laura Miller wrote a recent article for Salon about Mary Sues in literary fiction. Props to her for recognizing that litfic isn’t immune to authorial wish-fulfillment; bigger props for making this point: “There’s a distinction between the kind of character who embodies the fantasies of readers — Nancy Drew, for example — and a character who’s really only working for the author.”

Which hits my personal nail on the head. I don’t like reading a story, enjoying it, and then being told, you can’t be the plucky girl detective. You shouldn’t even imagine being her. You need to set your sights lower, on a target more within your reach.

It’s always going to be a contentious term, because one reader’s wish-fulfillment is another reader’s ridiculous caricature. And there are probably readers out there for whom the full-bore archetypal Mary Sue is the embodiment of all their fantasies. Let me ask: where’s the problem with that? Why do we need to shame them and take away their escape? If the author really is only writing for herself, if her beloved character is flat and uninteresting to everyone else, the situation will take care of itself; fandom has ways of filtering for the good fics, and in the pro world, sales figures will axe anyone who doesn’t sell. Mary Sue does not survive well outside a hothouse environment.

In the meantime, let’s stop using “Mary Sue” as shorthand for “I didn’t like the heroine.” Talk about why you didn’t like her. Was she really too perfect — or was she perhaps too flawed? If we set the term aside, that opens up room for us to dig into the real issues, and find out what really lies beneath.

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  1. 1. Sam

    There’s an asymmertric relationship involved between Mary Sues and wish-fulfilment, and people are notoriously poor at understanding asymmetry.

    Mary Sues are a form of wish-fulfilment.

    Wish-fulfilment isn’t always done as a Mary Sue, even if it is a female protagonist providing the wish-fulfilment.

    To me the defining core of a Mary Sue character is the that they’re the centre of the universe, they exert a gravitational pull on plot and characters that has no explanation other than “it’s my pet character”.

    For example, stubborn characters who need to be convinced to agree with the Mary Sue, will do so on the flimsiest of pretexts just so that the Mary Sue can “win” the story.

    If half-way through the story there’s some insurmountable problem, the Mary Sue will be the one who trips over the magic doohicky from the ancient race, half buried in the sand, uncovered by the wind at just the moment they chose to go for a soulful contemplative walk under the stars. Probably interrupting moping about which of the two lean bronze-muscled poolboys, erm, starship captains, to let woo her.

    People do get lucky, some people even live charmed lives, but when they live charmed lives, have glittery unicorns all of they vewwwy own and are “struggling” to choose between “Good Boy” and “Bad Boy”, well at that point you’ve got to call Mary Sue.

    Oh, the other thing I suppose is that Mary Sues aren’t just poor characterisation: they have no character.

    They’re usually just passive recepticles of adoration interspersed with unexplained brilliance at solving plot problems. They don’t think, they don’t want, they don’t strive, they don’t earn, they simply have.

    So, what a Mary Sue isn’t IMO, is any character (regardless of wish-fulfilment) who wants something, who sets it as a goal, who sets out to achieve that goal through trial and adversity, through setbacks or through luck, and earns that goal through hard work, grit and diligence. On camera. No “she worked with african orphans for 10 years to earn her Nobel Peace Prize, but I’m not going to write about those bits, they’re BOOOOOOORING” cop-outs.

  2. 2. The Gneech

    True, not every character who is adored beyond her worth is a Mary Sue. But if the character is named “Rose Tyler,” it’s a pretty good bet you’re in Mary Sue territory. ;)

    -The Gneech

  3. 3. Tom

    Well said. The market will weed out the Mary Sues. Too many people worry too much about trivial matters. If a character YOU think is a Mary Sue is out on the market, and is popular, then let the fans enjoy themselves. Why do you feel obliged to shame them into hating what you hate?

    Live and let live. Enjoy what you enjoy, and let everyone else enjoy what they enjoy.

    That said…I personally don’t like a character who is portrayed at too down and out, totally lacking in skill or “luck.” I like them to have skills, and use those skills to solve the problem they face. A small group, each member with a different skill, is even better, IMO. Bad things happening to characters you care about is what makes fiction interesting.

    NOTE: I don’t specifically mean our gracious blogger, Marie, when I said “you” in the above comment. I meant YOU. LOL

  4. 4. Tom

    Another point…the only truly Mary Sue, or in this case, Gary Stu, I remember is from Heinlein’s “Glory Road.” It was nominated for HUGO. The hero got the woman (who happened to be Queen of the Universe, most Gorgeous in all Creation, and Totally In LOVE with him, giving her anything and everything. She was an IDIOT.) Worse female character I ever read. The whole story was utterly unbelievable to me. I was shocked and awed by its popularity.

    But so many loved and still love it, who am I to say is is bad? It just didn’t work for me. My Gary Stu is a hero to millions.

    I’ll shut up now.

  5. 5. S.C. Butler

    Tom – I recently reread Glory Road. You’re 100% right, and I love most pre-1970 Heinlein. Worst. Female. Character. Ever.

  6. 6. Wolf Lahti

    I disagree that the market will ferret out the Mary Sues. See Tom’s mention of Heinlein’s Glory Road above. Weber’s Honor Harrington of course comes to mind.

    Mary Sues are inexplicably popular just as bad writing is inexplicably popular. In most cases, the label “best seller” serves better as a warning sign than anything else. Often as not, the two phenomena combine. A character who is wish fulfillment for the author can clearly serve as wish fulfillment for the reader.

  7. 7. Alma Alexander

    Your sales in the pro world can fly or fail for many reasons – but I don’t think that MarySue-ishness is a defining one. Take something as wildly popular as “Graceling”, for instance – the main character in that, admittedly drawn as marginally flawed, can be viewed through the Mary Sue prism if you use some of the parameters you list in your post – and yet that book flew, and is still flying, high.

    The market does as the market does. Sometimes it really isn’t about Mary Sue at all.

  8. 8. Sam

    Have to agree that “the market” won’t take care of Mary Sues. I’d suggest that the market for Mary Sues is probably larger than sci-fi/fantasy combined.

    And there’s nothing wrong with that either, writing is entertainment, if people are entertained by a book then that’s the only metric that really matters for its worth.

    Personally, well, I find it boring, not entertaining.

    Characters who are never wrong are boring. I’m probably paraphrasing someone, but I’ve always thought “the measure of a man isn’t in how often he’s right, but in how he handles being wrong”, without the 1800′s style sexist wording of course. :)

    Mary Sue characters are incapable of ever being wrong or making mistakes, so we never see them do anything interesting, like deal with the consequences of their failures.

    Or even fail to deal with them.

  9. 9. Nadia

    I also agree with the three posters above re: the market and Mary Sues.

    But I’d like to point out that in my experiences reading fanfic, at least, Mary Sues have a deleterious effect on the other female characters. They are always made to look less competent, less attractive, less intelligent, less generous, less beloved, etc., in the radiance of the Mary Sue. So the story ends up reducing the other female characters to “shrews” and “nags” and “jealous bitches.” And I find that quite awful. I realize that this may not be true of all Mary Sues – just the ones I’ve read.

    So I, at least, have trouble seeing the backlash against Mary Sues as strictly anti-feminist.

  10. 10. Mary

    I would say that the essence of Mary-Sue-ness is that the story warps to accomdate her. Aesthetics? Probability? Consistency? Sense? All fall before her!

    The problem with that is that you have to diagnose by symptons. A character can be a Mary-Sue and have the writer blathering on and on (and on, and on) about how unbeautiful she is.

  11. 11. Camille

    In some ways, I think the “mary sue” problem is pointless to discuss, because it isn’t a writing problem, it’s a personality problem.

    As you pointed out with James Bond (and I would add Nancy Drew) the whole perfection/wish-fulfillment thing is not really a writing flaw in itself. The problem is narcissism on the part of the writer. It may be only temporary and due to immaturity, but it has more to do with their world view than with their writing skills.

    You can’t fix that with critique.

  12. 12. illukar

    I loathe the term “Mary Sue”, because it rapidly warped into “any female who does anything” (and, to a lesser degree, any male who does anything).

    And people judge a character’s Mary Sue factor by totting up a little chart of Sue-traits and non-Sue-traits, as if characters were role-playing characters who start with a certain number of points and have to allocate them. If someone has a positive trait (can fight) they must have a negative trait (is forgetful) or they’re automatically a Sue.

    And then you have “reverse Sues” and all sorts of things. It’s practically impossible to write a main character and not have them meet someone’s definition of a Sue.

    Even the definition of the plot and story all focusing around the character, of the character being the special one, of the story bending to serve them: how far is that from “protagonist” or “hero”?

    I like to use the definition of a Sue as being a character that the author obviously loves, but which the reader is less enthusiastic about. But no definition really works for a Sue any more.

  13. 13. Liane Merciel

    +1 on “the market won’t weed out Mary Sues.” Bummer for me, because they’re not my preferred reading, but lots and lots of readers (not just SF/F readers) seem to love ‘em. My best non-cynical explanation for that is that if an author really loves his or her characters, it’s likely that the author will also love the rest of that creation, and that love will shine through and be communicated to its readers. A Mary Sue may be a byproduct of that, but not a fatal one.

    (Yes, there are a million holes in that theory, I know. My non-cynical explanations seldom convince me, either. But if there’s a grain of truth to it, good enough.)

    I do want to take mild issue with the contention that Gary Stus don’t get as much hate as Mary Sues, though. At least on the boards and blogs I follow, it appears to be a largely gender-neutral phenomenon; if anything, the male examples are more often cited and criticized. So, while it may be the result of me only seeing certain corners of fandom, I personally have not seen much to support the thesis that competent female characters are particular targets of the Mary Sue accusation.

  14. 14. Erin K. Coughlin

    For my money, Rory Gilmore of Gilmore girls (not an SF or fanfic example I know, but the first that comes to mind for me) represents the blurred line between wish fulfillment and being a Mary Sue. For the first few seasons she was about as close to being a “perfect” person as you can get. She was beautiful, smart, the best student in her class, adored by everybody close to her, and every boy on the show fell at her feet (except those few reserved for one of her friends). And she got into Harvard, Yale, and Princeton without applying to ANY safety schools. When I was watching this in high school, it seemed great. After all, how wonderful would it be if I too had time for a real breakfast in the morning before school or could eat anything I wanted and still be model thin? But as I got a little older, it started to get annoying. But then was it annoying because Rory was annoying or because what had formerly served as my wish-fulfillment was now making me bitter (at a TV show!) because instead of wish-fulfillment, I wanted accurate representation–as accurate as one can get on the former WB.

    To make matters more complicated, halfway through, the show seemed to realize how unrealistic Rory was and made her go off the deep end…she lost her virginity to her married ex-boyfriend, she started partying, she stole a yacht, she dropped out of Yale etc. etc. It was as if the show’s writers decided to make up for Rory’s four years without flaws by dumping a bunch of big baddies on her at once. Bleck.

    On the one hand, I can’t say anything bad against a show for having a smart, academically-driven teenage girl at its center. God knows, there are too few. But on the other, I would have appreciated some more realistic flaws. Maybe the show’s creators meant for Rory to represent everything “every” teenage girl wants and for a time, for me, she did. But her ultra-perfection bordered on Mary Sue territory and then her downfall just took it to the other extreme.

  15. 15. Mary

    illukar — It’s a perjorative. Any term that’s a perjorative (or even has a perjorative connotation) will come to mean “bad” — with varying degrees of speed.

  16. 16. S0BeUrself

    I honestly had no idea this term existed – but I agree completely. If we write believable characters we’ll avoid labels like ‘Mary sue’ without even realizing it. And though I can’t definitively say what constitutes a good/bad character, I know I prefer those that are less super and more flawed – but extraordinary nonetheless.

  17. 17. heteromeles

    @16: I don’t think you can avoid writing a Mary Sue. Thing is, it’s not in the author’s eye, it’s in the eye of the reader. And what’s in the eye of the reader? Jealousy. Envy.

    I think Liane hit it on the head. Mary Sues are, in part, a function of the writer loving his or her creation. Think about it for a second: what we’re saying with “No Mary Sues,” is that speculative fiction is too limited to handle “what if someone was perfect?”

    Now, is perfection realistic? Not in a complex story. That’s a problem, and if you want a higher degree of realism, Mary Sues are going to be a turn-off.

    However, I’ve met smart, successful, sexy, nice people in real life, and I’ve horribly envious of them. This is not their fault, it’s mine, and I suspect that if I had been more mature, I would have seen how many issues they had, instead of focusing on their oh-so-perfect exteriors.

    Still, I liked reading about Mary Sues back when I was a kid. James Bond, Superman, Conan, heck, even Glory Road. I don’t like them now, but that’s because my tastes have changed. They have an audience, and I used to be one.

    Personally, I think that avoiding Mary Sue and Eus Yram (who’s even more annoying in real life–met her too) is akin to walking around wearing amulets against an evil eye. Instead of loving your story and doing your best, you’re writing to avoid the jealousy and envy of your critics. I don’t think that’s a recipe for good work.

    It’s better to target your readers. If you’re going to write a Mary Sue, either give the other characters a realistic response Mary Sue’s perfection, or write a superhero story, where the person has to be perfect just to survive (and there better be a high body count of the less perfect). In other words, do Mary Sue consciously. Or, of course, you can show that it’s all a facade…

  18. 18. Sam

    Heteromeles@17:

    Conan is a Mary Sue? The only thing ever as consistent as him “winning fame, women and booty” is the ways in which he’s outwitted and loses it all again, either at the start of the story (to set up the reason why he’s off on heroic adventure again), or at the end of the story to leave him back where he started.

    Sure elements of him were wish-fulfilment, but wish-fulfilment alone does not a Mary Sue make.

    Likewise any fiction can handle “perfect” characters, because if you portray a Mary Sue with any depth or character: they’re no longer a Mary Sue.

    I think you’ve misunderstood the whole concept of what a Mary Sue is, which is the point that the original article was making: a Mary Sue isn’t simply any character with admirable qualities, even if they have an abundance of them, or lack “balancing” flaws.

    (I’m sure that the insidious idea that characters must be “balanced” is a whole topic of its own…)

  19. 19. Marie Brennan

    Hi all,

    Sorry for the delay in responding; I was out of the house for all of Sunday, and then didn’t have time yesterday to catch up. Now, on to the comments!

    Sam — This, for me, was the key bit of what you said: Oh, the other thing I suppose is that Mary Sues aren’t just poor characterisation: they have no character. I the reader cannot admire them, because there’s nothing to admire. (Which I more often find to be a problem with the love interest of the story; I frequently wonder what is supposed to have captured the protagonist’s affections, other than the requirements of plot.)

    Tom — The funny thing is, the character you describe has become her own Mary Sue variant, the Anti Sue. But it’s usually just as thorough a failure of characterization as the original, minus any reason to envy the character’s successes.

    Gneech — I find Rose to be a mixed bag, because sometimes the narrative does acknowledge her shortcomings. (I just about cheered on the occasions when it pointed out how badly she was treating Mickey.) Where I felt the show went wrong was when it set up a very interesting conflict in S2 — her feelings for the Doctor, and what it would mean that he’d regenerated — then flaked out on actually dealing with the consequences.

  20. 20. Marie Brennan

    Butler — And yet Heinlein will get a pass on it from many readers who would scream bloody murder if a woman wrote such a thing.

    Wolf — in saying the market would weed them out, what I meant was this: if the character is really only the author’s wish-fulfillment, and has nothing to offer to anyone else, then nobody will want to read it. I read some of the Honor Harrington books, and found her to be no worse than James Bond: sure, she’s highly competent and wins all kinds of battles and gets showered with respect, but she did have to do some work for those things. If she were a full-blown Mary Sue, they would have skipped her over five ranks to make her an Admiral, etc.

    Alma — see my explanation to Wolf just above for more detail. I haven’t read Graceling, so I can’t comment on it. But yes, the Sueishness of one’s protagonist is hardly the only, or even the major, controlling factor in sales success.

    Sam — if everybody finds the protagonist boring, though, they’ll rarely flock to the books. But somehow the Bella Swans of this world speak to readers; I may find that disturbing, but I can’t pretend it isn’t true. (She, of course, is more of an Anti Sue than a Mary Sue.)

  21. 21. Marie Brennan

    Mary — I would say that the essence of Mary-Sue-ness is that the story warps to accomdate her. Exactly. If everybody keeps making exceptions for her, against all logic and reason, that bothers me a lot more than the mere fact of character’s supposed accomplishments.

    Nadia — But I’d like to point out that in my experiences reading fanfic, at least, Mary Sues have a deleterious effect on the other female characters. This is true, and manifests in other ways, too; I’ve seen a lot of romance readers complain about books that make the hero’s ex-wife or ex-girlfriend or other competitive interest into a shrieking bitch, as if that’s the only way to make the heroine look good. But where I see anti-feminism in the backlash against Mary Sues is where people start flinging that term at characters who aren’t reality-warping black holes of unrealism that poison everyone around them, but just women with some accomplishments I might admire.

    Camille — The problem is narcissism on the part of the writer. It may be only temporary and due to immaturity, but it has more to do with their world view than with their writing skills. There’s probably some truth to that, though I do think writing skills have something to do with it, too; the two aren’t completely separable.

    Liane — see above for clarification on my market comment. The author’s love for their own work does not always translate to the readers feeling the same; in fact, the reverse is sometimes true, because the author fails to realize they haven’t actually translated what’s in their head onto the page. As for Gary Stus, though, you definitely must be seeing a different corner of the conversation than I am; even when I see them criticized, they don’t get the hate that much less offensive (to me) female characters do.

  22. 22. Marie Brennan

    Illukar — that’s pretty much where I’m coming from, too. A friend actually said to me at one point that the character being the center of the plot felt Sue-ish to her, and I pointed out that’s pretty much the definition of a protagonist. True, it does get overwhelming if nobody else in the story does anything of consequence, but unless we move over to a dominant model of ensemble plots — unlikely — the heroine will always be the center of the plot. Overall, though, I feel like the term has fallen into almost complete uselessness.

    Mary — yes, it’s a pejorative; the problem is that it’s become a vague one, with a thousand meanings depending on who’s talking, and some of those meanings are troublesome to me. Hence my call for it to be retired, and replaced with useful discussion. (Optimistic, I know…)

    Erin — Good example. I never watched Gilmore Girls for more or less the reason you describe; the ads I saw made Rory look uninterestingly perfect. I wasn’t offended by her, but I didn’t want to watch, either. On the other hand, clearly a lot of people did, because the show went strongly for years. And you know, if that means a lot of girls watched a story about a smart, academically-driven teenage girl, I find it hard to get too upset about it.

    S0BeUrself — If we write believable characters we’ll avoid labels like ‘Mary sue’ without even realizing it. The problem I’ve seen is that it isn’t actually that simple. I’ve sat in on conversations where other people condemned characters I found very believable as Mary Sues, and this post is an attempt to sort out why.

  23. 23. Marie Brennan

    Heteromeles — Thing is, it’s not in the author’s eye, it’s in the eye of the reader. And what’s in the eye of the reader? Jealousy. Envy. Well-put, though I think there’s more than just those emotions in the mix; there’s also insecurity, and notions of gender roles, and other sorts of factors.

    Sam — yeah, the “balance” issue is a thorny one. I, too, have met disgustingly accomplished people — and some of them were nice, too, leaving me without even the comfort of hating them. <g>

  24. 24. Shanna Swendson

    My personal Mary Sue yardstick isn’t so much about the perfection or supposed awesomeness of the character as it is about the sense that this is a character the author is unable to be objective about. When the author loses objectivity, then the character gets things that aren’t earned and doesn’t get consequences that are earned. She’s the girl all the boys love, for no good reason. She may also have serious flaws that are obvious to (some) readers but that aren’t treated as flaws in the world of the story.

    The readers who relate to that character and who would like to see themselves as that character may love it because it means they’re special. Those who don’t identify with the character will dislike the book. That probably explains the extreme love/hate reactions to some of these bestsellers.

    I will admit to being afraid of writing a character others will consider a Mary Sue. In fact, I’m working on something right now where I think it would be an interesting character trait for this person to have a particular eye coloring, and I’m hesitating because I know that there are people who would instantly scream “Mary Sue” regardless of everything else about the character, just because the unusual eye color is on the Mary Sue checklist.

  25. 25. heteromeles

    @23: You’re absolutely right, Marie.

    @18: Sam, for you, you’re right. But Conan’s my Mary Sue example du jour. There’s something about ridding the world of 75% of its eldritch population, gaining and losing, I don’t know, three(?) thrones, losing and regaining the Aquilonian throne several times, screwing all the sexiest women in the world, while still staying faithful to his wife, and then becoming governor of California…. Yep, he’s on my Mary Sue list. If you disagree, that’s perfectly fine

    That’s kind of the point: Mary Sues are in the eye of the beholder, as much as in the keyboard of the author.

  26. 26. Sam

    Shanna @24:

    That’s a great way of saying it, a character the author is unable to be objective about.

    heteromeles @25:

    I have to confess I’ve not read most of the later Conan stuff, and being written by different authors I’m sure there’s some pretty patchy takes on the character. I really should have made that clear in my previous comment.

  27. 27. houseboatonstyx

    Should be some sort of Peter Principle: “Any useful term will be expanded past its usefulness.”

    Imo the term is very useful for discussing something I think important: the difference between Harriet Vane and Mary Russell.

  28. 28. Mary

    Anyone who finds the mutation of the term interesting will probably appreciate C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words.

  29. 29. L. Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

    Wonderful article! Exactly. It is hard for authors to recover from mockery. Taking a stand and saying “this isn’t what you are mocking it to be” is really important.

    The current definition would make every Anne McCaffrey character a Mary Sue…and her characters are delightful. There is a difference between being good at something and having no one else be good at anything.

  30. 30. Sherwood

    I’m with Shana: Mary Sueness, to me, happens when the author tells the reader how perfect the protag is, without proving it. This will include bending the story to accomodate it–she says something that you would find mildly snarky in real life, but the characters all roar with laughter at her amazing wit; everyone has only to see her to fall in love; everyone seems to have nothing to do but talk about her. (Or him.)

    This can vary–Glory Road is a great example. Even at sixteen I gagged at the idea of the Queen of the Universe wanting to be spanked into submission. But many readers Just Loved. That.

  31. 31. Marie Brennan

    Mary — could you expand? I’m not familiar with Studies in Words.

  32. 32. Tammy

    Er, um… the market will weed out the Mary Sues? Normally I’d agree with you–Mary Sue characters are fun to read when you’re young and inexperienced… until you figure out that they’re all the same (not to mention annoying). However… TWILIGHT. Of course, that may explain Bella in Twilight, and her popularity to a degree–the young and inexperienced are reading it. Not sure what’s up with the Twi-moms LOL. I’ve read all four books–the girl is exactly the definition of a Mary Sue… she has no real imperfections, except for the minor ones which make her more endearing (stubbornness, etc), and she is largely devoid of personality and sort of a vacuous hole for the reader to put her own personality and thoughts into.

    I’ve written some mary sues in my time. Part of the learning and growing process. Thank God the 80-86 I did that on blew up one summer. Cos, like, really. *hangs head in shame*

    But yes, i hate the throwing-around of that term. I hear some actual real criticism of second season Rose Tyler, and while I still like Rose and ship her like mad with 10 (they make beautiful babies in my crack-addled brainmeats), I have to concede to the real criticisms, and how she wasn’t very nice to Mickey, etc. That makes her a little more human to me, but to each his own. But saying she’s RTD’s Mary Sue? EVERY companion is the writer’s Mary Sue. Cos, dude, guy with a time-traveling police box shows up in front of me? I’m jumpin’ in. No questions asked. And there’s a reason why fans of DW are fans–we’re in love with the Doctor, or what he does, or some aspect of his life. You’d have to be dead not to be in love with SOMETHING about him. I personally believe Harry Sullivan was in love with the Doctor or his lifestyle, and he’d have dropped trou for the Doctor the moment the Doctor asked.

    A lot of people get irritated with companions because, deep down, they feel that if they were given the opportunity to travel in the TARDIS, they’d be nicer and clever-er and more understanding. They wouldn’t be a bit rude like Rose, or get annoyed with him that he’s not in love with them, like Martha. They’d be cool and awesome and… perfect. They’d be their own Mary Sue. Apply this to any fandom. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    And yes, we’re MUCH harder on female characters. There’re some poorly drawn ones out there, and to a degree, they define the public consciousness of what a girl should be like in an action movie/comic book/scifi thingy. Girls should be a certain way, and they should treat the male “heroes” a certain way, and if they step outside of that, WOH, NELLY. i don’t like that, it makes me uncomfortable. SHE MUST BE A MARY SUE. It’s easier than actually using your big-kid words to explain fully why a character makes you uncomfortable, or why you flat-out dislike said character.

  33. 33. Marie Brennan

    Tammy — good comments about the companions. I suspect some of the dislike directed at Rose and Martha is because they both are in the position of chaser, rather than chased; they don’t hide the fact that they fancy the Doctor, when our mores still say they ought to pine in silence until the guy approaches them.

  34. 34. Shveta Thakrar

    *clap, clap, clap*

    Thank you, Marie.

  35. 35. Wayne

    Another extremely popular character who is a textbook Marty Stu, but who gets a pass largely for being male: Twilight’s companion fantasy story, Harry Potter.

    Tortured, tragic past? Check. It makes him sympathetic right from the start. Okay, I can work with that. But from the moment that his magical fantasy begins, it all goes downhill.

    Everything gets handed to him. Everything. He accomplishes exactly nothing because of his own effort or merit. He’s an absolute natural at flying and sports, without ever practicing – enough so that his supreme jockness gives him a free pass from well-earned disciplinary action. His uber-expensive broom is a gift – both tiimes. The Sword of Griffindor pops out of his hat because he’s a ‘brave person’. He stumbles on the Half-Blood Prince’s potions text. He’s not skilled, he’s not smart, he rarely even does his own homework, but nobody ever minds because he’s the likable hero.

    Even the people who dislike him don’t dislike him because they realize this. They only dislike him because they’re evil and they’re -supposed- to dislike him to prove that they’re evil.

    Some excellent subverting and lampshading gets done in the final act of book seven, but even that gets upstaged. I am one of those who believes that the real hero of the story is Neville. The prophecy was fifty/fifty, and he’s the one who fought for every inch. He earned the final point in book one, a rather nice piece of foreshadowing, if intentional. He stayed and fought and saved people in book seven. And, in the final act, he’s the one who literally cut the head off the snake – how much more symbolic does it need to get?

  36. 36. jubilantia

    Posting a year and a half later courtesy of cleolinda jones on Livejournal!

    Great post, and so true. People are interesting in their rush to only read The Classics, or to decry popular works as crap. Everything is gold or gloop through different lenses. You try to read James Joyce for mindless entertainment, you’re not going to be happy. Pick up Twilight looking for Shakespeare, and you will be disappointed. But read things in their context, and you can enjoy more genres and stories. We, myself included, are so obsessed with other people validating our favorite works that we forget it doesn’t matter what other people think.

    I think there is one Gary Stu character who’s often overlooked, and it doesn’t actually make the book crap- Ender. ~Genetically engineered~ to be able to fight and strategize from the age of six. Never really takes any losses in the game rooms, all the students eventually like him. Even his big crime at the end is neatly taken out of his hands because he wasn’t aware of the situation. Also the Dune hero- his mother is in awe, the native people instantly respect him. Maybe it’s just the chosen one trope that gets to me. Still, I loved Ender’s Game and hated Dune, so go figure.

  37. 37. Marie Brennan

    Woo, new comments! Welcome, everybody, and for any additional commenters wandering in after I post this — don’t be worried if yours doesn’t show up immediately. I have to fish first-time commenters out of the moderation queue, but after that you should be okay.

    Wayne — I’ll agree that Neville is awesome, but I will also partially defend Harry against the charge of Gary Stu-ism. Yes, he’s naturally good at flying (and therefore the only sport that matters in the wizarding world). However, he is not naturally awesome at everything. He’s a mediocre student, and his skill at Defense Against the Dark Arts is earned through hard practice. Also, I’d disagree about only evil people disliking him. There are plenty of people in Hogwarts whose lives don’t revolve around Harry, whose attitudes range from “vaguely positive” to “vaguely negative” (much the way they do in the real world). Furthermore, girls aren’t constantly throwing themselves at Harry’s feet. He definitely has the prophecy thing going on — though I think Rowling complicated that quite a bit, by showing how much of it depended on Voldemort’s decisions — but Harry doesn’t have the black-hole-level cosmos-warping powers that I tend to mean when I say Mary Sue/Gary Stu. If he had everything you complain about, and was the cleverest wizard of his generation, and was having to beat all the cutest girls in the school back with a stick, and never lost anything he valued, then I’d give him the label.

    Jubilantia — both Ender and Paul Atreides were basically engineered, yeah, if not on a laboratory level. But I think that, again, it’s easy to undersell their non-Stu qualities. All the students do not eventually like Ender; at best, he earns the respect of a lot of them (through bloody hard work on his part), but let’s not forget that one of them hated him badly enough that Ender had to kill the guy. And his lack of losses has to be viewed in the context of a setting where the Powers That Be are systematically going through children until they find the one who doesn’t lose. Ender isn’t a logic-destroying exception; he’s just the peak of a very large pyramid, and therefore the one the story is about.

    As for Paul Atreides, the “instant respect” is again engineered: it’s been a while since I read Dune, but I seem to remember the Bene Gesserit deliberately seeded planetary populations with a mythic framework that any stranded sister could leverage to her own benefit, and Jessica uses that to arrange acceptance for herself and Paul. But yes, in the end he is a Chosen One (much more so than Ender, who is simply the successful experiment). The point of the story is the tightrope that forces Paul to walk, the moral choices he has to make, etc. — which are much harder for him than they are for most fantasy Chosen Ones. It’s a particular kind of story, and while I find it interesting, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

  38. 38. jubilantia

    Thanks for replying! I thought about my post afterwards, and I realized I was exemplifying what you were talking about in the article. I must have just come across the Mary Sue terminology when I was reading Ender’s Game, and attributed the perfection of the character to the word. I guess the fact that the book isn’t crap should be a hint that Gary Stus aren’t really involved.

    I still find the engineering of chosen ones to be annoying, though. I have to accept that it’s a valid way to set up the story, even if I find it lazy to enable wish fulfillment through someone who is built to be perfect. For me, the strong points of Ender’s Game were in the structure and set up of the story rather than the characterization of Ender, although I should probably go back and read again for details. Oh darn!

    I love the setting and imagination that went into the world of Dune, but I found the writing, and by extension the main character, to be insufferably pretentious. It seemed to me the main character had everything handed to him, which wasn’t all that interesting to me. Maybe I wasn’t giving him enough credit.

    Anyway, thanks for reminding me that just because I don’t enjoy something doesn’t mean it’s poorly written or deserves an overused label. I’m really excited to try your books, too.

  39. 39. Marie Brennan

    Jubilantia — I find Chosen Ones more interesting when they aren’t perfect, yeah. But there’s room within the concept to tell a thoughtful story about free will and lack thereof; the problem is that too many authors instead use it as a shortcut to make their characters succeed.

  40. 40. Plop

    I knew there was something wrong with Dan Brown’s character Robert Langdon after finishing Da Vinci Code. A handsome guy, the age of the author, the profession of the author but somehow very smart and well-known, single. He meets a pretty cute young perfect innocent woman at the very beginning of the book, he gets the whole book to save her, explain her things and finally fuck her.

    Same goes in Angel Or Demons (except the storyline is a bit better). I understood something about books when no critic ever pointed this out. It is as obvious as a Hollywood Blockbuster !

    Nice read, by the way :)

  41. 41. Marie Brennan

    I would definitely class Robert Langdon as a Gary Stu, yes. One of oh so many flaws in that story. :-)

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Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.

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