Mary Sue

8 years ago | Wildbow (Member)

Fiona recently put up a review for Spoils of War, and the subject of the Mary Sue came up. Let me start off by saying this isn't a response to her review, let alone a criticism of it. But I've discussed Mary Sues with my readers as of late (by IM and in my comments section) and I thought it was an opportunity to raise the topic.

The Mary Sue is, for many writers, a bogeyman. The possibility that a character might get the label slapped on them is a constant fear, paralyzing. It can be one of the harshest criticisms a work can get, because of everything it suggests about the story (and often the title character).

What is a 'Mary Sue'? In brief, it's a term that came up starting with old Star Trek fanfiction. The original, nominal Mary Sue was created as a parody by an author wishing to point out flaws with many fanfiction works of the time. Since then the term has caught on, and more troubling, it's mutated somewhat. The end result is that 'Mary Sue' can get applied more often than is fair, and it's increasingly hard to define.

The Mary Sue is the character who's a thinly veiled replica of the author, inserted into the canon universe.
The Mary Sue is the character who, from the moment they step on the scene, turns the protagonists into side-characters.
The Mary Sue is the character who has the entire setting of the story revolve around her.
The Mary Sue is the character who, when she interacts with other characters, causes them to act uncharacteristically.
The Mary Sue is the character who gains new powers as the plot demands, because she's just not supposed to lose.
The Mary Sue is the character who strains credulity simply by her existence. She's a half-dragon, half-demon, half-elf. She's the long-lost, never before mentioned daughter of Gandalf, the -real- girl who lived (not that jerk Harry Potter).

She can be any of the above or only some, or she can be none of the above and still strike a chord that makes a reader apply the label.

And let's be careful to note that a Mary Sue isn't necessarily limited to fanfiction. People have said that major characters in popular literature have been Mary Sues. Harry Potter as the chosen one, who everyone's focus revolves around, who everyone loves or hates, who has innumerable talents and hidden traits and qualities. Anne of Green Gables becomes so charming and wonderful that everyone simply bends over backwards or falls in love with her in short order. Anita Blake is a necromancer, vampire servant, member of a triumvirate, black belt, detective, vampire executioner, has vampire powers, and has the power to call the lycanthropes that are wolves, black tigers, white tigers, jaguars, blue tigers, red tigers, gold tigers and lions.

All that said, I think the term is applied too broadly. I have further thoughts but don't want to ramble too much. I'll let others interject and share first.

Thoughts? Do you give consideration to the label, as a reader or writer?

Read responses...

Page: 123


  1. ubersoft (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I do think it gets used too broadly. A lot of those things that a Mary Sue is can also be used to describe any protagonist in any book ever written. For example, by definition the protagonist turns every other character into a side character, because that's pretty much the difference between a protagonist and every other character. :-)

    But there certainly are Mary Sues. It's a legit phenomenon, and the overriding thing I think that separates a Mary Sue/Marty Stu from a regular hero is that the MS doesn't earn it. If everything the character does is *effortless* or if the effort involved is a token, then you're probably looking at a Mary Sue. Mary Sue is loved by everyone because she is, and is loved before she displays any qualities that make her lovable. She's able to convince the Dark Lord to forswear his evil ways because she's just awesome, not because she's demonstrated any particular qualities that would cause him to legitimately question his worldview.

    When I write characters that are awesome I want them to work for their awesome. Whether or not I pull that off isn't something I can say. I got a review for Pay Me Bug on Goodreads that accused Grif of being a Marty Stu, which surprised me, but hey, what do I know?

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  2. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    My personal definition for the Mary Sue is that the M.S. breaks the rules of the setting by his/her presence.

    If her actions do not cause an appropriate reaction, if she defies previously established rules or if she simply breaks verisimilitude by being too out there, then it's a M.S.

    Oftentimes, the M.S. is a selfish creation, serving the author's needs over the reader's entertainment. The reader senses that, and the label becomes appropriate.

  3. Fiona Gregory (Moderator)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I'll give an example of what I think of as a Mary Sue in a series of books that I actually like very much (at least the first two): Ayla in Jean Auel's Clan of the Cave Bear/ Earth's Children series.

    In the first book, Clan of the Cave Bear, it makes sense that Ayla displays unusual abilities and exhibits strong reactions from people around her. She is a Cro-Magnon child living among Neanderthals. Some things come more easily to her, and others she has to work extremely hard to master, which credibly gives her a strong personality. I wouldn't call her a Mary Sue in this first novel.

    In the second in the series, Valley of the Horses, Ayla is living alone for most of the novel. That she manages to tame not only a horse, but a cave lion and a wolf, could be thought of as starting to stretch things, but in the context it makes some sense. She's desperate for companionship, and also desperate to survive. She has to be awesome or die. And it's not incredible that the first man who meets her falls in love - she's an attractive and mysterious woman. Still good.

    In each novel after these, although there are still interesting and exhaustively researched details about prehistoric life, I found the plots got weaker and the MarySue-ness of Ayla got more. She travels from place to place, amazing everyone she meets with her domestic animals and marvelous inventions, until she has invented just about everything that was invented in the Stone Age and then some. Everyone loves her, except bad guys who are clearly just there to be antagonists for her to put to shame. Ayla became more and more an over-the-top Mary Sue until it just spoiled this wonderful and unique series.

  4. Senna Black (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Eh, once I was very frightened of the Spectre of Mary Sue/Gary Stu. These days I try to avoid writing characters like that mostly because I think it's an interesting intellectual challenge for a writer to create characters who face ordinary barriers and resolve them in an ordinary way, even in extraordinary circumstances.

    I am generally pretty wary of any attempt to set the literary against mass market/pulp/genre, which just makes people feel bad about what they like reading and writing. Mary Sues/Gary Stus may be a hallmark of less "literary" writing, but if your Mary/Gary resonates with wish fulfilment of a large enough audience, you get Twilight, 50 Shades of Gray, the DaVinci Code, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc etc etc. You only have to look at Fictionpress or Wattpad to know that there's an audience for that.

    Mary and Gary are pretty harmless - if they're not your wish-fulfilment avatar (or you don't go in for that) they are irritating to read. If they resonate, then you get me as a teenager reading and rereading Anne Bishop's Black Jewels Trilogy because I just really wanted to marry Daemon Sadi.

    (As an aside, I don't think Twilight/50 Shades/DaVinci Code/Dragon Tattoo etc are harmless - not because of their poor writing but because they normalise and mainstream really problematic gender and race politics.)

  5. G.S. Williams (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I have to agree with Fiona, I used to really like the Earth's Children series and it came to the point that credulity was getting strained whenever Ayla attempted something. She's like Wonder Woman plus a tinker plus Tarzan. One could maybe make the argument that she's an "Everywoman" character meant to stand in for all cavewomen and tell an over-arching personal and cultural story, but the author Auel could have just as easily had other people inventing things and Ayla witnessing them instead of learning to do it just as well if not better every single time.

    This comes up in comics a lot -- Spiderman has had moments where he defeats the Hulk or villains that the entire X-men or Avengers team has trouble taking down. Batman has rescued Superman on more than one occasion, which makes no sense at all. Wolverine, well, geez -- he's Wolverine on Every Marvel Cover and Member of Every Team instead of a bad-ass loner.

    I think some writers MS a story because they assume the audience wants that character to win, and they assume the wins have to get more and more extravagant to keep interest. They keep upping the stakes and the power to solve the stakes. I think that's a mistake -- you can tell a good story from a vulnerable point of view.

    I think of Batman: Year One, Straw Dogs with Dustin Hoffman, and Predator to illustrate this, and then contrast it to The Dark Knight Returns and Commando. In Year One, Straw and Pred, the protagonist has to be inventive with their surroundings and equipment to overcome their antagonist(s). Batman faces down a SWAT team single handed not by being unbelievably powerful, but using limited resources in an intelligent way and he gets shot. Dustin Hoffman is a normal guy with no weapons outnumbered by men invading his house, and he uses ordinary household items to set traps and adrenaline to get through the ordeal. Arnie had to go low-tech against the high-tech Predator, using mud, rocks, logs and fire when military weapons failed. They're all very human victories.

    But in DKR Batman takes on Superman with missles, a supersuit, electrical shocks and chemistry. Arnie blows away hundreds of bad guys in Commando just because he's the protagonist -- he's super accurate with a machine gun that never needs to be loaded, whereas they never hit him once. These stories expect that we're so invested in the protagonist that we want them to win even if said win is unbelievable -- whereas the other stories' wins follow rules about resources and human limits. I much prefer vulnerability and ingenuity to inhumanly daring exploits.

    That being said, the protagonist of NMAI has a lot of life events that actually happened to me, that are in the story because the story I wanted to tell was affected by my experiences. However, I made the "entire setting revolves around them" thing a subversive part of the story, because part of the plot/theme is how our ideas and perspectives are shaped by our culture, and how we then shape our reality accordingly. It becomes a subversive commentary on the tendency to create larger-than-life heroes and the Child of Destiny trope -- what would happen to a child raised in that culture? They'd make everything about themselves. There's a plot/conflict worth dealing with there -- teaching them to reach out to others and see empathy.

    I think the Mary Sue tendency is reductive -- other characters are props and empathy stops. However, I'm not too clear on why anyone would apply that to Dragon Tattoo, though the rest of the books in S. Black's list are certainly that mode.

  6. Jim Zoetewey (Moderator)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I tend to think of the "Mary Sue" as something worth knowing about and avoiding, but not something to completely avoid if that makes any sense.

    When I read about what people think Mary Sues are, the overriding theme that stands out to me is that the author investment in the character is too high. In other words, they can't separate the character from themselves very well.

    Oddly enough, writing isn't the first place I ever came across this. The first place was role-playing games. In RPG's, the game master is supposed to be running the story for the group. However, some GM's (mostly teenagers, I've noticed, which NOT coincidentally seems to be when much of the most self-involved prose ever is written) have this annoying habit of including "their character" among the group. This character typically is more powerful, smarter, and generally better in all ways than the characters played by the other people in the game.

    More often than not, the GM's character is always right.

    It's irritating, and not especially fun for everyone else.

    The funny thing there is that the GM is supposed to be playing all the characters that aren't run by the other players. They're not supposed to identify with one. They've got the whole world to play with if they want.

    That's the filter I tend to see the Mary Sue through anyhow.

    I don't really think it's worth worrying about too much though because in the end, all you've got to tell the story with is yourself. It's your impression of what the world is like or could be like if some things were different. Thus all the characters are, to a greater or lesser degree speaking with your voice.

    The key point is simply to not have any one of them being "your character" in the story.

  7. DaringNovelist (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    You are correct. Mary Sue is a complete bogeyman.

    And it's a nasty one because it's not really criticizing the writing, it's criticizing the author: implying that the author is inserting him or herself into the story -- and is therefore an immature narcissist.

    You know what? An awful lot of literary writing is Mary Sue -- narcissism is a requirement of the academic literary culture. All James Bond is Gary Stu. Mary Sue and Gary Stu abound in great work, as well as really immature bad work.

    The worst thing about it as a criticism, though, is that it focuses on the wrong thing. Let's say there really is something wrong with the story: the writer is overly fond of a character and it throws the whole story off balance. If you tell them that character is a Mary Sue, you're telling them that the problem is their fondness for the character. You're telling them to bury what interests them in favor of what bores them.

    And that's just reinforcing the worst lessons of our childhood -- fit in, don't be unique, for heaven's sake don't shine. Hide what you love to protect it from criticism.

    But what's wrong with that scene is not an overabundance of love for some elements, it's a lack of love for others. Or a lack of love for the story structure, or something else. Or, if the element that they love is incredibly unlovable by you, just come clean: you have different tastes, so you didn't love the character.

    And if the writer really is immature and that is showing through, the only fix for that is to live longer and gain maturity. But in many cases, they just have very different tastes than you do. (Think about something said on the discussion here about increasing awareness of serial fiction: someone pointed out that reviews can be destructive in certain hubs, because if you get reviews by people from outside the genre, who hate the central element of the genre, it will throw things off and drag them down.)

    I did a long series (four posts) "In Praise of Mary Sue" on my blog a while back. It starts here:


  8. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    To me, mary sue means self insert uber power character. if its not a personification of the author or what the author wishes to be , its just a badly written character, not a mary sue. But thats me.

  9. Amy Kim Kibuishi (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I really dislike the term "Mary Sue" because then every single story that follows chiefly one character could, potentially, be labelled a Mary Sue because it is that one single character's story. By definition, everything I've ever written can be interpreted as a Mary Sue, ESPECIALLY Rema/Reman Mythology. But did that prevent my story from getting voted as a YALSA top graphic novel of the year? No. Did that prevent Scholastic from hiring me to adapt one of their goosebumps novels to comics? No. Did that keep me from getting into one of the most respected anthology series of all time? No. If I wrote everything with this idea that some smart ass is gonna come around and call me self-centered, I'd be a production artist in animation. I'd be a wrist, not a heart.

    It makes amateur writers afraid to tread territory that is possibly more interesting and/or personal because they don't want to seem self-centered. Hello? Is anyone ELSE writing your novel? No matter what happens it will be self-centered because you are guiding the reader through your point of view of the world regardless of how hard you try not to. In fact, when a writer tries too hard to avoid such cliches, in my experience, the work suffers. The writing will feel dishonest.

    Also, it really bothers me that the name is feminine although it can be applied to so many male characters as well. Where is the John Doe character that rules his world, that gets all the women and wins every battle? Why is it only Mary Sue that gets belittled for having the world revolve around her and getting the attention of every man. It really bothers me and is definitely one of my pet peeves. Psh. MARY SUE.

  10. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    When I was talking to my readers about it, I referenced this comic:

    The idea is the same - you have people apply this label willy nilly, to the point that anyone and everyone can be considered [label]. Where I take issue is when someone will identify one quality and use that to encompass the overarching term. If you're wearing a scarf, goggles, flannel shirt, skinny pants, certain t-shirts or thick frame glasses, you're a hipster. You could run yourself ragged trying to find outfits and styles that let you avoid the label, but at a certain point someone is going to apply the label to you anyways.

    There's a point of diminishing returns as you put the effort in to avoid the label. At one end of the scale, there's being the label, fitting it perfectly. And you become the reason why people get so irritated at MS writers (or in the analogy, hipsters). On the other end of the scale, you're fighting so hard to circumvent the label that you're losing more than you gain (putting in more effort than you are pacifying/pleasing potential readers).

    The broadness of the term is my biggest issue with it, and I don't think a character being an authorial self-insertion is even one part of it (nor the most important part). It's a culmination of various issues, with the primary effect being that it's one character that's warping the reality of the setting or diluting the potency of it.

  11. Khronosabre (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I agree with a lot of what's been said here already, but since I love to hear myself talk, here's my two cents.

    For one, the term as applied to fanfiction I think is very very different than the term as applied to original fiction. In fanfiction, I think they're an interesting phenomenon that's worth looking into. Particularly, why they're considered so bad.

    Mary Sues in fanfiction are irritating not because they're unfaithful to canon. There seems to be little problem with being faithful to canon. I mean look at how many non-canon ships are hugely popular? Johnlock? Totally acceptable. Zutara? Absolutely fine. And even personal favorite wtf Snarry (Snape/Harry)? For some reason, even though it literally makes no sense and is kind of illegal? Not looked down upon.

    But Raven the dark-haired Slytherin witch with the most powerful magic and the best quidditch skills who's always beating Harry at everything? Nope. Not okay.

    It's not that it's less canon than Harry and his potions teacher. Hell, it's kind of even more believable...It's not even its transparency that gets it down. Its intentions are 'I love Harry Potter so I want to make a character that Harry Potter would love and it'll be kind of like me and it'll be awesome' which is playing into a different fantasy than...whatever Snarry is. I won't go there. But they're both fantasies. They're both unbelievable. They're both...kinda stupid. But Snarry is "better" than Harry/OC because and ONLY because, it can be shared.

    So is there something actually wrong with writing a stupid Harry Potter fantasy fanfiction in which you're the best witch/wizard in the whole world and you get all the boys/girls? No. Not really. It's no better than people writing smutty slashfic for their own entertainment. The only difference is that other people will want to read your smutty slashfic because they have the same fantasy. A Snape who is willing to engage in a relationship with his annoying student is no less Mary Sue than an original Mary Sue. Mary Sue Snape is no better than Mary Sue Raven. There's no reason one should get more slack than the other.

    And now that I've embarrassed myself with my overbearing knowledge of Harry Potter fanfiction....

    In original fiction, I don't think 'Mary Sue' can exist. Not really anyway. Since, as Wildbow pointed out, it was developed for fanfiction, I think it needs to stay there. An original fiction protagonist of course is going to verge on 'Mary Sue' because the story revolves around them. Being a protagonist is part of being a Mary Sue. It doesn't make sense in Harry Potter for your character to be the protagonist (see: title of franchise), but in its own story? Of course it will be. And of course they'll be special in some way or they won't be interesting and the story won't be very good and no one will want to read it because who wants to read about a boring everyday character who does nothing special and just lives like a normal person. They have to have SOMETHING going for them.

    I think the misconception of original fiction 'Mary Sues' is that it's less 'is this Sue-ish?' and more 'is this character balanced?' Doesn't even have to be that realistic, but they have to be balanced. A protagonist can have special powers and be the chosen one and the most unique snowflake in the world, but they need something else to round them out. Since I've already been using it, take Harry Potter. He's super special. But he's also kind of a cranky angsty git who can be a total self-righteous jerk sometimes. Balanced. Oppositely, I've only trudged through one movie so I'm a little ill-informed, but go-to-hated-character Bella of Twilight is oh-so-special perfect AND she never seems to do anything wrong and everyone loves her always even though she's a jerk to them and her only flaw is 'I fall over a lot'. Which is not a flaw. To be clear. Is she a Mary Sue? No. She's just a bad character. Unbalanced.

    So no, I don't think Mary Sues exist in the same sense in original as they do in fanfiction. There are well-developed characters and there less well-developed characters. It doesn't make them a Sue though. Just in need of some work.

  12. Alexander.Hollins (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I disagree, it most certainly exists in regular fiction. The author analogue where it becomes obvious that the author is writing about themselves in a sort of wish fulfillment. You often can tell that the villains are people the author has issue with as well. It can be done RIGHT, as long as there is real adversity, character growth, and challenges to overcome. When it get's Mary Sue ish is when the character is amazingly powerful, and the "challenge" is resolved by simply getting a new power or ability that fixes it.

    Both are also older than you think. Pastiche is a time honored form of writing, and many characters we now think of as iconic started as pastiche. As for mary sue, alice in wonderland anyone? It was a story written about a girl who was present at the time, with most of the other characters people they knew. the difference? she had real challenges that threatened her and barely skinned by, and didn't always "win". which is what makes a good story.

  13. Khronosabre (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    I don't disagree that there are "Mary Sue-ish" characters in original fiction, not at all. What I'm getting at is what makes them a Mary Sue so much as just a bad character? Mary Sue in fanfiction, at least by the definition I know, is self-insertion accompanied with some level of 'perfection'. But in original fiction, is it really self-insertion when the character(s) have some semblance of familiarity to the author? Isn't there something of every author in every character? I won't deny that a story about fictional me magically destroying my fictional adversary is not ideal, but how is it Mary Sue and not just crappy writing? Writers draw from what they know, after all. The reason it's 'self-insertion' in fanfiction is because there's pre-existing material that has nothing to do with you. But in original fiction, it all has everything to do with you by its very nature.

    I guess what I'm getting at is more the definition of Mary Sue and where it applies and where it doesn't. Personally, I think Sue is more applicable and makes more sense in the realm of fanfiction. "Mary Sue" in original fiction I would rather just call amateur drivel. Though I suppose it just comes down to semantics. Pointless point is pointless :P

  14. Wildbow (Member)

    Posted 8 years ago

    Ok, let me use examples.

    Anne of Green Gables. Classic work, strangely popular in Japan. Anne is described as having that crippling flaw that happens to be a poorly disguised asset (often this is being thin, but for Anne it's red hair). She pretty much comes out of every situation ahead, and develops into a flawless character that charms people simply by her existence.

    Wesley Crusher? Come on. He figures out stuff that trained professional members of starfleet can't. He flaunts the rules and somehow it winds up being ok or tolerable when he does it, striding onto the bridge or ignoring orders. It's well known that he's a blatant author self-insertion. Unlike Anne, he's hated.

    I'd say these characters are most definitely Mary Sues, despite not being in fanfic. Yes, they're flawed from a design standpoint, but saying they're Mary Sues is a lot clearer.

    To me, the only consistent element to the Mary Sue thing is that these are characters with a disproportionate gravity. As gravity bends light, they bend the established rules of the universe. This is a hell of a lot easier to do and notice in fan works over the canon universe, but I think it's doable in canon. If an author lays down a rule about how magic works, only for a character to consistently break said rules because they're just that awesome, that's veering into the territory.

    In Wesley Crusher's case, he's breaking the protocols and regulations of the Enterprise on a consistent basis with little to nothing in the way of punishments. He's also defying the verisimilitude of the setting, by being prenaturally brilliant and capable of coming up with solutions when he has no right to. He's charming, girls like him. Even Captain Picard acts out of character when relating to the boy, his usual gruffness altering to an uncharacteristic fondness/leniency. I'd say Wesley's more of a Mary Sue (Or Marty/Gary Stu) than many fan characters.

    The same applies to interpersonal relationships (Character acts like a jerk, people don't treat them like a jerk) and plotlines (plot gets derailed or takes a backseat when this character shows up).

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