If you read a lot of fiction reviews, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue” used before to describe a female character. If you haven’t heard the term before, and plan on becoming a published author, you might as well add the term to your knowledge bank! While many people use the term to mean “a female character I don’t like,” that is not the purpose of the term. So let’s explore what a Mary Sue is, what the problems are with Mary Sues, and how to use them effectively.
A Mary Sue can be many things. The most agreed upon qualifications are: (via The Zoë-Trope)
1) A character who is based, at least partly, on the author.
2) A character whom has no significant flaws (except possibly ones the other characters find cute).
3) A character to whom everyone within the story reacts as if they were beautiful and wonderful except characters who are clearly evil and/or motivated by jealousy.
4) A character with whom, during the course of the story, every available character of the opposite (and occasionally the same) sex will fall in love given any contact whatsoever.
5) A character who undergoes no significant growth, change, or development throughout the story.
A Mary Sue will fulfill at least 3 of these qualifications, and often all 5.
Bella Swan from Twilight is often hailed as the archetype of all Mary Sues. She is described to look much like the author, Stephanie Meyer. Her only significant flaws are being clumsy (which everyone finds cute) and brooding (which draws her significant love interests in more). She is described as plain, but everyone reacts to her as if she the most beautiful girl in school. Not only do her two main love interests, Edward and Jacob, fall for her instantly, but so do several of the other guys, like Mike, Eric, and Tyler. Her character does not significantly grow or change, not only not just in Twilight, but also in the rest of the series.
Some Mary Sues are disguised as badasses. They’ll still fulfill most (if not all) of the previously established qualifications, but will likely be extremely talented or intelligent with no evidence of work behind it to have gotten this way. This would be like a witch who didn’t know she was magical, and when she found out, she was amazingly powerful and had impressive control over it, or a woman who turns into a skilled fighter in a time of need, with no prior experience or training.
In fact, the term Mary Sue comes from one such example. It was a parody Star Trek fanfiction entitled A Trekkie’s Tale. It aimed to illustrate the sort of wish-fulfillment self-insert characters that were populating by tween girls at that time. The protagonist is a fifteen-and-a-half year old lieutenant of a Starfleet, the youngest ever, and all of the crew are madly in love with her and admire her skill and intelligence.
The biggest problem with Mary Sues is that they are often poorly written. Authors often get caught up in the wish-fulfillment, and forget that characters need to be flawed and real. They need to have personalities; they cannot be everyone’s ultimate fantasy. We’ve talked about how to write strong female characters before, so we won’t go too in-depth here. (Also, there are male Mary Sues as well, but none of the names for them—Gary Stu, Marty Stu, Larry Stu—have really stuck, and they aren’t nearly discussed as much as a Mary Sue.)
All of this isn’t to say that Mary Sues are inherently bad. They can be used effectively if the goal is to put the reader in the character’s place. If a character is a self-insert, an idealized version of the author, a reader may find a lot of their own idealized version of themselves. If the book is a first person narrative, then readers will find themselves imagining themselves as your protagonist. This is a great way to use a Mary Sue. Many would argue that this was a huge part of the allure of Twilight; when reading it, we see the world through Bella’s eyes, so it wasn’t just wish-fulfillment for the author, but also for the reader.
Another way is to make Mary Sue a smaller character. Imagine reading a book with a well-rounded, fleshed out protagonist, with her own story and struggles—but her best friend, roommate, or rival is a Mary Sue. That could be the grain that grows a whole sub-plot, surrounding the jealousy or feelings of inferiority or inadequacy next to Mary Sue, allowing your protagonist to grow as a person and overcome those feelings.
How do you feel about Mary Sues? Can they be used effectively? Are there other qualifications we missed? Let us know in the comments below.