You’ll think I’m terribly under-informed, and you’ll probably be correct, but I only heard of the term “Mary Sue” about a year ago from a writer friend. Based on the context of her remark I knew that whoever Mary Sue was, she wasn’t good. I did my research.
You’ve probably met Mary Sue many times in the past. Mary Sue is “That Girl”. The one you wish you were but can never measure up to because you’re human and so instead you wish she’d just die.
In brief Mary Sue (or Gary Stu if male) is a character that supposedly represents a super positively depicted self-stylized version of the writer penning the story. So, if I were going to write a Mary Sue:
- She’d look like me or what I wish I looked like, but prettier.
- She’d have essentially the same interests as me only she’d probably be more proficient and talented.
- She’d hold the same beliefs that I do.
- She’d be desired, loved and respected by all including her nemeses.
- She’d get away with murder and have no faults or weaknesses that weren’t also considered attractive and endearing.
- She would be extra smart, extra genuine, extra kind, extra talented.
- She’d be the perfect woman.
- She’d be perfection itself.
- Her picture would be in the dictionary next to the words perfect, beautiful, awesome and don’t-you-want-to-be-like-me?.
- She’d probably make you sick, or at least she’d make me sick.
I find Mary Sue to be generally annoying. Actually, I’m feeling a little nauseous just thinking about her.
Mary Sue represents author wish fulfillment.
In all fairness, Mary Sue, by nature of the definition, is a term based on some speculation. How can we be certain that our suspected Mary Sue is actually a representation of the author? We can’t, unless we know the author personally. Putting the “self-stylized” part of the definition aside though, we can make a fairly good go at identifying Mary Sues in our literature, which is why I have a difficult time tolerating some of today’s popular literature, namely YA of the supernatural/romance bent.
These very pretty, perfect, awesome, fairy tale princess-like protagonists are an extreme annoyance. I like to see my favorite protagonists succeed in the end, but I also like to know that they had to overcome real challenges to reach their goals. Hard won successes are the seeds of character growth and as such, a Mary Sue by nature of what she is, can have very little. She’s already perfect, although sometimes she is unaware of her perfection until her knight in shining armor falls madly in love with her and tells her at every opportunity, “Mary, you are so perfect. I can’t stop thinking about you. My life was nothing until you walked into my world. The sun’s brilliance pales in comparison to yours. Woman, I’d drink your bathwater.”
Mary Sue characters are one dimensional. Another huge problem with Mary Sue is that often readers are generally told what to think of these characters either via the character herself or by supporting characters and are not allowed to inspect the facts and decide for themselves if Mary Sue is deserving of all the adoration.
But, a lot of people seem to like Mary Sue as evidenced by the popularity of such books as Twilight.
In all honestly I have liked some Mary Sues in my time. I like Saya Otonashi from the anime Blood+, although I can only tolerate her for brief periods of time. She’s breathless, clueless, and innocent. A tad cloying, really. Another favorite is Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, although honestly I prefer his tortured half-brother Murtagh. I really appreciated Eragon in the first two installments of the Inheritance Cycle because despite being ever so good, he was very wet behind the ears, a little floundering, and had suffered huge emotional upheavals and losses. But he eventually became so saccharine I started to wish for his failure. When I read Inheritance, the last book in the Inheritance Cycle, I actually skipped huge sections of the book to get to the parts about Murtagh, who was generally unwanted by his parents, abused, emotionally and physically scarred, and tainted by a precarious sense of morality requiring true internal growth in order to extricate himself from impossible circumstances. I felt that he should have been the main protagonist. Even when Murtagh was being a jerk I rooted for him, wanted to see him realize his true strengths and capabilities, to see him find hope in his hopeless situation, and achieve the happiness he deserved. (Spoiler: FYI: He doesn’t. Paolini dropped the ball on this awesome character. But that’s another post altogether.)
Three well known Mary Sues are:
- Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
- Bella Swan (Twilight)
- Wesley Crusher (Star Trek NG)
But, I bet you can think of others.
Want to make sure you don’t unintentionally write a Mary Sue of your own? Check out The Mary Sue Litmus Test.