Oh, the Mary Sue

marysue Oh, the Mary Sue. Frequently the bane of my existence. The few books I actively hate have Mary Sue characters as the leads. But what is it about the Mary Sue that enrages so many readers? And what is it about her that many others really enjoy?

So first, who is Mary Sue? Well, you know you’re reading a Mary Sue novel if your heroine (or your hero, known to some as Gary Stu):

    • has no real faults as a person/characters, except those that are “adorable”

 

    • is liked or loved by every member of the desired sex (whether male or female)

 

    • is only hated or disliked by the bad guys or people who are jealous

    • has unlikely (or sometimes impossible) physical characteristics (like naturally blue-green hair, or eyes that change color dramatically from, let’s say, violet to brown to black) and/or “exotically” beautiful

 

    • is talented (frequently exceptionally so) in all the areas that matter in the story (they can fight in any style known to man, knit a sweater in an hour, all while taking care of a newborn, but can’t cook worth a darn, because why bother?)

 

  • is pretty much perfect in every way

There doesn’t seem to be complete consensus on a definition, but from what I’ve seen, it looks like Mary Sue started off as something out of fanfiction, specifically from Star Trek fanfiction, but has grown to be so much more than that. A Mary Sue is basically a wish-fulfillment character, taking everything that the author wants to be, or that the author thinks of as ideal, and focusing it all on one individual.

The reason I personally find them so vexing is that I cannot identify with a perfect character. I am not perfect. No one I know is perfect, and I don’t expect them to be. So why are the characters in my romance novel perfect? It makes them unbelievable to the point of… I don’t know what. Ridiculousness? Rage? Tears?

To be completely fair, though, Mary Sue characters aren’t always bad. In her Masters project (click for master list of links), J.M. Frey wrote about Mary Sues and how important they are in developing as a writer. Now, as I’ve said, I’m not a fan, but it’s hard to argue with:

… a good Mary Sue story – well written, consciously plotted and with an emphasis of the inherently meta nature of the Mary Sue – can exist and can be meaningful and break down walls and make the reader think. (from her website, link above)

There is something that, I agree, is inherently meta about a Mary Sue. In a way, she (or he) breaks the fourth wall, basically addressing the audience with her identity. In her original format of fanfiction, she doesn’t fit into the main story line, but pulls all the characters into her own personal story. Meta Sue, the incarnation Frey is talking about, knows that she isn’t part of the actual story, but simply has to do the best she can with what she has. As someone who has read fanfiction (fangirl and proud of it!), I know that there is so, so much terrible writing out there, but there are gems that shine through, and, sometimes, Mary Sue can be a part of that.

And there are many variations on the theme – Einstein Sue, Sympathetic Sue, Jerk Sue, and Meta Sue just to name a few. I’m sure you can guess what some of those entail. The thing is, it can actually work if the author does it right! Many of the variations work better than the original – like the Jerk Sue, who has some serious anger issues, or the Sympathetic Sue who is so overwhelmed by trying to be good, she goes completely bonkers. And, now that I am thinking about it, the children’s cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a really good example of all the different Sue types out there. Even the Bronies get to be part of it as Stus! And it works!

With romance novels, I think it is a particularly difficult line to tread for the author. You want a character that your readers relate to, and yet you want her to be worthy of this great guy you have waiting in the wings. And certain characteristics of a Mary Sue – being beautiful and talented, for instance – make a great romance heroine. But I find the heroines that work the best are also forgetful, over-thinking things, sarcastic, or occasionally selfish. They are just more real.

Some Mary Sues (and Gary Stus) in published fiction (pulled from both my personal experience and from around the web) include:

  • Bella Swan – Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
  • Anita Blake – Guilty Pleasures, et al by Laurell K. Hamilton
  • Eragon (and Arya) – Eragon, et al by Christopher Paolini
  • Ginny Weasley – Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
  • James Bond – any number of novels by Ian Fleming
  • Scarlett O’Hara – Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
  • Sara Crewe – A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

And even though he started as a TV character, I can’t help but include Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Are there any Mary Sues that you’ve read? Are you for or against Mary Sue characters?

- Melanie Bopp

29 thoughts on “Oh, the Mary Sue

  1. Emily Farrington from Amanda Quick’s Scandal is a Mary Sue character that I remember enjoying. Everyone loved her and she loved everyone – even her evil dad and spendthrift brothers. She was smart enough to keep the family afloat etc. etc. Amy Emerson from Carried Away by Jill Barnett is also very likely a Mary Sue. Sweet, forgiving, lovable Any proves she is more than just a rich, pretty face when she helps the Scots immigrants, learning their dances and language to please her beloved.

    I think this character can work better in historicals than in contemps or paranormals. Expectations of women were so high (see Mr. Darcy’s list) and they were expected to be sickeningly sweet and charitable as well as accomplished. A Mary Sue character can fit well into that aspect of a novel and then show character growth by embracing a cute imperfection thanks to the love of her man. I couldn’t stand a steady diet of that but it can work in the right hands.

  2. I have two main issues with Mary Sue characters. The first is the fact because Mary Sue is already so perfect – with all of those attributes you’ve listed – it’s really hard for me to root for her in any way. She already has “it all” so why should I want her to get the guy/job/defeat the villain, whatever? Maybe it’s that I prefer the underdog or at least characters that have to overcome some internal obstacle to get what they want. But the Mary Sue is so perfect, she seems to win the day just because she shows up. I just can’t get excited about that. It’s like cheering for the gorgeous, supermodel, successful business owner heiress who is trying to win the big pot at the Saturday night church bingo.

    My other issue with Mary Sue characters is that their very existence reminds me that I’m reading a story, that this is fiction. Since no real Mary Sues exist in life, having one appear in a book makes it a lot harder for me to lose myself in the fictional world of the story. It’s like the Wizard of Oz – I can see the writer behind the curtain, pulling the strings.

    Too, for me, it gives the entire story a bit of an amateurish feeling. I’m a huge champion of fanfic as a way for fledgling writers to learn the craft and try their writing wings within the safety of an established framework – kind of training wheels for writers if you will. And as such, I think Mary Sues as a part of fanfic make sense. But when you move away from fanfic and into original fiction, the Mary Sue is a lingering crutch, a character who is just a list of idealized traits that requires no thought to create.

    • I’m with you on it feeling very amateurish (though I could probably find some exceptions). I especially lose patience with the plethora of YA Fantasy heroines out there. One example of a much beloved book is Graceling. I lost all patience with the heroine by the end and though I liked other aspects of the story could only give it a middling rating because the heroine grated so badly on my nerves.

      I do sometimes think I am being too hard on some of these Mary Sues when I think about how many exceptional heroes I’ve loved (Frances Crawford of Lymond, for example).

      • I think, sociologically speaking, women are harder on other women than they are on men (at least those men they are not related to). I also find it a lot harder to get upset about Gary Stus than Mary Sues. Personally, I want a heroine I can relate to, whether it is romance, mystery, what-have-you, and I just can’t relate to someone who is perfect. Especially since a lot of Mary Sues are just so perfect I want to punch them in the face.

        • You may be right about women being harder/less accepting of Mary Sues than Gary Stus. I do have to say that I recently read a popular New Adult title – “Easy” by Tammara Weber – in which I found the hero to actually be too good to be true. He was hot, protective, sweet, smart, accomplished in pretty much every thing he did – the guy had no faults. it was the first time that I felt I’d really encountered a true Gary Stu.

          @Eggletina – I’m curious that you found Katsa of “Graceling” to be a Mary Sue. I really loved that book (it’s on my Top 10 list) and didn’t get that same feeling about her – she came over as too emotionally damaged to be perfect. Too, I found her incredibly stubborn. But I do agree that she was so perfect at the things she could do – perfect at fighting, surviving, etc.

          • I don’t expect anyone else to view Katsa as I did. I think she struck a nerve with me because it has always been a pet peeve of mine when strong women are characterized by shrewish behavior and that’s how she came across to me. She did have character flaws to offset her superpowers.

            Another YA/Mary Sue/Kick-ass character I couldn’t abide was Celaena in Throne of Glass by Sarah Maas. She was yet another example of a YA who is super talented and beautiful but obnoxiously vain and arrogant to go with it. I can handle it better when these Mary Sues have villains or antagonists who at least present a challenge to them in terms of equal abilities. But when adults are characterized as idiotic and inept by comparison to the young adults who don’t have life experiences to backup their abilities, I start to groan in frustration. That book also had a New Adult Captain of the Guard which struck me as very unrealistic. But it’s fantasy–so anything goes. I should disclose here that I did not finish the book it annoyed me so much by 70 pages in. (I’m without my glasses at the moment so I can’t really see to proofread. Apologies in advance for any glaring errors!)

          • Actually, when I was looking up some other characters generally thought of as Mary Sues, Katsa was on the list. Personally, I don’t find her to be a Sue, but if her flaw is that she cares so much she has turned off her emotional side, I can definitely see that as a “redeemable” flaw.

          • I’m surprised that you think of Katsa as a Mary Sue, because Fire (in the eponymous companion book) was eversomuch more of a Sue: aristocratic but tragic childhood, unearthly beauty, exotic hair, everyone who saw her loved her (literally) to the point of insanity, unbelievably talented at archery and music and healing, oh and did I mention she’s PSYCHIC?

            But the great thing about FIRE was it took this over-the-top archetypical character seriously, and examined how much all these same “perfections” made her life a living Hell, both for her and (unwittingly) for those she loved. Awesome, awesome book.

            Now for an over-the-top Mary Sue (with her Gary Stu True Love) without a single shred of authorial self-awareness in fantasy, you can’t beat Ellysetta in the TAIREN SOUL series. Yet I still love them to pieces.

    • I agree – Mary Sue in fanfiction is definitely more of an exercise in writing, and it works. Not well, but it does make sense, and I do understand it. I’d just avoid reading pretty much anything that has an “original male/female character” if you want to bypass it all. But paying for the privilege of reading someone else’s wish fulfillment? No, thank you.

      • Hapax, I’ve only read Graceling by Cashore, so have no knowledge beyond that. I do think the author was working with some interesting themes. Sometimes my mood or events going on in life will affect my reactions to characters. It’s been several years since I’ve read the book. I might give the other books a shot some day.

        Jacqueline Carey’s Phedre (from her Kushiel series) is another character I can think of who might be considered a Mary Sue by some, but is also so much more (subversively so). I loved the character’s voice and really enjoyed that series.

  3. The term “Mary Sue” comes from a parody of bad writing printed in one of the relatively early issues of the fanzine “Warped Space” and told the story of “Ensign Mary Sue Perfect” who had long, flowing, shiny hair (the illo for the story showed it dragging on the floor, it was so long), was only sixteen, “the youngest ensign ever!” and was just perky and adorable and loved by everyone.

    In the story, which was only a page, maybe a page and a half (it’s been years since I read it), she comes aboard, everyone says how wonderful she is in every paragraph, then she tragically sacrifices herself to save Our Heroes, who weep copious tears (including Spock) over their tragic loss. Folks laughed themselves silly because it was soooo recognizable — and most of us who were writing fic back in the day had a story or two like that lurking somewhere. (I’ve burned mine.) It was absolutely authors inserting an idealized version of themselves (or how they wished they were) into a story.

    Mary Sues can work, though, in certain circumstances because they are supposed to be characters the audience can seem themselves as. Karen Cartwright on SMASH was an absolutely Mary Sue — we are told relentlessly how wonderful and talented she is, and how folks just can’t stop wanting to help her, gosh darn. But if you go back and look at backstage musicals through Hollywood history, the young ingenue who comes to New York and makes it big on Broadway is often a Mary Sue, an avatar for the female audience member who dreams of getting to do something like that. Look at “42nd Street” for example; Peggy (Ruby Keeler) is a Mary Sue who makes it because folks think she’s perky and cute and, gosh, she’s talented.

    There’s a time a place, but it’s hard to make it work in a book. Movie musical? Much easier.

  4. I think the term “Mary Sue” gets thrown around an awful lot lately and I never see it given anything close to a positive spin. I see many people condemning any book with a first person female narrator as being “Mary Sue”. Oddly enough there are rarely accusations that a male protag (1st person or not) is a Gary Stu and I think a large percentage of male protag heroes are, in fact, wish fulfillment characters (from James Bond and Jason Bourne to Batman). So I’m really tired of the term altogether.
    So, an author who happens to be a woman writes a main character who happens to be a woman who is beautiful and capable and has some skills– how is that worse than James Bond or Batman? Is fantasy and wish fulfillment something women need to continue to be chastised for?
    Can we just switch to a less lazy terminology where we actually say what does and doesn’t work about a character?
    Until men start getting shtick for their unrealistically handsome and capable action-ready heroes who always have a half dozen hot women panting after them as they go about using their mad-skills to save the world I’m not willing to let the brunt of this kind of lazy criticism fall on women’s shoulders. I call BS.

    • pamelia: I think the term “Mary Sue” gets thrown around an awful lot lately and I never see it given anything close to a positive spin.

      I have to agree with you on that. I see it thrown around at any character a reader might not like. Not every reader, but I know a fair number who are very quick to cry “Mary Sue!” if a character doesn’t fit their conception of who and what they should be.

      I also see it thrown around as a way to dismiss stories, that something isn’t worthy of serious consideration because the heroine is a “Mary Sue.” It can have a chilling effect on discussion when those words are thrown out. (I’ve read a number of Ensign Mary Sue Perfect stories in my life; most stories that are branded with that are no where near the original parody.)

    • Hear, hear! I too think that a lot of the people throwing around the Mary Sue label are just expressing sour grapes. I understand the idea but I haven’t been able to apply it. A heroine is too beautiful, smart, beloved? I don’t get why this should be a problem if the heroine fits the story. I mean, supermodels need love too (small joke.) Personally, I get much more annoyed by heroines who are too gentle, too pure, too PC etc. But I don’t call them Mary Sue, I just acknowledge that they touch pet peeves of mine.

  5. I don’t see Mary Sue characters so much any more but they used to be a staple of Romance Novels back in earlier days. All my early favorites from Laurie McBain, Kathleen Woodiwiss and Johanna Lindsay had total Mary Sue heroines. Every man LOVED them or just WANTED them. You could tell if another female character was nice because she adored the heroine and wanted to be her friend. Any women who didn’t like her were JEALOUS. They were jealous of her violet eyes, raven or golden locks, perfect figure, amazing horse riding skills and the way every male from infancy to old age LOVED her. Usually she suffered at the hands of some cruel or jealous relative but even in her rags she managed to outshine every other woman. The less fortunate and the servants loved her too including kindly housekeepers, shop women and village folk. (Probably because she was always selflessly tending the poor and ill.) I remember reading an article by one romance author years ago who advised potential writers against this folly of the whole village being obsessed with the heroine. The advice (good advice was) make a couple people like her, the villain hate her and everyone else indifferent to her. I thought it was well put and it made me laugh

  6. Oh, a great big yes on Sara Crewe! That’s the first character I thought of when I read over this column. I liked A Little Princess, but I have to admit that I’ve always preferred The Secret Garden because the heroine (Mary) just wasn’t so darn perfect.

  7. I’m not sure that Scarlett O’Hara fits the category of a Mary Sue. Early in the book (and movie), when the O’Hara family is on the way to Twelve Oaks for the Wilkes barbecue, they encounter another family (the Tarletons) on the way there. To quote Margaret Mitchell:

    “But they were a sociable family, and liked their neighbors, especially the O’Hara girls. That is, they liked Suellen and Carreen. No girl in the County, with the possible exception of the empty-headed Cathleen Calvert, really liked Scarlett.”

    That really doesn’t sound like a Mary Sue to me! (Full disclosure: I’m not really that fond of “Gone with the Wind”, but I read it in high school, and saw the movie shortly after it was re-released in the sixties. It made a very big impression on me!)

    Now, if you want another fictional character who fits the “Mary Sue” profile, I would commend the one and only Nancy Drew to you! After I read my third Nancy Drew novel, I stopped because she was just so utterly perfect!

    Sorry, but I like my fictional characters to have a few flaws so I can relate to them! :)

    • I missed Scarlett O’Hara listed above as a Mary Sue the first time I read through this and commented. I have to agree with you 100%- I cannot think of a heroine who is LESS like a Mary Sue than Katie Scarlett O’Hara! First of all no one (even her sisters) really likes Scarlett apart from poor kind Melanie who somehow always sees her as sympathetic. Men are charmed and attracted to her and her manipulative ways but apart from Rhett, none really seem to like her. She is strong willed and seems to keep most of her family and household afloat, but she does it by lying, scheming, “stealing” her sister’s long time beau while spending years trying to seduce away her “best friend’s”( and the only person who really thinks well of her) husband. By the end she has alienated pretty much everyone over a man she realizes she never really loved, just wanted. She compares her desire for him to a pair of aquamarine earrings she had coveted. She never understood the relationship between Melanie and Ashley and how it was based on more than just lust (she thinks Melanie is foolish for discussing Dickens with Ashley and not flirting). While Scarlett has admirable strength and tenacity she is painted as selfish, cruel, and utterly ruthless willing to lie and use anyone to attain her goals. Even though she vows to go on fighting, the man she realizes she loves has left her and the one person who admired her is dead.

      • Agree with you on Scarlett. How the hell can a character so deeply flawed possibly be a Mary Sue. Scarlett’s flaws include manipulativeness and bone-deep selfishness, allied with a lack of compassion that fails to see when she has hurt anyone else. I do not find those flaws even remotely “adorable”.
        That said, I find myself forced to admire Scarlett, even though I’d dislike her if I knew her personally, because she is a survivor, and I have hopes at the end of the book that she has begun to realise her own flaws and failings.

  8. I think AAR Jenna makes excellent points about the issues I have with a Mary Sue. If a character (whether male or female) is already perfect, where is the character arc?

    Must also say, however, that it can be made to work. I thought the hero of Sherry Thomas’ “Tempting the Bride” was a bit of a Gary Stu; every other page he revealed a new talent. But he still had to struggle to win the woman he loved, and I very much enjoyed the book.

  9. James Bond – any number of novels by Ian Fleming
    Scarlett O’Hara – Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

    These are larger than life characters who’s overarching quality is that they are survivors which many find aspirational but both have multiple faults.

    James Bond may be a wish fulfillment character in some respects but in the books he also needs to take drugs to function, gets the shit beat out of him and or is tortured fairly often, describes himself as a prostitute the service pimps out, sometimes fails and needs to be rescued (heck he dies at the end of From Russia With Love – the sixth book – only to be brought back because of long coming success of the series), has rotten luck with women aside from purely sexual relationships, and has a mental collapse when his wife is murdered on their wedding day that lasts over a year and he’s later brainwashed. Sure he beds gorgeous women and saves the world on occasion but he’s a bit of a mess.

    Scarlet is definitely not loved by all and is a venal, manipulative bitch on wheels who destroys lives – her own included in her desire to not only survive but thrive at Tara and in the end she’s dumped. She intelligent and driven but also ruthless and lacks empathy. Her best quality is that she is a tough as nails survivor but perfect she most certainly isn’t.

    The Mary Sue that literally made my teeth hurt because I was grinding them so hard:

    Jamie from Julie Garwood’s The Bride. Nauseating from her violet eyes and beauty she’s oh so too good to be aware of, to her being better at everything than her useless sisters – to her riding, skill with knives and bow to how she knows best about everything and what’s best for everyone even when she’s clueless and how birds basically sing and land on her freaking wrist like she’s Snow White and how everyone looooves her. Ugh.

    • It’s funny you mentioned The Bride. I recently reread that and could not get past the 2nd chapter. Apologies to Miss Garwood, but Jamie was one of those kind of young girls that I’d prefer to slap than talk to. I remember really liking this book when it first came out – isn’t it interesting how our tastes change!

      As to Mary Sue’s in books, I like some internal conflict in my heroes and heroines. Mary Sue’s and Gary Sue’s (what a silly name! LOL) only deal with external conflict and I find them to be boring.

    • I think Bond is a good example of a character that popular culture appropriated and then became something separate from the original source. Sherlock Holmes is possibly another example of a character who became so successful his image and our associations are muddled with what popular culture (and fandom) made of him.

  10. Annique in Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady.
    Even blind she can do anything she wants without a problem.

  11. My first reaction to this post was (like some other posters’ above) that Scarlett O’Hara is as far removed from Mary Sue as can be.

  12. I don’t know if this kind of heroine qualifies as a Mary Sue, but I’m coming to find that a lot of New Adult heroines end up with the Mary Sue label as I define it. These are the young women who show up on a college campus and every single hot guy she encounters falls madly in love with her. If the guy happens to be gay, he ends up being her best friend. And if she isn’t interested in a particular dude, he is so overwhelmed with desire for her that he can’t control himself and tries to sexually assault her. A lot of these gals are sexually innocent or naive for whatever reason – they are young, after all – but end up being orgasmic virgins and natural sex kittens. I spend most of the time rolling my eyes in disbelief when I encounter one of these NAMS’s.

  13. I just wanted to clarify that I personally don’t find Scarlett O’Hara to be a Mary Sue, but as she was mentioned on more than one list, felt I needed to include her.

    @pwnn – I definitely should have added her to my list. I read The Wedding before The Bride, and was so disappointed in Jaime that I almost didn’t finish it. Brenna is just so much more fun!

    • According to one site (http://www.quora.com/Fictional-Characters/Who-are-the-most-notable-Mary-Sue-characters-in-books-and-literature):
      Scarlett O’Hara – Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
      Perhaps a more debatable/controversial example. Like I said, this is subjective, although Mary Sue \not= “character I dislike”. (Melanie would be a more “classic” example of a Mary Sue.)

      Self-described as “not beautiful”…? With her “magnolia white” skin and stunning eyes? Really?
      Southern Belle archetype played straight, most of the time.
      She’s a self-obsessed, amoral jerk that’s somehow the most important person in the lives of everyone around her.
      Every man that comes within 20 yards falls secretly (madly) in love with her. She’s an inexplicable man magnet despite her selfishness and mercenary motives.
      She has some good qualities (resilience, determination) that are dampened by her wangst and constant man-chasing.

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