On Mary Sues

In writing, and fanfic especially, Mary Sue gets thrown around a lot. But what is a Mary Sue? Well, you could go read the TV Tropes page… I’ll wait.

You back? And just as confused as ever? Alright. This is my definition of a Mary Sue (and I’m using it as a gender-neutral term because I don’t see a good reason not to): A Mary Sue is a supposedly supporting character* that warps the story to be about them and how special they are. The story becomes focused on other characters’ reactions to them and relationships with them.

* In  fanfic, unless you’re doing a story that absolutely doesn’t focus on the main characters, any character is eligible to be a Mary Sue.

There are still the usual pointers:

  • Mary Sues are extra special, whether by being extraordinarily beautiful / handsome, the last of their kind, having unusual powers for their type, etc.
  • Their backstories are often more violent or more special than other characters, way out of proportion to anything else in the setting (hybrid of the two most powerful races, parents are dead AND was a slave, etc).
  • They are often previously unknown relatives or lovers of main characters.
  • They are often better, smarter, more powerful, more competent, etc than the other characters.
  • They are often also self-insert characters or characters that the author considers ideal.

A Mary Sue or two (or ten) does not necessarily mean a bad story. It’s can be a symptom, but no character is inherently bad.

Why limit it to supporting characters? Well, the story can’t get warped to be about a main character, because it’s about the main character. Main characters are usually more fleshed out to start with. If the main character is special in some way, it’s more expected. (For example, in a superhero story, you expect the main character to be the strongest or smartest or both. In an historical fiction, if the main character is a super-genius, that’s no big deal.) You expect the other characters to be defined in relationship to the main characters.

So, let’s look at a few of my favorite things with supposed Mary Sues.

  • Star Trek: The Next Generation. Wesley Crusher, super smart kid that has all the answers. Has Gene Roddenberry’s middle name. Related to the doctor, gains the respect of the kid-hating captain, best friends with Geordi… Has several episodes centered around him and how smart he is… Mary Sue? Yeah… (Further analysis here)
  • Hellsing. Alucard. Super-strong vampire, better and older than any other vampire. Mary Sue? Nope, he’s a main character.
  • Dragonball Z. Goku. Super-strong. Better than everybody. Makes everybody his friend. Again, he’s the main character. Not a Sue.
  • Star Wars. … There are so many options. Anakin. Luke. Jacen and Jaina. The other Anakin. Wedge Antilles in the X-wing novels. Sort of every Jedi ever. Okay, I’m just including this to point out, Mary Sues show up. Often. AND that’s not bad.
  • Got more examples?

And a couple of examples from my own works:

  • Clythia. Regenerates, travels into other stories where she meets all my favorite characters and they all like her and often give her gifts (she had a dragon from Pern at one point, a Shi’ar warship, Merlin showed her to a new world…). Brilliant, snarky, knows more than everyone, super-competent… She’s the main character, yes, but also (originally) a self-insert character, and always a Mary Sue. Which is why I stopped working on her stories.
  • June Tind, fire mage. If it involves fire or can be thought of in fire terms she can do it.Travels into other stories where she meets all my favorite characters and they all like her and… Yeah. Yeah. Which is why her stories will never get written down. (And there have been two or three iterations of this character. And they’re all terribly, horribly, overpowered. If it was anything but fantasy it’d be really sad. One of them had a relationship with Darth Maul and taught Klingons to be Jedis to prove that Yoda wrong about the whole anger thing. I have problems.)
  • In my novel, Ostanes. In the second half (which I haven’t posted), Ostanes’ mentor shows up. (Currently a guy, going to be changed to a woman. I’m going to use male pronouns here though). Dusty. Older than dirt. Taught Ostanes and his parents. Knows everything. Snarky and can put everybody in their place. But the story isn’t about him. We know next to nothing about him. Not a Mary Sue (see, I’m getting better… One day, maybe I’ll even be good.)

So what do we learn from that?

The problem is not so much that they’re self-inserts as wish fulfillment characters. And that the wish fulfillment is through them being better than everyone else. Which, in my opinion, is poor characterization. It’s not as much fun for the audience when everything comes easily to a character. We want them to work for it. We want to watch them learn.

Except for those genres where we just want over-the-top adventures and fights. But even then, limits are good things. Limits give them something to struggle with. As an example, one of my favorite characters: The Shadow.

He’s brilliant. He speaks and reads basically every language ever. He has cool gadgets. He’s physically superior – he can climb up walls with his bare hands. He has the best technology. He can disguise himself as anyone. In the radio plays he can read minds (sometimes he basically can in the pulps). BUT, he still gets hurt, he still can’t be in two places at once, he’s still loyal to his agents (who often do poorly-considered things), he can get temporarily out-witted and surprised. If he wasn’t the main character, he’d be a total Mary Sue. Considering he started in the radio plays as the narrator, he could be considered a Mary Sue.

And the stories are awesome.

Let’s talk about Batman for a second. He’s a great example for so many things because he’s had so many versions and so many writers. Batman is over powered. Don’t try to justify it, it doesn’t matter. Batman is a wish fulfillment character and often a proxy for the author’s opinions.

That’s where things get to be a problem. When the author has him smacking around criminals and taking justice into his own hands, instead of working with the police, that can be a problem. When the author Batman spouting misogynistic garbage that can be a problem. (Alternately, when the author has Wonder Woman spouting misandrist garbage that is also a problem). When a character is being bigoted or anti-anything, shown as completely correct – with no shades of grey in there – Batman said it’s bad, everyone else who says it’s right or it’s more complicated is WRONG – that’s a problem.

It’s not a Mary Sue. It’s poor writing. It’s poor characterization. It’s an Author Tract (TV Tropes link redacted) which is a completely different – and much worse – trope (and off-topic for this post).

I have one more thing to talk about. Something that made me sad when I was researching this.

Apparently, any strong, competent, woman character is accused of being a Mary Sue. Because… I don’t know. Actually I do know, and that’s why it makes me sad. I’m going to backtrack a sec and talk about the history of Mary Sues.

It’s named for a character from a Star Trek story from the 1970s (cite) meant to parody something the author was seeing over and over in zines. Now why would a fan genuinely write an over-special female character into Star Trek? Let’s see, they’re amateur writers. They’re new at this. So they haven’t learned how to be skillful in characterization yet (writing OCs is a different skillset from writing canon characters. Canon characters you can let the audience fill in the blanks). This was the original Star Trek, which had all of three named woman on the crew. And most fanfic writers are woman. What if the story doesn’t need a nurse (Chapel), a comm officer (Uhura) or a secretary (Rand)? And let’s be honest, it’s perfectly natural for a writer (of any experience) to write a self-insert character, and for an inexperienced writer to let that character to take over the story.

So, fine, any self-insert character is a Mary Sue. And a female writer is going to make her self-insert character powerful. So, you can see the jump to ‘strong female character written by woman = Mary Sue’ and then, because fans are judgemental, ‘strong female character = Mary Sue = bad’.

I do not agree with this. Actually let me emphasize that more.

THIS IS WRONG.

Competent characters are good. Competent women are good. Competent queer women of color? Shit, point me to that, okay? I want to read that.

A Mary Sue is not just a competent character. A Mary Sue is not just an overpowered character or a self-insert. A Mary Sue is a character (of any gender) who warps the story from being about what or who it should be about, to being about them and how amazing they are.

This does not mean it won’t be a fun story to read. Or an interesting character.

In summary:

  • Well, Mary Sues are fine for fantasies. It’s in your head, who the hell cares?
  • Mary Sues in fanfic (and for that matter, ANY fanfic or writing) is practice for better things.
  • Everyone writes Mary Sues, from utter beginners to great producers.
  • Mary Sues – and overpowered or wish fulfillment characters –  are not inherently bad. But they are something to watch out for, if the intent is NOT to make the story about them.

In conclusion: Write. Write whatever makes you happy. Then write more. When people give you shit about your writing, weigh what they say. Are they just throwing shit or is there good advice in there? Take the good, ignore the rest. Write more. Read, a lot. All sorts of things. Then write more. Read lots of TV Tropes. Use what you learn to write better things.

(edited June 7th)

2 thoughts on “On Mary Sues”

  1. You are on point with your position and how you support your conclusion of just “Write” and “Write More.” Think of how many great stories out there that we wouldn’t be able to enjoy if someone started to write and then was like – forget it, this character is too Mary Sueish. As you say, “write what makes you happy.”

  2. My friend is an author, and she likes to bounce ideas off me when we are together, and discuss the problems she is having. I’m trying to become more educated so I can be more helpful, and this was great.

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