Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mary Sue, I Can't Stand You!

Artwork by ~Neeja at
"Mary Sue" (or her male counterpart, "Marty Stu" or "Gary Stu") is a character who is perfect in nearly every measurable way. She is drop-dead gorgeous, amazingly intelligent, and highly skilled in whatever urgent task needs performing. Her biggest flaws are trivial, like being younger than every other character, or having a short-temper, or possessing powers so strong that she has trouble harnessing them. These flaws never stop her from saving the day or being admired by everyone who encounters her. Everyone, unfortunately, except the reader.

"In 1973, Paula Smith first coined the term Mary Sue by writing a piece in 'A Trekkie's Tale' in Menagerie #2. The piece was satirical in nature, lampooning the original Star Trek female characters who became love interests for the central characters in the story."(Source ) Since then, fanfiction as a genre has grown in popularity, and with the rise of the Internet, Mary Sue characters today are more prevalent, and more reviled by fans and critics, than ever before. This may be because the fanfiction genre attracts some authors who are first and foremost fans of book or television series, and not necessarily experienced writers. They may not understand the importance of crafting multidimensional characters who must overcome inner struggles in order to face the ultimate challenges they'll encounter in the story's climactic scenes. Fanfic authors who fall into this category are simply enamored by the original, canon characters, and they enjoy weaving their own tales where those beloved characters go on new adventures with a character(s) born from the fanfic author's imagination.

When the fanfiction author creates a one-dimensional character which is based on the ideal version of him or herself, a representation of the person the writer would most like to be, and puts this flawless character at the center of their universe so they may right all the wrongs in the world, they bring to life a Mary Sue. "Basically, (Mary Sue is) a character representing the author of the story, an avatar, the writer's projection into an interesting world full of interesting people whom she watches weekly and thinks about daily. Sometimes the projections get processed into interesting characters, themselves. Usually, though, they don't." (Source

But inexperienced fanfiction authors are not the only writers who are capable of producing a Mary Sue character. In fact, many contemporary authors have crafted Mary Sues in their original works. Two of the most widely recognized canon Mary Sues are Bella Swan from Twilight and Wesley Crusher from Star Trek, The Next Generation.

Bella Swan is everybody's darling, a straight-A student who is beautiful but clumsy and stubborn, and the only person on the planet with private mind powers. Though she does nothing more than show up, she is immediately popular in her new school, particularly with the male characters, two of whom fall desperately in love with her and battle for her affections. Bella's physical descriptions ("...very fair-skinned, with long, straight, dark brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. Her face is heart-shaped—a wide forehead with a widow's peak, large, wide-spaced eyes, prominent cheekbones, and then a thin nose and a narrow jaw with a pointed chin. Her lips are a little out of proportion, a bit too full for her jaw line..." Source) match Twilight author Stephanie Meyer's exactly, right down to her heart-shaped face and prominent widow's peak. (Check out the photo of Meyers below. ) 

Star Trek fans will remember young Wesley Crusher, son of Beverly Crusher. He is handsome and his intelligence is off the charts. Despite being brilliant and considered a child prodigy, he is unable to pass the Starfleet Academy entrance exams. Despite this "flaw," he saves the Enterprise-D on seven separate occasions, each time coming up with disaster-thwarting solutions that none of Starfleet's best and brightest crew members could figure out.

Overwhelming criticism of the Bella Swan and Wesley Crusher characters exemplifies the biggest problem with Mary Sue characters: Fans can't stand these too-good-to-be-true creatures of perfection. 

People don't want to read about perfect characters. We can't identify with their unrealistic abilities and freedom from challenging flaws. So what if a character has waist-length silver hair naturally streaked with purple, and gold-flecked, emerald eyes? Who cares is she's tall and willowy, with delicate hands and whimsical habits? We don't buy it, that her inability to remember to close the refrigerator door despite being telepathic, constitutes a character flaw.

Characters that readers want to embrace are three-dimensional. They have capabilities we admire and defects we can relate to. It is through the characters' struggles that we identify with something to root for, something of ourselves.

If you're unsure your original character is not a Mary Sue, there are several "Mary Sue Litmus Tests" available online to help you decide. I recommend this one: The Original Mary Sue Litmus Test. After all, a Mary Sue can be an annoying distraction from an author's heartfelt attempt to entertain his or her reading audience. With a few inner challenges though, woven into the fabric of the character that provoke angst and cause the character to battle with herself, Mary Sue will be forced down a path of personal growth, one that will draw cheering fans to her sidelines.

What examples of Mary Sue or Gary Stu characters spring to mind from books you've read, television series you've enjoyed, or movies you've seen? 

Thanks for reading!

[I originally published this article in the July Newsletter at]