The term “Mary Sue” gets thrown around a lot, in fanfiction circles, in criticism of books, TV shows, and films, and as the name of a well known lady-centric pop culture website. Like many terms born in recent decades, it seems ubiquitous, but not everyone is 100% clear on what it actually means. Who is “Mary Sue”? Where did she come from? Why is calling a character a “Mary Sue” a putdown? Today’s LoC will answer your questions about the nature of the Mary Sue.
What is a Mary Sue?
The definition has undergone some evolution and opinions vary on certain parts of it. But at its most basic, a Mary Sue is a highly idealized fictional character, brimming with talents and devoid of faults. Mary Sues come into the world knowing how to do everything better than anyone. The few flaws they may have are usually along the lines of “tries too hard” or “cares too much” and have zero bearing on the Mary Sue’s ability to accomplish her goals. Mary Sues are respected and feared by their enemies and universally adored by their peers.
Why are they called “Mary Sues”?
The name comes from a very short piece of Star Trek fanfiction from the 1970s. “A Trekkie’s Tale” was a parody, detailing the brief but impactful career of of fifteen and a half year old Lieutenant Mary Sue. Author Paula Smith was one of the editors of the fanzine in which “A Trekkie’s Tale” was published and wrote the story to poke fun at the various too perfect original characters who showed up in Star Trek fanfiction. Smith started using the terms “Mary Sue” or “Lt. Mary Sue story” to describe stories of this kind and the term caught on.
Are all Mary Sues fanfiction characters?
No. It’s true that the Mary Sue was first identified in fanfiction and fanfiction remains a particularly fertile breeding ground for Mary Sues. They often show up as an established character’s long lost relative, a never before mentioned ex, or the second-to-last member of a species which was previously down to one and frequently wed and bed their character of choice from the show with relative ease. But characters who excel at everything they do can be found in wholly original fiction as well. So original characters also get labelled as “Mary Sues,” sometimes fairly, sometimes not.
Are Mary Sues based on the authors who create them?
Not always. Some people feel that a character must be an idealized stand-in for the author in order to count as a Mary Sue. But this can be very tough to judge, as not every author provides a picture and biography to compare with those of their characters. Mary Sues that act as author proxies are particularly common in fanfiction, as they allow the author to explore a preexisting fictional world as a more perfect version of herself. Telltale signs of a character who is a thinly veiled double for the author include names that are similar or identical to the author’s, a backstory that includes specific and unusual details of location and family, and a description that is far more detailed than the descriptions of any other characters. But not all author proxies are Mary Sues.
Are there male Mary Sues?
Definitely. There’s nothing gender specific in the definition of a Mary Sue. One of the best known examples of a male Mary Sue is favorite geek punching bag Wesley Crusher, Star Trek: The Next Generation teenage supergenius, who was at least partially based on Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s younger self. (“Wesley” was Roddenberry’s middle name.) The terms “Gary Stu” and “Marty Sth” among others have been coined to describe the Mary Sue’s male counterpart, but they haven’t caught on to the degree that “Mary Sue” has. This has led to accusations that the term is disproportionately used to condemn female characters, that fictional women get labeled Mary Sues left and right while hundreds of Gary Stus get a pass.
Is a Mary Sue a sign of bad writing?
Yes and no. Mary Sues are not very fun to watch or read about. Since they are so very perfect, they don’t experience many of the struggles and hardships that make for interesting narratives. It’s a type of character most writers want to avoid creating.
The problem is that “Mary Sue” has become an ill-defined term that carries a lot of weight. There are characters that truly deserve to be called Mary Sues, but many who don’t still get slapped with the label because they have a few Sue-like characteristics and/or the reader just didn’t like the character. There have been anecdotal reports of fanfic authors preemptively apologizing for their “Mary Sue characters without actually knowing what a Mary Sue is and even some fanfic authors backing away from creating original female characters after having their previous efforts repeatedly dismissed as Mary Sues. Many writers’ first creations end up being Mary Sues, particularly in fanfiction where the impulse to write a story in which the author or a surrogate for the author gets to be friends with all of her favorite characters is strong. There’s no question that these budding authors will have to learn to face criticism of their work, but giving the Mary Sue a label also pathologies it and turns it into a sin of writing all out of proportion with how bad or unfixable it really is. The overuse of the term, the unnecessarily gender specific nature of it, and the harsh negative connotations have all combined to make “Mary Sue” a problematic label.
Feel free to share your picks for the Mary Sue-est of Mary Sues, characters you think unfairly get labelled Mary Sues, or anything else Sue-related in the comments.