Who Mary Sue Isn’t

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


“Yeah, I couldn’t get into that book. The heroine was too much of a Mary Sue.”

You’ve probably heard that kind of criticism before. Mary Sue: Avoid At All Costs. But who is she, really? And why am I also talking about who she isn’t?

For a starting definition, let’s turn to the ever-awesome TV Tropes, which says:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws . either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her into their [group], even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character . their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

Outside of a fanfic context, the prototype remains mostly unchanged. If a heroine is brilliant at everything (usually without effort or training), never makes mistakes, is instantly beloved of everyone, solves all plot problems without much struggle and is all-around the most specialest snowflake ever, you’d be justified in calling her a Mary Sue. Double points if she has an exotic-for-the-setting eye or hair color; triple points if she has both.

[Brief gender aside: it’s possible for a male author to write a Mary Sue. Instead of his Author Avatar, she’s probably his over-idealized woman. A male character displaying these characteristics is frequently called either a Marty Stu or a Gary Stu.]

It’s fairly obvious why this is a Bad Idea. Any character who’s supremely awesome without any counterbalancing flaws is not terribly interesting. They can work; James Bond is a thorough-going Gary Stu, but that hasn’t stopped his popularity. Few people would say the complex characterization of Bond is their reason for liking the movies, though, especially the classic ones. And since it’s usually better to try and make your story strong on all fronts, don’t be surprised if your crit group suggests de-Sueing your main character.

If it were that simple, though, I wouldn’t be making this post. I quoted a definition from TV Tropes that seems pretty clear-cut — but if you follow the link, that quote comes in the midst of several paragraphs discussing how there’s no actual consensus on what a Mary Sue is. Everybody would agree that the archetype described above deserves the label, but who else is caught within the net?

A full answer to that would require losing yourself in the wilds of TV Tropes for the next hour or so. I want to give an abbreviated answer, which is to turn to the question of what Mary Sue isn’t, and why use of the term has started to bug me.

It has to do with focusing on certain Sue characteristics — skill, character flaws, wish-fulfillment — and interpreting them too broadly. If a heroine is especially good at anything, even if it’s just one thing and she’s spent years working on that skill, she may get called a Mary Sue. If she’s a relatively well-balanced individual without PTSD and a string of broken relationships and powerful enemies hunting her from the get-go, she may get called a Mary Sue. If there’s anything about her life that you would enjoy in your own, she may get called a Mary Sue.

In short, if she’s the protagonist of the story and there’s anything admirable about her, then to some readers, she’s a Mary Sue.

This bothers me is not just because I think it dilutes the term beyond all use; I don’t like the unspoken message it seems to carry. What’s the baseline problem with an archetypical Mary Sue? She’s unrealistic. So when I see the word being flung at female characters I think are kind of cool, what it says to me is, cool women aren’t believable. Skill isn’t plausible, even if she worked for it. Admiration isn’t allowed. If a woman has these things, she must pay the price with a broken psyche, a ruinous personal life; that’s the only realistic outcome.

Am I exaggerating? Maybe a little. I certainly don’t think most people actively mean this, when they label a character as a Mary Sue. But the more I see ordinary heroines being tarred with that dreaded brush — and the more I see equivalent male characters skating by without a murmur — the more I wonder if there isn’t a thread of prejudice running through it all. (See the comment thread at the bottom of that link.) Fanfic writers reacted to male-dominated stories by writing their own wish-fulfillment ideals into the text, where female characters got to be awesome and do awesome things; the backlash against their excesses threatens to strike at the notion of female awesomeness in general.

Laura Miller wrote a recent article for Salon about Mary Sues in literary fiction. Props to her for recognizing that litfic isn’t immune to authorial wish-fulfillment; bigger props for making this point: “There’s a distinction between the kind of character who embodies the fantasies of readers — Nancy Drew, for example — and a character who’s really only working for the author.”

Which hits my personal nail on the head. I don’t like reading a story, enjoying it, and then being told, you can’t be the plucky girl detective. You shouldn’t even imagine being her. You need to set your sights lower, on a target more within your reach.

It’s always going to be a contentious term, because one reader’s wish-fulfillment is another reader’s ridiculous caricature. And there are probably readers out there for whom the full-bore archetypal Mary Sue is the embodiment of all their fantasies. Let me ask: where’s the problem with that? Why do we need to shame them and take away their escape? If the author really is only writing for herself, if her beloved character is flat and uninteresting to everyone else, the situation will take care of itself; fandom has ways of filtering for the good fics, and in the pro world, sales figures will axe anyone who doesn’t sell. Mary Sue does not survive well outside a hothouse environment.

In the meantime, let’s stop using “Mary Sue” as shorthand for “I didn’t like the heroine.” Talk about why you didn’t like her. Was she really too perfect — or was she perhaps too flawed? If we set the term aside, that opens up room for us to dig into the real issues, and find out what really lies beneath.