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Call the Character Police! We’ve got a Mary Sue.

Sometimes, it seems like the worst mistake a female character can make is being too darn good.

She’s not allowed to be weak (goodness, no!), but she’s not allowed to be too strong either. She must wear her imperfections on her sleeve, and be criticized for them, or else she risks earning that most dreaded of labels: Mary Sue.

Once upon a time, Mary Sue was a fanfiction term for an original character who was a wish-fulfilment stand-in for the author. Mary Sue transfers to Hogwarts, is sorted in Gryffindor, becomes the new Seeker, is smarter than Hermione, funnier than the twins, braver than Harry and adored by every male character in the school, from Draco to Snape. She has purple eyes and color-changing hair, and nobody can ever fault her, except perhaps for being annoyingly perfect.

Now the term “Mary Sue” is used to describe female characters in mainstream fiction, when the viewer or reader thinks they don’t have enough flaws, or that their flaws are not commented upon enough. It’s used when a female character appears to be little more than a wish-fulfilment stand-in for (more rarely) the writer or (more commonly) the female viewer. And the comparison to a fanfiction Sue isn’t always unjustified. I’d argue that Twilight‘s Bella Swan fits the description of a classic Mary Sue (albeit an annoying, unlikeable one), because she is little more than a cipher through which the reader can fall in love with Edward Cullen. But once the words “Mary Sue” have been uttered, all productive conversation is shut down. It says that the character is not worth talking about, not worth analyzing, because she’s somehow incomplete. Subpar. She’s not a character but a projection of female fantasy, and therefore innately, indisputably bad. Any character who falls into this category might be somewhat one-dimensional, lacking the depth and flaws needed for a really compelling character, but the term goes beyond that, throwing on implications of worthlessness (at best) and a kind of superior disgust at girlish dreams and ambitions (at worst). Because “Mary Sue” only refers to female characters.

There is a male version — Marty Stu — but it’s rarely ever used. A quick google search brought up 45,000,000 hits for Mary Sue and 2,450,000 for Marty Stu. The “male Mary Sue” isn’t really a common criticism, because male wish fulfilment characters are considered perfectly acceptable, even desirable, additions to a story. They’re the center of many popular franchises. Think James Bond. Indiana Jones. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Bruce Wayne. Tony Stark. If any of these characters were female, they’d be torn apart as Mary Sues, because they are far more unrealistic constructions than any female character I’ve ever seen given that label. They have adventures, save the day, while all the beautiful women fall at their genius billionaire and/or sexy rebel feet. But god forbid a woman have the same fantasy. God forbid a female character be anything but flawed.

And even though I hear the term “Mary Sue” all the time, I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read about a female James Bond, or a female Indiana Jones, or a female Bruce Wayne. At least not in adult fiction. The idea is almost inconceivable, because female characters are already despised and dismissed for far more realistic flaws, like being too well-liked, too successful or too favored by the narrative. So the Doctor in Doctor Who swans around saving the universe and being loved by everyone he meets, but Rose Tyler is a Mary Sue because the Doctor falls in love with her. No medieval knight is called a Marty Stu, but Alanna in Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series is dismissed because she fights gender conventions to become one. Harry Potter is the youngest seeker in 100 years, not to mention the Chosen One, but Ginny Weasley is a Sue because she’s also talented at Quidditch, has a talent for a particular hex and eventually married her childhood crush. Any time a female character becomes important in the narrative, or loved by an idolized male character, or seems to lack humility and sweetness, someone will disparage her as a Mary Sue. And it creates a painful mixed message about the kind of female characters the world wants to see. They can’t be weak and silly and unimportant, but they can’t be too strong, too important, too appealing as role models and heroes to female viewers. They must remain in a safe, unthreatening middle ground.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

9 thoughts on “Call the Character Police! We’ve got a Mary Sue.

  1. This is excellent. Your discussion on the absence of male!Mary Sue attacks really made me think– IMO, you’re spot on when you say that idealized male characters are par for the course, while idealized female characters get routinely lambasted. I myself have been guilty of criticizing female characters as “Mary Sues” (generally in the case of amethyst-eyed beauties from HP fanfic, but also in the case of one or two canon characters), and, while I like to think I’ve matured since then, I’ve never really stopped to consider the sort of double standard I was perpetuating.

    What I find particularly troubling is that the fans who are the quickest to slam female characters for being either “too flawed” or “too perfect” seem to almost always be female themselves. (This could be an illusion due to the exceptionally high ratio of females:males in active internet fandom– at least in the fandoms I’ve participated in– but I thought it was worth mentioning.)

  2. “There is a male version — Marty Stu — but it’s rarely ever used. A quick google search brought up 45,000,000 hits for Mary Sue and 2,450,000 for Marty Stu. ”

    Isn’t this because the generic phrase “Mary Sue” is used to describe both male and female characters?

    For example this discussion of Patrick Rothfuss’s fantasy novel The Name of the Wind, uses the term to describe the (male) protagonist, Kvothe.

    1. I’ve not come across it being used that way very much. Discussion of male “Mary Sues” is still the exception, whereas I hear people cry “Mary Sue” over pretty much any female character that is particularly powerful or well-liked. But it may well vary in different circles, in which case my Google search shows nothing except that people really like talking about “Mary Sues,” and that the female version (and so the female term) is the default.

  3. AMEN.
    It’s like people *say* they want strong and bad-ass female characters, but as soon as we have a bad-ass and strong female character, she’s a Mary Sue. God forbid that women be the *best* at anything. For example, Rose Hathaway gets called a Mary Sue an awful lot even though she has obvious flaws (often she acts irrationally and selfishly, can even be shallow at times) and not everyone loves her, but because she’s probably the most skilled and talented novice at her academy and has killed the most Strigoi for her age, and she’s hot, she’s a Mary Sue. But the male protagonist, who is actually called a “God” for his otherwordly combat skills and legendary battles, and who is handsome and liked by everyone because he is nice and mature and has no bad personality traits….he’s not called out for being a Gary Stu, even though he’s just as hot as Rose, 100x more liked, and 100x more accomplished.

    Well, ok.

  4. But Hermione Granger was not considered as Mary Sue, and Hermione is way more powerful, smarter, braver, more brilliant than Ginny.

  5. Male Mary Sue’s are rarer but hardly difficult to find. The Wesley Crusher character in Star Trek the Next Generation was a notorious example, lampooned as such by the Trek community (where the Mary Sue trope was born). Batman is also acknowledged as such. The character of Jonathan in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a parody of this in the episode Superstar.

    A Mary Sue is not merely a character who excels at everything – otherwise most characters in SF fiction, including female ones not typically considered as such – eg Buffy or Hermione) would qualify.

    Clearly something more is needed.

    But to the author’s point – it may simply be that female authors are more prone to this *type* of wish fulfillment.

  6. I think in some cases, it also depends on WHAT description of a Mary Sue one uses.

    For example, when I use the description (and I don’t mean different things like Purity Sue or Jerk Sue or whatever), I mean that it’s a character that EVERYONE in-universe (as in, within the narrative) likes and idolizes, no matter that the character in question hasn’t done anything to EARN that regard. Cases like Ginny Weasley and Wesley Crusher or, yes, even at times Harry Potter himself, where they don’t do anything special or they do terrible things
    and yet the characters in-universe and the narrative act like it’s such a good thing that they have these terrible flaws instead of reacting to them the same way it would if it was any other character. These are underdeveloped characters that you can feel the narrative say “You WILL love them, here, look, see! A character everyone in the audience thinks is cool is talking this character up, you LIKE this character!”

    Naturally, the response is disgust and disdain for this character while wondering WHY the authors are wasting paper/airtime on this worthless character who doesn’t bring anything interesting to the table in the first place.

    Also, the set-up-and-pay-off bit is also another reason for the Mary Sue disgust. In this case, the female Sues (mostly found in romance or being the romantic interests) are out of luck because the romance genre is one where if the writing is bad/mediocre, then there’s nothing to distract the audience from the fact that a character is under-developped and so not interesting to watch them at all, much less dragging another character who might be interesting down in a sub-par romance where pairings, to be interesting, require TWO interesting characters to work well together instead of just one. Meanwhile, in the action/adventure genre, if the writing is bad/mediocre, you don’t notice it or you forgive it because you get distracted by the awesome action scenes, also allowing for the Marty Stu character to have his pay off in response to the set-up of his great skills.

    So James Bond, for all that he’s a huge Mary Sue with little to no personality, gets a pass because most audience members don’t notice or don’t care, since unlike in the romance or the romantic subgenre, it’s not a prerequisite and the awesome gadgets and stunts are the real reason most are watching the movie.

    In short, it’s easier to pay off a set-up skill-set than it is to pay off a personality. In a romance (straight or a sub-plot), the reason you’re watching is character development. So, in this case, WHERE you find the female vs. male Sues counts for the disparity in numbers, I feel.

    I’m not denying that there is some sexism going on, but I think the reason above is also a problem and that people should walk away from romantic sub-plots if they’re not going to take the story anywhere.

    HBP, the weakest book in the entire series by far, read more like a high school sports romcom with a tragic subplot. Did the romance take the plot interesting places or do anything? Nope. Even the Ron/Hermione parts (and this is a Ronmione fan saying this) didn’t add anything to the story and could’ve been skipped out on and it wouldn’t have changed much of anything in the overall plot. You could’ve taken off all of the high school sports romcom stuff, used the small tragic subplot leftovers to be a prologue, and mixed it with the beginning of DH and it would’ve been a better story. Even the Ron/Hermione getting together thing would’ve been a lot stronger if it had been after Ron literally killed his own insecurities by destroying the locket than whatever the bloody hell that was in HBP.

    And that’s just one example of when the romantic sub-plot is shoved to the forefront while sacrificing the plot that the audience is more interested in watching. Naturally, a lot of people despise the herald of this annoying subplot they never wanted and is taking up space that could’ve gone to a more interesting part of the story: the love interest.

    TL;DR authors need to stop shoving in romantic subplots where they’re not wanted or necessary. Being single and the main character ISN’T a sin.

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