Skip to main content

We have to stop debating Mary Sues

marysue

Let’s talk about Mary Sues. Again.

As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, Star Wars has got people talking once again about Mary Sues, after people criticized Rey for being too capable to be believable. This “Mary Sue” label has been critiqued to death, with many, many people pointing out its sexist connotations.

But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the term “Mary Sue” isn’t just annoying, but actively harmful to younger viewers. The label “Mary Sue” suggests that a character is poorly written, and that only undiscerning and uncultured people could like them. This probably doesn’t change our opinions on characters when we’re older, but it definitely influenced me as a teenager, and I doubt I’m the only one. By allowing the term “Mary Sue” to masquerade as literary criticism, even by discussing how “Mary Sue-ish” or un-“Mary Sue-ish” a character might be, we reinforce this idea that a female protagonist can be too powerful, and end up taking empowering narratives away from readers and viewers.

My first experience with the term “Mary Sue,” outside of fanfiction, was with Tamora Pierce’s fantastic Tortall books. I’m definitely not the only person who was first exposed to female protagonists in fantasy novels through Alanna and her badass knightly adventures, and who fell in love with Pierce’s characters and world. But as soon as I logged onto the internet, I discovered that, actually, I wasn’t supposed to like Alanna, because she was a “Mary Sue.”

At the time, I had no defense against that criticism. Because yes, Alanna is special. She has purple eyes and a magic cat and almost no-one notices that she’s a girl in eight years of training to be a knight, and both the prince and the king of thieves fall desperately in love with her. But so what? These are kids’ books, aimed at twelve year olds, and the Special Chosen One is a common fantasy trope. Who at twelve doesn’t want to read about a tiny redhead who beats much larger and stronger enemies with her ingenuity and defeats evil with her short temper and super special cat? It’s awesome. But when nerdy girls like me went online to read more about this series we loved, we were told by general consensus that this fantastic character was unrealistic and poorly written, and that we had bad taste for liking it.

Again, that’s not something that would bother many adults. But it’s a tough thing to handle in the “not like other girls” climate of younger teenager years, when girls have learned that “girls like stupid things” and can find it difficult to establish the legitimacy of their tastes. For my part, I kept reading Tamora Pierce, but I insisted Daine, the protagonist of the second series, was my favorite — a character who’s just as Special, but received less attention online, and so was safe to like.

And the term has power, in that landscape of wanting to like the right things, because it pretends to be indisputable literary criticism. It suggests a problem in the craft of a story, rather than an issue of personal taste, and so seems to carry a lot of weight. It also carries a great deal of embarrassment with it. A Mary Sue isn’t just bad writing, she’s inherently mockable, a foolish, unrealistic fantasy that nobody should admit to liking. If your favorite character is a Mary Sue, then you are foolish and mockable too. Or so it implies.

Of course, “Mary Sue” is hardly a serious literary term. But by engaging in discussion about the “Mary Sue-ness” of characters, we are still validating it as literary criticism, giving it more and more weight. And it comes from a really disparaging place. Even the original meaning is insulting, making self-insert characters in fanfiction into the Worst Thing In The World, rather than just a common element in young writers’ stories. When the term was first used to describe protagonists in published fiction (or at least, the way it was used ten to fifteen years ago), it suggested that the protagonist must be the female author’s self-insert fantasy, or else the male writer’s magical girlfriend fantasy. Now it’s turned into a catch-all critical term for “I don’t think it’s realistic for this female character to act this way,” but the element of mockable female fantasy remains.

And the term digs deep. It’s not just female perfection that’s unrealistic, but specialness, talent, strength, uniqueness, awesomeness… whenever it’s used to describe a compelling and capable female character, it suggests that female characters need to be diminished to be realistic, and so also implies that girls in general need to be diminished to be realistic. At the very least, it sets up the idea that a girl needs to be smaller to be liked.

And this has a real world effect. It affects the stories that girls feel it’s OK to enjoy, and it affects what stories they might create themselves. Compelling female characters like Rey can’t inspire their target demographic if they’re told that they have bad taste if they like her, and we’ll miss out on inspiring female protagonists altogether if aspiring young writers constantly hear that they have to make their female characters lesser to write well. Sexism masquerading as literary criticism is annoying to those of us who have seen it all before, but when we’re too young to catch on to the “sexism” part, it can have a serious effect on our tastes and on the things we believe we’re allowed to like. Worst, it can have a serious effect on how we think about ourselves and about what women are supposed to be.

So we need to stop debating whether characters are Mary Sues, as though the term actually has merit. We have to stop acknowledging this idea that strength is a female character flaw. And we have to stop policing potentially powerful role models for young female readers, purple eyes and magic cats and all.

Rhiannon

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

14 thoughts on “We have to stop debating Mary Sues

  1. Funny thing, when I did the “Mary Sue” test for male characters like Drizzt Do’urden, Elminster or even Spiderman, they ranked higher than some of the female characters they use as prime example of Mary Sues. So, whever someone star with that, I suggest that they apply the same standard to their heroes. Usually the rank as Mary Sues and I don’t even change the term to Marty Stu.

    In fact, Elminster is the biggest Mary Sue Ever. Laws of magic don’t apply to him, he’s an old man who sleeps with all the beatifull female characters, including a Goddess, several sisters… And everything ends well for him. For no reason but “plot armor”. Aham, sure. Same for drizzt (though he ranked lower than Elminster): exotic race, extrange eye color for his race, cool pet, all women fall for him including evil priestess, an so on…

    The real problem is that some male fantasies include that we are second best at most. In fact, second best is usually prefered, because then, they can foul themselves that they aren’t sexist by limiting women options. Afeter all “they love us!”. Or something on those lines. Usually, men who don’t share that “second best” fantasy, don’t bother about “Mary Sues” and can enjoy female characters as well. I mean, no one wonders why Harry Potter has to save the world at 11-17 years old? It’s more or less the same than Alana.

    Anyway, it’s not for all skill sets, they usually don’t have a problem with female characters being the “best healers” or “best supporting role”. It’s just with being the best “main role”.

    Potential suggestion: publish the result of the Mary Sue test for popular male characters and lest see what happens. We focus so much on man take on female characters is only fair they know our take on male characters. Anakin, Geralt de Rivia or any of the popular ones would do XD

  2. Oh man, when I first came to this column I saw the photo of Alanna and was like “Aw yeah, Song of the Lioness quartet!” and then I saw the title and was like “Are you kidding?? ALANNA got slapped with the Mary-Sue label??” I read those book long enough ago that I never looked them up online, so I didn’t realize until now she/the books were subject to that BS. Because of course they were. Bloody hell.

    I don’t remember which book it is, but this makes me think of the one where Alanna’s an adult and she’s out in the desert with Tortall’s version of Bedouins trying to teach several children magic, two girls and a boy. And I remember how she was an inspiration and role-model to the two orphan girls….and how the boy continuously grew more and more jealous of Alanna’s power until he finally steals a magical artifact from her and gives her this long rant about how it’s not FAIR that she gets all this SPECIAL stuff/abilities…and then he’s consumed into oblivion by his own dark magic.

    …this segment somehow feels even more satisfying in retrospect.

  3. I prefer flawed characters with both strengths and weaknessess. But if Mary Sues are an issue, then the world is full of male Mary Sues. Why is it just a problem when women are “too much”? Why isn’t anyone question the powers of Marvel’s Thor, or Hulk, or Superman, who are almost invinceble? Or any other male character who seems to be able to do almost anything without problem, without trauma afterwards etc.

  4. I remember in the Protector of the Small books, one of the sequels to Song of the Lioness, one of the conflicts was based on the fact that the antagonists claimed that Alanna didn’t count as a strong female knight because she had divine backing and such powerful magic supporting her. The logic was that she had so much going for her she couldn’t be used as an indication of what normal girls were capable of, and average girl Kel had to succeed just as much for people to buy that ordinary women could be strong enough to be knights. Now I wonder if this was influenced by real-life Mary Sue accusations. If it was, at least we got an awesome heroine out of it; Kel’s tied with Aly for my favorite Tortall character.

  5. I’m going to disagree on the existence and value of the term Mary Sue. “Mary Sues” and “Gary Stus” really do exist and it’s a valid criticism – it’s just that they, especially the female version, are far rarer than people often make it out to be, and the term is overused and often misapplied. Sadly, “Mary Sue” has become just an easy way to dismiss powerful female protagonists, often for the same traits that are never criticized in male protagonists. Or simply to put down characters one doesn’t like.

    But Mary Sue/Gary Stu characters do exist. The worst Mary Sue I’ve ever encountered was in one really terrible Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fanfic I read years ago. Another example of a Mary Sue character was in one very bad historical fiction/romance novel I read last year. Neither of these characters had special powers or the role of a “chosen one” or anything like that. The latter character wasn’t entirely bad, it was a classic “plucky bold lovable heroine” type of character that pops up in historical fiction – unoriginal but not in herself awful. But what pushed her way into the Mary Sue territory way the narrative kept telling us she was more beautiful, bolder, stronger, better, perfect, more fertile, a better mother, and superior to the female characters she was contrasted with, and the way everybody in the books (except for one or two evil jealous women and one bad gay husband) found her irresistible and charming kept falling over themselves to tell her how awesome she is – even all the noblepeople and royalty kept fawning over her, a commoner from the country. The former character from a fanfic was even worse – because the narration kept *telling* us what a powerful personality and presence she has, how everyone is in awe of her and how formidable and wonderful she is and how romantic and amazing her actions are, while all that was actually shown made her look like an arrogant, selfish, racist, incompetent, pathetic person who never should have reached the post of admiral she had in the narrative, and who was also very obviously committing treason for the most selfish personal reasons (love for the canonical villainous male character that the author of the fanfic clearly adored) right from the start, so it was unbelievable that nobody arrested her right away. It was the most morally bankrupt, twisted piece of fiction I’ve ever read.

    Similarly, I can think of at least two examples of blatant Gary Stus, both canonical – one a comedy one, the other not: one was “the Immortal”, unseen character in the shamefully atrocious Angel episode “The Girl in Question”, who was described in such ridiculously extreme fashion that no real person could probably ever live up to that (ironically, Buffy the Vampire Slayer had previously had Jonathan make himself a Gary Stu figure in a fantasy reality; The Girl in Question would have worked as a comedy episode if only the writers had framed the story as a fantasy devised by a character in the story). The other blatant Gary Stu is the Game of Thrones version of Tyrion Lannister as written in season 5. “Saint Tyrion” is not just supposed to be the perfectly awesome and great guy – it’s the blatantly unrealistic reactions of everyone he meets that make him a Gary Stu. Varys follows him around just so he can tell him how awesome he is (and apparently with no hidden agenda!), a sex slave offers him free sex (?!) because he’s so nice and funny, slavers free him for striking other slavers (?!), Daenerys makes him her chief advisor after knowing him for 5 minutes and listening to his condescending speech, and in the end he’s simply handed a city to rule, even though he’s a foreigner who’s been there for a couple of days.

    And this is what makes a character a Mary Sue/Gary Stu. It’s not having superpowers. It’s not being exceptionally intelligent, athletic, beautiful, or capable. It’s not being “the chosen one” due to destiny. It’s not becoming a leader and hero due to performing some genuine feats of courage, leadership, compassion, etc. It’s not being very charismatic and/or the object of love and/or desire for many people, if the character convincingly possesses charisma, strength, and other qualities that make these reactions believable, or there are other reasons why people feel about them that way, and if the reactions of other people don’t go beyond what would be realistic in the circumstances. Mary Sues/Gary Stus are characters that the narrative is telling you you should adore and find wonderful because they are supposed to be perfect and everyone in universe finds them wonderful, while failing to make that plausible at all in what it’s actually showing. If the narrative shows you someone who’s really heroic, they are not a Mary Sue/Gary Stu; they are if the narrative tells you they are a hero while failing to convince you they are. If the narrative shows you a genuinely charming, charismatic person that a lot of other characters are plausibly drawn to, this is not a Mary Sue/Gary Stu character; if the narrative tells you “this character is irresistible” and shows everyone falling for them while you’re left wondering “what the hell do all those people find in him/her?”, that’s a Mary Sue/Gary Stu.

    1. This.

      Many people tend to forget that there are more points on the Mary-Sue-list than the aspects of a “very special snowflake”. Most comic book/manga/anime-characters tend to be special snowflakes but that doesn´t necessarily make them a Mary Sue. Writing a Mary Sue is a severe quality issue of which i find the following parts of a random Mary-Sue-Checklist very decisive:

      – Do you never allow other characters to dislike them or do you punish those other characters for disliking your character by portraying them negatively and/or making something terrible happen to them? (For example; making them unlikable, a secondary villain, or having the one character that dislikes the Mary Sue “coincidentally” have their home destroyed)

      For this point the television-Tyrion is indeed a perfect example: In the very moment Shae turns against him, she is instantly vilified and what in the book version was a coldblooded murder is justified by portraying her attacking Tyrion first.

      Also notable:

      – Does their personal morality always perfectly match objective reality? To put it another way, would there be any difference between describing their opinion and simply narrating what was actually going on in a scene?

      – Do they always make good decisions? And/or bad ones that are suddenly revealed to have been a good choice?

      The thing is, that a Mary Sue is in essence the product of a self-insertion horribly gone wrong, which often happens exactly in those kind of fan fictions in which the term originated or in novels written for already existing universes:
      The author doesn´t just want his character to be special…teenies for example love very special and powerful characters and identify with them, as said… no, he wants him to be absolutely likeable with anyone disliking him being an asshole, he wants him always to do the right thing even if the fictive reality litteraly has to bend and twist itself to fullfill this intention and he wants him to be the center of the earth, with everyone else just being background actors who only exist to serve and support this characters narrative.

      If you like a character and don´t consider yourself biased in your opinion for any reason then the character probably isn´t a Mary Sue. Mary Sues tend to smell….fishy…and are mostly quite obvious to any objective person.
      The absolute and most hilarious female Mary Sue i can think of and which basically fullfills all the points on the Mary-Sue-checklist would be Alice from the Resident Evil-movies, especially if you know the games.

    2. That’s a good point, but then I have to wonder, does the term “Mary Sue” have any value any more, even to describe characters like that? It’s been used to mean so many different things that we can’t really use it now without qualifying *exactly* what we mean. Perhaps it would be better for critics to describe those character issues without using the label, since at this point it confuses things more than it clarifies them.

  6. Mary should simply remain a fanfiction term. When an OC is inserted into a story and suddenly fixes everything, has all the answers, everyone loves them, nothing really goes wrong, is the most powerful, etc. (and even when they arent in a scene someone has to bring them up and talk about how great the oc is)

    I think what matters more is the conflict and how the character deals with it. A powerful/special protagonist that still has to struggle probably makes for a better story than a protagonist that is a blank slate with no real great qualities and has everything go their way.

    Personally I like Taylor/Skitter from the web serial Worm by Wildbow. She has the power to control bugs in a world when people can destroy building and shoot all kind of lasers and projectiles, pretty much any power short of psychics, She has to use resourcefulness and determination to deal with her enemies who most of the time are above her weight class in terms of powers.

  7. Great article! I fully agree! I used to worry about my favourite characters being called Mary Sues too, and a while ago decided I would just stop doing that because there are soooo many male Mary Sue characters and nobody calls them Mary Sues. It’s so obviously mostly used as derogatory term for female characters, it’s just become one more sexism thing in entertainment. Which makes the term totally useless now for what it originally meant.
    It helps that I’m older now, but I’m not apologising anymore for my fave characters being my faves.

  8. I think “everyone adores them and no one criticises their behaviour because their world view is objectively right” is the true hallmark of the Mary Sue/Marty Stu.

  9. I’m with vodooqueen126 regarding the definition of Marty Stu/Mary Sues. A lot of female characters get slapped with the label nowadays just for being strong, or even disliked by the audience, and that’s unfair and a misuse of the term, but it’s important to note that they exist.

    As other people has said, I consider that there’s way more Marty Stu’s than Mary Sues (except in fanfiction, but that’s another story). In fact, the first thing I think about when I hear Mary Sue is Kvothe from the Name of the wind, who is so clearly made from wish fulfillment that it hurts. Everything he does is so outstanding, awesome-beyond-possible and special-snowflake-y that it reaches absurd levels. His parents are killed and he ends up living in the forest, and that night he ~dreams~ of everything he needs to eat/do in order to survive (I shit you not), when it would be perfectly plausible for him to know, since his parents are bards and they’re always traveling with a troupe. But nope, he has to dream about it because the author didn’t know how to survive in a forest and neither did the audience, and if Kvothe knew about it thanks to magic dreams it wouldn’t seem as if he had a lot more of knowledge than the readers and led a radically different lifestyle, so the audience would still be able to relate to/self-insert them into the character.

    Also, he masters magic and languages inmediately, gets paid to go to university because he’s just SO CLEVER and SO AWESOME that the teachers are all over him, except that one baddie teacher who’s a bad guy because of course, how he dares to resent a kid who basically acts like he shits gold and insists on getting advantage over his classmates. There’s another classmate of his that is cartoony-evil and also sexist and… Evil. Yep, that’s literally all he is. There’s no more character depth for the bad guys than their evilness, because Kvothe may look like more of an asshole otherwise (not that he doesn’t already). Everyone who is not a baddie is his friend/adores him/loves him/lusts after him and those that don’t are bad people whose only living purpose is to torture Kvothe, something that always ends up biting them in the ass because Kvothe is special and gets all the karmic justice served, of course. I stopped reading after the first book but I’ve heard, from the same friend that recommended me the books and loves the series, that in the second he becomes a womanizer after sleeping with a goddess that turns all the men who sleep with her crazy (except Kvothe, of course, because he’s covered in Mary Sue Awesomeness) and starts to kill people that are as cartoonishly evil as his baddie classmate and totally deserved it. Those books should be called “Marty Stu: the series”, the morality there is so black and white that pokémon could be more nuanced.

    All the female Mary Sues I’ve have seen were in fanfics (My Immortal, anyone?), althought I’ve seen people call some good-written, rounded and strong characters that. Being badass is not the same as being a Mary Sue, and Rey and Alanna aren’t Mary Sues by any stretch of the imagination.

  10. Given that most fictional characters tend to be ridiculously over skilled (did you know sam from quantum leap has seven doctorates!?!) Its frustrating that people only tend to take with the female characters while the male ones get a free pass.

  11. Great article thanks ! I learned the term Mary Sue recently and when checking the “points” of what make a character a mary sue, I always was like “but it describe so many male protagonists in various official medias so what the point ?oO”.
    After reflexion, I decided to call a “sue”, these sort of characters for which the author bend the story rules itself to never show them in bad light, or worse, to work every narrative tools they can think about to made the reader side with this “sue” no matter what. And that happens mostly because the author can’t put any distance between them and the character they project in. Perfection don’t enter in line, because when it come to imagination, everything can be possible if presented fairly to the reader by story-rules setting by the author.

    And when I read, I mostly see this happening with white male able-bodied protagonists in “canon” media. Which is, in my opinion, more offendable than in some fanfiction. Because fanfiction are in reaction to the absence of enought representations for group of peoples (people of color, women of color disabled, etc etc) and the need to escape all these real-life chains that is put on them.

    Not sure if I’m understandable (english isn’t my native tongue), but it’s really great there is a talk about it, thanks again !!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *