When Rey was introduced as the protagonist of the new Star Wars trilogy in December of 2015, the internet’s reactions were, predictably, very mixed. Many little girls were absolutely thrilled to see someone like them up on the screen. Others were…less pleased.
True fandom die-hards came out of the woodwork to scream their frustration at the writing of the new trilogy, the poor treatment of the characters they loved, and, most of all, the new protagonist, who quickly gained one of the most infamous titles in fandom: Mary Sue.
The moniker is frequently thrown around for female leads in fiction, and it's one of the most universally hated character types. But what exactly qualifies a character as a Mary Sue?
Lieutenant Mary Sue
A Mary Sue, according to Dictionary.com, is “a fictional character, usually female, who is seen as too perfect and almost boring for lack of flaws.” The term originated with a character who appeared in a Star Trek fanzine in 1973.
The character, fifteen-and-a-half-year-old Lieutenant Mary Sue, was a satirical representation of author-insert characters in some of the popular fanfiction that’d begun appearing at the time. She was loved by everyone on the Enterprise, had no flaws, and had Captain Kirk throwing himself at her feet (despite the obvious and frankly disturbing age gap).
The author was trying to make the point that characters written in this style were silly and not believable, and made a piece of fiction hard to read because of their utter lack of depth. She was not, however, really saying that these characters were bad — the piece was poking fun of a part of the fandom the author herself, Paula Smith, was a part of.
The term came over time to refer to many women in fanfiction, though, and it was not accompanied by a flattering or gently teasing tone. At first, a Mary Sue was strictly a poorly-written female author insert character that was absolutely perfect in every way and universally loved. And then it became any poorly-written female character that was perfect in most ways and universally loved (except of course by the villain in the end). Eventually, it morphed into being used as a derogatory and dismissing term for any female character regardless of her other qualities.
As more and more female leads emerged in wider media, older members of fandom (mostly male) started calling them Mary Sues as well, which only muddied the definition further. Now, it’s harder than ever to decide what does and does not qualify as Mary Sue writing. Let’s clear that up, shall we?
Defining Mary Sue
Let’s make a quick list of qualities that originally defined Lieutenant Mary Sue.
She was very young, and yet somehow in a position of power.
She was innocent and sweet, using phrasing like “Golly gee!”
She never annoyed or bothered anyone, and had no enemies.
She had all of the male leads throwing themselves at her feet even when it was completely out of character.
Although she had no training of any kind, she was able to resolve every problem she came across in a witty, clever way with almost no effort.
She won unrealistically prestigious awards for her feats.
She was “special,” in the original case because she was the only other half-Vulcan besides Spock.
Her passing, in a typically tragic but not unflattering way, was universally mourned so much that a holiday was put in place to celebrate her.
Some of these features could be good character traits and can even be incorporated into phenomenal writing. Young characters in a position of power can cause intrigue, especially if they are found to be either proteges or puppets of a larger force. A meek character with no enemies might be an excellent mentor figure or the perfect mask for a dark past. Even a character that everyone throws themselves at can be realistic if they have something extraordinary about them to attract that kind of attention.
Some might just be indications of poor writing or story structure. A character able to resolve anything without training might be a sign that you need to add more detail to the character’s story to allow them to accomplish this feat. The awards being unrealistic might mean you need to research appropriate compensation for different feats. Your character’s passing marking the start of a holiday might be fixed by making it more specific, to a single region or culture.
Combining all of these features together, though, makes for a character that lacks any depth or true arc other than to be a pretty prize or centerpiece. This, then, might be how we qualify Mary Sues. You could say that to be a Mary Sue, a character must:
Have little or no personal story or agency beyond their age and appearance and somehow still be a “chosen one” archetype.
Be universally loved regardless of their actions and demeanor.
Have grand, sweeping accomplishments and accolades that are utterly undeserved and unrealistically achieved.
Now, obviously, this combination does not bode well for the rest of the story. If your main character is this bad, what does the rest of the cast look like?
A Sadly Storyless Supporting Cast
A Mary Sue isn’t made on her own. A lot of her traits come from the people around her. Because Mary Sues originate in particularly amateur (note: I don’t say bad, because it’s all just for fun regardless of its objective quality) fanfiction, they’re often associated with other fanfiction tropes. Chief among this is the subject media’s popular characters being paired with original characters, even if it doesn’t necessarily make sense for them to do so.
This trope, that of being Out of Character, is common in fanfiction. Sometimes it’s used to the story’s advantage; stories that are written in alternate universes sometimes require characters to change and adapt, and “crack” or intentionally silly and unrealistic fanfiction can take a character and turn them into a caricature for satirical purposes (which is exactly what the original Lieutenant Mary Sue was designed to do).
Sometimes, though, it’s unintentional and a result of a writer being either inexperienced or not overly familiar with the main media. Because it was created out of source material, it’s easy for fans to notice when a character they’re already familiar with takes a sharp turn from the actions they're expected to take.
In original fiction, however, the audience has no reference point to how a character should act, so if they are getting that same Out of Character feeling, it indicates a deeper flaw with the writing as a whole rather than a single character. A character can feel wildly out of place if they are not integrated into the setting properly. In the case of Mary Sue companions, this usually comes in the form of characters that exist for no other purpose than to glorify the protagonist. These come in a couple of different forms.
The best friend, who is never alone or without the protagonist and speaks of absolutely nothing else but her (never critically, of course).
The love interest (or interests), who may or may not have some semblance of personal stories and goals that are never acted upon because they have an intense, often unhealthy obsession with the protagonist.
The “rival.” This one may come as a surprise, given that everyone is supposed to love the protagonist, but many of these stories include a “mean girl” who is ultimately humiliated and triumphed over or assimilated into the protagonist’s circle when they realize how “wrong” they were.
Again, the defining characteristic of these people is that they are…not people. They’re props, and they don’t exist outside of the main character. Even if the protagonist isn’t present in the scene, they’ll talk of nothing else but her, which puts these stories in the interesting position of being unable to pass the reverse Bechdel test, the original version of which is supposed to test for bias in the writing of women in fiction. This, to me, is an indication that these stories go too far in “flipping the script” of typically misogynistic fiction, taking it too far in the other direction in a way that doesn't work.
Real people have their own motivations, personal histories, drives, and developmental arcs. If the rest of your characters can’t exist without your protagonist, you haven’t built a world; you’ve built a dreamscape. This, then, is another deciding factor of Mary Sue stories; the world revolves around them.
How to Catch Your Mary Sues
Knowing what we know now, if you want to avoid writing a Mary Sue, you can ask yourself these questions about your story:
What makes your character special? Is it something they have control over, or is it something that is ingrained in them from the beginning? If it’s something that’s inherent and unusual, you might have a Mary Sue.
Who are your character’s friends? Do they have their own stories and personalities? Do they ever talk about anything other than your character? If you answered “no” to the last two questions, you might have a Mary Sue.
What does your character accomplish? Do they have the skills necessary to accomplish this feat, and are they established long before this feat comes into play? If your answer to that last one is “no,” you might have a Mary Sue.
Is your character universally loved? Do their actions have any effect on other characters’ opinions of them, particularly negatively? If you answered “yes” then “no,” you might have a Mary Sue.
The individual answers to these questions are not indications of a character’s Mary Sue-ness; you have to take all of them into account together. What you’re looking for is a sense of reality about the world around your character. Characters can have inherent specialness, close friends that don’t appear in the story away from them, explicitly explained skillsets, and universal respect from the rest of the world. They can’t, however, have all of this and nothing else, because it’s just not realistic. We can’t suspend our disbelief in a world that doesn’t make sense.
You can definitely use this to your advantage. Are you writing from the perspective of a narcissist? Write a Mary Sue story! Want your audience to pick up on the fact that all of this is happening in a dream so you can dramatically reveal it later? Mary Sue it up! Want to satirize the genre or a particular character archetype? Morph them into a Mary Sue! Fiction is flexible and extremely versatile; “bad” fiction can be fantastic if you’ve got a good enough angle.
Here’s the secret, though: you can just…write Mary Sues.
Embracing Mary Sue
I mean it. Really. You can literally just write perfect, all-over loved author-insert characters that have a world revolving around them, and you don’t have to qualify it. You don’t need to add a big twist reveal or a super deep story, you don’t have to have a well-explained character or a love interest that makes sense. You don’t have to do anything I just explained to make your Mary Sue not a Mary Sue.
You want another big secret?
Fiction doesn’t have to be “good.”
“Good” is subjective. “Good” fiction is whatever an individual perceives as a pleasant piece, something that appeals to their interests and fits into what they have experienced as positive storytelling in the past. In other words, “good” fiction is, quite simply, fiction that makes you feel good.
If writing a story that would qualify as a Mary Sue story makes you happy, then wouldn’t that make it good fiction for you? So what’s the problem? What’s wrong with writing “unrealistically”?
If we policed every piece of fiction ever written with the same set of rules, we’d have stopped writing stories centuries ago. Writing fiction is a way of expressing one’s self; it’s a way of sharing emotions and concepts with others and creating a conversation, a connection to other people. Every story is a chance to learn more about ourselves, our style, our goals and values, and how we want those things to be remembered. It’s a way of growing.
So why not write Mary Sues? They’re silly and unrealistic, yes, but in the end, they’re still pretty fun to write and to read. And if they’re not? Move on, find another piece of fiction that’s fun for you. You can even rewrite the Mary Sue into a “proper story,” if that’ll make you happy, as long as you’re nice about it. I see no reason why authors should not be allowed to have fun with their characters, and to learn from bringing them into existence.
Bring on the Mary Sues, I say. I’ll love them as much as their worlds do.