Oh, the Mary Sue. Frequently the bane of my existence. The few books I actively hate have Mary Sue characters as the leads. But what is it about the Mary Sue that enrages so many readers? And what is it about her that many others really enjoy?
So first, who is Mary Sue? Well, you know you’re reading a Mary Sue novel if your heroine (or your hero, known to some as Gary Stu):
- has no real faults as a person/characters, except those that are “adorable”
- is liked or loved by every member of the desired sex (whether male or female)
- is only hated or disliked by the bad guys or people who are jealous
- has unlikely (or sometimes impossible) physical characteristics (like naturally blue-green hair, or eyes that change color dramatically from, let’s say, violet to brown to black) and/or “exotically” beautiful
- is talented (frequently exceptionally so) in all the areas that matter in the story (they can fight in any style known to man, knit a sweater in an hour, all while taking care of a newborn, but can’t cook worth a darn, because why bother?)
- is pretty much perfect in every way
There doesn’t seem to be complete consensus on a definition, but from what I’ve seen, it looks like Mary Sue started off as something out of fanfiction, specifically from Star Trek fanfiction, but has grown to be so much more than that. A Mary Sue is basically a wish-fulfillment character, taking everything that the author wants to be, or that the author thinks of as ideal, and focusing it all on one individual.
The reason I personally find them so vexing is that I cannot identify with a perfect character. I am not perfect. No one I know is perfect, and I don’t expect them to be. So why are the characters in my romance novel perfect? It makes them unbelievable to the point of… I don’t know what. Ridiculousness? Rage? Tears?
To be completely fair, though, Mary Sue characters aren’t always bad. In her Masters project (click for master list of links), J.M. Frey wrote about Mary Sues and how important they are in developing as a writer. Now, as I’ve said, I’m not a fan, but it’s hard to argue with:
… a good Mary Sue story – well written, consciously plotted and with an emphasis of the inherently meta nature of the Mary Sue – can exist and can be meaningful and break down walls and make the reader think. (from her website, link above)
There is something that, I agree, is inherently meta about a Mary Sue. In a way, she (or he) breaks the fourth wall, basically addressing the audience with her identity. In her original format of fanfiction, she doesn’t fit into the main story line, but pulls all the characters into her own personal story. Meta Sue, the incarnation Frey is talking about, knows that she isn’t part of the actual story, but simply has to do the best she can with what she has. As someone who has read fanfiction (fangirl and proud of it!), I know that there is so, so much terrible writing out there, but there are gems that shine through, and, sometimes, Mary Sue can be a part of that.
And there are many variations on the theme – Einstein Sue, Sympathetic Sue, Jerk Sue, and Meta Sue just to name a few. I’m sure you can guess what some of those entail. The thing is, it can actually work if the author does it right! Many of the variations work better than the original – like the Jerk Sue, who has some serious anger issues, or the Sympathetic Sue who is so overwhelmed by trying to be good, she goes completely bonkers. And, now that I am thinking about it, the children’s cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a really good example of all the different Sue types out there. Even the Bronies get to be part of it as Stus! And it works!
With romance novels, I think it is a particularly difficult line to tread for the author. You want a character that your readers relate to, and yet you want her to be worthy of this great guy you have waiting in the wings. And certain characteristics of a Mary Sue – being beautiful and talented, for instance – make a great romance heroine. But I find the heroines that work the best are also forgetful, over-thinking things, sarcastic, or occasionally selfish. They are just more real.
Some Mary Sues (and Gary Stus) in published fiction (pulled from both my personal experience and from around the web) include:
- Bella Swan – Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- Anita Blake – Guilty Pleasures, et al by Laurell K. Hamilton
- Eragon (and Arya) – Eragon, et al by Christopher Paolini
- Ginny Weasley – Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
- James Bond – any number of novels by Ian Fleming
- Scarlett O’Hara – Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- Sara Crewe – A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett
And even though he started as a TV character, I can’t help but include Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Are there any Mary Sues that you’ve read? Are you for or against Mary Sue characters?
– Melanie Bopp