image: ongoingworlds.com / Ensign Sue Must Die

Mary Sue: What the Hell are you talking about, Jo

It’s time for me to talk about Mary Sues.

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Hold me, Aragorn! Or Tom. You know, whoever’s free. (image: giphy.com)

I’ve mentioned them on the blog before, mainly when I was doing my Strong Female Characters series. The term ‘Mary Sue’ has become a great piece of critical shorthand, so it often came in handy. I spent quite a lot of time trying to work out whether certain characters were Mary Sues, but often didn’t really have the time to go into a huge amount of detail.

GET READY FOR HUGE AMOUNTS OF DETAIL, GUYS!

Briefly put, a Mary Sue is a certain type of poorly-written character. Often (but not exclusively) seen in fanfiction, what really makes these characters stand out is that they’re just so perfect. They never have any flaws – or if they do, their flaws only make them more appealing, and never actually cause any real problems for them. They’re often physically attractive. They’re usually teenage girls, often with more than one love interest (or villain) passionately declaring their love before the story’s over. They’ll have a dark and tragic past, but the consequences of this are never fully explored – it’s just a secret our Sue can reveal when she wants sympathy. She never fails. She’s always an expert in everything she does, whether it’s speaking alien languages or mastering ancient martial arts. All the good guys love her, all the bad guys want her to give in and join the dark side, and she always saves the day.

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Seems the day needs some saving expertise. (image: uproxx.wordpress.com)

Essentially, they’re really, really annoying.

When you get right down to it, Mary Sues aren’t really proper characters. Most fictional characters (and yes, I am about to make a sweeping generalisation here) are intended to reflect real people. A well-written character should seem human, with all the messiness that being human entails. Mary Sues don’t have that messiness.

This isn’t all that uncommon in characters, though. Mary Sue is a pretty modern term, but the flawless and ideal character the term describes goes back centuries. If you look at most classic fairy tales – such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White – most of these characters could be described as Mary Sues. The original stories just don’t focus on the mechanics of their characters, so they’re often described in very broad strokes. They are kind, and good, and meek, and that’s all they are. A lot of this comes down to the purpose that fairy tales fulfilled. While on some level, they are told for sheer enjoyment of the story, a lot of them were also told as a way of showing people how to behave. Charles Perrault, in his seminal collection of fairy tales, made this explicit by adding a few lines to the end of each story that explained the moral in no uncertain terms.

The invention of the novel as a story-telling format didn’t kill off Mary Sues, either. (You can’t kill off a Sue, they’re too perfect.) The moralising Sue is a staple of nineteenth-century literature, particularly literature aimed at children and young girls. Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little Princess, Heidi – all of these books are children’s classics, but all of them are based around characters that are so perfect that they don’t seem like real children. This is because they were never meant to. Heidi, Sara and Cedric are ideals, not accurate portrayals of children. Every flaw has been ironed out. They’re good, obedient, cheerful, resilient, and say their prayers every night, just as the ideal nineteenth-century child was supposed to. Overworked governesses probably found them very useful.

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Along with a few other things. (image: pinterest.com)

The other form a Mary Sue can take is a self-insert. This is exactly what it sounds like: an author living out an adventure by writing themselves an avatar in the story. This is the form more modern Mary Sues take, and this too has its roots in nineteenth-century literature. It carried on all the way up to the 1970s, when Paula Smith first coined the term in ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’, a short parody about the adventures of Lieutenant Mary Sue, youngest officer in the star fleet, that was published in a fanzine.

Since then, the term has blossomed, like a beautiful and perfect sparkle-flower. Readers have become much sharper when it comes to spotting Sues, so now the term ‘Mary Sue’ is more like a big sparkly umbrella that encompasses lots of smaller categories. Here are some of them:

  • Classic Sue: practically perfect in every way. Beautiful, cheerful and sickeningly sweet.
  • Marty Stu: the same, but a guy. Surprisingly rare, for reasons I’ll talk about in another post.
  • Jerk Sue: angry, sometimes violent, always wearing a ton of black eyeliner. For some reason everyone loves her.
  • Twagic Sue: basically exists to have terrible things happen to her and then die meaningfully. The definition of a lost little lamb.
  • Villain Sue: the most successful cape-wearing villain ever. Also she’s really hot.
  • Relationship Sue: exists only to date the author’s character of choice.

There are more. Thousands more. Fortunately, I found this handy-dandy chart.

Chances are you’ve come across some of these characters before, and hopefully at least got a good laugh out of them. Who can forget Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way, the most goffik student Hogwarts has ever known? What about Jenna Silverblade, Link’s one true love, secret elemental, and tireless nymphomaniac? Or how about Atlantiana “Tia” Rebekah Loren, Edward Cullen’s infinitely more gothic soulmate? They’re overpowered, they’re ridiculous, and they’ve got all the boys wrapped around their finger – but you could probably sneak off in the time it takes for them to say their full name. And that’s not even counting the Mary Sues who are in books that were actually published.

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NAMING NO NAMES. (image: wikimedia.org)

I’ve got a lot to say, so here’s what I’m going to do. This post will be the first of a short mini-series where I talk about Sues until I’m blue in the face. Why are Mary Sues so reviled (apart from the fact that they’re really annoying)? Where does gender come into all of this? Is there a way that Mary Sues can be a good thing? These are some of the questions I will try and answer, before I get sidetracked and start laughing about their stupid names.

So choose a ten-syllable name, grab your pet unicorn and prepare your tragic backstory. It’s about to get perfect up in here.

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2 thoughts on “Mary Sue: What the Hell are you talking about, Jo”

  1. I always felt that what makes a Mary Sue is not how they look like or their abilities, but more how the plot revolves around them and how other characters react to them, especially how they react when they make a mistake.
    Take Harry Potter for example. In the books, he does have a lot of traits which can be considered markers for a Mary Sue – a special eye colour, a destiny, being supertalented in Quidditch and Defence against the Dark Arts – but he isn’t a Gary Stu because he is allowed to make mistakes and when he does make a mistake, it does have consequences, from detention to someone dying. But Harry Potter in fanfictions, urgh, he is often very annoying. He can do whatever he wants and it works, he is often incredible preachy but nobody ever calls him out on it but simply agrees with him (meaning with the writer, who is venting about the unfairness of the world JKR created) and the people who don’t get their comeuppance very swiftly.
    See, I don’t mind Cinderella getting magical help and her dress, because after all what her family did to her, she deserves some happiness, so this is kind of cathartic. I also don’t mind stories about people holding onto their morals in difficult situations as long as holding onto them described as the struggle it should be (this is why Sara Crew works for me, because she often does want to do the selfish thing and she does have a breaking point). What I do mind though is people who go through live without any real struggle. And those are Mary Sues, if they experience a struggle it is never something substantial, it never has a lasting impact on their psyche and they always get their revenge in the end. They can act as selfish and preachy as they want, the reader is expected to love them for it. And in fanfiction there is the additional problem that people who read fanfiction want to read something about the characters they love, they don’t want to see them pushed aside by some annoying newboe.

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