This post was originally written by Merlin Missy in 2007. It is used with permission.
Throughout fanfiction, there is no character so reviled and yet so pervasive as the Mary Sue.
Mary Sue: *walks in combing her long, raven-colored locks and fluttering the pretty lashes of her deep violet eyes* Did someone call me?
Discussions abound regarding the character’s origins, her psychological significance, her attributes and features, her role as a post-modern feminist restructuring of a previously boys-only heroic genre.
Mary Sue: *aside to MM* My what now?
MM: *aside to MS* Why you’re here.
Mary Sue: Oh! I’m here to save the day! *swishes sword around expertly* I was trained in secret from an early age on weaponry and the arts of war. Also, I am a special snowflake.
MM: I see.
Mary Sues are a common character type in both professional fiction and fanfiction. They can evidence themselves as author-insertions (“She’s like me! And she’s hanging out with Frodo and Aragorn!”), wish-fulfillments (“Sharendriel the Fair is beloved of everyone who meets her! Except those mean villains!”), or sometimes as idealized mates who end up in relationships with author inserts (“Krista, an exotic beauty from Kleverston, was unsurpassed in her hand-to-hand combat skills and intelligence, but her heart belonged to Steve, the misunderstood gamer genius.”).
MS: That Steve sounds like quite a catch!
MM: Of course he does, dear. You were designed to be his perfect girlfriend.
There are many physical features common to Mary Sues, as well as certain commonalities to their backstories. Gather more than a few of these in one place, and it’s often a sign that an author is spending too much time on one character, and not enough on the actual story.
Some examples: unusual eye color (often violet); long, flowing hair, which is described in detail (really, any character whose hair is mentioned more than twice unless the hair is physically picking up and eating another character, because that would be kind of cool); names that are a takeoff on the author’s name, or his/her middle name; an angsty childhood, usually involving the loss of one or both parents and quite often abuse at the hands of the new caregivers; special powers that allow him/her to communicate with animals such as horses or birds; telepathy; a twin, clone, or close sibling of the same gender (especially if the author writes more tales about the twin); a heretofore unknown familial relationship with already-existent characters; a burgeoning romantic relationship with the existing character(s) of the author’s preference, despite any already present relationships; special abilities that overshadow similar abilities among existing characters (smarter, faster, stronger, better engineer); a certain “charming” klutziness that results in minor or major disasters but is rectified by the end of the piece; a heroically sacrificial “death” which is often fixed at the end or in the sequel, but fixed or not, the character is mourned by all, even to the point of reforming a villain by this noble gesture. Also, Mary Sues have a habit of being mentioned or described in story titles.MS: Wow! I’m a very busy girl!
MM: If it makes you feel any better, you tend to do this over multiple stories.
MS: I get multiple stories?
MM: Yes, because a big sign that an author has a Mary Sue is the author’s apparent abiding love for the character. If there’s a fanfic series all about one character, it’s probably you.
MS: You love me! You really love me!
With all those traits in hand, a character can still be written as a reasonably down-to-earth and well-rounded character.
MS: I can?
MM: Because well-rounded characters are good.
MS: *pause* Does that make me not good?
However, the difficulty in doing so tends to elude inexperienced writers, and even writers who have been at their craft for decades. Mary Sues are poor excuses for characters, but once a niche is located, they sell to people who want to pretend to be those same characters: literature as catharsis and/or escape for the reader.
MS: So I’m bad.
MM: You’re not bad.
MS: But I’m not well-rounded.
MM: Not usually, no
MS: *bounces out and bounces back in with a short wig and brown contact lenses* I’m fixed now, see? Well-rounded.
MM: You’re wearing a wig and contacts.
MS: But I don’t have long flowing hair or violet eyes.
MM: *taps foot* Were you still sold into slavery by your foster parents while your twin sister was raised in secrecy far away?
Despite the constellation of attributes that might or might not make a Mary Sue, the one true hallmark of this character type is his/her ability to warp the nature of the universe around him or herself. The rules change for Mary Sue, or simply don’t apply, because he/she’s Special. Common tipoffs are in the behaviors of other characters: Do they automatically accept this character with open arms, despite a previous history of distrusting strangers? Do they focus all their conversations and thoughts on the character, on his/her actions and romances, if only to say or think how much they dislike him/her? Do they forgive this character’s mistakes easily, even when those errors should by rights earn the character a severe penalty? (Ex: Jail time, court martial, permanent expulsion from the social group) Does it seem like they begin and end with this new character, that couples are unable to realize their true feelings for one another without his/her guidance, that nothing of significance happens or could happen in the story without involving the character? In short, does the world revolve around the character?
Mary Sues are cuckoos, things put into the nest that don’t belong and end up destroying what they touch, not out of malice, but merely by their nature. Normally rational characters can’t think, leaving Mary Sue to come up with the plan that saves the day. Otherwise confident characters need an ego boost from Mary Sue’s almost database-like knowledge of the character’s strengths, despite having known everyone for such a short time. Sane characters become catty and petty when faced with Mary Sue’s overwhelming charms focused on her object of desire. Plots become contrived beyond belief just so Mary Sue can dazzle everyone and/or die and make everyone who was ever mean to the writer feel bad.
MS: You keep describing me as childish, even when I can have very mature themes. *pout*
MM: You’re a stage. Everyone’s first story starts with “I did this.” You’re a manifestation of that first toddling attempt at storytelling, only prettied up and with a spellchecker. (Sometimes.) And everyone goes through you at some point.
MS: *sniffling* Everyone?
MM: Yes. Sometimes only in our heads. Sometimes people try to pretend they don’t write you by writing slash instead.
MS: What’s slash?
MM: I’ll explain later. Anyway, the people who hide from you in slash are the ones who take your favorite traits —
MS: You mean my gorgeous physical appearance (except for one blemish that really only enhances my beauty and uniqueness) and my traumatic youth?
MM: Those are the ones. Those often get applied to one of the men in the relationship instead. So you see, you still show up, only your name is Daniel.
MS: I think you mean Gary. You know, my brother Gary Stu?
The male version of the Mary Sue usually has many of the same traits as his sister: his skills are better than the other characters’ skills, he’s an expert in really cool things, he has a mysterious and often tragic background, he plays a musical instrument, he sacrifices himself in the end. Gary Stu in his extreme form tends to be more of a maverick. He bucks authority, sneers at whatever paltry efforts the villains throw at him, and beds the most beautiful woman (or women) he can find. If he has a career, it’s either the one wanted by the author or one that the author saw in a movie once and has no idea what’s actually involved. Gary has weapons, lovingly described in detail as much as Mary’s hair and eyes are described in her story (though if you read about a male character with eye color that’s mentioned more than once, start making a checklist).
If his name isn’t a takeoff on his creator’s name, it’s something that wouldn’t be out of place for a male porn star.
Gary Stus are just as prevalent as Mary Sues, but because of their nature, they slide into popular entertainment vehicles more readily, and where an audience might balk at a female character with the sudden backstory and seriously cool powers, they pay the summer box office handsomely to see that same story with a guy. (This has led some authors to try to reclaim female Mary Sues as a feminist statement, to show that women and girls have the same wish-fulfillment needs as males and celebrate these character rather than denigrate them.)
MS: Does that make me a feminist role model?
MM: It could.
Notable Mary Sues and Gary Stus in various media include but are by no means limited to: Jonathan in the “Superstar” episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”; Lana Lang on “Smallville” (although not the original in the comics); Wesley Crusher (named for Star Trek creator Eugene Wesley Roddenberry); Ayla, from Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel; Luke Skywalker and Mara Jade (“Luke” being a nickname for George Lucas, and Mara being, well, Mara); Ray Steele and Cameron “Buck” Williams from the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins; any lead female character written by V.C. Andrews or her ghost writers ever.
MS: Wow! I have a lot of company!
MM: Yes, you do, and you’ve got a lot of commercial success. Again, sometimes people want the wish-fulfillment, and you come ready-made and pre-packaged for fun.
MS: So people do like me?
MM: Sometimes. Sometimes we still have to say: “And then I did this next” because that’s the only way we can make the story come out right, and it’s really all about the story.
MS: But you said I ruin stories! *starts sobbing again, although the redness and puffiness only make her eyes gleam more*
MM: *hands over a tissue* You do sometimes. And sometimes you make the story exactly what it needs to be. When done right, you bring an outside perspective to a stuffy, lifeless cast and you can show otherwise unseen dimensions to familiar faces.
MS: I do?
MM: You can. It’s a matter of skill on the part of a good writer, to turn a universe-bending attention hog into a brilliant crystal to reflect new facets of the characters we love.
MS: So what you’re saying is, I’m a special snowflake! *beams*
MM: *sighs and gives up* Yes. Yes you are. And so am I.
*MS and MM perform the Special Snowflake Dance in the background for the rest of the essay*
In the end, the only person who knows if a character is an insert or a wish-fulfillment fantasy is the author; ironically, the author is the person least able to stand back and critically judge his or her own work to determine if indeed the label fits or if Mary Sue has developed into a fully-realized original character. Telling an author their beloved OC is just another Mary Sue is one of the fastest ways of getting someone angry with you, and casually pointing someone to a Mary Sue litmus test (there are Many) may or may not get through either. The best advice is not to worry about it and focus on your own work. Develop characters who have their own interests and purposes, and do the same for the rest of the characters you use. Find motivations for actions that ring true to character and don’t just shoehorn a plot together in order for your One True OC to be universally loved.
Or don’t. Sometimes wish-fulfillment is fun too, and sometimes, we all want to be special snowflakes.