Who is Mary Sue?
By Kat Feete
Many of us have heard the term "Mary Sue"
floating around writing communities. A Mary Sue is a character that the
author identifies with so strongly that the story is warped by it. Sometimes
male Sues are called "Gary Stus," but more often the name is used for both
sexes of offenders. The term was coined in fanfiction, made its way from
there into the publishing world, and has slowly been filtering into the
writing community as a useful shorthand for a frighteningly common error in
Along the way the definition of a Mary Sue
has become muddied. For some, it is any self-insertion of the writer; for
others it is when the character is obviously acting as wish-fulfillment for
the writer. Sometimes it is a character who is excessively stylish or
romantic or over-traumatized, or who never does anything wrong.
But these are all symptoms of the same
literary crime: a character who, by the writer's obsession with her,
subverts the truth and power of the story. Mary Sue fights to appear in all
our stories. She is the story equivalent of the spoilt brat who always gets
her way, with the writer-parent running before her anxiously smoothing her
path; she is lovable to no one but that parent. Mary Sues sometimes appear
in valid works of fiction, but more often they render the story unreadable,
a source of satisfaction to the writer alone. Spotting her and learning to
discipline her is as important for writers as it is for parents.
Mary Sues in the
There are three reasons why Mary Sue
appears in a story. The first is laziness. "Write what you know," the
fledgling writer thinks. "That means I don't have to do any research,
right?" Shallow characters who are difficult to tell apart and main
characters who share their author's profession, hobbies, sexual orientation,
and gender (and in extreme cases name) are both symptomatic of the lazy Mary
The second reason is nervousness. "This
character isn't sympathetic enough!" thinks the writer, reading her story.
"I want everyone to like her. So I'll have to make her better... make her
special... throw in some horrible experiences so that everyone will feel
sorry for her...." This type of Mary Sue can be easily spotted: look for
excessive trauma, unbelievable perfection, reams of explanation for any
faults, and minor characters who regularly step up to defend the main
character from criticism.
And, finally, there is wistfulness. The
third Mary Sue comes from the writer who thinks "I wish I could... I wish I
was more like...." An overly romantic portrayal of her circumstances, be it
lady of the manor or fighter pilot; inexplicable popularity; an
overabundance of fashion sense, friends, parties, sex, and all the other
things the writer feels she lacks; an abundance of minor, temporary
setbacks, quickly resolved in her favor; a lack of consequences for every
action she takes... these are the signs of a wish-fulfillment Mary Sue, the
most insidious of her kind.
Mary Sues are frequently accompanied by
trite plots, generic backgrounds, and a cast of minor characters who define
their existence only through the Sue. They may love her or they may hate
her, but no one is allowed to be indifferent.
Why care about background, after all, when
it's the main character you're writing for... and of course you want the
reader to sympathize when you're writing about yourself. If we didn't want
to be our characters, then they wouldn't hold such a fascination for us that
we'd write about them. If we didn't love them, they wouldn't be ours.
Avoiding Mary Sue
We can never do without Mary Sue, but you
can keep her from bending a story until it breaks. Few people are able to
write objectively about themselves, and fewer still able to do this in a way
that is interesting to other people. The nearer and dearer our Mary Sues,
the closer to our hearts, the narrower other people's interest becomes,
until we limit ourselves to an audience of one.
If the signs of a Mary Sue that I list are
things you see in your own stories, don't despair. Work. Examine your
assumptions. Look hard at your conflicts: how can you change them to serve
the story, rather than the Mary Sue? Try writing a scene from a minor
character's perspective. If she does nothing but eulogize the main
character, start over. If she does nothing but revile the main character,
start over. Write from the point of view of a stranger, if you must, but
create something that focuses on more than that character.
Remember that what "everyone knows" about
anything is wrong, and that everyone includes you. Do not skimp on the
research. Do not cast yourself as the main character; chances are you don't
know yourself as well as you think and will end up with a flat, boring
shadow of you on the page -- not to mention the raft of minor characters who
also look like you. Easy doesn't mean right.
Afraid people won't like your character?
They don't have to like her; they just have to respect her. Either way it's
a choice they'll make for themselves, based not on what you tell them but on
her actions. You cannot force readers to be sympathetic. Heaping trauma upon
trauma on the main character, explaining away all her mistakes, and having
other characters defend her against the reader criticisms you fear will
alienate more and more people by pounding them over the head with what they
should think, rather than standing back and letting them draw their own
Take a long hard look at your character's
life and you will see the drawbacks. No one is perfect. No one's situation
is perfect. No one is universally loved. The more you try to convince
readers of this impossibility, the more skeptically they will regard your
work, and the less they will trust you. You may wish to live the perfect
life all you want, but the wish has no place in your fiction.
Finally, remember: you are not your
characters. Their faults do not reflect on you. People's opinions of them
are not the same as their opinions of you. Realize this, and you will write
better fiction that touches a universal dream more poignant than the Mary
Sue's wish that the world revolved around her.