Mary Sue, Who Are You?

I was going to name this post Mary Sue, Where Are You  but in looking at my fascination with and exploration of Mary Sue over the years, I found out I’d previously called a post Where Are You, Mary Sue.

Mary Sue, for new readers, is a type of character that appears in fanfiction, where the author inserts him or herself into the story. It’s more complex than that, of course, but that is it in a nutshell. For a fascinating, insightful look at Mary Sue, read Too Good To Be True: 150 Years of Mary Sue by Pat Pflieger.

The problem with Mary Sue is that when I want to read more about Elana, Damon, and Stefan, I don’t want Catylnn to turn up, with her half-vampire half-werewolf half-angel background and murdered family to sit down, reconcile Caroline with her mother, and date Damon, all the while being fluent in Aramaic and ancient Irish and able to use a cross bow and any sword she ever picks up.

In original work, it’s a bit trickier, because, well — original work. Who is Mary Sue getting in the way of when the whole thing is her book, not Elana’s?

The question of the appearance of Mary Sues in published books has arisen recently, and has been explored in the following must-read posts that has given me much to think about — why is Mary Sue being used with so much original work? Is it just a matter of calling out weak writing, or is it something else?

Mary Sue Reviews from Foz Meadows: “if we want to play the Mary Sue card constructively – if we want it not to be sexist, applicable just as equally to the works of male authors as female, with Gary Stu put into equal usage – then we need to consider the trope for what it really is: the ultimate example of poor characterisation. Gama Stues – as I’m now going to call them, in the spirit of equality – do not grow. They come to their roles as static, perfect characters, capable of angst and internal monologues but without ever actually changing.”

Zoe Marriott and You Can Stuff Your Mary-Sue Where The Sun Don’t Shine:“I’m sick of it, Dear Readers. I’m sick of seeing people condemn any female character with a significant role in a book as a Mary-Sue. I’m sick of people talking about how the female characters were too perfect or not perfect enough, too passive or too badass, too talented or too useless, when what they really mean – but don’t even KNOW they mean – is that the characters were too much in possession of lady parts.”

Ladies Ladies Ladies by Holly Black:The problem with using this term outside of fanfiction is simple: the world of a novel has always configured around main characters. They are at its center and, often, they are the best at stuff. . . . So when a book is about a girl who is the best at something and about the boys (and/or girls) that love her and how she defeats the bad guy, well, that’s because she’s the protagonist. It is good and right that she be at the center of the story.”

Cora Buhlert and The Mary Sue Conundrum:But somehow, writers of epic fantasy are rarely accused of writing Mary Sues. Unless of course their protagonists are female. Because the rebellious runaway princess, the farm girl with the secret magic abilities and the grand destiny or the awesome swordswoman are all Mary Sues, of course. They have to be, you see. Because they’re women, doing things and being awesome. This doesn’t mean that there are no Mary Sues in fiction. Indeed, the term “Mary Sue” is useful for describing a particular phenomenon, though I for one would wish for a more academically suitable alternative. But not every competent and attractive female character with agency and a sex life is a Mary Sue. Nor is an actual Mary Sue necessarily a bad thing. Instead, I consider the creation of Mary Sue characters as a fairly normal stage of a beginning writer’s development.”

My own previous musings good ole’ Mare:

Where Are You, Mary Sue, where I mainly agree with an April 2010 essay in Salon about Mary Sues.

When is an Original Character a Mary Sue,  from April 2009, I tried this out for a definition of Mary Sues in original work: “The Mary Sue never becomes a real, breathing character; rather, she or he is a list of characteristics and back story. The “inability to do wrong” means not that the character always makes the right choices; but, rather, her choices are never questioned and always championed by the author and the other characters.” For a snapshot of the online discussion that went on at that time, see Omnivoracious, Amazon’s Book Blog.

In March, 2008, I speculated on Mary Sue Memoirs, or, when people make up fake memoirs about the terrible childhoods they never had.

And to round up my blatant self-promotion, a link to a prior post where I mention both the article I co-wrote about fanfiction and a chapter I have in a book that is out now.

In terms of my own evolving view of Original Mary Sue, I think she happens, but much less than people think, for the many reasons that were pointed out in the above links. In original works, the main character, is well, the main character so of course is going to do all sorts of main character things and be made of awesome sauce, in one way or another.

Personally, I realize that often I think “Mary Sue” when I could just as well, and as easily, think something more concrete about the particular book. Honestly, I don’t get Mary Sue vibes that often. Those vibes tend to come when reading original work (something Buhlert explores in great detail); or they come up in a book with weak characterizations, as Meadows discusses.

I’ll use an example, one that Meadows uses as an example of people too quick to say Mary Sue — the traumatic background (or, as I say, tragic backstory.) It’s not the backstory itself that is the problem to me, it’s how it is or is not used. In one of my previous posts on Mary Sues, I point to Madonna’s picture book where, upon learning a girl had a dead mother, all the other girls suddenly decided to like her and be her friend. Feeling sorry for someone is just that — feeling sorry for them. It is not a sudden basis for friendship or love. And it’s not a basis for the reader to like the character.

Part of my fascination with Mary Sues has been why people write them, especially when they don’t realize that they are. As the discussion continues, especially in some of the comments I’ve read at the above blogs or on Twitter, now my curiosity turns to why so many people have picked up this fandom term and use it so frequently.

6 thoughts on “Mary Sue, Who Are You?

  1. I have a theory that calling a character a Mary Sue is really calling BS on the reactions of the other characters toward her–that they love her or hate her (or just pay attention to her) to an implausible degree compared to how we the readers are feeling toward her based on her attributes or actions. That might actually make readers feel like she’s being given unfair treatment in her favor, and THAT gets the old dander up. Author’s pet.


  2. Amanda, ARGH, I know what you mean. I just wrote about the TV show and one of the things I cannot stand about it is that Amy is shown to be mean, petty, etc., but gets a pass from every other person on the show; no one ever calls her on her actions. A character, even a main one, needs some logical consequences to their own actions.


  3. Amanda, I’ve been thinking about that, and I think for me it’s more of a Teflon Character than a Mary Sue: nothing sticks to the character.


  4. Have you read The Beginning of After yet? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on Mary-Sue’ism with the lead. She befalls that BFFs crawl out of the woodwork when the tragedy happens scenario. I honestly don’t get Mary Sue vibes from books but then I wonder if that is because I’m aperson that tends to look more at plot at setting first and get into character much further down the line.


  5. Michelle, not yet. To be honest, part of the reason I dislike how often MS is applied to books is because I see it so rarely in final, published books. So, to be brutal with myself, the tragic backstory isn’t MS, it’s poor writing in that, instead of making a character likable and creating realistic friendships and relationships, it’s a device to say “oh, her mother died! how terrible! come to our party, sit at our table, date me” when, as children / teens will say, other children / teens usually aren’t that kind about the whole thing, let alone using it as a friendship basis. That said, when the tragic backstory is part of the entire plot, that’s different, too — because now it has a purpose.


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