The Dread Mary Sue

July 20th, 2006

For those who know what a Mary Sue is, skip to the next graf. Long ago in days of yore–AKA late sixties, early seventies–Star Trek fanfic proliferated across the country. Most of it written by women. And many of those women had not written much before their Trek stories, so their early ones–especially those written by teens, for example many of my friends–tended to produce a story roughly like this: a young, always brilliant, usually beautiful, ensign is assigned to the Enterprise. Kirk and Spock fall in love with her during the course of her madcap adventures. Meanwhile the entire crew is fascinated by her, she may or may not be kidnapped by Klingons or Romulans, but one thing for sure: she will save the Enterprise single-handed, a few planets along with it (if not the entire Federation) and then she departs, or dies artistically, and Kirk and Spock are devastated. (Those were the very early days when delicately raised young ladies couldn’t quite imagine what happens past the first kiss…or else could imagine it fine, but knew better than to put it down on paper in case nosy parents or teachers found it. ’twas bad enough that they wasted their time on that stupid sci-fi stuff in the first place!) There were so many versions of this same story that eventually the publishers of the fanzines said, “No more Ensign Mary Sue stories!”

Well, since then, the term Mary Sue (and sometimes Marty Stu or other variants for the guy version) has been incorporated into general genre writing talk. My problem is this. I’ve seen writers’ workshop people label as Mary Sues characters who are beautiful, or who are talented at something, leaving writers wondering if they are to people their stories with ugly clumsy dolts?

To my view, a Mary Sue is not always the most beautiful, but she is always the center of the novel–the center of attention, the plot revolves around her, the characters seem to have her at the center of their lives, and they talk about, and think about nothing else. But that’s just the first half of the Mary Sue equation. The second half is that she’s got the “mark” on her, that is, she is the Special One. She might have come from an abusive family, or is an orphan (few Mary Sues have had normal home lives) but something, whether a super-intelligent animal friend (horse, dragon, leopard, wolf, cat who takes one look at her, their souls bond forever, and the companion tells her she’s The One), or a Wise Old Mage, or a ghost lets her know she’s It. Or else she is born with a mark, or she’s given a special thing by an old granny, a witch, or a passing knight who conveniently drops dead right after. Anyway she subsequently gets her mega-mind-reading talent, or her wowza magical ability, or some sort of secret knowledge is handed to her. She doesn’t have to train, she just has to wish hard enough before that “breakthrough” at the climax where her powers become exponentially more powerful, and the Dark Lord is vanquished at the end, no matter how many centuries he’s been torturing entire planets every day before lunch.

A really brilliant writer can make a Mary Sue story work–see Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles. Lymond is a total Mary Sue, but readers love him anyway. Most of the time the Mary Sue novel is going to be a fun, relaxing read, but we always know, from the very first page, when she finds out she’s the Special One, that she’s gonna win in the end, and everybody will love her even more.

There’s nothing wrong with Mary Sues. They are usually morally upright, kind to animals and hapless rejects, they are always inclusive and other-aware, in fact, though they be bratty, and will certainly be maligned and misunderstood, they never step down from the moral high ground, and they promise to use their powers only for good. But Mary Sue does have one flaw: she’s a tough character to fit into a deepgenre novel. Unless, of course, one is as brilliant as Dorothy Dunnett.

29 Responses to “The Dread Mary Sue”

  1. Seneskaon 21 Jul 2006 at 4:07 am

    Ah, the Mary Sue. The Harry Potter Fandom has made a Mary-Sue sub-theme all of it’s own. Usually with a combination of Ron, Harry, Draco and Ginny all falling in love with them. And strangely they usually turn out to be Harry’s long-lost sister as well. The other one that could defeat the Dark Lord, and fufill the prophecy.

    Fandom is some of the best entertainment around.

    Sen

  2. makoiyion 21 Jul 2006 at 11:00 am

    You know I never ever thought of Lymond as a mary sue. I guess you are right, that she does it so brilliantly that it doesn’t really matter, and I wonder how many of us she’s inspired, because I have been surprised by the number of fellow fantasy and sci fi authors who have recommended her. I read Lymond’s stories when they first came out and have been in love ever since. And I thought it was my little secret, too. :) Guess good writing proves a point.

    I guess, to a certain extent, all our characters have a touch of the mary sue no matter how loudly we proclaim they aren’t. To give characters more than one dimension we have to become them to a degree, and even if we would never in real life do the things that they do, their actions still come out of our imagination.

  3. Danion 21 Jul 2006 at 11:45 am

    Sherwood — in your view, how does a “mary sue” differ from the hero archtype (as defined by Joseph Campbell in Hero with a Thousand Faces)?

    I’ve always thought that a “mary sue” character was really the author in disguise (well, sometimes very poorly disguised :-)) — which fits most fanfic for Star Trek (and other genre’s as well). And, as you mentioned, that the story was the author’s fantasy of being the center of attention.

    I’d call that characterization very different than, say, Luke Skywalker (George has always been very up front that Luke is based on Campbell’s writings) — who fits your description of a “mary sue” character (as the “chosen one”), but I would say is not a “mary sue”, but an archtype.

    Thoughts?

  4. Sherwood Smithon 21 Jul 2006 at 12:15 pm

    Makoiyi: it’s been fun to see who was influenced by Dunnett as books are published. You can see the influence in a wide range of authors, from Mary Doria Russel to Diana Gabaldon to Susan Matthews. Emma Bull and Ellen Kushner as well. Many others. All intelligent, talented female writers–the male who shows intense influence is Guy Gavriel Kay.

    Dani: I don’t really buy into a lot of Campbell’s stuff–it seems to me he stole the good bits from Mercia Eliade and others–but for purposes of discussion, the archetypical hero has to work at his becoming an avatar. Frodo is an example: his rise to heroism is a rough tread every step of the way. The Mary Sue doesn’t have to work, she simply is the Special One because she exists. She is the cynosure of all eyes, the center of power because of who she is, she really never has to work. (Notice in Mary Sue fantasy magical showdowns she usually never has to have had training, it’s almost always an emotional break-through–in other words, she wishes hard enough–and pow! The Dark Lord and all his minions are gone in one mighty blast. She might faint interestingly for the hero or her posse to find and fuss over, but she never actually worked, and really, never actually changes. She was perfect at the beginning, just powerless, she is in exactly the same moral space at the end, she’s just princess of the universe)

  5. Marianneon 21 Jul 2006 at 12:53 pm

    I’ve written a flaming Mary Sue fanfic. She scored a whopping 72 on the Mary Sue Litmus Test. And my readers adore her, and the story. I’m not ashamed for having written Mary Sue, because I think I did it well.

    At one point, however, a sad, twisted person wrote a scathing public review of my story, mostly to show how cleverly she could put me down (bitter? me?), and the Mary Sue-ness was the chief thing she pinpointed. This got me thinking about the entire subject.

    There is a lot of Mary Sue to be found in popular literature. You mentioned Gabaldon, and I find her Jaime character to be a prime example. Ayla, from Clan of the Cave Bear, is another. These stories are popular, and they work, because of depth. You take the Holy Trinity of character, plot, and style, and if you have the other two working for you, it doesn’t matter if your character is a little bit over the top. It helps if the character has depth as well.

    Mary Sue can have her beauty and her speshul powers, as long as she reacts and behaves in ordinary, realistic ways. She has to be troubled by her setbacks, she has to make mistakes, and she has to have realistic flaws to counterbalance her gifts.

    Another thing about Mary Sue is context, and I mean perhaps genre, as well. Mary Sue would not work as well in a cozy mystery as she would in high fantasy. It is a matter of what the readers expect. In fantasy, or romance, readers want wish-fulfillment, and since that is the essence of Mary Sue, she works better there.

    Of course, as you said, if you are extraordinarily talented, you can do it anywhere and nobody will even notice.

  6. Stacyon 21 Jul 2006 at 12:54 pm

    I panicked when first reading this – oh my god, my heroine is a Mary Sue! – so thanks so much for the detail explaining the need for change in the character. Now I’m sure my character is okay and maybe my pulse will go back to normal. (I’m just shy of halfway with my first novel, and tearing it apart at this stage would be less than enjoyable.)

  7. Sherwood Smithon 21 Jul 2006 at 1:40 pm

    Yeah–Marianne and Stacy, don’t mistake a hero for Mary Sue.

    Mary Sue is just always perfect, never makes a real mistake, she never shifts from the center of everything. A hero makes mistakes and learns, is not always the center of everyone else’s thoughts, earns every step of his or her rise.

    I myself love hero stories. But the hero has to do the work to convince me that she, or he, attained that pinnacle–and of course the emotional payoff is exponentially greater.

    That’s how Dunnett makes Lymond seem more of a hero than a Mary Sue–she puts him through hell before the end. That hell is what makes the story work so well, and makes one forget the fact that he starts out prettier and smarter than anyone else, more talented, more graceful, more everything…and yes, everybody is always talking about him, from kings down to commoners!

    Marianne: I’ll bet your protagonist is more a hero than a Mary Sue. But even so, there is nothing wrong with a recreational Mary Sue escapism story. A couple of writers have made careers out of them. Every kind of story has its place.

    I brought the subject off not to castigate anyone, but to point out that if one isn’t intending to have a Mary Sue story, then one’s protagonist needs to really work to attain that wonderful ending, it cannot just be handed over in a wash of sentimentalism. And that’s where hard work, in turn, comes in for the writer!

  8. Muneravenon 21 Jul 2006 at 1:55 pm

    Almost nobody starts out writing brilliant stuff. Most of us start out writing horrible poetry, or “Mary Sue” stories, or hideous autobiographical novels that should never see the light of day. And most of us show our bad work to someone because we worked hard on it and, doggone it, don’t we all want a pat on the back for our hard work? There is nothing wrong with writing badly, as long as you keep plugging away and end up writing LESS badly. There is nothing wrong with a serious writer writing “Mary Sue” stories as long as she eventually gets beyond that. And actually there isn’t anything wrong with never getting past writing “Mary Sue” stories if that is what makes you happy and you have no ambitions beyond writing that sort of story. I mean, maybe writing “Mary Sue” stories is only bad if you don’t WANT to write “Mary Sue” stories . . .if you very much want to write more than that.

    I rather hate the term “Mary Sue” because I have seen it used often by a certain type of online personality. You know the type I mean: the snarky person who does’t actually write a lick themselves. The one who gets a big charge out of putting down the work of others. The type who likes to sit in the safe do-nothing world and throw rocks at people who are trying to do something…anything. That type of person LOVES having an arsenal of dismissive terms like “Mary Sue” to lob at new writers. (I secretly suspect these are the same people who go to readings by published authors just so they can raise their hands during the question and answer period and say “Did you know that on page 372 you said Wendell took off his boots when, on page 365 you clearly stated that he was wearing SHOES?” ) Man, I really don’t like those people.

    In any case, I think the term “Mary Sue” is not a helpful term and that it is rarely used to actually help a writer improve. It’s usually used to simply put someone down. It isn’t even used so much to critique a story as it is to put down the writer of said story in a personal sort of way. Rather like how online gamers use the term “Noob” as a dismissive term (ignoring the fact that they, too, were new when they first started out).

    I say those who write “Mary Sue” stories should embrace the “Mary Sueness” of their work and then either move on to non-”Mary Sue” writing or just go right on “Mary Sueing” to their heart’s content if that is what floats their boat, lol.

  9. Sherwood Smithon 21 Jul 2006 at 2:23 pm

    Well, that’s what I was trying to say: be aware of it. If this is the story you want to write, why not? If not, watch out for these pitfalls, handing everything to the character without any work on her own might be easy to write, but the effect is this and not that.

    But the thing is, if someone wants to go to readings or to workshops and be mean, any term is going to be used as a weapon. Mary Sue got life because there were so many of her in fandom. Writers learned either to turn her into a hero–or consciously choose keep her a Mary Sue. You could call her some technical litcrit term (artifact of auctorial wish fulfillment is what I saw in a critical essay once) and it’s still going to have the same impact if used as a weapon.

  10. [...] At Deep Genre, Sherwood Smith discusses Mary Sue, with references to Lymond for Dunnett fans. That’s how Dunnett makes Lymond seem more of a hero than a Mary Sue–she puts him through hell before the end. That hell is what makes the story work so well, and makes one forget the fact that he starts out prettier and smarter than anyone else, more talented, more graceful, more everything…and yes, everybody is always talking about him, from kings down to commoners! [...]

  11. Danion 22 Jul 2006 at 12:09 pm

    Sherwood — got it. Makes total sense on the difference between a Mary Sue & an architype hero, thanks.

  12. Muneravenon 23 Jul 2006 at 1:13 pm

    Sherwood Smith said “But the thing is, if someone wants to go to readings or to workshops and be mean, any term is going to be used as a weapon. Mary Sue got life because there were so many of her in fandom. Writers learned either to turn her into a hero–or consciously choose keep her a Mary Sue. You could call her some technical litcrit term (artifact of auctorial wish fulfillment is what I saw in a critical essay once) and it’s still going to have the same impact if used as a weapon. ”

    Yes, you’re very right that anything can be used as a weapon in a workshop, lol. I just particularly hate the weapons that are overused or easily used, I guess. Perhaps I was in too many writing workshops in order to get my degree. I fully expected to get bashed sometimes during a critique… it was just that, eventually, I wanted the weapons to be more interesting. :-)

    I do appreciate your clarification of the term “Mary Sue” because I think it has been grossly misunderstood by some people and has been applied to any sort of character who has noble traits, no matter how that character struggles. I read your post to a friend who had been puzzled by the term and it helped her a great deal.

  13. Alison Croggonon 24 Jul 2006 at 7:10 pm

    Yes, I was thinking, my gosh, my lovely Maerad is a Mary-Sue – never mind – but then I read complexity and struggle and making mistakes and evolving as a character disqualify her, and felt a bit better (actually, not too worried, since I have great faith in Maerad). Is a Mary-Sue ever a real character, or just a kind of vague archetype?

  14. Sherwood Smithon 24 Jul 2006 at 7:16 pm

    Can’t a skilled writer make any character come to life? Sherlock Holmes becomes a type of Mary Sue, but that’s why readers liked him so much!

    I think the key is that Mary Sue never changes because she starts perfect and ends up perfect. She doesn’t have to evolve, she just collects powers and posses. Conflict sort of bends around her. Her strength is that she makes a great wish-fulfillment story lead.

    you may have a lovely main character, and she may have brains and wit and skill, but if she makes mistakes and changes and learns and risks, she’s not a Mary Sue. She’s a hero.

  15. Marie Brennanon 25 Jul 2006 at 11:33 am

    I’d say Lymond’s a fantastic example to study for how you can have a character with all those superlative qualities who ISN’T a Mary Sue — I’d prefer to save that term for the sort of authorial self-insert who swans through the story as a paragon of perfection beloved by everybody but the villain. Lymond’s pretty and brilliant and speaks a billion languages and is a master swordsman, but his method of being brilliant and getting things done frequently involves being a dick to those around him, so that I’m perfectly capable of wanting to punch him in the face in the middle of my weak-kneed fangirly worship, and some of the characters (frex Richard) skip the fangirliness altogether. And he often gets screwed over in a non-decorative way by events; either he’s hurt directly (I recall a certain flogging, and a certain encounter with opium) or somebody ELSE is hurt, and it inflicts real emotional damage on him. Those kinds of details are what keep me from calling him a Mary Sue, despite all the positive qualities Dunnett loaded onto him.

    And this, ladies and gents, is why I have to regulate my Dunnett intake; she has a tendency to make me feel abjectly inferior about my own writing. :-)

  16. A readeron 18 Aug 2006 at 2:39 pm

    Campbell stole his work from “Mercia Eliade”? Is that just a flippant comment or based on actual research?

    IMHO Campbell’s work is significantly more developed on the broader topic of the monomyth and mythic structure that Mircea Eliade, not to mention much more accessible. Eliade’s work is more narrowly about religion, except perhaps Eternal Return. However, Hero with a Thousand Faces predates Eternal Return by at least six years!

  17. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 18 Aug 2006 at 4:43 pm

    Well, I think Campbell owes a great deal to Lord Raglan:

    http://www.tam-lin.org/abby/raglan.html

    The Hero’s Journey is not original to Campbell, even in enumerating points.

  18. David Louis Edelmanon 18 Aug 2006 at 5:39 pm

    In fairness to Joseph Campbell, I don’t think he ever claimed to have invented the Hero’s Journey. He was essentially, as the anonymous above commenter hints, just compiling some of these theories about mythology into a popular form for the masses.

    Or so I gather.

    He did, however, definitely invent the Mary Sue.

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  22. lotrloveron 02 May 2007 at 11:17 am

    Another Gary Stu (my version of the male one) is Eragon, from Inheritence. He got a 90 on the Original Mary Sue Litmus test, the highest of any characters I’ve tested so far!

  23. Sherwood Smithon 02 May 2007 at 12:05 pm

    lotrlover: what, only 90 percent? I’m shocked, shocked! *g*

  24. Puzzled Writeron 12 May 2007 at 2:23 am

    Thanks for this informative essay on the “Mary Sue” character, your suggestions are helpful. Some author insertion is inevitable, I think, but it depends on how good of a spin a writer can put on the personal traits or experiences he/she inserts.

    And…”My problem is this. I’ve seen writers’ workshop people label as Mary Sues characters who are beautiful, or who are talented at something, leaving writers wondering if they are to people their stories with ugly clumsy dolts?”

    ITA. What are we supposed to write about? Ugly, hopeless do-nothings? I suppose some writers and readers get off on that because it proves some deeply held belief that life sucks, but I’d like to read about and write characters who have *some* talents and skills and are going somewhere. If I wanted depressing dolts who sit around and complain, I’d just watch reality shows, ugh.

  25. kateelliotton 12 May 2007 at 1:20 pm

    There is a difference between a character who has or is various things, including competent, attractive, athletic, a master sword-fighter, etc – and a Mary Sue, who is “perfect” in a wishfulfillment way. The opposite of a Mary Sue isn’t a depressing dolt, it’s a well rounded realistic character.

    My take, anyway.

  26. Sherwood Smithon 12 May 2007 at 1:38 pm

    Puzzled Writer: I totally agree. I don’t want to read about dolts who sit around and complain–I can look in the mirror for that, or go to the coffee area of my job! Like Kate said above, a character who has some of these traits is not automatically a Mary Sue. A character who has most of them can avoid Mary Sueness if the writer doesn’t make not just the story revolve around that character, but all the other characters’ actions, thoughts, interests.

    In a Mary Sue story, everyone exists to be in love with Mary Sue (or Marty Stu)–to talk about them, be saved by them, serve them, be fascinated by them, be knocked down by the bad guy until Mary can deck him with one punch, etc. The other characters are mostly little satellites revolving around Mary Sue’s sun, you don’t believe they have lives of their own.

  27. Puzzled Writeron 16 Jun 2007 at 7:46 pm

    Kate, Sherwood–thank you.

    Love the advice here–I need to check back more often. : )

  28. Kateon 08 Aug 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Having just written a rather glowing review of The Fox on Amazon, I thought I’d try to find your website, and I stumbled across this instead. I love having a name for a phenomenon I’ve noticed, but never quite defined for myself–long live Mary Sue! (Or not.) Of course, I instantly started to analyze my latest manuscript, which I will cleanse of any Mary Sueness before sending it off to my publisher. I THINK my main character is sufficiently flawed. As for her growth, I’m going to mull that one over. Thanks!

  29. Sherwoodon 08 Aug 2007 at 9:55 pm

    You are most welcome! (And remember, most of us =like= reading about heroic figures. But Mary Sue never grows or changes, and everyone else seems to exist just to talk about her and worship her.) Bet you are not doing any of that!

    And thank you for the review–I don’t have the courage to look, but I appreciate any readers and what they say.

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