We want our heroes to be better than us.
That’s why we read “escapist” fiction like adventure stories, superhero comics, and epic fantasy. We love to see larger-than-life characters having incredible adventures and performing superhuman feats of heroism. They always save the day, always make the right choice, and always do the right thing.
Why do we love it?
Because it’s fun, that’s why.
So of course, when you sit down to write your novel, you want your protagonist to be just as heroic as your own favorite fictional characters. He’ll be pure of heart. He’ll have special powers nobody else has, and he’ll use them to fight evil. He’ll be handsome and funny and amazing and whatever he does, and everybody will love him because he’s just so dang cool. Right?
Well, no. Congratulations: you’ve just created a Mary Sue.
Wait, What’s a Mary Sue?
This is what happens when a hero is too heroic—to pure, too powerful, too overwhelmingly good.
A Mary Sue is an over-idealized and seemingly-flawless fictional character, one often recognized as either a self-insertion character for the author, or a vessel for wish fulfillment.
These characters are often physically beautiful, exceptionally skilled, and universally admired—but only within the confines of the story.
Readers, on the other hand, usually hate these characters, and with good reason. They’re bland, “snowflake-y,” and pretty insufferable to read about or listen to.
In fact, the label of “Mary Sue” is often used synonymously with “bad character,” even if the original definition was a little more specific than that.
The First Mary Sue
In fact, the very first Mary Sue was, in fact, named Mary Sue—Lieutenant Mary Sue of the USS Enterprise. The wide-eyed and supremely competent protagonist of Paula Smith’s satirical story “A Trekkie’s Tale,” Mary Sue was created in 1973 as a scathing parody of unrealistic characters Smith read about in Star Trek fanfiction. As “The youngest lieutenant in the Fleet—only fifteen and a half years old!” Mary Sue was everything young Star Trek fans wanted to be… and she was an unholy mess of clichés and wish-fulfilment tropes to boot.
After the publication of “A Trekkie’s Tale,” the Star Trek fandom began branding similar characters as Mary Sues (or, in some circles, “Gary Stus” if they’re male), and the fanfiction they appeared in as Mary Sue stories. Soon this derogatory term spread to other fanfiction created by other fandoms—and eventually to canon fiction as well.
How to Tell if You’ve Written a Mary Sue
Now, the definition of a “proper” Mary Sue has expanded, changed, split, and morphed a great deal since the concept was first introduced. Because of this, arguments over whether certain characters are Mary Sues or not can still start trashfire arguments on fan forums all over the internet.
And so, to help you avoid all that hassle, here’s our 6-part guide to what makes a Mary Sue Classic.
It’s important to note that no one of these qualities alone maketh a Mary Sue, nor do all Mary Sue characters possess all of these qualities. The unhappy medium is somewhere in the middle there, and it’ll take your authorial intuition to figure out the answer for yourself.
1. Physically Beautiful
This is one of the most universally agreed-upon traits that define this type of character. Mary Sues are stunning—no matter who they are or what happens to them over the course of the story, they always look and smell like a vase of roses.
Their physical attractiveness will often be one of the first things we learn about the character, and will be described as though it’s a personality trait and not a physical quality. Secondary characters will comment constantly on a Mary Sue’s beauty, either out of lust or jealously, but no matter what, the large majority of the people in her life will admire her for how she looks.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with having physically attractive characters in your story. That’s why Hollywood is full of beautiful people—we like our heroes pretty.
What makes a Mary Sue a Mary Sue is that her looks are downright impossible—or at least, highly unlikely. A Mary Sue might be an “unkempt beauty” who always looks great despite the wear-and-tear of adventuring.
Or she might possess physical traits that seem out of place: perfect teeth and skin in a famine-stricken kingdom, for instance. A fall that would seriously injure another character only leaves a Mary Sue with superficial scratches or scars that, against all odds, only make him more attractive.
Here’s a general rule to follow: if your character is so darn sexy that they break the rules of physics, you’ve probably got a Mary Sue on your hands.
2. Beloved by All
Everybody loves a Mary Sue—in the pages of his story, that is.
It’s uncanny: not only do those around him admire a Mary Sue for his physical charms, they love him for who he is on the inside as well.
No matter if he’s a brainless oaf, a cruel jerk, or a bland nobody… for whatever reason, people just can’t get enough of the guy. He’s got friends, love interests, and professional admirers galore, and even the craven villain of the story either secretly loves him or at least has some measure of respect for him.
Like our prior statement about physical attractiveness, writing a popular hero isn’t the worst thing in the world, either. Naturally, your protagonist might be beloved by his friends and family, and it’s not out of the question that he’d have a few professional admirers as well.
But it’s another thing to have random characters constantly shooting off about what a great guy the hero is—especially if he’s not.
It’s bad enough when a Mary Sue is surrounded by a gaggle of secondary characters who unceasingly remind him of what a swell fellow he is, but it’s especially egregious when your readers never see any evidence of good-guy-ness. His friends tell him he’s interesting, but he’s dull as a post. His girlfriend tells him he’s a romantic—but we hardly ever see them together. He’s known all over town as a phenomenal athlete, but he’s never on the court or in the pool.
Basically, a true Mary Sue doesn’t bother with characterization—he’s got an entourage to tell you everything you need to know about him.
So a Mary Sue’s the hottest girl in town, and everybody loves her. You’d bet she’d get a swelled head from all that attention, right?
Mary Sues are a pretty uniformly humble lot, and a Mary Sue story will go to extreme lengths to prove how its heroine doesn’t believe her own hype. Often, a Mary Sue will bemoan her plainness or unattractiveness, even if she’s a knockout—heck, especially if she’s a knockout. She’ll wish she were talented or special or somehow exceptional—except that she is, and her many in-book fans relentlessly remind her of this.
In fact, a Mary Sue’s modesty makes all that hero-worship all the more annoying, as it forces those around her to continually reassure her that she is, in fact, the best thing since sliced bread.
In short, a Mary Sue possesses near-supernatural ignorance of her own positive qualities—to the ire and annoyance of your readers.
4. Falsely Flawed
We’ve expounded on the value of flawed characters in the past. Real people aren’t perfect, and reflecting this in your writing can make your heroes seem more well-rounded and human.
But while many Mary Sues pass the Mary Poppins test—“practically perfect in every way”—many others seem to subvert this trope… at first.
In fiction, a flaw should be something that hinders a character’s progress and prevents him from achieving his goals. Being selfish is a flaw. So is difficulty expressing strong emotion, or being immature, or a hypocrite. Not only are these hindrances self-inflicted, but they can be overcome after sufficient character growth, adding much needed color to the dramatic thrust of the story.
But upon closer inspection, all so-called “flaws” a Mary Sue possesses aren’t really flaws at all.
Sometimes they’re superficial, and only add to the character’s “quirky” appeal—clumsiness seems to be a popular choice in these cases. Or the character might have a genuine flaw, but the problems you’d expect to arise from such a weakness never do, and the flaw never gets in the way of his dreams.
Imagine if your protagonist was a great big jerk and bullied the other characters in the novel, but nobody ever called him on it, and he still gets his way by the end of the story. Not only would this be an unsatisfying conclusion, but it smooths over the character’s flaws—and even seems to excuse them.
While you might feel tempted to create “perfect” characters in an effort to make them more likeable, remember that a flawed hero can actually be more likeable, simply because readers can relate to him.
5. Predestined for Greatness
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
The hero of the story is an unassuming nobody… until she learns she’s “the chosen one,” the long-awaited messiah foretold by a vague and ancient prophesy. She’s somehow the only one on earth who can possibly avert some huge tragedy, or stop the dastardly villain, or save the day. She’s so special—and not because she did anything particularly amazing. Rather, destiny (or a ham-fisted author) is practically forcing her into greatness.
In short, she’s a Mary Sue.
This is a pretty tired cliché in many circumstances, but a Mary Sue “chosen one” is especially problematic because they usually don’t have the disposition to make this kind of story interesting. Basically, the character has a “destiny” instead of a personality. And while another character might have to, you know, struggle to reach his destiny, a Mary Sue can just let fate come to him.
And that makes for a pretty boring story.
6. Exceptionally Talented
This is the trait most modern readers think of when they hear “Mary Sue.” Unrealistic levels of talent and ability was the O.G. Mary Sue’s defining character trait, and it’s the quality audiences seem to despise the most in a badly written character.
A Mary Sue is usually good at everything she does—even if she’s never done it before.
She can fly a spaceship with no practice, or use powerful spells moments after discovering magic exists. She speaks several languages, especially the ones vital to the story. She’s an animal in bed, even if she’s never had sex before. She sings beautifully. She can communicate with animals. She’s an expert fencer or gymnast or hacker or poet… and always better at whatever-it-is than anybody else in the room.
A Mary Sue can do whatever the plot demands—with no explanation as to how she learned these skills or gained these powers.
The problem with this is, having a nigh-omnipotent character drains all dramatic tension out of a story. Phenomenal cosmic powers should be exciting to see put to use, but they come off as hollow and—gasp—boring if we didn’t see the character wielding them work for these gifts.
Plus, as readers, we know that a character so skilled and talented can’t possibly fail, as the author clearly won’t let them. Insurmountable odds become cakewalks if a Mary Sue is constantly “discovering” new abilities, and menacing threats look toothless if the character can snap her fingers and defeat any evildoer.
Remember, having talented characters is fine. Again—that’s why we read superhero comics and detective stories and the like. It’s fun to read about people doing things we can’t do, even if those things are impossible.
But for a story to really engage your readers, you need to challenge your heroes—no matter how powerful and talented they are.
So, after all that, we’re curious: have you ever written a Mary Sue? What characters from books you’ve read fit these descriptions? Let us know in the comments below!
And if you’re looking for more salacious gossip on character development, we’ve got the goods:
- Found Dialogue: Using the Art of Eavesdropping for Better Fiction
- Why Diverse Fiction Matters
- How to Write Better Dialogue Tags: Improve Your Novel with Great Dialogue
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