What Is A "Mary Sue" Character and Do They Actually Exist In Fiction?

In a recent Twitter conversation, someone referred to a woman in a work of fiction as a "Mary Sue" (the less said about the conversation overall, the better). I had not encountered this term before, and upon looking it up, my immediate reaction was to dismiss it as wholly sexist and non-existent, a trope that isn't actually applicable to most forms of fiction (novels, plays, television, film, etc.), but is recklessly hurled at those mediums regardless. 

Then I decided to take a step back and see if there was any validity to this criticism when not coming from an obvious place of misogyny; in other words, when not spewed from the mouths of hateful individuals, are there true examples of Mary Sues in fiction?

Here's what I found. But first: I've decided to exclusively use the feminine Mary Sue for both male and female characters. Some use "Marty Sue" or "Murray Sue" when referring to men, but women have had to endure defacto masculine terms forever now, so it's high time the guys had to suck it up and accept a feminine name too. 

What The Heck Is A Mary Sue?

The term was born in 1973 in a Star Trek fanzine called Menagerie. In its second issue, zine creators Paula Smith and Sharon Ferrar published a comic spoof of the numerous fanfic submissions they'd been receiving, all of which featured a plucky young girl who boards the Starship Enterprise and basically owns the crew from the start. As Smith recounts in a Smithsonian Magazine article by Jackie Mansky, this type of character, whom she and Ferrar began calling "Mary Sues," would dominate and succeed "because she was just so sweet, and good, and beautiful and cute..." This would also cause members of the crew—in Menagerie's comic, Captain Kirk specifically—to fall head over heels in love with Mary Sue. However, Mary Sue is so much in command and confident with herself, she is able to rebuff any romantic advances and focus solely on getting the job done. 

Smith and Ferrar further surmised that Mary Sue characters were really just stand-ins for the author, allowing them to insert their "best selves" into the narrative. Princess Weekes, writing for The Mary Sue (a publication that took its name from the trope), explains further:

...the self-insert character, defined as a literary device in which a fictional character represents the author of the piece and is usually an idealized character within the fiction, either overtly or in disguise...

Classical literature is filled with characters who are inserted to be idealized versions of the author’s perfect protagonist. They may not look exactly like the author, but they encompass all their core values and are often the bestest of all time at fighting and/or other skills, but just have one tragic flaw that keeps them from being too cool.

Weekes mentions Dante's Divine Comedy as an early example of the self-insert character, AKA, the Mary Sue, while the aforementioned Jackie Mansky singles out Pollyanna, "the unfailingly optimistic protagonist from Eleanor H. Porter’s children’s books from the 1910s." Paula Smith also notes that Superman is a Mary Sue through and through, because while he sometimes makes poor decisions, he is an unstoppable force, unless someone has some kryptonite, of course, but even then, the Man of Steel always finds a way to bypass this lone threat to his safety (and yes, I know, there's Zod and various other enemies that match Supes's strengths and abilities, and he was killed by Doomsday in the 1990s, but guess who also came back to life a handful of issues later...).

Consider also plainspoken, straight-shooting Stu Redman in The Stand as a practically unflappable stand-in for Stephen King, with Randall Flagg being the deceptively blue collar counterpoint, the dark half of Redman's goodness (and in his previous novel The Shining, the good and evil sides of King were housed in one body, Jack Torrance). King would later literally insert himself into the narrative via The Dark Half series, and Kurt Vonnegut also did it with Slaughterhouse Five and Breakfast Of Champions. And when you consider the fact that "write what you know" is perhaps the most prevalent bit of advice given to authors, some form of self-insertion is likely to occur in countless works of fiction, giving us a seemingly endless well of Mary Sue examples to choose from.

So, Do Mary Sues Actually Exist?

I think it's obvious that they do. The issue is, I don't think they're as prominent in fiction as many people (read: mainly sexist dudes) think they are. Because the trope's name was gendered from the get-go, if a female character has agency and is good at her job, or even—GASP—better at it than the men around her, she is instantly subject to the Mary Sue label.

Moreover, even when a female character is, in fact, poorly written, she is criticized endlessly, while her equally unrounded male counterparts receive no such lashings. Mansky points out that fans of Game Of Thrones began calling Arya Stark a Mary Sue after she slayed the Night King. Did this moment feel just a bit too easy? Sure. But the writing on the show by this point had already been getting sloppy because it had less to do with telling effective narratives and more to do with "subverting expectations." The writers likely chose the youngest living Stark child to off the Night King because "nobody would see it coming," not because it made any sense. They were simply lucky that it did make sense, given that Arya had been training to become an assassin pretty much from the start of the series (though it would've been nice to see her use her Swiss Army face mask in some fashion, an ability that was unique to her, rather than just leaping through the air and stabbing the ice zombie, which literally any other character could do). But does swooping in and doing a job no man on the series could do make Arya a Mary Sue? Not really, and even if it does, then Jon Snow must also be a Mary Sue, given that he consistently failed upwards throughout the show and handily escaped death on countless situations (including that one time he literally died) while suffering virtually no consequences. 

Another example of this double standard: after the release of The Force Awakens, some nasty factions of Star Wars fans accused Rey (Daisy Ridley) of being a Mary Sue because, well, you know, she's good at doing stuff, and there's no way she could possibly be good at them, given her upbringing. But as Maddy Myers, also writing for The Mary Sue, points out,

In A New Hope, our hero Luke Skywalker becomes the best pilot of the rebels with no previous practice using their ships. The explanation? Well, he’s got the Force, obviously! Couldn’t we just use the same explanation for Rey’s proficiency at various things in The Force Awakens? What’s the difference? Can’t imagine what it could be.

Furthermore, I've seen nothing but praise for The Mandalorian, even though the titular character fits the mold of a Mary Sue: despite making poor decisions, he always gets out of his scrapes virtually unscathed. He's the best, baddest, and ballsiest bounty hunter in all the land, and he gets shit done. Nobody questions whether or not his abilities are unrealistic, which undoubtedly would not be the case if he were the Womandalorian (you can thank my wife for that delicious pun). 

The Final Query

One last thing to consider: are Mary Sues—or, as Myers also refers to them, "blatant power fantasies"—really such a bad thing? When we watch shows like Game Of Thrones, or franchises like Star Wars, or Superman, or any other superhero property, do we want to see characters constantly fail and die at the hands of their enemies? Going back to that Arya Stark moment, I for one was glad to finally see the good guys win, and for the youngest living Stark and singular badass to put her training to use. I don't care that in the 1979 Superman movie he uses his powers to reverse the earth's rotation and save everyone, even though it's forbidden for him to do so (it's also okay because he isn't punished whatsoever for the transgression). I also rather enjoyed watching Mando kick everyone's ass whilst being a good dad to Baby Yoda. The key here is that there were enough eternal conflicts threatening these characters to keep my interest. As Princess Weekes writes in her aforementioned piece (which is incidentally titled "What Exactly Is Wrong With A "Mary Sue" Character?): 

...it all comes down to writing. When you like a character, you excuse the fact that they are ridiculously overpowered, because most leading characters are either OP when they start, or on the journey to being OP. If a character is poorly written, the author hasn’t set up compelling enough stakes, or you just don’t like them and want your fav to win, it’s easy to just put all of their “earned” accomplishments in the trash and call them a Mary Sue—especially when they are women.

...I’m not going to say we should give badly written women a pass; I’m saying we should give them the same grace we give male protagonists and really ask ourselves why we are so quick to dismiss the abilities of a woman while praising a man in the same breath.

Couldn't have said it better myself (so I didn't). 

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Comments

steveylang's picture
steveylang February 20, 2020 - 1:47pm

Thanks for the history of that term!

In my mind the term describes a type of character and is not gender-specific, so yeah it should be just 'Mary Sue' for anyone.

...some nasty factions of Star Wars fans accused Rey (Daisy Ridley) of being a Mary Sue because, well, you know, she's good at doing stuff, and there's no way she could possibly be good at them, given her upbringing.

I do have a comment about this. I think the general complaint about Rey is not that there's no way she could possibly be good at stuff, it's that she is essentially the best at doing stuff right from the beginning, never loses a battle, and doesn't have a significant character arc through the Disney trilogy. Whether her background explains this or not doesn't matter, the problem is it can make for very flat character development (I do think Rey could have still made for a very good character, but the entire trilogy went off the rails in Episode 8 and 9.)

If she wins her first light saber battle against Kylo Red in the first movie with almost no training in the Force, what compelling drama is there in future battles, when she is presumably even stronger?

Obviously, if someone's complaint is that she couldn't do these things because she's a girl, then that doesn't deserve any consideration or defense. I understand that gender has colored many debates about her character, but gender aside there are plenty of things to dislike in the entire Disney trilogy.

helpfulsnowman's picture
Community Manager
helpfulsnowman from Colorado is reading But What If We're Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman February 20, 2020 - 6:32pm

This is good clarification. I think a lot of people waste time arguing about whether a character is a Mary Sue because there are those using it in the traditional sense (character stand-in for the writer, wish fulfillment for the writer) and those using it in a newer sense (character that's aspirational for the viewer/reader, wish fulfillment for the consumer). In both cases, the character is the best at everything ever. It's just a matter of the motive behind the character's creation and who is meant to be affected. 

Really, I think the argument is about whether or not a character is boring. A character who is good at everything instantly (from the audience perspective, in terms of what we see) and also a fine upstanding person, and let's face it, usually attractive, is probably boring to anyone outside the audience meant to be inspired.