“Mary Sue” is a shallowly written character with few flaws. “She” can be either female or male, though the latter is often called “Gary Stu” or something similar. Mary Sue has her origins in fan fiction, but she has been identified in more traditional forms of writing, too.
While Mary Sues come in different flavors, most of the characters exhibit at least some of the following attributes:
- As mentioned above, Mary Sue has few flaws.
- Mary Sue is polarizing: people love her or hate her — in which case she might be called an Anti-Sue — with little middle ground.
- Mary Sue doesn’t suffer the same consequences for her actions that the rest of us would.
- Mary Sue often doesn’t talk or act like the “normal” people around her.
- The story often warps and wraps to fit the whims and fortunes of Mary Sue. Unexpected turns always seem to fall in her favor.
As you might imagine, Mary Sue usually sticks out like a sore thumb to readers, but her author is often blind to her existence. To understand why, and to help you avoid inserting her in your story, you need to know …
Who Is Mary Sue?
There is at least one school of thought that says Mary Sue rears her head most often as an embodiment of the author herself, at least to some extent. In this vain, Kat Feete identified three types of Mary Sues:
Lazy: The author conjures a Mary Sue with her own characteristics because she’s easy to write.
Nervous: The author wants to make her character likable, so she piles on the unrealistic circumstances and concomitant altruistic reactions.
Wistful: The author creates Mary Sue with the characteristics she wishes she herself possessed.
Of course, any of these categories could apply to Mary Sues who aren’t so blatantly the author: spouses, children, parents, friends the author wishes she had, etc.
No matter who Mary Sue is, she can be insidious because the author identifies so strongly with her. And, unlike a “literary darling,” you can’t just kill her because she’s usually vital to your plot.
Examples of Mary Sue
In case you’re still not clear about what Mary Sue looks like, here are some examples from famous works:
James Bond: He can do no wrong, and doesn’t even appear to be human most of the time. Definite a Mary Sue.
Anastasia (Fifty Shades of Grey): Ahem … not that I know anything about this story, but Anastasia is … um … put upon over and over, yet maintains an innocent demeanor and seems to have captured the brute by plot’s end. Never saw the movie. (emphasis mine)
Little Orphan Annie: Despite the mounds of misfortune heaped upon her, Annie maintains her sickening-sweet disposition. Bleh.
Bella Swan (Twilight): Down on herself, Bella is nevertheless admired by all around her.
Anne of Green Gables: No power, yet the story wraps itself around her. Classic Mary Sue.
There are many, many more examples of Mary Sue hiding in your favorite stories, and Goodreads maintains a healthy list to help sharpen your Mary Sue radar.
Identifying Mary Sue in Your Writing
Now that you know who Mary Sue is, how she looks and acts, and where she has shown up in famous literature, it’s time to turn your eyes inward to your own writing.
How do you know if you’ve got a budding or full-blown Mary Sue on your hands?
Well, you might have a problem if one of your characters …
- Is unusually physically attractive. As Jerry Seinfeld famously said, 90-95% of the population is undateable, so you might think twice if you’re writing a stunner.
- Is a superhero or at least super-talented.
- Related to the first point, causes one or more other characters go ga-ga for her.
- Is just “better” than everyone around her.
- Has overcome tragedy to become a model citizen.
- Has a demeanor so even-keeled so as to be maddening. Or boring.
- Acts, thinks, looks, sounds, and/or is named exactly like you are or exactly like you wish you were.
Any of these could be symptoms of a nascent Mary Sue, and you should see your writer’s physician immediately. Or, you could just learn …
How to Avoid Mary Sue
As you might have gathered from the descriptions above, Mary Sue is generally not a character who receives a warm welcome from readers. Although you may love her and think she is perfect in every way — and probably write her as such — your audience will find her flimsy, unrealistic, and boring.
To avoid losing your readers and the heart of your story to the superhumaning of a Mary Sue, you need to be vigilant for her appearance. Here are some tips:
- Be suspicious of your main character and those closest to her.
- Make your main character part of the ensemble — she’s the lead, sure, but others are important, too.
- Make your character willing to share the spotlight when it makes sense.
- Use a realistic name; that may sound silly, but “Jane Wonderson” sounds even sillier.
- Make sure your character has real flaws beyond superficial blundering or overachieving.
- Give your character hardships, but don’t always make things turn out rosy for her.
- Don’t make the opposite sex swoon every time your character walks into the room.
- Leave yourself out of your character as much as possible.
Of course, pulling off those steps won’t be so easy in the real life of a novel writer, so the key to avoiding Mary Sue is to be vigilant.
Watch out for her tell-tale signs whenever you read or edit your work, and run the other way when you start to fall in love with your lead or any other important character.
You’re an awesome person, I’m sure, but inserting the idealized version of yourself can Mary-Sue your story right onto the scrapheap of boring never-reads.
Also published on Medium.