Somewhere in this clutter I have some old children’s books my mom got for me. The books are special ordered. The original story does not have names for the, to use an example, kids who get to visit Sesame Street. That’s because your parent puts your name and your friends or relatives names on there. You’re the star and your friends extra supporting casts as the Sesame Street citizenry welcome you to their happy home and tell you how special you are. Does that make the me in the book a Mary Sue?
Thus far we have covered two tropes here on Trope Shark. Jumping the shark can be shaken off and fridging is insulting to a character and happens mostly to female characters, thus insulting women. The first can be funny and the second the opposite. The “Mary Sue”, on the other hand, is just kind of irritating. Like “jumping the shark”, however, what truly classifies a Mary Sue (or the male counterpart, Gary Stu, although I see Mary Sue used for males more often than Gary Stu or the alternate “Marty Stu”) is up for debate case by case but the general idea is mainly agreed on. So who are Mary and Gary and why should we care?
Before we can delve into what a Mary Sue is (and we’ll stick with the more often used and original female variant for simplicity’s sake) we need to look at where she came from, the multiverse of fanfiction. Surprisingly or no, fanfics predate the internet (and depending on your preferred definition so have Mary Sues, which like many trope names predate the term). “Mary Sue” is named for Lieutenant Mary Sue in Paula Smith’s insert character parody A Trekker’s Tale a story that was published in a fanzine, how people distributed fanfic and raked over favored fictions until the internet. (Go ahead and read it. It’s like four really short paragraphs. It will barely take you a minute.) In it, Kirk hits on her the moment she shows up on the bridge of the Enterprise, the youngest lieutenant at 15 1/2. (Although our read-through of Enterprise – The First Adventure shows thats impossible and has Kirk pursuing a minor, but that’s missing the point of the gag.) Next paragraph she’s on a mission with Mr. Spock, revealing she’s also half-Vulcan before freeing everyone from a cell with a hairpin. But everyone gets some disease and she’s less infected so she runs the whole ship until it finally does take her, the ship declaring a holiday after her. It’s as hilarious as it sounds.
It’s also meant to be a parody of the “insertion character”, a character that is either the author directly or an analog of said character. We are, after all, the hero of our own story. How often do any of you fanfic writers out there pop yourselves in there without some special trait that makes you the hero? Heck, how many writers do that without setting it in Star Trek or somebody else’s fictional universe? (We’re not at examples yet, but I know you’re all thinking about Twilight right now.) You don’t even need to write a story. Just imagine how you rescued your favorite fictional or real world person of your preferred gender and won their undying love, or just save the day. Heck, that got me into writing as I would create characters to help the heroes during the commercial break (or next episode in the case of serials and multiparters) to solve the cliffhanger. The term made its way from Trek fiction to fandom in general thanks to the power of the internet, and here’s where the term, like so many others, lost direction.
In the original usage, a “Mary Sue” is a self-insertion or analog character. It’s more than that, however, since she or he has some connection to the usual main character or characters of a show. They could be someone’s love interest (probably whatever character the writer swoons over) or relative or knew each other in pre-K or something. They will save the day through some special talent and everyone will fall in love with them either romantically or in a platonic sense, and this will include the brooding loner who hates the person from the start, lest they will be shown to be a big jerkface doody-head or possibly even the villain. If the world doesn’t revolve around them it soon will because these stories often come from someone who is just learning life is different as you get older or some darker event in their life and want to imagine a world where they are the star, and even us old folk can relate to that on some level. This can be either entertaining for the wrong reason or annoying but usually harmless. It may even be a more inventive parody than A Trekker’s Tale, just meant to be ridiculous for the sake of it.
I think the problem starts when this moves from silly fanfic to official characters (TV Tropes uses the term “canon sue”), usually the “pet character” that the writer wants to make the bestest ever because they’re just a fan of that character. (Insert Wolverine rant here.) This is something I’d have to avoid if I got to write for Bumblebee for example, lest I do what I complain about Simon Furman doing with Grimlock. But while Grimlock does wrong things and gets rewarded for it even if it’s still wrong (there’s one issue of Generation 2 I’ll be pointing to when I get there), the Mary Sue does everything right, no matter how weird it sounds in theory. Even if they do screw up it’s to advance the plot and turns out to of course be the right move because she’s just that awesome. Oops, she broke the ancient vase but it just happens to hold a vital clue to their mystery. You’re awesome and I want to swap genders so I can have your baby.
Also in theory, Mary Sues are harmless but the term is often used for a character the user of the term really hates, often stretching the definition of the word in the process. For example, Sasuke on Naruto is not a Mary Sue, and really neither is Naurto. They’re just ridiculously powered and talented and special only because they’re main characters and have special circumstances in their history, falling short of the full criteria. Sasuke has some other negative tropes attached to him that we’ll get to in future installments and Naruto may be special but is also a screw up who either gets lucky or plows through a problem with the help of his friends. This isn’t a case of Mary Sue versus Mary Sue, sure to be a case of immovable object/irresistible force if it comes to that.
I don’t think there’s a consensus on what a Mary Sue is and TV Tropes has broken them down into numerous “sub-genre” of Mary Sue. They also listed some potential criteria for a true Mary Sue. To copy/paste:
- Do Sues appear only in fanfic, or are Canon Sues allowed?
- Can you have a male Sue? (Tronix again: isn’t that where Marty/Gary Stu comes in?)
- Are all Author Avatars (TV Tropes’ term for the self-insertion character) Sues, even if they’re well-written, realistic, and don’t take over the story — and, are all Sues necessarily stand-ins for the author?
- Is the most important part how the author de-protagonist-izes every other character in the name of making the Sue seem even more awesome?
- If you have an impossibly competent character with a cool back story and an idealized personality, and they manage to be likable to most of the audience, are they still a Mary Sue, or does Suedom depend on the character being disliked because of their obnoxious perfection?
I think it’s telling that there’s no examples list that I can immediately find at TV Tropes (and I can’t tell you if Twitter not giving me examples is the same issue or just the usual lack of audience participation) but one example I think everyone agrees on is the heroine of the aforementioned Twilight series, Bella Swan. She moves to a new school in an area far removed from the environment she’s used to. Immediately every guy wants her and every girl wants to be her, in violation of every “new kid” story ever not involving a celebrity character (except for the obvious villain). The X-thousand year old vampire can’t decide he wants to sleep with her or drain her dry, all of his clan falls over themselves to make her feel welcome, the bad guys all want to either kill her or her daughter (who her former other man, a werewolf, now wants to hook up with…seriously, what is wrong with this series?) and her dad is more than happy to let everything happen and not do a thing. You almost want to rename “Mary Sue” into “Bella Swan” at this point. And somehow Mary is still better than Bella because she’s not that nice a person according to the deep examinations I’ve seen of the book and movie. (Heck at this point you don’t have to have read the book, seen the movie, heard the audiobook, played the video game, or eaten the breakfast cereal to have an opinion on Bella.)
After all that, however, Bella has her fans. Stephanie Meyer left enough open about Bella that a female teen reader can just fall right into her place and live vicariously through her and be the center of the universe’s attention, leading to a very different connection to vampires and werewolves than your average horror fan. Still, like her or hate her, she falls into the classic Mary Sue definition. The world revolves around her and the only ones who don’t love her are the villains who still consider her target #1 until baby comes into the story. Then suddenly her baby is special so she’s still guilty by association.
This article is already closing on 2000 words so let’s sum up. Are Mary Sues bad? It depends on how broad your definition of “Mary Sue” is and if they can back up how special they are and how well that’s portrayed. In fanfics it’s harmless, just a personal fantasy written down and we’ve all had them at one point or another. The book and movie character Waldo Mitty does that all of the time. We’re the hero in our story. In canon I think the problem is more “hero-worship” and “pet characters” (or perhaps “pet character-worship”), like Furman’s Grimlock or Russel T. Davies’ take on the Doctor (the Time Lord Victorious #10, aka “Time Lord Jesus”, most notably). Mary Sues and her Stu cousins tread a fine line between silly fun and annoying character, lacking any drama or interesting qualities that would make us as the reader like her as much as the characters in the story. I think it depends on how seriously we’re supposed to take the story whether or not the Mary Sue is a bad character.