Being a Better Writer: The Mary Sue

You know, it’s almost impressive it took this long for a direct post on this topic to come up.

I mean it! While the topic has come up before in other posts and been discussed in amounts ranging from referential to a few paragraphs, in all the years Being a Better Writer has been running, we’ve never tackled the topic in a post of its own. Somehow, it just never came up or was requested in an in-depth fashion.

But then I had a conversation that got me thinking on Mary-Sue characters once more. Specifically, a conversation that held a bit of a debate over what a Mary Sue was, with various folks offering different opinions. Most of which were quite accurate, but there were a few offered that were also a little far from what a Mary Sue was, which led to further discussion over the definition.

At which point, as some people held that a Mary Sue was just “a character they didn’t like” I checked the archives here and realized “Well dang, I’ve never actually written a post on this topic” and put it on the list, once and for all.

Which brings us to today, and the pertinent questions that come as a result of such a straightforward topic: What is a Mary Sue? Where did the term come from? How does it show up in writing. And, of course, the most important question of all for BaBW: how does can we put this knowledge to use in our writing?

Hit the jump, and let’s talk about Mary Sues.

Let’s start with the origin of the term “Mary Sue” since in this case, the origin does actually teach us about the definition. The term is actually less than fifty years old, originating in a Star Trek parody fanwork from 1973 called A Trekkie’s Tale. Which was about—wait for it—a Lieutenant Mary Sue who was a satirical farce of what the author saw as the common self-made Star Trek fan character.

In other words, they were young, ridiculously competent at everything, a young genius with master-level skills in every category, immediately trusted by the crew, loved by all, and desired by everyone around them. They were every sort of advantage there could be, save one crippling illness that only made them more loved as they tragically died, with the entirety of the ship (The Enterprise, in case you’ve forgotten the setting) devastated by the tragic loss of such greatness.

Now keep in mind that while this is the origin of the Mary Sue as a term, the character archetype goes back much further. And though written as a satire of Star Trek fan stories, others have pointed out that the essence of a Mary Sue goes back—and forward—much further than that. However, the name used in that 1973 story caught on, growing and spreading through fandom and finally a decade or so ago moving out of relatively obscure fandom culture and into popular culture itself.

Of course, with that jump from specific fandom to the wider sphere has come growing pains. As the term has moved into popular culture, it’s faced the usual metamorphosis that one would associate with the “telephone game, with the term being co-opted or modified by various groups as they’ve gotten their hands on it. The exact sort of thing, to be precise, that led to the sort of varied debate that in turn was the catalyst for this post, with varying people offering their opinions on what a “Mary Sue” was. Due to the original “Mary Sue” character being female, some folks became very hung up on the gender of the term, determining that only a female character could be a “Mary Sue,” and that male counterparts needed their own term, Gary/Marty Stu (I think this is stupid, but we’ll get to that). Others decided that the term “Mary Sue” was, in itself, a male attack on the female sex, and started campaigns to “reclaim” the term—despite the author and creator of the original being herself, a woman, but when have facts every gotten in the way of a gender-based internet crusade? Others have tried to justify the Mary Sue as being perfectly acceptable as long as it’s male—see a trend here? Then there are the folks that have started to use the term as a shorthand for “a character I didn’t like,” end of story, while others have declared it “a character I didn’t like that’s female” … So yeah, things have gotten messy, and internet debates about what a Mary Sue is have unsurprisingly become common.

Granted, as is custom-mary (I’m not sorry) with a lot of these debates, half the reason they’re occurring is that the participants themselves despite their bold claims don’t really know what a Mary Sue is. They’re going off of secondhand information, how someone they know used the term who may or may not have used it incorrectly or out of context. Basically, the telephone game played at large on a social scale. Individual one uses the term “Mary Sue” as it was meant to be used around individual two, who then thinks “Ah, it must mean this” and then explains it as such to individual three, who then tweaks it slightly based on how they understood it … and before long, “Mary Sue” means something very different to very different folks.

Now, a quick aside: This does raise the question of which “step” in that process we’re going to be talking about today. Well, we’re going back to the core. Not in pure precision (otherwise we’d only be talking about Star Trek fanfiction) but in what the original story was a farce of.

Does that make this post another step of the telephone? Well, perhaps, but note that the term itself being modern doesn’t change that the idea behind the term has existed for much longer, and not just in the Star Trek fandom.

So let’s talk about it, through the lens of this modern label. What is a Mary Sue? What makes a character one instead of simply being competent, or loved, or admired?

Actually, before we start, there is one thing I want to clear up, and that’s on the topic of gender. See, a lot of people, if not for this specific statement I’m crafting right here, would read through this entire post, reach the end, and say “Well, okay, so that’s what a Mary Sue is. But what about the male version?”

This is incorrect.

Look, there have been attempts to make the “Mary Sue” character archtype purely female. This … is stupid. I’m not even going to bother to find a way to say that delicately. Yeah, it’s fun to “genderswap” the name into Gary/Marty Stu … but it’s not needed. At all. What are we saying here? That if we gender-swap the roles in Romeo and Juliet we cannot call it a Romeo and Juliet story because the gender of the names is more important than the roles?

No. That’s stupid. Mary Sue is a term that equally applies to any character, regardless of gender. The reason the character that spawned the name was female was because that was what was popular at the time, not because the trope was inherently female.

We do not need to create versions of this trope for each and every gender under the sun. If I write a book about a four-sex alien race in which there’s a Mary Sue character blatantly on display, I don’t get to tell critics “AHA! But you’re wrong! The character isn’t female, but a zutale! That’s not a Mary Sue at all!” and challenge the world to create a zutale-specific term for Mary Sue.

Again, that’s stupid. The character is a Mary Sue regardless of gender. While the term is named for a female character, the term ‘Mary Sue” can be applied to any character that fulfils the obligations of the character, regardless of what gender they may posess.

Got it? So, for this post (and in general usage), Mary Sue applies to all genders of character. It’s not specific. Before on the site I’ve had to throw “Gary” into the mix to get this across to folks, but after today? I will not. The term isn’t gender-specific, though that’s a common belief. So let’s do what we can to drop that common belief out of commonality, shall we?

Okay, so with all of this out of the way, now we can get to the question that has been on minds since the very first they laid eyes on this post: what is a Mary Sue?

Now, a lot of definitions have gone around over the years, most overly complicated. Don’t worry, we’ll get into that, but first, I’m going to distill it down into a single sentence as best I can. You ready?

A “Mary Sue” is an overexaggerated wish-fulfillment character written as a vehicle to fulfill all the desires of a writer or an audience, regardless of all other elements.

Got it? It’s a bit of a mouthful, but then this is the Mary Sue we’re talking about. There’s a lot to unpack. But at it’s core, I think it’s a pretty good summation of what a Mary Sue is.

Of course, we’re not stopping there. Some of you may be nodding at the prior sentence, but some are also saying “Hold on, what?” So let’s dive into that, breaking this single-sentence description down and taking a look at the elements that make each part of it up.

Let’s start at the beginning with “overexaggerated wish fulfillment.” What on Earth does that mean?

It’s actually simpler than it looks. The key element here, I believe, is overexaggeration.

Wish-fulfillment is fairly self-explanatory: A character that is written to fulfill a “wish” of the creator for the story. The creator wants to have something in the story, such as a cool battle scene with a monk, so they make sure that one or more of the characters in the story is capable of cool hand-to-hand combat. Awesome, right? Now they can fill their story with neat battles between these characters.

Okay, I lied, it’s not quite that simple. That’s actually fulfillment. The creator had a need for the story, the character fulfills it. The “wish” bit comes in via the way that wishes tend to work. If you know the lore, a “wish” is something that, when fulfilled, is supposed to come without effort on the part of the wisher.

What then is the difference between a character fulfilling a part in the story and a character being a wish fulfillment for the story?How they are able to fulfill it. Going back to our earlier example, a character that fulfills the need for hand-to-hand combat in the story will be given a background and experience necessary to fulfill that need through their own effort. In fact, such effort will be explored in the story, and very likely be part of it. They may start out somewhat skilled, but still learning, growing, and seeking to become better at their hand-to-hand combat skills, making it a crux of the story. Or, they may start out quite skilled, with a background in the area, and then push forward accordingly.

Either way is fine, because we’ve not moved into a wish-fulfillment character yet. This is just “the story needs something, so let me fill it” and building a character to do so.

However, when it becomes a wish fulfillment is when the character simply is going to fulfill that requirement, regardless. Maybe they were “born supernaturally skilled.” Maybe they “just are really good.” Whatever the reason, the skill that they possess feels less by effort, and more by way of “Because poof, they are.”

But that’s still not a Mary Sue. There are great stories with characters that have been effectively granted by “magic” a skill that is used in great strength, but still used for clever storytelling. Characters that wish to be highly skilled at one thing, and from then on are, only to be forced to either use that power in very strange ways that still require a lot of clever thinking and use (such as Po from Kung Fu Panda recontextualizing all his native skill that would be useful for Kung Fu into food-based motivation) or finding that their high skill in one area makes them worthless in others (like the man made magically superhumanly strong utterly failing at strengths that are emotional and internal).

But then what if we overexaggerate all that wish fulfillment? What if we’re wishing on the most liberally giving genie imaginable, the kind who when asked about being immortal, throws rich, powerful, attractive, and every other associated wish in on top because it’s a “package deal?” Well, now we’re entering the realm of the Mary Sue. It’s not enough to be highly skilled at one thing. They have to be highly skilled at all the things. A natural at everything that comes their way.

But why? What makes this happen? Why give them such an overexaggerated skillset? Well, it comes back to fulfillment as well as the last part of our Mary Sue definition above. The Mary Sue character is written to fulfill all the desires of the writer or audience. That means that they need to have a vast array of supreme skill in order to fulfill those desires.

So they need to be supremely skilled. They need to be affably loved. They need to be attractive to everyone. Whatever the desires of the audience are, this character needs to fulfill all of it. And since that’s a very high bar as well as the only goal, these characters gain their vast multitude of skills via the “wish” mechanic of “because they need to.” And again, to fulfill all those requirements, these skills and attributes must be exaggerated into high quantities and application.

But before we get too deeply into that (which is the subject of the next section) let’s talk about the second part of this definition: written as a vehicle.

Again this is one of those “What does that mean?” moments, but thankfully, it’s a bit more straightforward than the last one. Simply put, this is why the character is created in the first place. A vehicle is a thing made to transport people or goods. In this case, this is the core of a Mary Sue character: they are a vehicle.

Or to put it another way, they are a machine written to deliver all the overly-exaggerated skills that could be crammed into them to the story for the third part of our definition.

Why call this out? Well, in part because it comes back to how the term truly is genderless: It doesn’t matter what the character is, male, female, or a third sex. It doesn’t matter who they are, really. They are merely a vehicle, a conveyance, if you will, for those overexaggerated wish-fulfillment elements from the first part of our skills to be delivered to the third part of quote.

That’s it. Nothing else about them really matters. And you’ll notice in Mary Sue stories … it never does.

But what about the third part of our definition, “to fulfill all the desires of a writer or an audience?” This? This is a critical key component of the Mary Sue. See, there are characters out there in stories that subvert the Mary Sue by leaving this bit out. They have characters that are inexplicably skilled to the overexaggerated wish-fulfillment degree, who serve as a vehicle to the audience … but then do not deliver on this bit of the definition, because they’re actually a subversion. Either they fail, or the audience never sees them (also making the “vehicle” bit somewhat like a taxicab or an Uber that veers away at the last moment because it wasn’t yours), but they don’t become a Mary Sue because they’re not doing this last bit, which is key!

See, the point of a Mary Sue is to perform this third bit of our definition and fulfill all the desires of the creator or the audience it was written for. For example, if we go back to the original trope-naming story, Mary Sue was given command of the Enterprise, respected by all three primary Star Trek characters and was loved by them, was acknowledged as good at everything by everyone, and then terribly missed when she ultimately died.

Her goal was to fulfill those desires, in this case the desires of the audience that wanted a story where the character did all those things. The characters overexaggerated wished-upon skills were there so that one by one the character could go down the checklist and deliver those desires to the audience. Romance Kirk? Check. Be respected and admired by all? Check!

A lot of this does again come back to that first bit about wish-fulfillment. A common vein of Mary Sue focused works is that they exist to fulfill the desires of the audience—often many of them. This is why so many Mary Sue stories are commonly referred to as being “self-inserts.” The character is either directly written as, or is written is way as to make it easy, for the reader to imagine themselves in that position, having those desires fulfilled.

Now I do want to make something clear here: The point of the first bit of the quote, about overexaggerated wish fulfillment? It is in service to this, the most important part of the Mary Sue. Whatever the desires are of the writer or audience, that is what the overexaggeration and wish fulfillment will be in service to. Which means that a Mary Sue character will not always be all powerful. Not physically or magically, or in a straightforward manner, at least.

See, one definition that comes out of “Mary Sue” and its telephone is that a Mary Sue is just an “overpowered character.” And yes, those can be Mary Sues. But they aren’t always. Sometimes a Mary Sue is a weak character that everyone dotes over, because that’s the wish fulfillment of the audience. So while a Mary Sue is usually in some way a power fantasy … it begs asking what sort of “power” the audience has in mind.

Besides, there’s still one last critical component to discuss here. The last bit of the quote.

That last bit is this: regardless of all other elements.

Herein lies the last critical bit of what makes a Mary Sue. See, we can take what’s been written above, a character with overexaggerated wish-fulfillment skills, serving as a vehicle for the audience’s desires, and still craft a pretty awesome story with it that could avoid being a Mary Sue. It might be hard, but writers have done it! Plenty, in fact. Sands, Superman is a character that’s often accused of being a Mary Sue, but there are plenty of stories where he is not, because this last element of the requirement for being a Mary Sue never materializes.

Regardless of all other elements. What this means is that nothing else can get in the way of our overly exaggerated character serving as a vehicle for the audience’s desires. Not plot, not common sense, not even the wills or character of other characters (as seen in a lot of fanfiction). Nothing is allowed to stop the character from fulfilling the wishes they are required to as a vehicle.

This means that when Mr. Spock is faced with Mary Sue and told that she is just as smart, if not smarter than he is, he simply accepts that it is so, regardless of how out of character the behavior is, and turns to her for guidance. Because that’s what the audience wants, so therefore, it needs to happen. Regardless of whether or not it makes sense.

This last bit is where most people get the bit about how a Mary Sue is “overpowered” because in a sense, they are. The narrative cannot allow them to fail to fulfill the wishes of the audience. No matter what, they must succeed in fulfilling them, regardless of any other elements of the story, world, setting, character, anything really, that might get in the way.

Now, I do want to add a caveat to this. Stories have characters achieve a desired ending all the time, right? So what makes a Mary Sue different?

Well, in other stories, characters will encounter setbacks. Difficulty. Failure. Characters may succeed in unexpected manners, or even have their skills fail them.

A Mary Sue cannot do that, because they are written to overcome no matter what to fulfill the audience’s wishes. Their failure is either going to be a hidden success, or not a failure at all. Or maybe someone else’s failure that they can fix, thus fulfilling even more of their success for the audience. But at the end of the day? They have to fulfill what they were created to do, regardless of what that means for anything else, story, character, anything.

Okay, that was a lot of explanation. PHEW! In fact, I think I might need to take a short break once this is over, as it’s been one of the longer BaBW posts in a while … but we’re not done yet. Because there are two things I wish to talk about first.

Foremost is how some of you might be thinking “Wait, this character/story I know is close to a Mary Sue. Is it?”

Well maybe yes? But also maybe no? See, it’s hard to sometimes to pin down because as you might have noticed, there’s still room for a character to be on the “edge” perhaps, even with that definition. Who is to say, for example, that Rey from Star Wars is a Mary Sue? She’s certainly an extremely poorly-developed character (like a lot of other things in the new trilogy) who definitely has massive shades of being a Mary Sue. But without knowing exactly what the desires of the writers were with her character and how much the stories were changed just for Rey to succeed over and over again, it’s hard to say, which is why some defend her as not being one while others accuse her of being such (and between Disney those in charge of Star Wars over there, it’s not likely we’ll find out what the real intent was anytime soon).

Point being, poorly written or poorly conceived stories can come close to delivering a Mary Sue without the audience being able to say for certain that it was intended. Perhaps, one could argue, that if such a story did indeed deliver the wish fulfillment of some by hitting all the proper requirements, well then it is a Mary Sue story. But if it missed the mark for others, does that make it a Mary Sue? Or just a poor story?

Okay, that’s getting dangerously into the realm of “someone write a thesis paper somewhere” so let’s step away. The point is, there can be poor stories that unintentionally have Mary Sue characters. There can also be stories with characters that are very close to being a Mary Sue, but but are held back by one or two tiny elements, balanced on the fence, and those elements may vary by audience or by the skill of the creator, either deciding what side of things the story falls off on.

The ultimate point being that even with the above definition, there’s still range for the trope, and some may disagree or argue that a character is or isn’t a Mary Sue, and it may come down to a single element and the audience’s interpretation of that.

Second thing that I want to note quite quickly is that though Mary Sue carries and negative connotation for many, there exists a very large audience for this kind of wish fulfillment? Case in point, look at Isekai fiction. Isekai is a recently acknowledged genre that is with only a few possible exceptions, built on the Mary Sue character. These stories are all about Mary Sue characters delivering to the audience exactly what they want.

Does this make it bad? Are all of them Mary Sue stories? Well … no and no. It might not be what some people want to read, but the success of the genre shows that there are people who are just fine reading a Mary Sue character curb-stomping everyone in a bit of blatant wish fulfillment. Furthermore, some of them then go a step further and subvert the Mary Sue trope they’ve set up, before doubling back and playing it straight once more …

Point here being that though to trope is derided, there are stories which can use it in clever, careful ways. And stories that can play it straight but still be wildly successful. They might dress it up a bit so it’s not as blunt or on the nose, but at the end of the day, some stories widely enjoyed by communities are Mary Sue stories. Just … with some extra paint to make it a bit harder to tell.

Woof. Now, 4000 words later, we can reach the last bit of this post and ask the final, most important (for our purposes anyway) question: What does this all mean for your writing? What can you learn? What can you take away?

Well, with hope those of you reading this have a better idea of what a Mary Sue is based on the definition provided along with the context. I’m sure there will be those that say it’s not a complete definition, but I’ve done the best I can at this point in time. Hopefully, keeping it in mind can give you an idea of what a Mary Sue must do in order to actually be a Mary Sue.

In other words, may it be a definition that you can examine your own characters and story with to see if they’re edging toward being a Mary Sue or not. Ideally, this definition will be used to craft deeper, more developed characters and nuanced plots.

But it’s more than that. Maybe you want to experiment with a Mary Sue? Or subvert it? In order to know how to use the trope, and what tools in your toolbox it will work with, you have to understand it.

And yes, the Mary Sue is another tool in the writer’s toolbox. Stories have built titanic audiences by shaving bits of a Mary Sue setup across their story, or with layers of other paint and other story elements to them. Although it might seem odd to hear, a Mary Sue is not necessarily a bad thing. It often is by the age, maturity, and experience of those writers who craft one without even knowing what it is called, but like any other tool, it’s one that can be used.

Phew. What a juggernaut. But there we have it. A “Mary Sue” is an overexaggerated wish-fulfillment character written as a vehicle to fulfill all the desires of a writer or an audience, regardless of all other elements. That’s it. But knowing this, armed with this knowledge, we can use the trope as a tool, be it one to test our own characters and story against, or even to aim for with the goal of writing that type of character for our specific ends.

And if you’re looking back after reading this post and realizing that you’ve written an unsubtle Mary Sue in your time, maybe more than once, well … Don’t be too embarrassed. I think most of us have. I sure wrote a few early on. It’s what happens when you write, and learn, and practice. Hindsight means you can look back and say ‘Hey, I recognize that now.” But it also means seeing the steps that put us there.

And how we can use them to move upward to greater heights.

Good luck. Now get writing.

As for me? I’m going to rest these tired hands.

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